Blog

Spotlight from the Field: Aye Hnin Wai

In Mandalay, Myanmar, the intricate woodcarvings and delicate gilded interiors of Shwe-nandaw Kyaung, the “Golden Palace Monastery”, stop visitors in their tracks, commanding onlookers’ attention with the complexity of their artistry and arresting structures. Aye Hnin Wai, part of WMF’s team on-site, gave us insight into the project to document the unique Buddha Throne hidden inside.

--------------------

Shwe-nandaw Kyaung holds a special place in Myanmar's historical and cultural landscape, owing to the exceptional quality of the teak building, the dense Buddhist symbolism of its decorative carving, the status of its royal builder, and the pre-colonial era of craftsmanship in which it was built. It is a special place for the native of Mandalay. 

Exterior of Shwe-nandaw Monastery in Mandalay, Myanmar.
Exterior of Shwe-nandaw Monastery in Mandalay, Myanmar.

Heritage is a keystone of our culture, and plays an important role in our politics, society, business and world view. Heritage buildings basically represent the history and culture of our nation; if there is no heritage to see, future generations will learn history and culture only from books. When I go to Shwe-nandaw Kyaung, I get the taste of the Konbaung era. It has much emotional significance for me.

Shwe-nandaw Kyaung means the "Golden Palace Monastery," because at one time the building was guilded inside and out, mirroring its role as a royal memorial and religious shrine. It was initially one of the many pavilions of Mandalay's royal palace built by King Mindon-Min in 1857. Later, the building was dismantled and moved to the Atumashi religious compound to the east of Mandalay Palace, where it was reassembled.

The gilded interior, 2014.
The gilded interior, 2014.

All of the traditional Burmese architectural features can be found at 'Shwe Kyaung’. It’s one of the things I like the most about working there. I didn't have Burmese traditional architectural drawing training when I did projects for my university. Working at Shwe-nandaw Kyaung, I get the chance to draw traditional architecture features, which I can then learn from to create the archival model for my work.

But among the most exciting features at Shwe-nandaw Kyaung is a three-story intricately carved wood and lacquer Buddha's Throne covered in gold leaf from top to bottom. It is decorated with intricate carvings of sinewy tendrils, playful and fighting animals, rows of praying spirits, and sprays of golden flowers. Mirrors and colorful cut glass imitating rubies and emeralds accent the menagerie. In the middle of it all, a Buddha image sits on an elaborate pedestal. Although the throne, sheltered at the center of Shwe-nandaw Kyaung, has survived well, time has taken its toll. Decorative materials have started to discolor, crumble, peel off, and layers of dust and cobwebs have deadened its golden luster. 

The Buddha throne was an ideal opportunity to practice documentation and conservation skills, and I became part of the team that started documenting it under a cooperative agreement with my former school, Department of Architecture at the Technological University of Mandalay, Professor Dr. Zar Chi Min, and her current students. I was the last one to join the project. I wanted to work with WMF, learn new experiences and discover conservation processes.

Erecting scaffolding for photographic documentation of the throne, 2020.
Erecting scaffolding for photographic documentation of the throne, 2020.

My responsibility more particularly was to work through an initial phase including quality control of photo-documentation, digital drawings, and conservation assessments to support reports on the throne's decorative materials. Thankfully we had a previous 3D laser scan model the University of Florida shared with us to start with - the first laser scan of a Myanmar monument ever. 

Although our work came to a halt when Shwe Kyaung was closed due to COVID in March, recently we were able to take additional photographs for our drawing documentation, which became a conservation training workshop.  I really enjoy working with my team at Shwe-nandaw Kyaung. We are really working together and with each other to cover all of our responsibilities. Our team has few people, so we’re supporting each other. For example, I can't measure alone all of the throne’s parts for documentation - I need my team's help.

Close-up of the Buddha Throne pedestal.
Close-up of the Buddha Throne pedestal.

Our job continues towards the careful recreation of the Buddha throne in AutoCAD software. When finished later this year, the drawing will be an excellent archival model of the throne's pre-intervention condition and essential tool in recording conditions and planning future conservation. That’s crucial, as preservation doesn’t only happen in a single intervention; we have to anticipate the future of the building after we’ve finished one conservation project. But more personally, I’ll feel ecstatic when I've accomplished the documentation of the Buddha Throne. I will be proud of doing and managing the drawings by myself.