(revised, originally presented at the Ethnographic Arms & Armor Heritage Organization Seminar, Timonium, Maryland, March, 2007)

Abstract

    The Burmese technique of overlaying silver, or other metal, on steel and iron to make complex decorations, is unique in Continental Southeast Asia, dating back to the mid-17th century.  Unlike other decorative techniques such as inlay, gilding and niello, the overlaid metal is hammered onto a prepared surface, and annealed by heating.  The technique is used to produce a very wide variety of complex decorative motifs.

Introduction

    The applied silver decoration seen on Burmese blades is rather unique in Continental Southeast Asia, though it is similar to that used in other parts of Asia such as India and insular Southeast Asia.  It has been erroneously described by many, myself included, as koftgari or inlay, when in reality it bears little resemblance to either decorative technique, or to other techniques involving the application of metal to the blade surface, such as gilding and niello.  The twin purposes of this brief article are, therefore, to explain the nature of this rather uniquely Burmese decoration, in terms of how it is created, and to give a brief overview of the styles and motifs in which it appears.

    The Western literature does not contain any reference to the Burmese term for this type of decoration, though undoubtedly there is one.  Nicholas Wardigo has suggested the term “overlay,” which I find more accurate and satisfying than “applied” or “appliqué” (both of which conjure up images of seamstresses and tailors, rather than blacksmiths and silversmiths), and one that is certainly more accurate than “inlay” or “koftgari.”   It is therefore suggested to adopt the term “overlay,” at least until the proper Burmese one is learned. 

    According to E.N. Bell, writing at the turn of the last century, the technique of applied silver decoration was originated by a single family in Mindan village (Yamethin District, Mandalay Division, in central Burma), purportedly five generations prior to the artisan interviewed by Bell.  Bell, page 27.  Assuming this to be accurate, and assuming roughly 50 years per “generation,” counting back from the 1907 publication date of Bell’s monograph would place the origination of this technique at around 1650 CE.  Bell is apparently the only primary reference in the Western literature that describes the overlay technique, though Sylvia Fraser-Lu does summarize Bell’s description of the process.  Fraser-Lu, pages 148-49.  There is a curious absence of any mention of the overlay technique in Ferrars & Ferrars, which gives an otherwise detailed account of both the blacksmith and silversmith in 19th century Burma.  A survey of the published accounts of European travelers in Burma, ranging from Marco Polo in the 13th century, up to colonial-era British authors such as Michael Symes, Archibald Colquhoun, and Arthur Phayre, likewise failed to provide any mention of the technique.  Fortunately, Bell provides a very detailed description of the process, clearly from first-hand observation of the artisan at work, likely during the production of the overlay-decorated scissors, dha-hmyaung (sword), dha-lwe (dagger), and betal nut cutters which Bell illustrates throughout his monograph (see, Figure 1).

From Bell (1907)

Figure 1:  Selected figures from Bell (1907), showing overlay decoration on scissors (Fig.1), dha-hmyaung (Fig. 2), dha-lwe (Fig. 3; also in Figs. 4 to 9, not shown) and a betal nut cutter (Fig. 11).

Technical Process

    Most frequently seen as silver applied to iron or steel, more rarely copper and brass (gold cannot be excluded, but no examples are known to the author), the metal is applied as relatively thick wire and foil to a roughened surface, not hammered into an incised pattern as would be inlay, nor surface-applied as a slurry, paste, or thin leaf, as is gilding.  The process is best described in Bell’s own words (though oddly enough he refers to it as “inlay,” perhaps for lack of a better word): 

Supposing that a dalwe’ is to be made, a sufficient supply of raw metal is first forged into a blade:  then the central space which is to be ornamented is scored into a minute criss-cross with a small cold chisel, sut:  this cold chisel is of superior metal, preferably an English file cut up.  The left hand holds and pushes this forward, the right hand wields a small hammer.  When the blade is sufficiently scored, the worker with a small pair of pincers, nan-zwe’-hnyat, holds down the silver wire in position:  a few smart taps and this is hammered into the cold iron and becomes one flesh with it, atha-ta-thade’-pyit-thwa-de’; the design grows rapidly, though no pattern is traced out beforehand, and the hand moves on unerringly.  When both sides of the blade are completed, it is heated gently and all the design gone over with the hammer:  then with the cold chisel the outlines are defined, and the features brought into slight relief:  roughnesses are smoothed down with the hammer, and a bath of cold water and polish with a cloth, and the blade is complete.  The silver pattern being so firmly incorporated with the blade that it is almost impossible to detach it, even with chisel and hammer.  But save for the forging the metal is never brought to a red-heat.

 Bell, page 28.

    The unusual aspect of this particular technique is that the decorative metal is applied to the surface of the piece decorated, not laid into engraved channels, yet the applied decoration is almost inseparable from the metal to which it is applied.  It is unlike any other, at least those utilized in other parts of continental Southeast Asia.  In Thailand, for example, the blade is almost never decorated, save sometimes with some engraving, or the enigmatic brass and copper insets sometimes found along the spine of the blade.  See Figure 2.  Proper inlay, gilding, and niello, however, are all used, and can be seen on the fittings of Thai daab.  Figure 3; also see, e.g., Punjabhan, pages 35-37 and 126-136.  Bell notes that the articles to which this particular ornamentation are applied are dha-lwe, dha-hmyaung, scissors, betal nut cutters, and tweezers.  Bell, page 27.

Figure 2:  Engraving and brass inserts on the spine of a Northern Thai or Shan daab.

Figure 3:  Gilding on the pommel, ferrule and guard of a 17th-18th C. Thai daab.

Decorative Motifs

    Three basic motifs can be found in Burmese overlay blade decoration, which somewhat overlap.  The most simple is a vegetal or viney motif.  Sword 1; Figures 4, 5.  This motif is also very popular in ivory and wood carving, lacquer-work, textiles.  Figure 6.  There are a number of variations of the vegetal pattern, of which Fraser-Lu shows several examples taken from Burmese lacquer-ware:  chu-pan (hook-like foliage), maw-pan (floral scrolling), dha-zin-gwe (orchid scrolling), acheik (wave).  Figure 7.

Figure 4:  Some variations of vegetal patterns on dha.  Top, Chu-pan, “hook-like foliage;” middle and bottom, maw-pan, “floral scrolling.”

Figure 5:  Dha-hmyaung with silver overlay blade decoration in the pattern chu-pan.

Figure 6:  Vegetal motifs in other media.  Top, carved ivory dha-lwe handle; bottom, lacquered wooden box

Figure 7:  Variations of vegetal designs from Burmese lacquer-ware, taken from Fraser-Lu (1994).

    A greater elaboration includes animals in among the vegetation, either as repeated designs of a single creature, or as a series of different animals.  Figure 8; Swords 2 to 4.  This design is again reminiscent of designs used in other media, which often have animals, exotic beasts, and even people peering out from among the vines.  Figure 6.

Figure 8:  repetitive animal designs (top, middle) and menagerie design (bottom).

    More elaborate still are the “story” dha, which illustrate popular folktales and Jataka legends, complete with vignette scenes of the highlights of the story, and accompanying captions in Burmese or Pali.  Figure 9; Swords 5 to 8.  Dedicatory texts, or even simply the owner’s or maker’s name, also sometimes appear on the blade as overlay.  See, Sword 5.  An interesting variant of the story dha is one where characters or scenes from the story are carried onto the handle decoration, the examples I have personally seen being done in niello.  Swords 6 and 7.  The variety of decorative themes, in particular of the story dha, are worthy of an entire treatise, as they appear in an almost never-ending variety, and are still found even on contemporary dha in a comparatively crude form (no doubt the result of less-skilled workers attempting to imitate the earlier work of the Mindan masters).  See Sword 8.

Figure 9:  Details of narrative panels from “story” dha.

The Swords Displayed

1.  Blade 59 cm, overall 81.5 cm.  Ivory grip with iron pommel and ferrule.  Overlay in silver and copper on pommel and ferrule in a floral design.  Silver and copper overlay on the spine and flat of the blade forming a sinuous vegetal pattern called chu-pan (hook-like foliage); floral pattern on the false edge.  Text along spine in brass overlay, reading Saya Bo let ya (“handiwork of Saya Bo”).

2.  Blade 49.5 cm, overall 68 cm.  Rayskin grip with silver pommel and ferrule.  Overlay in silver on the flat of the blade in the pattern chu-pan, interspersed with swallows in flight.  Simple wave pattern on the spine, with false edge unadorned.

3.  Blade 68 cm, overall 97 cm.  Contemporary replacement grip in lacquered wood and brass.  Overlay in silver in a simple acheik (waved) pattern on spine; more complex acheik pattern along false edge.  Silver overlay on flat of the blade in the pattern chu-pan, surrounding crouching lions.  The decorated area of the false edge is surrounded by a straight line border, the decorated area on the flat by a double border, waved and straight.

4.  Blade 51 cm, overall 79 cm.  Ivory grip with silver ferrule and lotus pommel.  Overlay in silver along spine and false edge of the blade in acheik pattern.  Silver overlay on the flat of the blade in the pattern maw-pan (floral scrolling) surrounding the figures of a man, two tigers, a hare, a lion, a stag, a monkey, two fantastical figures half man, half bird, and a rooster.

5.  Blade 62 cm, overall 83 cm.  Grip of carved antler, steel, brass, and silver.  Overlay in silver on spine and false edge in an acheik pattern, with a single straight border; silver overlay on flat of the blade in the pattern maw-pan, framing vignettes with figures and text from the Jataka story of Princess Bedi.  Additional dedicatory text in silver overlay on the left-side forte.

6.  Blade 61 cm, overall 82.5 cm.  Silver grip with niello decoration in the pattern maw-pan, surrounding prancing monkeys, lions, and birds in flight.  Overlay in silver on the spine and false edge of the blade in a simple acheik pattern, with a straight border (double on the spine, single on the false edge); silver overlay on flat of the blade in the pattern maw-pan surrounding scenes from the story of (King) Thiha Bahu Min and the Nat Min, and accompanying text.

7.  Blade 65 cm, overall 91 cm.  Grip of silver with lotus pommel with niello.  Overlay in silver on the spine and false edge of the blade in an acheik pattern, with straight-line borders; silver overlay on flat of the blade in the pattern maw-pan, surrounding scenes from the Tale of the Shwe Hpyin Brothers, with accompanying text.  Niello decoration on the grip repeats the maw-pan motif, with enlarged detail presentations of story highlights.

8.  Blade 51 cm, overall 78 cm.  A contemporary dha, with a grip of chased brass over wood, once washed with silver that has now disappeared.  Silver overlay on flat of the blade showing scenes from the Jataka story of Maha Bandoola, with accompanying text, interspersed with sparse areas of chu-pan.  Spine unadorned.

 

Bibliography

Bell, E.N. (1907) A Monograph on Iron and Steel Work in Burma, Superintendent of Printing, Rangoon.

Ferrars, M. and B. Ferrars (1901) Burma, Sampson Low, Marston & Co., London.

Fraser-Lu, S. (1994) Burmese Crafts, Past and Present, Oxford University Press.

Punjabhan, N., Silverware in Thailand, Rerngrom Publishing Co., Ltd., Bangkok.

Copyright © Mark I. Bowditch, 2007.  All commercial use and reproduction prohibited.  All rights reserved.