Photo feature: Bangkok’s blowtorch-wielding Buddha makers
Sparks flying, a man blowtorches the Buddha's head until its neck glows red hot, allowing it to be soldered onto a standing life-sized brass body.
Elsewhere in this large open-air factory, another worker shoves a fierce industrial-strength buffer onto the eyelids of a tipped-over giant Buddha, smoothing the brass so it glistens while the buffer's rotary engine whines.
Amid the shrieking machines, reject Buddha heads and decapitated bodies lay jumbled on the ground in small piles, their metallic faces disfigured by accidents during the difficult statue making process.
Temples, institutions, hotels, homes and businesses in Thailand often display a giant Buddha atop a reverential plinth, surrounded by flowers, currency notes, portraits, food, candles, incense and small statues, worshipped by devotees and tended with care.
But making a huge Buddha statue involves fire, bare hands and dangerous tools.
Building Buddha: A how-to guide
"Some people who order statues bring a photo of what they want the statue to look like, and we then make it based on the picture," says Thanyathip Ruengsirapat, who helps manage the Rong Lao Phra Ruang Samai factory, which builds big Buddhas in Nonthaburi, on Bangkok's outskirts.
"The first step is to use a sticky clay, to make a model of the statue. It has to be good quality clay, without any sand," she says, pointing at the wet clay feet of a standing, life-sized Buddha, draped in orange cloth.
"Then the customer will come and confirm this is the shape they want. It has to stay wet, and this clay can stay like this for only two weeks, otherwise it cracks.
"Then we put beeswax on top of the clay model. We boil the beeswax to make it soft, so we can mold it. We boil it here, on this fire."
The flames resemble a campfire, burning in the dirt in the middle of the factory. Murky beeswax soup cooks in a battered, blackened, metal canister atop the blaze.
"After boiling, we cool the beeswax by keeping it in water," Thanyathip says.
Snails, Garudas and floating body parts
Nearby, Kanyapak Laona, 36, shapes brown globs of cooled beeswax into thin strips, which she pushes into a flat board's indented circles, lines and other shapes.
"These bubble shapes are for Buddha's head," Kanyapak says, lifting a thin strip after it becomes the shape of several small circular half-shells, symbolizing the curls of Buddha's hair or, as some legends say, snails which crawled up and died while protecting his head when he meditated.
"I've been doing this work for about one year. Simple designs, like these round shapes, are easy to do, but detailed designs are more difficult.
"I feel proud to be one of the people who makes big Buddha statues. My husband also works here, right over there," Kanyapak says, pointing at a man smothering a mythical Hindu bird-like Garuda under a thick coat of fresh white plaster.
"After we cover the clay statue with beeswax, we cover the whole thing in thick white plaster," says Thanyathip.
"You see this man covering a Garuda statue? Underneath the white plaster is a clay Garuda, covered with beeswax."
Nearby are rectangular pools of water, where brownish beeswax Buddha heads, hands and other body parts are kept, eerily floating like a macabre collection of dismembered humans.
"These pools are for storage of new beeswax models, because otherwise the heat will melt them," Thanyathip says. "When we want to use them, we can take them from the water."
Jewelers and other artisans call this ancient technique "the lost wax process."
The sum of many precious parts
Whether the workers are making a tiny earring or a giant Buddha, the process is the same: build a wax model, cake it in hard plaster, drill a hole in the base and another hole in the top. Pour in hot bronze, brass, silver, gold or other metal.
The incoming metal's heat melts the wax, which drains out through the bottom hole. The metal replaces the wax, and when cooled, hardens to be the same shape as the "lost wax" model.
The plaster coating is then sliced or chipped away, revealing the desired piece -- solid metal if the model was solid wax, or hollow metal like this factory's statues, if the wax was merely a thin coating on top of clay.
Brass, bronze and other metals are melted in the factory's upright cylindrical ovens, which are covered in ash and cracked from years of heat.
Long-handled spoons are used to scoop the liquid metal and pour it into each plaster-covered statue part.
"We have to make the big statues in big pieces -- a separate head, separate arms, and separate body," Thanyathip says.
The metal cools and hardens inside the plaster mold after one day. Workers then hammer away the surrounding plaster, revealing the metal part. The pieces are then assembled with blowtorches, soldering, sanding machines, buffers, and other tools into big statues.
"The biggest Buddhas take about four months to finish, but a small Buddha will take only about two days," Thanyathip says.
Rising material costs and lower demand
Her father, 72-year-old Watcharapong Ruangsiripath, owns the factory.
"I've been making big Buddhas for more than 40 years, and have had this factory at this location for 30 years,” he says.
"I can make 10 or more Buddhas, of different sizes, every week. I have 50 workers here.
"I began this work when I was working in a Buddha factory, before starting my own factory. Every step is difficult when making a big Buddha. In the past five years, business for me is not so good at all, it has been going down.
"This factory produces made-to-order Buddhas, and less people are ordering them, because of the overall economy. All the materials are made in Thailand, and are getting more expensive.
"The most popular position for a big Buddha is the sitting position. The biggest Buddha we ever made was 14 meters tall. It was ordered by someone who took it to a temple in Buriram."
For more images of the Buddha factory, click on the main photo above.