FORM AND DESIGN

Introduction

The most common forms and designs of traditional Burmese silver are primarily functional as opposed to decorative. Functional forms served ceremony at the Royal Court, Buddhist ritual and social convention - a prime example are betel boxes used for the cultural tradition of chewing and sharing Betel quids. However, the emphasis on practical forms did not inhibit decorative imagination and Burmese silversmiths routinely transformed functional forms into magnificent pieces of fine decorative art.

British and European influence on form and design was an inevitable cultural impact of colonization. This eventually led to a second genre of Burmese silver designed to meet the artistic preferences and practical needs of the foreign residents in Burma. This distinct cross-cultural genre includes tea and coffee services, wine goblets and claret jugs, all alien in function to the Burmese. A third design ‘niche’ includes silver crafted to compete in the grand British art exhibitions held in India and England.

This illustrated ‘Magazine’ article catalogues three broad genres of Burmese silver based on their common form and design – the first genre comprises traditional Burmese silver, the second, the ‘export’ styles for the foreign market, and the third, a small design group, comprising silver made primarily for art competitions. The pieces illustrated below represent a limited sample of the full design repertoire of each group.

Traditional Burmese Form and Design

1. Bowls

Classical bowls are the most common and oldest form of Burmese silver. The ubiquitous design imitates the bowl carried by monks to receive offerings – this is a ‘thabeik’ bowl. The overall shape and size of the thabeik bowl is relatively constant. Water bowls, or ‘pala,’ are similar in form with a greater diversity in scale and in the ratio of width to height. There are also regional variations in form and design.

A simple statistical analysis of the weight to diameter relationship of about 200 Burmese bowls indicates three well defined cluster groups which suggests that the silversmiths standardized to some extent the weight and size of the bowls. This might be due to technical reasons and/or a tradition of using consistent numbers of coins, or weight of silver bar, to form the bowl. The mean weight and diameter of the bowls in the two cluster groups are as follows;

Group Weight (g) Diameter (cm)
Small 181 10.4
Medium 618 19.3
Large 1,205 28.3
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A ‘thabeik’ bowl with a classical form
 c. 1900

H: 12 cm  D: 21 cm  Wt:  874 g

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A ‘pala’ with a typical form – 1928

H: 17 cm  D: 34 cm  Wt: 1.9 kg

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A variant of the ‘thabeik’ form  – 1853

H: 16.5 cm  D: 20.5 cm  Wt: 684 g

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A regional variant of the ‘‘pala’
Shan style – c. 1910

H: 23 cm   D: 33 cm  Wt: 2.46 kg

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A covered rice bowl
Shan style with Chinese influence – c.1910

H: 25.5 cm  D: 26 cm  Wt: 1.58 kg

2. Betel Boxes

The betel chewing tradition is over 2,000 years old and widespread throughout Asia. A betel ‘quid’ for chewing consists of the tropical areca nut mixed with slaked lime (Ca(OH)2)  and wrapped in a leaf from the betel-pepper vine. Betel chewing was a primary social custom in Burma at all levels of society. A betel set was a necessary accompaniment for sharing a betel quid. The betel box, known as a ‘kun-it’, was used to store betel-pepper vine leaves and pieces of crushed areca nut. A large box would have two or three stacked trays and space for several small serving bowls. The design ranged from a simple cylindrical covered box to elaborate forms set on pedestals.

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A small cylindrical ‘kun-it’- c.1910

H: 10.5 cm  D: 10.5 cm  Wt: 338 g

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A large, ceremonial ‘kun-it’
set on a flared pedestal - c.1910

H: 40 cm  D: 25 cm  Wt: 1.77 kg

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The common form of a large kun-it – c.1910

H: 17.5 cm  D: 18.5 cm  Wt: 1.24 kg

The Components of a Large, Ceremonial Betel Box (S058)

3. Lime Boxes

Limes boxes (‘thon-bu’) were used to store the white, slaked lime powder that was mixed with crushed areca nuts in in the betel quid. They were made in large numbers and in many different forms and designs, including round, elliptical, hemispherical, square and polygonal. Many old lime boxes contain residual traces of slaked lime powder. Most lime boxes were small enough to carry easily and were commonly gifted to friends, family and officials.

A sample of common forms and designs are shown below.

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Thon-bu – 1908

H: 8 cm  L: 8 cm  Wt: 218 g

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Thon-bu – c.1900

H: 5 cm  L: 8.4 cm Wt: 102 g

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Thon-bu – c.1910

H: 4.5 cm  L: 10 cm  Wt: 136 g

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Thon-bu – c.1910

H: 6.5 cm  L: 8.5 cm  Wt: 135 g

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Thon-bu – c.1910

H: 9.5 cm  L: 10 cm  Wt: 337 g

4. Cheroot and Treasure Boxes

Cheroot cigars (‘Say-baw-leik’) come in all shapes and sizes and are still smoked across Burma by men and women, and young and old alike.The traditional Burmese cheroot is cylindrical and cut at both ends. The cigar is wrapped in a carbia myka leaf and filled with local tobacco which is sometimes mixed with wood fragments. Dried corn husks improvise as cigar filters.

The form of cheroot boxes (‘Tita’) is designed to contain typical sizes and lengths of the cigar. A common length is about 20 cm. The boxes are typically rectangular and oblong with a hinged or free-fitting lid. Large boxes with a similar form may have been used to store different personal items, including jewelry and other treasure. Richly decorated boxes were designed to display wealth and social status.

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A ‘tita’ box for cheroots or treasure
c. 1910

H: 11.5 cm  L: 24 cm  Wt: 1.06 kg

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A ‘tita’ by the Shan silversmith Shine Hine
1928

H: 6 cm  L: 20.5 cm  Wt: 344 g

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A tall Shan ‘tita’ for cheroots – c.1910

H: 12.5 cm  L: 20 cm  Wt: 713 g

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An old Shan ‘tita’ for cheroots – 1860

H: 8.5 cm  L: 20 cm  Wt: 367 g

5. Covered Trays and other Containers

La peh’ is a traditional and uniquely Burmese pickled tea preparation eaten socially and on ceremonial occasions. This delicacy consists of fermented tea leaves accompanied by fried garlic flakes, roasted peas, peanuts and sesame seeds, dried fish and shrimp, fried coconut flakes and fried insects. All or some of these tasty morsels are presented on a covered tray which may be divided into small compartments. The form and design of ‘la peh’ trays range from simple to ceremonial.

Burmese silversmiths also crafted containers for food or other items in a variety of forms and designs that were customized for specific applications. The original design function of many container forms is now only speculative.

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A ceremonial ‘la peh’ covered tray
c.1910

H: 43 cm  D: 38.5 cm  Wt: 2.1 kg

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A 7-box container set for display – c.1880

H: 5 cm  D: 21 cm  Wt: 688 g

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A niello container and lid
similar in form to a bowl or cup – c.1900

H: 11 cm  D: 9.5 cm  Wt: 323 g

6. Other Forms and Design

Burmese silversmiths did not lack for imagination and their traditional repertoire includes a wide range of functional, ceremonial and decorative forms.

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Temple vase – c.1910

H: 23.5 cm  D: 10 cm  Wt: 409 g

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Manuscript holder – c.1910

D:cm  L: 32.2 cm  Wt: 342 g

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Five-section belt buckle – c.1910

D: 8.8 cm  L: 22 cm  Wt: 116 g

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Water cup – c.1900

H: 8.3 cm  D: 8.6 cm  Wt: 264 g

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Drinking beaker – 1889

H: 15 cm  D: 9.5 cm  Wt: 336 g

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Votive stupa model – c.1900

H: 18.3 cm  D: 9 cm  Wt: 180 g

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Cast figurine of a monk with a thabeik bowl
c.1880

H: 7.8 cm  D: 3.6 cm  Wt: 86 g

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Salver or tray – c.1890
With early European decorative style

H: 2cm  D: 33.5 cm  Wt: 1.29 kg

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Dagger with silver scabbard and hilt

c. 1890

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Sword with silver scabbard and hilt

c.1890

British and European Form and Design

There is a distinct genre of hybrid Burmese silver with traditional Burmese decoration and a foreign form. This silver was made for foreign residents in Burma and for export during the late 19th and early 20th centuries. The classical example of this genre is the ‘British’ tea service comprising a tea pot, milk pitcher and a sugar bowl. An ornate tray or salver might also complete the ‘tea set’.

Other examples of non-Burmese forms include claret jugs, sporting trophies, photo frames, candle stick holders, tankards and cutlery. Much of this ‘export’ silver found its way back to Britain when the owner’s tour of service in Burma was completed.

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Tea service with tea pot, milk jug

and sugar bowl - c.1910

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Milk pitcher – c.1910

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Wine goblet - 1870

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The Pagoda Trophy presented by
The Burmese Athletic Association
for football – c.1900

From H.L. Tilley - 1902

Competition silver

Starting in the late 19th century, the master silversmiths of the ‘Silver Age’ created some of their best work for Burmese provincial handicraft competitions and for the enormous British Empire art exhibitions held in India and England. The unique pieces submitted to these competitions were often based on traditional Burmese silver forms, although the design and decoration were commonly much more lavish and extravagant compared to the best quality commercial silver.

These ‘competition’ forms and designs constitute a small third genre of Burmese silver. An example of this genre is displayed in the Silver Room of the Victoria and Albert museum in London. Photographs and descriptions of other prize winning pieces are found in the two Monographs of H.L. Tilley dated 1902 and 1904.

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A centrepiece attributed to
Maung Yin Maung
In the
Victoria & Albert Museum, London

c.1905

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A centrepiece by Muang Yin Maung
Awarded the Gold Medal at the
Delhi Exhibition 1902-1903

(from H.L. Tilley – 1904)

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A covered ‘thabeik’ by Maung She Wa
Awarded First Prize at the
Delhi Exhibition 1902-1903

(from H.L. Tilley – 1904)

This is not an exhaustive catalogue of all the forms and designs of old Burmese silver. The recognition of three broad design groups, or genre, is the author’s alone, and is based primarily on the ‘David and Kathleen Owens’ collection which is limited in size and scope.