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SAGYIN, Myanmar (Reuters Life!) - For centuries, villagers at the foot of a hill in central Myanmar have carved a life out of stone.
"Sagyin" means marble in Burmese, and the village -- about 33 km (20.5 miles) north of the regional capital of Mandalay -- is surrounded by a mountain range with large quantities of marble.
Two-thirds of its roughly 5,000 families survive on making statues, and the craftsmen for which the village is known are practically born with the skill, chiseling rock for as long as they can remember. "If one doesn't have a degree, it is not easy to get a good job. I am not well-educated -- and I've been doing this job my whole life," U Pho Ni, 66, said.
U Pho Ni has been carving statues for four decades and has passed on the craft to his son, daughters and grandchildren.
Chit Ko, his son, now runs the workshop, which specializes in 1 foot (0.348 meter) tall Buddha statues that are sold to Mandalay souvenir shops. His 19-year-old son, John Ko Ko, will inherit one day.
The whole family is involved. The men hammer and chisel the stone, while the women polish the finished statues. Men earn a daily wage of 2,000 kyat ($2.25), while women are paid 1,500 kyat ($1.70). "This is our family's business. It's a legacy," John Ko Ko, himself a carver, said.
Unlike farmers, who are at the mercy of each harvest season's ups and downs, marble collectors and craftsmen say that as long as there is stone and demand for Buddha statues, their livelihood will remain profitable.
Sagyin marble is highly rated for its hardness and texture, varying from pure white to bluish gray in color. But fine marble is becoming increasingly rare, and workers can toil for months to extract a 45-tonne slab that sells for up to $40,000.
Carving workshops began to thrive in the early 1990s, as production increased with the help of electric tools and the number of workshops tripled, said workshop owner U Maung Gyi.
The village is now home to more than 100 workshops, some of which export Buddha statues to China, Thailand, Singapore and Japan as well as some countries in Europe.
"That depends on the government. The businesses in this village would develop more if the government opened the market," U Maung Gyi said.
High transportation costs and the lack of good quality marble, which is controlled by the government, prevent the industry from expanding more robustly, U Maung Gyi said. Export products also carry a 10 percent tax.
In the city of Mandalay, where most of the products are distributed, workshops line Kyauk Sitt Thin, "Stone Carving Road." The whir of chiseling tools reverberates across the powdery pavement, a key stop on sightseeing tours of the ancient royal capital.
Young apprentices, many of whom have quit school, work about eight hours a day in the workshops. They don't get paid in their first year of learning, but slowly start earning as their skill level increases.
Carving a life-sized statue can pay up to 5,000 kyat ($5.60) a day, a decent wage considering that the average monthly income in Myanmar is $50.
Carver U Taung Nyan, 60, has taken in countless apprentices in the past decades, and he is optimistic that the age-old craft will be kept alive.
"I'm really delighted when I see students I've taught making a good living as a craftsman," he said.
Burma's deep devotion to Theravada Buddhism also fuels the carving trade. Tens of thousands of temples across the country, as well as monasteries, public buildings and homes, contain a white-washed Buddha image.
The renowned nine-meter tall marble Buddha at the Kyauk Daw Gyi pagoda in Mandalay, one of the largest in the nation, was carved in Sagyin.
"If this mountain gets all used up, we will think of something else to do," said U Taung Nyan.
"I don't think the marble will run out, because this has been going on for generations. From past until present, the mountain continues to exist."
Editing by Elaine Lies