The Silverwork of Burma by Harry Tilly

Joseph Cohen Harry Tilly, Silver 600 Views

T here are perhaps few countries in the world in which the use of gold and silver is prohibited in ceremonial worship and fewer still in which there is no religious services conducted by priests. Yet such is the case in Burma where the monks who follow the strict precepts of their Lord Gaudama are forbidden to touch gold or silver, and beyond expounding the law of their great teacher, do not preside over any religious exercises nor do they assist at a marriage or perform any last offices over the remains of the being who has quitted this scene of trial.

The silversmiths of Burma, therefore, have never been called on to make praying wheels or censers or incense burners as in some other Buddhist countries, nor has their art developed by the experience of generations in the design and execution of chalices, crucifixes, croziers, or reliquaries and shrines, as in Christian countries. And until the last fifty years or so, their field of work was still further limited by sumptuary laws which, wherever the authority of the Burmese Government was sufficiently powerful, denied to any but those of Royal blood, the use of gold or silver vessels. As a set off to these limitations there was the patronage of the King and the Court, and much gold plate was made both for the personal use of the monarch and for gifts to be presented on special occasions. Silver bowls, Betel boxes and drinking cups were in common use in the palaces and no doubt were also used by powerful and wealthy people who were for one reason or another able to evade or over-ride the sumptuary regulations.

With the gradual extension of the rule of the British has followed freedom from restriction and greater security of property, while display no longer exposes the imprudent to the exaction of their rulers and consequently well-to-do Burmans are generally the possessors of two or three silver bowls and drinking cups, and it is not uncommon to find minute silver bowls in the trays of the betel boxes of quite poor people. The Burmese are, however, still simple in their tastes and much plate is not found in any village or small town, but what there is may always be borrowed for a festival, such as the assumption of the yellow robe by a son or the boring of the ears of a daughter. On these occasions, all the neighbours are invited and contribute towards the feast, either money or in kind.

The ceremony of taking the yellow robe by a Buddhist corresponds to confirmation in a Christian church and in each case the vows to live a pure life are taken at about the same age. To the Burman boy each of the prescribed acts on that day is significant and reminds him of the great renunciation of Gaudama Buddha. He is dressed as a prince and is led forth through the streets of his native place sheltered by royal umbrellas and accompanied by shouting companions, and when he returns to his own home he finds it transformed, as far as the means of his people will allow, into a palace filled with fair young girls dressed in the gayest silks, laughing and joking beneath bright canopies edged with white cloth, cut into fairy like lace. There is much feasting and the food itself is out of the ordinary, while even water and betel-nut are sacred in silver. All this is in honour of the boy, but he looks beyond to the end of the room where, on a raised dais, behind large fans, sit the monks in their yellow robes, and he hastens to prostrate himself, remembering that he must give up all these things even as did the Lord Gaudama. He take the vows of poverty and austerity, his head is shaved and his clothes are thrown aside and exchanged for a mendicant’s garments, and he humbly follows his teacher to the quiet monastery, to stay there for the rest of his life, or for a couple of months according to his vocation. And so with all the festivals of the Burmese, gay colours, white jackets, a little silverware, laughing girls, young men full of the pride of life, the old looking on with tolerant eyes, and in the background the monastery calling to mind the weighment of merit against demerit in the working out of the inexorable law of existence.

It is not surprising then that the Burmese silversmith has little variety of shape to show his European customers and does not succeed particularly well in making teapots, race cups and other things, which he and his have never used. But on the squat forms of bowl or betel box his fancy depicts the immortal stories of the past – stories many of them taken from the ancient treasure house of India; such as the Ramayana, which to the Burman recounts the adventures of Gaudama in one of his previous existences. There are ten such principal legends and to each of the characters is assigned, by tradition, a precise costume and particular ornaments, nay more, the very attitudes are in many instances prescribed and of the many demons, ogres and guardian spirits who continually appear throughout the stories to thwart or aid the hero, each one may at once be recognized by its action or emblem. Besides bowls, drinking cups and betel boxes, the latter being in shape like a biscuit box, the Burman silversmiths make small oval or octagonal boxes to hold the lime which is eaten with betelnut; the cover fits very tightly and usually has a projecting smooth edge or beading by which it is remove. These little boxes are sometimes made of gold or in niello work, as well as in silver, and are generally well designed and finely executed. They are placed in the tray of the betel box with four or more small cups or bowls having a wreath or border of flower work near the upper edge, and in them placed the condiments taken with the areca nut; the betel-vine leaves are placed in a double air-tight tray below the upper tray and in the space at the bottom are placed tobacco leaves. The equipment is rendered complete by a pair of curiously curved shears, often inlaid with gold or silver damascene work. In the Palace the whole box was carried on a stand and was made of gold as indeed were the spittoons, tazza in elaborately carved repousse work with pierced covers, the sword of State and any other object for the personal use of the monarch.

Many silversmiths embellish these larger pieces with small fantastic statuettes made by the cire perdue process, which, although lost for some generations in Europe, appears to have been generally known throughout India and Tibet.

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Joseph CohenThe Silverwork of Burma by Harry Tilly