An Introduction

(originally posted by yours truly in a thread on the Ethnographic Arms & Armor forum of the EEWRS)

        "Dha" is a Burmese term that simply means "blade."  The corresponding term in Thai is "daab," or "darb."  We in the West tend use this term to refer to a variety of sword- and dagger-length weapons that are used by a variety of people in continental Southeast Asia.  What I refer to here, and on this site generally, are those swords used by the peoples of mainland Southeast Asia, defined as present-day Burma, Thailand (exclusive of the Malay peninsula), Yunnan, Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam, and in places like Assam and Bengal, to the extend the foregoing peoples have migrated there. They share a few essential defining features that distinguish them from other weapons/tools used in this area (and when there are exceptions they are due to a limited external stylistic influence), which are: (a) a grip with a round cross-section, (b) a long, generally curved blade and (c) no cross-guard or knuckle-bow, and at most a very small tsuba-like guard.

        There are four basic assumptions to the following definition, which form the basis of the hypothesis which we are trying to disprove (according to the scientific method, an hypothesis is never proved, it ismerely considered valid until disproved; it is tested and challenged in ways which would tend to disprove it, and so long as it stands up to these challenges, it is considered valid):  (1) these swords are used by Tai and Tibeto-Burman ethnic groups of these areas, not by the Mon-Khmer and Viet; (2) the people using them do not make distinction between them, viewing them as essentially a single type of sword with local stylistic variations; (3) there is no real distinction between "working" swords which are used both as tools and as weapons by non-urbanized users, and strictly "martial" swords used only for warfare or ceremonial/status purposes; (4) they have essentially a common origin.

        My expectation is that assumptions (1)-(3) will hold true, but that assumption (4) will not, and that we will find at least two, and perhaps three "ancestors" which melded in various ways and in various regions, leading to some of the heterogeneity we see in the appearance of the sword.

        We may or may not find a suitable name of these, and will likely end up calling the "swords" in the local languages (i.e., dha or daab, or some common root term), depending on the geographical location of use.

        Swords: A sword dha, called a dha lwe in Burmese and a darb or daab in Thai, is any sword with a single-edged blade that generally widens progressively toward the tip, but not more than to a length/tip width ratio of perhaps about 5/1 or 6/1 (blades with very wide tips are called dha ma - choppers - in Burma). The cut-off is sort of subjective, at least for me. Spines are rounded, flat, peaked or various combinations fo these. Rarely there is a groove in the spine. False edges are not uncommon. Blades are often engraved or decorated with koftgari or inlay, on the flat and spine, some very elaborately; this is a typically Burmese feature. They are often of laminated or inserted-edge construction, and often have a hardened edge. Tangs are usually very short, and "blind," i.e., inserted into the handle and held by pressure or adhesive. I have never seen a pinned tang.

        The tip can be upswept, angled (forward or reverse), square, round, convex, spear-shaped or "sheep's foot" (where the spine curves down toward the edge). There are specific names for each of these tips in Thai (see the Glossary).

        Handles are almost always of a round cross section, and can vary in length from about hand-width to about equal in length to the blade. A pommel may or may not be present, and is either spherical, a sort of flattened cone, top-shaped or lotus-shaped (there is a variation of this that looks sort of like a conch shell). Sometimes it is just a simple cap on the handle. I have never seen a disk-shaped pommel, though some round ones approach a lens shape (wide axis perpendicular to the handle). There is generally no guard, though the ferrule often flares toward the blade; some Thai daab have a small tsuba-style guard, and some "montagnard" dha have a diamond-shaped guard that is almost more of a spacer as it barely exceeds the diameter of the handle. "Village" dha typically have neither pommel nor ferrule.

        Scabbards are of wood, often with metal bands, or partial or complete metal sheathing. "Village" dha tend to have braided cord or rattan bands. Scabbards usually start with a round cross-section equal in diameter with the ferrule, and progressively transition to a flat cross-section, either square-ended, rounded or more rarely up-swept. In Burmese dha, the scabbard is usually suspended from a cord baldric hung from one shoulder; in Thailand the scabbard can be hung from the shoulder, across the back, or as a crossed pair on the back (this might be the case in other parts of SEA, but I just don't know).

        Daggers: Daggers are called dha hmyaung in Burma (not to be confused with a simple utility knife, which is called a dha mauk). I don't know what they are called in Thailand and other parts of SEA. They basically resemble miniature dha lwe, with a single edge and either upswept or spear-shaped tip. Like the swords, they can have laminated or inserted edge construction, and hardened edges. Handles are sized to fit the hand, and in style follow those found in swords. Scabbards again are smaller versions of those of sword-length dha, though there is a style of dagger scabbard that has a round cross-section. There is another type of knife used in SEA that has a down-ward curved blade, similar to a yatagan or piha ketta, which we Westerners call a "priest knife" because, surprise, it is used by priests.

Here are a few examples of swords:



A couple daggers:


And a priest knife:

Copyright Mark I. Bowditch, 2004, 2005.  All commercial use and reproduction prohibited.  All rights reserved.


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