Silverwork Of Burma

Silverwork Of Burma


The first four plates are photographs of old bowls collected at the time of the Indian and Colonial Exhibition, and were originally taken for the instruction of modern silversmiths. The most ancient are Nos. 1 and 2 in Plate II which, from the style of work, are judged to date from the eighteenth century and are in low relief but have been carried to a degree of finish required firing twice.

Bowls Nos. 3, 4, and 5, of Plate II are supposed to have been made in the beginning of the nineteenth century and are in higher relief but are very rough having been fired but once, the designs are effective and well worth the consideration of modern silversmiths.

Numbers 6 and 7 are of about the same date and probably represent the best work of the period, for they are of the design used at the ceremony of washing the head of the Sovereign and are ornamented with the twelve signs of the Zodiac.

All the bowls shown on the first plate are put down to the end of the first half of the nineteenth century, say between 1840 and 1850, but No. 5 judging from the greater elaboration in the design and the tendency to confusion, accompanied by more exact workmanship, is probably the most modern.

In Plate I, bowl No 1, the upper main wreath or scroll is of twisted vine tendrils sparsely leaved, treated in the Siamese manner, while the ornament at the base is of conventional lotus leaves divided as in Shan work. In all the bowls in this plate, except in No. 4, single figures are placed in “houses” formed by cusped arches of plain polished silver in high relief with a pendant below the truncated pillar of the arch, while in the spandrel is shown a plain, bold spray of foliage. In No. 3 the just limit of elaboration is reached which in No. 5 is so developed that the leading lines are almost lost. Even where the foliage work is Shan, all the figures in this Plate are in Burmese style.

In No. 2 the upper scroll is of Burmese foliage work and is mean and uninteresting, the base is ornamented with lotus leaf in the Burmese manner, from which spring leaves of “foreign” design, this is the earliest known instance of European influence. The upper scroll of No. 3 is a mixture of Siamese and Shan foliage, and the attempt of a modern master silversmith to reproduce this exquisite design is shown in the lowest figure of Plate V.

The upper wreath of the fourth bowl in Plate I is an example of Burmese foliage in which figures of animals are introduced, the base showing lotus treated in European style. This is the earliest known example of a bowl on which a “Zat” or story is depicted, and the artist has abolished the panels or “houses” and has arranged his figures on a frieze. The story is that the Emperor Paw Ye Thada, Who in order to satisfy his craving for human flesh, sent out gangs of men to seize travellers and bring false cases against them, on which they were thrown into prison and executed, their bodies being taken to the Palace. His people rose and deposed him. Bowl No. 5 is entirely of Burmese design and No. 6, with the exception of the figures, is all Shan work.

In Plate III, is shown a most excellent Shan Bowl with Burmese figures, the design is simple and effective and the subdivision of the surface is in just proportion, the polished lines are in the right places and the degree of relief is regulated according to the importance of each several part. Burmese master-silversmiths should study this bowl very carfully so as to understand the principles which guided the artist who made it, and if they have not quite made up their minds let them compare it with the bowl shown on Plate IV which is badly designed and carelessly made on a single firing.

The work shown in the first four plates was all executed with brass tools and at a time when no great store was set on highly finished execution. With the steel tools now in use it has become possible to give sharp work in high relief and at the same time to meet the demand for exactness. Plate V shows an adaptation of old designs by Maung Yon of Rangoon in 1885, or thereabouts. Maung Shwe Yon also designed and made the pierced bowl given in Plate VI which is the best example of this kind of work ever produced. The foliage is a combination of three kinds of flower work known as tazin ngwe, kalla ban and Kyu det and the skill with which the different styles have been combined to prevent monotony in the general effect is greatly appreciated by Burmese Silversmiths. Round the base of the bowl is an arrangement of leaves of the water cabbage (hmaw). Maing Shwe Yon died in 1889 shortly after he had finished a splendid trophy for the Mess of the Royal Engineers at Chatham.


Another great artist was Maung Myat San and a small bowl by him is contrasted on Plate VII with the work of a present day prizeman. The photograph does not do justice to the modern bowl because much of the detail is lost in glitter but after making all allowances, it cannot compare with work of the old master, which for clearness and charm of design, accuracy of workmanship and restraint, has not yet been beaten. This bowl was probably made about the year 1860.

It is interesting to compare the larger Shan betel-box cover shown in Plate VIII, which is thought to date from the eighteenth century, with the Burmese work of the same period, figures 1 and 2, Plate II. The value of plain polished dividing lines is seen in both but in the Shan work they are in higher relief, while in all other respects the Burmese work is better. The smaller Shan betel-box in Plate VIII shows a greater advance in design while that in Plate IX, which is supposed to have been made in about the year 1850, is better still. The silver pipe with an ivory stem in Plate VIII is a quaint piece of work in which the ornamentation of twisted wire and small beads is very effective; this pipe and the dagger above probably belonged to a Sawbwa or Shan Prince; lotus bud at the end of the handle of the dagger is in excellent taste.

The buckle in Plate IX is given to show how good Burmese silversmith can adapt an old design to modern needs. Shan silverwork is brought to Burma by peddlers and can be purchased without difficulty at the rate of twenty rupees for fourteen tolas weight, but it can sometimes be obtained for its own weight in rupees. In Plate X is shown a bowl made in about the year 1884 by Maung Ba, now deceased. It is a modern example of a bowl without “houses” of which the earliest known is that numbered four in Plate I. The upper scroll in this bowl is a combination of kyu and tazin ngwe foliage which is twisted over. The ornamentation of the base is composed of kalla ban set within a skeleton of lotus leaves arranged the Shan custom. The story is that of Wethandiya, one of the ten holy legends of Gaudama in a previous existence, and the prince is represented as making an offering of the white elephant of the Kingdom to the Brahmins of the Palace who, it will be noticed, wear a peculiar head dress. For this act of generosity Wethandiya is banished by his father and may be seen setting off in his chariot with his wife and two children. It would take too long to recount the further pathetic adventures of the family but the story is beautiful and is the favourite of all Burma.

The sugar basin shown in Plate XI was made by Maung Pauk Tun, since deceased, and is a good example of modern work in very high relief; the bowl in the same plate is placed in the middle of the last century and was made in Arakan, probably for a Musalman, being without figures. The borders are of Shan flower work with leaves after the Siamese fashion. This interesting piece of work was rescued from the melting pot.

The bowl shown in Plate XII is by Maung Yin Maung who has taken the first prize two years running at Handicraft Competition held in Rangoon. The figure work is very good and the foliage skilfully designed and well executed. The bowl was made in 1900 and the artist has much improved in designing since then. The scene represents King in consultation with his ministers.

In Plate XIII is given the photograph of a Swun ok made by Maung Po Thet is 1885 or thereabouts. It is in the shape of the Pagoda and is an excellent piece of work though not of the most graceful shape.

The Pagoda Trophy presented for Association football by the Burma Athletic Association is given in Plate XIV and is carefully finished though not a good model of the Sule Pagoda which it is supposed to represent. Burmans are rather fond of models of Pagodas in gold or silver.

Plate XV shows the statuette of a belu or ogre with which Maung Yin Maung of Pegu won the prize for work in the round, at Handicraft Competition of 1900. It is of brass but is made by cire perdue process by a silversmith and is remarkable for the pose and action. Burmese connoisseurs object to this belu wearing flowers in his ears, his accoutrements also are of Siamese fashion which is incorrect in a Palace ogre.

In the last plate the pupils of a silversmith are shown at work, the figures at the extreme right and left being in usual attitudes.

These notes on the silverwork of Burma have come to an end. They do not treat of the successes achieved in this new century; but deal chiefly with artists now dead and gone, the best of whom died in poverty, having advanced a few steps along the path which leads to perfection and have the admiration of the living artists, who, like them, are eager, painstaking and independent, full of the anticipation of the attainment of a higher ideal, even at a pecuniary loss.

To the leading silversmiths of Burma, Scattered through the Province, may be fitly applied the words of Tennyson: –

Men, my brothers, men the workers ever reaping something new.
That which they have done but earnest of the things they shall do.

Burmese Silver Plate 16
Plate XVI

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  • Joseph Cohen
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