Common Fabrication Techniques Found in Dha
By Mark I. Bowditch
(originally presented at the 2003 Timonium Ethnographic Arms Symposium and Dinner)
The dha is a sword that is (or was) used throughout most of mainland Southeast Asia, though it is most often associated with Burma (Myanmar). It is known by various names; dha, daab or darb, and dai dao, for example. While the variety found in dha is nothing short of bewildering, you will see some common features in their structure and manufacture.
The dha typically has a more-or-less curved blade, usually widening progressively toward the tip. The tip exhibits a great range of variety, however, and may be upswept, rounded, clipped, spear-shaped, square, or even concave. Figure 1. Blades may have a false back edge, and are sometimes elaborately decorated with silver, brass or copper inlay or koftgari. It is not unusual to find differential tempering in the blade, which is traditionally accomplished by selectively heating the edge of the blade in the bed of the forge, followed by quenching (as opposed to the use of refractory clay that is found in nihon-to, and the use of inserted edges or sandwiched layers of hard steel that is common in Chinese swordmaking). An unusal but apparently consistent feature of dha is the presence of a very short tang, typically between 2 and 3 inches even on blades between 20 and 30 inches long. The tang is quite wide at the junction with the blade itself, and tapers abruptly down its length. Figure 2. This would give good strength to the tang, but causes an inherent structural weakness in the handle, in which it is held by friction or some form of adhesive (such as resin or glue). This inherent weakness may explain the prevalent use of substantial ferrules on the handles. Maker's marks on blades or tangs appear to be rare.
The handle is typically of round cross-section, and guardless, though often flaring toward the blade into a pseudo-guard. Figure 3. In certain cases an additional small disk-shaped guard is indeed found (these are usually of Thai and South Vietnamese origin). As noted above, the common presence of a substantial ferrule may protect the handle from splitting under pressure from the short tangs of the blades. Handles are fairly long, ranging from a proportion of about one quarter the length of the blade, to up to one half of, or even equal to, the length of the blade. Handles are most often of wood, but these are usually covered in fiber or wire wrapping, sharkskin, metal rings or sheets, or some combination of these. Elaborately carved ivory and bone handles are also found. Round or lotus-shaped pommels are found on some dha, generally (but not exclusively) those from northern and northwest Burma. Figure 3. Otherwise, the handle lacks a pommel, or has only a very small one.
The scabbard is also of wood, usually transitioning from a circular cross-section to a flattened cross-section at the tip, which may itself be squared, rounded, or pointed (very rarely upswept). Made in two halves, the scabbard is not sealed, but rather held together by bindings of a variety of materials along its length, including braided fiber, wire and metal bands, and sometimes also having a peg pinning the halves together at the distal end. Figure 4. Scabbards are sometimes covered partially or completely in metal sheathing, often silver, and often elaborately chased or decorated with applied wire. A cord baldric is the usual mode of carrying the dha, at least among the northern and upland peoples.
Copyright © Mark I. Bowditch, 2003, 2004. All commercial use and reproduction prohibited. All rights reserved.