CRAFTS IN MYANMAR: GOLD FOIL, LACQUERWARE, LOTUS WEAVING AND MOSAICS

GOLD BEATING AND GOLD FOIL MAKING IN MYANMAR

The process of gold-bearing which takes place in Mandalay is very interesting. A goldsmith starts with a lump of gold, the size of a silver dollar. The lump is then pounded into a foot long rod which is passed through a hand cranked roller. Repeating this process several times creates a ribbon of gold 55 feet long. The ribbon is then cut into square pieces, and each piece is placed between layers of bamboo paper or parchment. Several dozen of these paper-wrapped pieces are then bound and placed inside a deerskin cover, which is pounded with a sledge hammer or wooden mallet. The gold is then removed and cut into pieces again. This process is repeated until gold sheaths created. Each gold sheath is about five inches square and 1/200,000 of an inch (0,000127 centimeters) thick—which is thinner than the ink on a printed page. The sheaths are bought in packet by Buddhists who place the them on Buddhist statues and temples.

In Myanmar such gold-leaves are widely sold at the famous pagodas to gild Buddha images or stupa with gold-leaf. This is a Myanmar tradition to earn Buddhist merit, Mandalay's gold-leaf makers are concentrated in the south-east of the city, near the intersection of 36th and 78th Streets. Gilding a Buddha image or a stupa with gold leaf brings great merit to the gilder. As a result Buddhist images grow thicker and more amorphous as gold leaf layers are applied, with Buddhist statues being transformed into oadly-shaped gild blobs. Silver, aluminum, copper and sometimes palladium sheaths are available in Myanmar. [Source: Myanmar Travel Information ~]

Metal leaf is often used for decoration. Before the discovery of electroplating it was the only cost effective way to gild statues, rooftops and objects. In Asian countries edible gold is sometimes used in fruit jelly snacks, cakes, sweets and many other food products. Because gold is highly malleable it can be pounded into sheets just micrometers thick without breaking or tearing. As the metal thins out. it forms large sheets. The final sheets of metal are trimmed. cut to various sizes. and sandwiched between sheets of paper to protect them. A small amount of metal will result in a sheet with a large surface area but only a few atoms thick. ~

Pantain (Gold and Silver Smithing) in Myanmar

The art of Pantain (gold or silver smithing) is an enterprise of making items of gold or silver. Silversmiths make jewelry, drinking bowl, receptacle bowls, prize-cup, shields and belts. Goldsmiths make earrings, rings, bracelets, pendents and necklaces. The art of silversmithing is more than 1,200 years old. According to the Crystal Palace Chronicles: during the reign of King Anawrahta relics of Buddha and the three repositories of Buddhist scriptures were brought to Pagan from Suvunna Boumi, the Mon capital. Along with them came Mon artisans and works of Mon arts and crafts, gold and silverware etc. Going further back into the past we find Pyu silver works of art discovered from the mounts of old shrines of Sri Ksetra.[Source: Myanmar Travel Information ~]

Monarchs customarily used silver and gold bowls as rewards for the ministers and the attendants' loyalty and faithfulness to the royal family. Silver items were also a symbol of wealth because only the ministers, the generals and the rich citizens used silver for items such as betel-nut boxes and stands, flower bowls and vases, spittoons, daggers, dagger sheaths, and regalia and waistbands for the kings.The poor citizens could not afford silverware and monks and clergy refrained from using any worldly luxury except for religious purposes when silver was used for altar vases and Buddha statues. ~

On ceremonial occasions such as wedding celebrations, ear boring ceremonies or novitiation feasts, huge silver bowls and vases were used. Silver bowls made of ngwe-zin-baw-phyu, the best kind of silver, are so flexible they usually bend until the rims meet when gripped in the palms of the hand. Another grade of silver quality ywet-ni is obtained from an amalgam composed of equal parts of silver and copper. During the British regime, this was mostly used for silver coins. ~

In their workshops Myanmar silversmiths manufacture boxes, plates, cups, baskets, bowls, ceremonial bowls, sling bags, miniature bullock carts with two oxen, spoons. forks, knives, bangles, bracelets, earrings, rings, brooches, belts, jars, kettles, necklaces, armlets and other things. All of them are made by hand. No machines are used. The value of the silverware is depends on weight and quality of workmanship. Some silver crafts such baskets and sling bags are made by weaving silver threads or strips. Some have engraved designs such as figures from religious stories and folk tales and floral designs, . The most popular style is embossed figures on the surface of Box or Bowl. Those figures are often characters from the Ramayana or Myanmar people doing everyday labors. ~

To make silver crafts silver is mixed with brass and melted. When silver and brass melted and mixed the alloy is transformed into ingots, which in turn are hammered and cut as required. After that figures and floral designs are drawn on the outer surface with a pencil. Sealing-wax are used in filling up the inside and covering the outside of item. One step after another is used to make strong it's shape and form when depicting figures in relief. These desired figures are then curved and embossed with chisel and awl. And after the curving work is completed. the silverware is polished and washed to shine. ~

Panbe (Blacksmithing) and Pantin (Bronze Casting) in Myanmar

The art of Panbe (blacksmithing) is the tempering of iron in the furnace to make crafts of necessary items. The artisans make ox cart axles, ox cart irons, tyres, scissors, hammers, adzes, pickaxes, knives, hatchets, axes, digging hoes and mattocks. Myanmar’s traditional blacksmith craftmaking emerged in the early of Pagan period (11th century A.D) and was improved in the mid Pagan, Ava and Mandalay periods. Myanmar’s traditional blacksmith craft. from the Inlay region was famous in the Mandalay period. Many types of blacksmith craft articles are available such as military armour, weapons, files, pickaxes and swords. [Source: Myanmar Travel Information ~]

The art of Pantin refers to producing items from copper bronze or brasss, The artisans make triangular brass gongs, gongs, brass bowls for monks, weights in the shape of brainy ducks, trays, copper pots, cups, bowls, cymbals, bells, jingle bells and small brass gongs. Myanmar’s traditional coppersmith’s craft emerged before the Pagan period and was improved during Pagan and Ava periods. Every pagoda in Myanmar has bells, which have traditionally been struck to tell the people of good deeds done. They are triangular bells which twirl when struck and ring with a sweet rising and falling tone, which gradually fades away. Gongs slung from carved ivory or wood elephant trunks are prized as dinner gongs. Bells of different sizes and shapes, all unmistakably Burmese in design, are popular as souvenirs. So are other castings such as weights and cow bells. ~

Lacquerware in Myanmar

Lacquerware entails the covering of an object made of bamboo or wood with a liquid made from tree sap. These objects include containers as well as tables, screens, and carved animal figures. The process preserves, strengthens, and waterproofs objects and has been developed into a decorative art form. Its origins are ancient. Lacquerware craftsmanship can be traced back to China's Shang dynasty and reached Myanmar in the A.D. 1st century from the Nan Chao empire, now modern Yunnan. It arrived in Pagan during King Anawrahta's conquest of Thaton in 1057. Pagan is the largest and most important center for lacquerware today. The Government Lacquerware School was established by local artists in Pagan in 1924. The Shan also have a distinctive lacquerware tradition.

Burmese lacquerware has a distinctive style. Lacquerware is found in Thailand and Laos, but the best examples are crafted in the villages around Pagan. Lacquerware artisans produce alms food bowls, bowls for monks, bowls for pickled teas, lacquer vessels, drinking cups, betel boxes, and cheroot boxes flor local people. The Myanmar traditional lacquerware style emerged in the early part of Pagan period. Traditional drawing styles were inspired by the many stories of Buddha’s life. The designs are etched or painted by hand. The most traditional Burmese lacquerware is of a unique terracotta color, with scenes from the jatakas, the Buddha’s former lives, etched and then filled in with green pigment. More modern designs have a deep, velvet black color, with simpler figures laid applied with gold leaf. Many types of Burmese lacquerware articles are available, such as boxes, vases, trays, bowls and even coffee tables are available in tourist shops. [Source: Myanmar Travel Information ~]

Lacquer in Myanmar is called "Thitsi" meaning the sap of a Thitsi Tree (Melanhorrea Usitata) which is native to Southeast Asia. In China and Japan the tree from which lacquer is tapped is a different species, "Rhus Vernicifera." In Myanmar.the Thitsi tree grows wild in the Shan State and hilly regions. The resin of this tree has been extracted and used for coating and varnishing by Myanmar folks since time immemorial. A person who earns his living by the art of coating and varnishing with Thitsi is called "Thitsi thama". ~

Making Lacquerware in Myanmar

Lacquerware is crafted from a mixture of the sap of the thitsi tree and ash applied on the surface of objects such as woven bamboo or wood.Traditionally, extraordinarily fine lacquerware bowls were produced with a combination of horsehair and bamboo, or even horsehair alone. This made the bowls so flexible the rim of the bowl could be squeezed to meet without breaking the bowl. The most common items made of lacquerware were bowls, trays, betel-nut containers, small decorative boxes, tables and screens. Now the usage is even more diversified, and modern shops carry a wide array of kitchen wares, home decors, foldable screens, and frames made from lacquerware.[Source: Myanmar Travel Information ~]

A multicolored lacquerware item takes approximately 6 months to complete. This is because the entire process involves more than a dozen of steps to complete. Successive layers of lacquer are applied to the object to eliminate irregularities and then dried for several days. When fully dry, the surface is polished to a smooth finish, and ornamental and figurative designs are added to enhance the lacquerware. ~

Basically, dried lacquerware is black and to give a touch of color cheap items are simply painted, while expensive items are embellished by means of engraving, painting and polishing. The most usual colors are red, black, green and yellow. Black painted lacquerwares are mostly incised with gold leaf. Decorative patterns are based on time-honoured designs, although their composition is left to the artist's imagination. ~

Artisans in Pagan that make lacquer bells, betel-nut canisters and finger bowls use the same techniques as their ancestors. W.E. Garrett wrote in National Geographic: "An artisan first weaves a cylindrical frame of bamboo and horsehair, over which successive coats of sap from the thitsi tree are applied. After each layer has dried, a worker puts the cylinder on a lathe for polishing. Using a stick in his right to spin the lathe, he smooths the surface with pumice. An artist then creates a pattern by scratching a design and covering the container with pigmented lacquer. Another polishing removes all the color except that caught in the depressions. These steps are repeated with successive colors until a multi-hued design is complete. Some tell a love story; others include figures from astrology or folklore." [Source: "Pagan, on the Road to Mandalay" by W.E. Garret, March 1971.]

Bamboo and wood that are used as frame or base in making lacquerwork are easily and cheaply available around the Pagan area. Cowdung, saw dust and animal bone— which are some of the ingredients used in the preparation of some lacquerwork—are also easy to find in the countryside of Myanmar as it is an agricultural country. ~

Types of Myanmar Lacquerware

Types of lacquerware defined on the process and material used in the manufacturing process: 1) Plain Lacquerware: Only Black and/or Red color is used . It comprises rice basket. boxes. chests to keep clothing or books. ceremonial bowl. tray and etc. 2) Incised Lacquerware: Many coatings of lacquer are applied to the frame (normally made of bamboo strips/bamboo yarn). The design and decoration are exquisite. Design and motifs are incised on the surface of the object with a fine iron stylus. The incised areas are filled with colors red, green, yellow etc. Folding Screens, tables, flower vases, ceremonial bowls, rice bowls, cups, plates, boxes, pickled tea leaves boxes, betel boxes and jewel boxes are available as incised lacquerware. [Source: Myanmar Travel Information ~]

3) Gilt Lacquerware: Incised designs and figures on the surface of the lacquerware coated object are filled up with gold foil achieving an extremely regal beauty. In olden days, this type of lacquerware was reserved exclusively for royal use and for offerings at Buddhist shrines. Some walls or ceilings of some old temples are decorated with this type of gilt lacquerware. 4) Relief Lacquerware Figures are made of a very sticky plaster which is a mixture of lacquer and ashes of animal bones, paddy husks and saw dust. It is stuck onto the lacquer coated surfaces of the object forming a relief on the designs already sketched out. Finally coloring or gilding takes place after plaster dries. 5) Glass Mosaic and Gilt Lacquerware: Several shapes of small pieces of mirror or colored glass are inlaid in the surface of relief lacquerware by applying a special lacquer as adhesive. ~

Pottery in Myanmar

About 2000 years ago the Pyu people, a Tibeto-Burman tribe settled in the upper part of Myanmar. They established a capital in Sriksetra near present day Pyay. Since the city was located near the great Irrawaddy River pottery was useful in transporting goods. Around the 8th century the Pyus relocated their capital north to Halin in the region of Shwebo. The making of the pots with clay and decorations began in earnest around this time. The Mottama harbour on the seacoast was an important link in the ceramic pottery trade with the Southeast Asian kingdoms. [Source: Myanmar Travel Information ~]

Pottery is earliest craft in the history of human civilization. With access to good clay people various kinds of ceramics could easily and cheaply be produced. Although pots are fragile they can be used in many useful ways. Pots were not only used to store or cook food but also as burial urns to bury bodies with gold and jewelry. Such urns have been discovered at Pyu sites. Human remains in urns have also been found in Pagan and Mrauk-U regions. Today, the main pottery works in Myanmar are situated in Nwe Nyein village near Kyauk Myaung, a riverside town near Shwebo and Twante near Yangon. ~

Even though plastic, steel and aluminum goods are widely available, hand-made pottery is still widely used by Myanmar for many everyday chores. To make pottery clay thick clay is mixed with the silt from the river to make a suitable consistency. then it is allowed to dry after which it is pounded into a fine powder. After sieving several times. the powder is allowed to seep in water for some days. After the silt has settled. the clear water is poured away and the remaining clay worked over until smooth. After that, lumps of it are rolled and given over to the potter. ~

Lapidary (Gem Cutting) in Myanmar

The lapidary—someone who is skilled in cutting and polishing gem-quality precious stones—is important in determining the value of valuable stones because the value of valuable stonesis often determined by the by the cut. People used to cut gems by hand but now gem cutting machine are used. Many gem cutters keep their cutting methods secret from other lapidaries. [Source: Myanmar Travel Information ~]

There are two steps in gem cutting: First a rough cut is made and the final cut. People used to use sapphire powder to polish gems but now they use diamond powder, which gives the gems sparkle and beautiful color—and hopefully a high price. Mr James Firmin, a leading gem trader from London, says that gem cutting has become a more refilled art. The cutters would use a lap (circular polishing wheel) coated with diamond or sapphire powder, which is turned with a motor or foot pedal. A primitive form of this device—a stick attached to the wheel axis by a rope—can still be seen in use in Sri Lanka today. ~

On a modern machine, the stone is held in place by a 'dop' (the part of the machine that holds the gem), which is turned for accurate symmetry. The angle of cutting is important to ensure the gem sparkles; each mineral has its own specific angle. For example. a diamond must be kept shallower then an amethyst. Some stones — especially rubies and sapphires — must be cut in the correct direction of the crystal since the color changes with the direction. ~

There are two styles of cutting. A 'cabochon' cut —in which the stone is smoothly rounded—is is the oldest form of cutting while the faceted cut produces symmetrical facets on the surfaces on the gem. It is a popular method for cutting diamonds. The most common cut is the brilliant. In addition to the round brilliant., stones are cut in a variety of square, triangular, diamond-shaped and trapezoidal faceted cuts. The use of such cuts is largely determined by the original shape of the stone. ~

Burmese Mosaics

Myanmar mosaic art was well developed by the Pagan period (1044-1287). This noble art is seen mainly on royal and religious items and buildings but sometimes mosaics are also found on artifacts and household objects of the common people. In this art there are four main disciplines on which the workmanship is based: Knut (flower style), Kapi (monkey shape), gaza (elephant base) and nari (femininity). These four basics also apply to Myanmar painting and drawing. [Source: Myanmar Travel Information ~]

In Burmese mosaics materials with shining, glorious colors are embedded, sometimes with various precious gems and stones. The glass and other colorful shining materials are often used. Valuable precious gems and semi-precious stones are used to invest ordinary utensils and other household articles with glory and splendor to make them unique and attractive and thus fit for royal use. Some are bedecked with pearls, jade and rubies. The Nine Noble Gems decorate mosaics that were used by royalty and persons of great wealth. ~

Gems and fine stones are put on glass by means of starches from the barks of certain trees. In various styles and designs this art reaches a high state of workmanship. The aim is often to dazzle the viewer with light, splendor and brilliance. The art mosaic making in Myanmar is called the "art of systematic order on glass" (hman-si-shwe-sha). Gold is sometimes added for further embellishment. This is an art form practiced only by the most skilled specialists. Experts make the glass that is to be embossed or embedded in various sizes and shapes including circles, squares, triangles and ovals, determined according to the dictates of harmony and artistry. Even valuable gems and pearls are embossed or embroidered or bedecked in suitable ways. ~

Making Burmese Mosaics

In mosaic making fine art lacquer starch is an essential ingredient. The lacquer starch is a glue called "thit-say" in Myanmar that comes in many different colors and tinges, but namely green, black and red-green—the three main colors of "thit-say". The starch is very sticky and heavy and is a good and an effective glue so that the components of the mosaic remain in place for a long time. The "thit-say" is usually mixed with ashes of cow-bone burnt by fire— a process that requires the highest standard of skill—to obtain "the-yo", or mixed "thit-say" glue. Sometimes ordinary ashes softened from husks (saw dust) are mixed with thit-say (sap). The best mixture is made with charcoal ashes produced from "Mayo" seeds because this results in a very soft and smooth substance for the purpose of fashioning mosaic. When the "tha-yo" is fashioned into strands of rope the resulting effect is in the form of soft candles. with the greatest of smoothness. After the ash and "thit-say" are mixed thoroughly the "tha-yo" that is produced is like very thin fine strings, which can be used as thread for embroidery. To get the best "tha-yo" the materials used must be totally free from dust, dirt and stones. [Source: Myanmar Travel Information ~]

The procedure of making the best "thit-say" includes the addition of tin. This "thit-say" is cooked with suitable heat with great care and method. If the method is wrong and care is not taken the "thit-say" strings may break during boiling and the mixture may emit a foul smell. Without using the right method of boiling. the outcome will be a failure and the strings shredded and useless. A worker should cleanse his or her hands thoroughly with fully cooked rice-water in order to cleanse the stickiness. When "tha-yos" become subtle and soft a little pounding by hand is necessary in order to make them pliable for handling. These "tha-yo" must be made into small marble like balls by rolling it on a rock. When tiny rolls or strings appear they are called "tha-yo coils." Non-glass mosaic work needs materials of beaten crystal, rope-spreadings and crystal spreadings—technical terms with clear meaning for expert-workers in Myanmar. Methods are handed down from father to son for techniques such as "Kanutta embroidary"—embossing on pearls, precious gems and multi-colored glasses in wonderful shapes and hues. ~

The linking and placing of stones, glass and gems is not as difficult as the artistic work of "spreading stings" or "spreading crystals". Yet great attention must be given and each step has to be taken with an artistic eye. For artistic harmony "give and take" is essential. The artistic worker must fully know his or her particular art to put things in the right places when the work of "spreading strings" starts. The choice and exactness of placement are essential for correct design and style. The artists that do this are experts in the fields of "kyo-kin spread", or "flower spread" placement of valuable gems and polishing to make a work with artistic harmony and proper arrangement. ~

If gold gilding is necessary, mercury is mixed with the "thit-say" pulp. Sometimes thin gold leaves must be put on with black "thit-say" as base. In the days of Myanmar kings this fine mosaic art belonged to the sphere of royalty within the Department of Royal Treasures. Indeed this subtle work of art has many related artistic disciplines so that the Myanmar kings used to give high rewards and titles to these artists. ~

Ivory Carving

According to legend the origin of ivory carving can be traced as far back as the period when Bodhisatta (embryo Buddha) was the elephant King Saddan Sin Min. Once there was a day when Chulasubhadda, the lesser queen of Saddam, was unfortunately bitten by ants from a tree branch and King Saddan Sin Min offered his help. However, the lesser queen, Chulasubhadda misunderstood King Saddan's good intentions as a deliberate willful attempt to break her heart. In revenge, she prayed that she will become the chief queen of a King in the next existence and that she might adorn herself with the earrings made from the tusks of King Saddan. [Source: Myanmar Travel Information ~]

True enough, Chulasubhadda became the chief queen of the King of Benaras. She was lonely and unhappy despite of her worldly comforts. The King loved her very much and couldn’t stand her loneliness. Upon his asking of how to make her happy, she told her beloved King that having herself adorned with the earrings of the tusks of King Saddan would unlock her happiness. And hence the King of Benaras decided to fulfill her wish. He called on a skillful crafty hunter named Sonuttara to shoot Saddan in the jungle. This was successfully achieved; Saddan was mortally wounded with the poisoned arrow. The elephant King Saddan learned of the queen's revenge from her previous existence, and willingly took off his tusks and gave them to the hunter before he collapsed and died. The goodwill of King Saddan was made known to Chulasubhadda. She embraced the tusks in her bosom and, repenting over her sin, died broken-hearted soon after. ~

In the Burmese era year of 470, Alaugsithu, King of Pagan, traveled to Ceylon and India and chanced to see enormous centipedes that made their dwellings out of huge elephant tusks. There upon the tusks were brought over to Burma and King Alaungsithu had them carved as figures of Buddha and worshipped them reverentially in his palace. In the early 20th century in Moulmein, a craftsman named Saya U Shwe Ko was known to have acquired great skill at ivory carving through his own experiments and practice. Shan timber traders from Kadoe Kawhat brought with them elephant tusks which he acquired in abundance. When Saya Shwe Ko died, he left no clue to his craftsmanship. After thirty years of research work and experiment, his nephew Saya Nyein attempted to adopt the craftsmanship on a commercial basis. ~

At Pyimana, where there is an abundance of teak forests and elephants, ivory carving became an industry. But there are not many ivory carvers. The craftsmanship has not developed as much as it ought to. This is due to the fact that the old ivory carvers were not willing to share the secrets of their craft with anyone and it takes so long to learn the craft (with ivory carving a mistake can ruins monhs of work). A novice has to undergo at least three years' training at the end of which period he is allowed to handle only those simple pieces that do not require elaborate carving. ~

In carving a piece of ivory the required design is first drawn on the ivory with a pencil. Large pieces are then sawn off with a saw. The holes for the outwork are then measured and bored with a hammer made from the antlers of a deer. Many kinds of heavy and light tools, chisels, files and hammers are used. The outline is then shaped with a chisel. To make the interior of the figures and the floral designs takes great skill. After the carving is done the whole piece is rubbed with smooth, fine sand paper. Husks of rice and soap are used to wash the carving which is then placed in the sun to dry. ~

Small pieces of ivory are used for making daggers, Buddha figures, table knives, spoons and forks, paper cutters and combs. The larger pieces are made into boxes, frames of pictures, flower-bowl stands, jewelry and ornaments. The craftsmanship has not been patronized to a large extent because of the importation of ivory goods and articles from China and concerns about elephant poaching. Myanmar craftsmen believe that their products are more detailed in designs and have finer finishing compared to those of foreign products. ~

Panpoot (Lathe-Turned Woodwork) and Wooden Parquetry in Myanmar

The painting and inlaying of variously colored woods is called parquetry (Parqueterie). The goal is to produce articulately rich and soul touching pictures in veneer-jointed format which is overlaid on plywood by glue bond. In Myanmar veneer-painting is called Thit-parr-hlwar ba-gyee. The art form was developed at the No.1 Plywood Factory in Kyimyindine Township, Yangon. The factory was founded by former George Bah Oh (Bah Oh Teak and Hardwood Co. Ltd.) in 1956 and was nationalized in 1964. [Source: Myanmar Travel Information ~]

To make a veneer-painting, first of all some sketches of the designer are necessary to be translated into parquetry . The designs are cut with cutter-a sharp knife or scissors. Edges of the parts are joined and composed with veneer tape, step by step to complete a full scene. This stage is an important factor in the process. It has to be accomplished with great care and patience. In each cautiously cut and composed veneer figure, highlighted movement and slight attenuated forms are particularly delightful. Composed veneer-painted pictures are glue bonded on a piece of plywood and put in the hot press machine. After that pictures are cut out by a small circular sawing machine. Then, they are scraped clean and the rough surface is rubbed with sandpaper for a smooth finish. ~

Large size parquetry are decorated with ornately curved teak frames. The art of arranging lines. shape and details in a pattern is amazing. Popular designs include "Elephant Power", "Oil Lamp Dance", "Royal Princess", "Playing Myanmar Harp", "Great Wall" and "Santa Claus". The most amazing is the workmanship of the portraits of famous persons. The portrait of princess Maha Chakri Sirindhorn (Thailand) is remarkable. There are also parquetry wall clocks of multi color rays and assorted backgrounds; fascinating trays; highly interesting ceilings and fancy plywood for wall decoration. Unique and fascinating parquetry decorates the Thiripyitsaya Hotel in Pagan and Tatmadaw Dhammayon (a community hall for religious purpose) in Yangon. ~

The art of Panpoot is an enterprise to make wooden utensils by turning wood on a lathe. Items made in thsi way include shafts of umbrellas, table legs, the legs of beds and posts for pavilions and railings. Some say the craft dates back to 8th century Pagan. ~

Pantaut (Making Designs with Masonry) and Panyan (The Art of Bricklaying)

The art of Pantaut (stucco sculpture) refers to the handicraft of making decorative floral designs, lions, dragons and other figures in relief with stucco. Myanmar traditional stucco carving emerged before the Pagan period and was improved in the Pagan, Ava, Amarapura and Mandalay periods. According to historical records, Stucco works were greatly valued in the Pagan period. Stucco works of Pagan period have detailed decorations. After Pagan stucco carvings of mid-Konbaung or Amarapura period, were uniquely Burmese in style and very fine. The curled leaves and buds are particularly beautiful. The buds and flowers in bunches in the center of the portal at U Kin-danke are unique. Menu’s brick monastery at Ava also has fine examples of the craft. [Source: Myanmar Travel Information ~]

The art of Panyan (mason) refers to the enterprise of constructing buildings and structures using bricks, stones and cement. Masons build brick houses, pagodas, other religious buildings and bridges. The masonry pagodas and other religious buildings around the Pagan region are world famous. Myanmar’s traditional masonry of the Pagan period is the highly developed. The structures there are remarkable for their strength, grandeur, beauty of form, immensity of size and detailed and appropriate decorations. The masonry of the mid Amarapura period is beautiful and lively. Myanmar’s traditional masonry was derived from the Mon culture of Suvanna Bhumi and from 11th century Southern Indian. Masonry in Myanmar emerged in the Pyu period in the A.D. 1st century. ~

Silk Weaving in Myanmar

Weaving is a highly developed traditional art form in Myanmar. Among the Burmese, it reached its highest form in the production of lun-taya acheik cloth. The technique was brought from Manipur in the eighteenth century, but the complex motifs are distinctly Burmese. This style of cloth is still woven near Mandalay for sale to elite Burmese. There are distinctive textile traditions among the ethnic minorities. [Source: Myanmar Travel Information ~]

Burmese proudly wear hand-woven silk materials on auspicious occasions. Traditional turbans, jackets and longyis worn by Myanmar men are made of silk while intricate acheik designs woven with over 100 silk threads are a feature of silk blouses and silk shawls proudly worn by Myanmar ladies. Although the colors and patterns of silk-woven materials have changed since the time of Myanmar kings. they are still proudly worn by Burmese. ~

To make silk thread firstly three or four raw silk threads from a cocoon are twisted tightly with the aid of the machine and made taunt and smooth. After that impurities are removed by washing the threads in a boiled soap-nut liquid. You will have to boil and wash more thoroughly the threads which are used for the designs. because they need to be softer than ordinary silk thread. After dyeing the threads for about 30 minutes in boiling dye-filled water you have to rinse the excessive dye from the threads. This step may be repeated several to acquire the desired color. Then the dyed threads are dried in the sunlight. In this way. you get beautiful smooth dyed-silk threads. ~

To weave the silk threads you wind the threads on a machine or a loom. After attaching the bobbins on the loom the weavers will weave the desired acheik patterns. The acheik patterns are horizontal wavy lines of various sizes and numbers. There are up to 300 small bobbins used to weave very intricate and complicated acheik designs. Traditionally, acheiks have names like “royal thread,” “6 design thread,” “5 design thread,” “4 design thread” and so forth—depending on the usage of color and the number of small bobbins used for the particular design. In the old days, people used to prefer the acheik with more colors. But nowadays people prefer soft and smooth silk threads of only two or three colors. ~

Traditional Acheik designs woven with more modern colors and designs are winning the hearts of locals and foreign visitors. Both women and men wear lovely, colorful silk acheiks to special occasions like weddings and important festive ceremonies. Men's silk have diamond, jasmine or pearl designs. In Amarapura city, not far from Mandalay, 100-shuttle looms make acheik pasoes and shawls woven in a variety of designs and colors. ~

Making Lun Yar Kyaw Silk

To make Lun Yar Kyaw, one of the Myanmar’s traditional fabrics: First of all, the white silk is dyed according to one's liking. The dyed silk is made into yarn by using a small spindle and put into the wooden spool. These are used as a hitching-post when weaving. Simultaneously, yarn of various color is mixed and made into a whole yarn according to the number of yarn one desires. These mixed yarn are then transferred onto the small bamboo spool in the desired amount from the wooden shuttle. These are to put onto the loom for use in weaving. Dividing upper and lower yarn from the hitching-post is made by hand using a big spindle. After that yarn from the big spindle is put onto the wooden spool. To weave easily, the yarns are put into the frame of the reed in a loom. When these tasks are done you are ready for weaving. [Source: Myanmar Travel Information ~]

It is very difficult to weave a design on 100 shuttle fabric. Much waft and weave is needed to create the wavy design. It takes about three years to learn the art. Depending on the design 100 or more shuttles on a loom are used. Therefore, the fabric is called Lun Yar Kyaw which means fabric specially woven with a hundred or two hundred shuttles of multi-colored silk thread. Much patience is needed. To make an intricate wavy design or pattern two or three 3 girls are employed on a single weaving machine. To finish a fabric for one person often takes more than a month. Mirrors are used to check a work in progress because designs are woven up-side down. The shuttle is moved when the upper yarn and lower yarn are kept open. A shuttle is used to weave an entire line and only a frame of the reed in a loom is used. If you finish When the weaving is done. the fabric’s edge are cut with a pair of scissors and a systematic Lun Yar Kyaw fabric is obtained. There are more than 70 patterns of Lun Yar Kyaw fabric. They vary from the pattern of the Royal Era to modern patterns like Sabei kon, Pan Bayin, Thonn Yaung Che and Da wei sin. ~

Tapestries and Embroidery in Myanmar

Embroidery is an old industry believed to have started during the reign of Alaungpaya, founder of the Konebaung dynasty. Shwe-ge-doe embroidery is elaborately designed and creatively embellished with ornaments for grandeur. In making tapestry the base cloth, usually black, is adorned with metallic sequins, colored glass beads, and figures that are stuffed to give a distinctive three-dimensional effect. Each tapestry depicts a character or a narrative from Jatakas or the Ramayana epic. Tapestries can vary in size from 25 x 25 centimeters to 6 x 1.5 meters. Jackets, pasoes, longyis are also beautifully embroidered for special functions, and Mandalay is the center of this industry. [Source: Myanmar Travel Information ~]

The art of tapestry and "Shwe Chi Hto" (gold embroidery) are said to have originated in Myanmar about a thousand years ago. They are forms of needlework used to create a variety of pictures and patterns so delicate and detailed they requires great skill, artistry and patience to make. In addition to gold threads, silver and colored threads as well as other materials such as tinsel, sequins, semi-precious gems, colorful cut glass, seed pearls and beads are also used. The earliest record of such embroidery was the Pyu Period during the reign of King Mahayaza, about A.D. 800. The center of this craft was and still is Mandalay. The ancient ceremonial royal raiment known as the "Maha Latta", worn by kings and queens was a very heavy gold-embroidered and gem encrusted robe. The Maha Latta worn by King Thibaw and Queen Suhpayalatt, the last reigning monarchs of Myanmar, were the creations of skilled seamstresses, goldsmiths and other artisans of Mandalay. These raiments are on display at the National Museum in Yangon. The embroidery of gold thread and gems is so fine and intricate that it defies imagination. The most outstanding artisans became court craftsmen by royal appointment. They sewed and embroidered all kinds of royal raiments for the monarch and the royal family, ministers and generals. They made headgear down to footwear as well as furnishings for the royal palace such as wall tapestries, fans, cushions and pillows. ~

Myanmar’s ethnic groups also favor gold embroidered garments and headgear. The ceremonial dress and headgear of the Mon, Rakhine, Shan, Palaung, Kachin, Kayah, Padaung Akhar and others are heavily embroidered in gold and silver thread and encrusted with silver ornaments and beads. It takes a lot of time, practice and perseverance to become skilled in this decorative art of embroidery. In ancient times the basic design were floral patterns, vines and curlicues. The sequins used in the embroidery for royal wear was made of genuine gold or silver and the artisans who made them lived in their own colony known as "Kyaikhat Win" as their descendants still do today. The ward where the gold embroidery is famous for is still known as "Shwechi Hto" ward to this day. ~

Making a Burmese Gold-Thread Embroidery

To create an artistic piece of traditional Myanmar gold thread embroidery one needs a piece of white cloth of suitable proportions that has to be stretched and tightened on a square wooden frame. Then on the rigid and smooth surface the figures or patterns desired are sketched in outline with charcoal or pencil. The sketched outlines are then stitched over with gold. silver or colored thread. This is the edging or border of the central picture of the embroidery. Then comes the ornaments that are sewed on such as silver stars. sequins. cut glass. beads and seed pearls to bring the picture to life. This part of the embroidery is called "ayoke cha gyin". which literally means "laying down the figure". Then the stitches are brushed over with glue on the underside to strengthen and prevent the threads from breaking. It also makes it easier to cut out the figures separately. The cut figures or pictures are then appliquéd on the piece of velvet or satin or silk which will form the background of the embroidery. However an opening is left through which cotton is later stuffed to make an embossed figure. [Source: Myanmar Travel Information ~]

Then other adornments such as sequins, beads, seeds, pearls and semi-precious and even precious gems are added around the figure which is the central theme of the embroidery to form a backdrop. Depending on the main figure or theme this backdrop could be a palace or a pond, a forest glade or a galaxy of stars or just patterns pleasing to the eye. Some of the more elaborate tapestries bring to life tales from the Jatakas, tales of valor and historic events. Sometimes a color painting or a patchwork of colored velvet is worked into the picture. Whatever it may be the process requires great skill and artistry. Gem studded embroidery often requires the work of gold and silver smiths. Often a picturesque Myanmar tapestry not the work of a single craftsman but a cooperative team effort. ~

The patterns and names given to the small colored cut glass are equally fascinating. Some of them are include “Diamond Dome,” “Rhomboid,” “Emerald Square” and “Banyan Leaf.” In creating gold embroidery, the size, color, designs and patterns as well as the materials to be used depend on the object it is intended for, and in the days of the monarchy the place or person it was intended for. A whole range of objects and places were adorned with gold and silver tapestries including monasteries and palaces. Some tapestries were used to adorn the ceiling of a shrine hall or used as room dividers and wall hangings in monasteries and palaces. Sometimes an entire wall would be hung with a heavy tapestry. Other smaller objects such as fans were edged with gold embroidery. Then there were cushions and pillows and even palm leaf manuscripts that were ornamented with delicate gold embroidery. Royal crowns and coronets, headdresses and turbans, cuffs and sashes were embroidered with suitable insignias of rank and royalty. Other apparel for royalty were embroidered with pure gold thread and gems right down to the footwear. The harnesses and saddles of elephants and horses were also decorated with such embroidery for auspicious and ceremonial occasions. ~

The traditional designs and patterns were usually based on the Jataka tales and historic events or were depictions of celestial bodies and nature at different seasons of the year. There were also animals from elephants and lions to birds. Nowadays, Myanmar tapestry has become an attraction for tourists from abroad and there is a wide range of objects available with gold embroidery. The traditional tapestries are still available but there are many eye-catching novelties like clutch purses, handbags, cushion covers and even baseball caps. But the basic figures and illustrations and the techniques remain the same as in the old days. Because of the huge popularity of Myanmar gold embroidered articles the previously small cottage industry has now spread to Yangon and other places. This has opened up employment opportunities for women with a skill and talent for needlework. ~

Lotus Weaving Textile, See Lotus Robe

Myanmar Mats

Mats are essential items in a Myanmar household. They are woven from thin strips of the thin reed, which grows in swampy areas of the Irrawaddy Delta region and Taninthayi Division of Lower Myanmar. The traditional mat weaving industry flourishes in Pantanaw, Danubyu, Laymyetnha, Hinthada and Maubin Townships in Ayeyawady Division. [Source: Myanmar Travel Information]

It takes at least about twelve days to weave a mat. The reeds are systematically processed after being cut by being sunned, soaked in water and peeled into strips before being woven into a mat. The thin straps are often dyed and used to make colorful patterns. Most mats have two layers. A mat which only has the upper layer woven in decorative designs is called “one smooth side” mat. When both of the two layers are woven in patterns the mat is called “two smooth sides”.

Mat weaving is a lucrative home industry. The mat goes in suits Myanmar’s culture as well as its hot weather. A traditional mat in a Myanmar house adds auspiciousness to its interior.

Myanmar Fans

Although a fan or umbrella are not included in the prescribed articles of donation for use of Buddhist monks, they are necessities in a tropical country like Myanmar. They are therefore always added to the list of articles donated to monks during Buddhist religious holidays. A large fan or umbrella helps to shade the bare-shaved head of the monk who goes barefooted when he goes round village or town under the hot morning sun to accept offerings of food. They are also protects him if there is a drizzle. The fans made for monks are large and are usually made of palm leaves. Nowadays they are covered with velvet fabric and have the donors' names printed on it. When the monks preach sermons they generally screen their faces with the fans, close their eyes and concentrate on their sermons. This traditional method of giving sermons is called "Yet-htaung taya" (“preaching with the fan put right in front of the preaching monk”). But there are times when the monks do not screen their faces and preach sermons face to face with the audience in sonorous voice. This style of preaching is called "Yat-hle." [Source: Myanmar Travel Information]

Included in the paraphernalia of the Myanmar royalty was a fan called "Daung-taung yat". made of peacock tail feathers with a long handle. Palace pages gently fanned the royals with this fan during the hot season. When the British conquered Myanmar and ruled the country, they introduced ceiling fans which they brought from India. These were originally large fans made from cloth fastened to a long rod and attached to the ceiling. The rod tied to a rope was pulled by an office boy. This contraption was called a"punkha" (fan) and boy that operated it was "a punkha wallah." When electricity punkhas in the rooms in office buildings were connected together with pulleys and ropes and run by a single big electric motor. Such a network of ceiling fans was used in Yangon Gereral Hospital until the outbreak of World War II.

Paper fans are widely used in Myanmar. Traditional Burmese ones are made of small thin slats of bamboo pasted on both sides with paper and usually trimmed to form a circular or oval shape. The paper fans were a must in the old days when electric fans were not yet imported. At weddings and religious ceremonies, where attendees were crowded and when the atmosphere was very close, these "portable air conditioners" were in great demand. Distributed at the marriage ceremonies they carried the names of the brides and bridegrooms. Those given away at religious ceremonies such as novitiation ceremonies had the names of the noviatiates and their parents and the date of the ceremony printed on them. With the introduction of electric ceiling fans and air conditioners, the custom of distributing fans on these occasions faded away.

However, paper fans are still distributed at funerals. The name of the deceased. his or her parents names are printed on one side of the fan and the other side carries extracts from Buddhist teachings. The fan also doubles as an invitation card because it invites the members of the cortege to a morning reception where monks are fed in memory of the dead and then the invitees are treated to a breakfast.

Parasol from Pathein

The umbrella industry of Pathein, the capital of the Ayeyarwady Division of Myanmar’s delta region, is well known and was established in Pathein over a hundred years ago. The first umbrellas were made of paper, but through experience the makers became innovative and began to produce umbrellas with canopies of cotton, silk and satin with attractive floral designs. These newly fashioned umbrellas gained popularity with the ladies and sales expanded across the country. They also caught the attention of visiting foreigners who purchased them as souvenirs, interior decoration on walls and for use as unique lampshades. [Source: Myanmar Travel Information]

The production of the Pathein umbrella is more or less a family industry, with several divisions of labour used in the making of a single umbrella. Each worker is assigned a different task: with one responsible for making the framework of ribs and another the shaft, and others still making the canopy, the grip, the hub which holds the ribs together, and even the wedge or switch for opening and closing the umbrella. Each person works separately and is a specialist so to speak in his own line of work.

The shaft and ribs of the umbrella are made of bamboo and the hub and grip from a softwood known locally as “Ma-U Thit”. The raw materials of bamboo and wood are obtained from the lower hill slopes of the Rakhine Yoma Mountain Range near Chaungthar, which is close to Pathein.

When all the different parts made by different craftsmen are ready they are put together to make an umbrella. The canopy—dyed in pastel shades of mauve, pink, green and blue to deflect the sunlight—are attached to the frame. Sometimes a few darker shades too, such as black, dark blue and bottle green, are added. When the canopy has been fixed to the rib frame, small flowers of varying shapes and colors are painted on the background.

It is a wonder that so many different parts made by different hands all fit so snugly together, and one is able to open and close the umbrella smoothly without a hitch. Once the umbrella is folded then a small bamboo ring—wrapped in colored wool thread and attached with the same thread to an indentation on the grip— is slipped on to the folded umbrella to keep it tightly closed.

Image Sources:

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Lonely Planet Guides, The Irrawaddy, Myanmar Travel Information Compton’s Encyclopedia, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic Monthly, The Economist, Global Viewpoint (Christian Science Monitor), Foreign Policy, burmalibrary.org, burmanet.org, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN, NBC News, Fox News and various books and other publications.

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© 2008 Jeffrey Hays

Last updated May 2014

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