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Lacquer Ware
King Anawrahta
Lacquer-ware is perhaps the most distinctive of all Myanmar handicrafts and the most widely produced and used. Lacquer ware was long a favorite of royalty for storing documents and precious jeweler. Common households employed it for everyday use such as keeping betel nuts and leaves or as soup bowls. Monks use a black lacquer bowl known as Thabeik collecting alms.

Lacquer ware was highly treasured that Myanmar kings often presented lacquer objects as gifts to foreign emissaries. Little is known of how the making of lacquer ware started in Myanmar. What is certain is that lacquer ware is a traditional Myanmar craft that dates as far back as the 13th century. Valued for its artistic beauty and practical qualities, it is light and watertight condition. One can find lacquer ware ash trays, bowls, water jars, vases, salvers for temple offerings, cups, jewellery boxes based on an ancient design that double as pillows, traditional betel boxes, plates, storage chests, tables and chairs.

Considering the time and work involved it takes five to seven months to make even the smallest item. The center of lacquer ware manufacture is Bagan. It is a cottage industry and some 600 households produce lacquer ware in the village of Myinkaba alone. Visitors are welcome to watch the process, a skill passed down from generation to generation. The process begins with the making of bamboo frame for the lacquer ware item, a bowl for example. For objects of the highest quality, fine horsehair, taken from the tail, is woven around the frame. Bamboo wicker or horsehair are traditional materials employed for lacquer ware products. After the frame is made and bamboo wicker or horsehair has been woven around it, the first coating of lacquer is applied. The lacquer paint used is black and it comes from a resin of a particular tree found around Inle Lake region. The lacquer paint is applied by hand which makes an even coating. The object is then left to dry for a week in an underground cellar; drying in the sun in the early stages causes pockmarks. The object is then taken out for a second coating of lacquer. It is left to dry for yet another week in the cellar.

The next stage involves covering the object with a paste made from a mixture of pulverized buffalo bone, teak sawdust and lacquer to fill up any nooks or crevices. It is left to dry for a week. The object is polished with pumice stone to remove rough surfaces. Lacquer paint is again applied and the object put aside to dry. After another week, the object is polished again, both on the inside and outside, using a mixture of clay and stone. The polishing is done three times before the object is stored underground for one month. Then a long process of painting and drying begins. First, the inside of the object is painted with lacquer and left to dry for a week; then the outside is painted and the object is again put aside for drying. At that stage the object is polished again with water and stone, dried in the sun for two hours, another coat of lacquer is applied and the object is dried underground for a week. For the next seven weeks, a layer of lacquer is applied at one-week intervals.

The result is a shining lacquer product made even glossier by careful polishing with a chamois soaked in sesame oil. At this stage, the desired color and designs are worked onto the object. Usually traditional designs are etched onto the surface by very fine instruments. Then one color is applied, the lacquer ware is left to dry for a week, it is polished with rice husks, washed with water and painted with acacia glue to fix the color. If another color is required, more details are etched and coated with the second color, left to dry for a week, washed and then fixed with acacia glue again. More etchings are made and a third color is added and this time, the object is left to dry for a month. Later, it is polished first with teakwood ash and water and then with a piece of cotton cloth. It is washed and dried again for ten minutes in the sun and finally polished with a powder made from pulverized petrified wood. That's not all. The object is painted once more on the inside with red lacquer, left to dry for one week and is finally ready for sale. It takes five months to produce lacquer cups, seven months to make betel boxes and at least a year to produce tables and chairs. But the final result is without a doubt, a thing of beauty and a fine testimony to Myanmar craftsmanship.

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