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The Delicate Thai Art Of Buddha Statues

IN a cluttered, clangorous workshop tucked down a winding back alley, Suwanna Kittiyanasap hammered and chiseled the outline of delicate fingers on a bronze Buddha. Arrayed around here, on shelves and in rows across the floor, a pantheon of completed statues awaited delivery to temples and households.

Mrs. Suwanna is the third generation to work in her family's Buddha foundry nestled behind a serene wat, or temple, in western Bangkok. She says she will likely be the last.

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"I love the art of making the Buddha," says the 53-year-old woman whose grandparents started the workshop 60 years ago and who sculpted her first Buddha at the age of 14. "But all of my five children are not interested in this, so it will probably end with my time."

In devoutly Buddhist Thailand, rapid economic change and modernization are overtaking the traditional skills of the foundry craftsman.

Mirroring the deep Thai sense of tradition and religion, the representation of Buddha is particularly sensitive in a country where more than three-quarters of the people are Buddhist.

In Buddhism, a religion founded in India but now mainly centered in East and Southeast Asia, Buddha, meaning "the enlightened one," is revered, although he is not a god and is not thought to possess divine powers. Buddhism teaches that the ideal state of enlightenment, or nirvana, is reached through meditation and right living.

The government ministry of industry oversees the production of religious statues, and images of Buddha officially cannot be exported from Thailand, although Buddhists can receive exemptions.

Suwanna says she would scrutinize the intentions of any Westerner ordering a representation from her foundry.

"You cannot take the image out of Thailand because foreigners often use them for decoration and not respect," says the artist, explaining that officials are wary because statues have frequently been used for drug-running and other smuggling.

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Suwanna's workshop is among the few remaining in an area known as a traditional production center, where more than 20 foundries were once in operation. As residences cropped up around the old wat, the noisy foundries were forced to move by their annoyed neighbors.

Today, the foundry has 25 craftsmen and laborers, many of whom have worked here for years, and produces Buddha images in 20 different postures. The average cost is $100 to $200, depending upon the workmanship.

Customized statues can also be ordered and produced at far higher prices. "This Buddha was specially ordered by a judge who will present it to a temple," she said, gesturing toward the unfinished two-foot-high piece, a variety of different-sized chisels spread out nearby. "People will give me a pattern from which I can make the mold."

But such precise, grueling work is not for everyone, says the craftswoman. Her children have all opted to follow her husband into military service rather than take over the Buddha foundry.

"This is very hard, mentally and physically," says Suwanna. "I am my family's last generation" in the business.

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