ICONOGRAPHY

Introduction

The quintessential essence of old Burmese silver is the superlative embellishment of the silver surfaces. The master craftsmen of the ‘Silver Age’ produced works of aesthetic decorative art. Their work was inspired by many aspects of Burmese culture, including Buddhism, legends, astrology, mythology and the natural world. Silversmiths executed their work with capital skill and sublime imagination. Hand crafted Burmese silver from the late 19th to early 20th centuries is arguably unsurpassed in the quality and detail of its decoration.

Burmese silver decoration finds its greatest expression on the wide, curved surfaces of the traditional offering and water bowls. The master silversmiths created much of their paramount work on the ‘canvas’ of a silver bowl (ngueh pala). This article illustrates and catalogues the decoration and iconography of representative bowls from the David and Kathleen Owens collection.

Story telling is the primary purpose of Burmese silver decoration. The bowls are used as story boards for education, ceremony and pleasure. Aesthetic value is also critical, but decoration for aesthetic value and ornamentation alone is less common. There is also a prevailing architecture to the overall embellishment of Burmese silver bowls which is customary but not universal. Decorative styles do vary by region and city.

The decorative architecture of a classical silver bowl from Lower Burma is illustrated below. Silversmiths often customized the secondary decorative bands around the rim and base of the bowl with motifs and figures from the specific story depicted on the bowl’s main, or central ‘canvas’. For example, the ubiquitous scrolling floral band below the rim of a classical bowl may be replaced with an elephant motif if the elephant is a central character in the bowl’s story. Likewise, other motifs can substitute for the traditional band of lotus buds around the base of a bowl.

There are two common design formats for the main band of decoration around the centre of the bowl – a nearly continuous frieze and defined panels, or cartouches, which are often ornately framed. All decorative design formats were harmonious, balanced and proportionate. Well over 50% of the bowl’s surface area was typically used for the main decorative theme.

The Architecture of a Customary Burmese Silver Bowl

 

The Principal Decorative and Iconographic Themes

Eight broadly defined decorative themes are recognized in the David and Kathleen Owens collection of silver bowls. These themes are also recognized in the Burmese silver literature and other private collections. The primary subjects of the eight themes are as follows;

  1. The Buddha and The Buddhist Canon
  2. The Ramayana Poem
  3. The Royal Burmese Court
  4. Legend and Folklore
  5. Astrology
  6. Mythology
  7. Fauna and Flora
  8. Geometric Patterns

1. The Buddha and the Buddhist Canon

Theravada Buddhism is the foundation of Burmese culture and it has influenced Burmese art since the Pyu period in about 300 CE. Buddhism is also central to the purpose and the decorative themes of Burmese silver. The classic silver bowl is most commonly decorated with scenes from the life of the Buddha and Jataka stories from the Pali Buddhist Canon. This Buddhist iconography in silver served both a devotional and a practical purpose. The bowl was not simply decorative or aesthetic, it was also a life-like story board for learning the tenets of Buddhism.

Life of the Buddha

The birth moment of Siddhartha Gautama in 563 BCE, the Buddha-to-be, or bodhisattva, is illustrated on each of the bowls shown below. The dramatic moment is beautifully rendered in small detail and high fidelity with respect to the earliest recorded historical accounts of the Buddha’s life.

S043_Page Layout_01.jpg

Six episodes from the ‘conception’ and early life of Siddhartha Gautama are exquisitely illuminated within ornate frames on the bowl below (S043) which is attributed to Maung Yin Maung, c. 1900. The episodes are stitched together in the image to provide a semi-continuous panoramic view of the bowl.

S043_Composite.jpg

The story-board panels illuminate these events;

  1. Queen Maya dreams that she will miraculously conceive of a child.
  2. The bodhisattva in Tavatimsa heaven, with surrounding devas, prior to descending to earth as the child of Queen Maya.
  3. Queen Maya gives birth whilst holding a sal tree branch in Lumpini Park.
  4. Siddhartha Gautama is carried in a palanquin back to Kapilavastu.
  5. Sage Arista observes the marks of omnipotence on Siddhartha and predicts his future as a Buddha.
  6. Siddhartha Gautama’s first meditation as a child whilst his father, King Suddhodana, performs the traditional ‘First Ploughing’ ceremony.

 

Scenes from the Early Life of Siddhartha Gautama in Frieze Style

(a)

(b)

S044_Pano_Life of B.jpg

(c)

(d)

(e)

The frieze-style iconography on the above bowl (S044) illuminates in fine detail five episodes from Siddhartha Gautama’s life, spanning the period from his birth to the symbolic cutting of his hair when he chooses the life of an ascetic.

  1. The birth of Siddhartha in Lumpini Park
  2. Sage Asita predicts Siddhartha’s future as a Buddha at the royal court.
  3. Siddhartha is the only competitor with the strength to draw an ancient bow.
  4. ‘The Great Departure’ – Siddhartha on his horse Kanthanka, and accompanied by his equerry Chandaka, leave Kapilavastu and is challenged by the demon Mara.
  5. ‘The Great Renunciation’ - Siddhartha cuts his hair in the forest and throws it skyward to the god Indra in Tavatimsa heaven.

The Jataka

The Jataka are stories of the Buddha’s former life. They teach the ethical values of Buddhism and are attributed to the original teachings of the Buddha. The oldest extant version of the Jataka dates to the 5th century CE and is written in the Pali language. Jataka are a popular part of the Buddhist Pali canon and are often found today in world literature, temple paintings, performance art, films and on Burmese silver.

There are 547 Jataka in the 5th century Pali compilation which presents the stories in sequence from the shortest in word numbers to the longest. The final ten Jataka, called Dasajati (Ten Births), are the most popular and the most common Jatakas used to decorate Burmese silver bowls. The central character in all Jatakas is a Bodhisattva who can take the form of a human, an animal or a divine being. In most Jataka narratives, the Bodhisattva is performing or practicing one of the ten virtues which must be perfected to become a Buddha.

The bowl illustrated below (S084) is decorated with one panel from each of the Dasajati and the name of the Jataka is inscribed below the panel. This is a wonderful demonstration of the educational utility of Burmese silver bowls through silver art.

The detailed iconography of this bowl is illustrated and described below in two ‘film-strip’ images.

S084_Dasajati.jpg

The detailed iconography of this bowl is illustrated and described below in two ‘film-strip’ images.

S084_01.jpg

Temiya The Mute Prince
Jataka 538
The virtue of renunciation

S084_01.jpg

Mahajanaka The Lost Prince
Jataka 539
The virtue of courage

S084_01.jpg

Sama The Devoted Son
Jataka 540
The virtue of loving kindness

S084_01.jpg

Nimi The Noble King
Jataka 541
The virtue of resolution

S084_01.jpg

Mahosadha The Clever Sage
Jataka 542
The virtue of wisdom

S084_Web_02.jpg

Bhuridatta The Naga Prince
Jataka 543
The virtue of perseverance

S084_Web_02.jpg

Canda-Kumara The Honourable Prince
Jatak 544
The virtue of forbearance

S084_Web_02.jpg

Narada The Great Brahma
Jataka 545
The virtue of equanimity

S084_Web_02.jpg

Vidhura-Pandita The Eloquent Sage
Jataka 546
The virtue of truthfulness

S084_Web_02.jpg

Vessantara The Charitable Prince
Jataka 547
The Virtue of charity

Burmese silversmiths excelled at decorating silver with Jataka scenes and bringing the enlightening stories faithfully to life. This ubiquitous illumination of religious narratives in silver is a decorative style arguably unique to Burmese. It is certain that much acclaimed Burmese silver is sublimely decorated with episodes from the Jataka.

The following section is an extensive photographic showcase to evidence the extraordinary technical and aesthetic qualities of Jataka themed decoration and iconography.

The Mahajanaka Jataka (539)

S120_Bowl.jpg
The ferocious battle between the two sons of King Mahajanaka
 – Princes Aritthajanaka and Polajanaka (S120)

 

S120_Maha_Detail_Elephants.jpg
Caparisoned elephants in high-fidelity detail and frozen motion
 

(a)

(b)

(c)

(d)

S037_Panorama_Mahajanka.jpg

(e)

(f)

Five episodes from the Mahajanaka Jataka in two stitched panoramic images
Trees delineate the individual story panels (S037)
 

The iconography of each story panel is as follows;

  1. The pregnant Queen of King Aritthajanaka leaves Mithila before the great battle in an oxen cart driven by Sakka, the king of the gods.
  2. The Queen’s son, named Mahajanaka after his grandfather, proves his strength with a powerful bow.
  3. Mahajanaka’s overload ship sinks and he throws himself clear from the ship’s mast. All the passengers drown or are eaten by sharks and fierce turtles (a turtle head is shown emerging from the water in the lower-left corner of the panel.
  4. After seven days afloat, Mahajanaka is rescued by the goddess Manimekhala.
  5. Manimekhala places Mahajanaka on a ceremonial stone in the middle of a mango grove in the kingdom of Mithila and he is discovered by the ministers of the late King of Mithila.
  6. Mahajanaka is proclaimed king of Mithila and marries Queen Sivali.

 

S117_Mahaj_Detail Cup_01.jpg

Decoration in miniature scale from the Mahajanaka battle on a small water cup (S117)
This small section of the cup’s decoration measures only 5 cm in width.

 

The Sama Jataka (540)

S039_Composite_2.jpg
S001_Bowl.jpg

(Above) Sama Jataka iconography on a wonderfully proportioned and elaborately decorated bowl (S001)
(Below) Two stitched images showing ten Sama scenes in chronological order. Each Jataka scene is only about 6 cm high

(a)

(b)

(c)

(d)

(e)

S001_Panorama_A3_01_9Jul14.jpg

(f)

(g)

(h)

(i)

(j)

The iconography of each story panel is as follows;

  1. Dukulaka and Parika wave goodbye to their son Sama as they leave to collect fruit and nuts in the forest
  2. Sama’s parents shelter in a storm under the roots of an old tree and stand unwittingly on an anthill.  They are both blinded by an angry, poisonous snake living under the anthill.
  3. Sama rescues his blind parents from the forest.
  4. Sama cares for his parents in their forest hermitage.
  5. Forest deer accompany and assist Sama to collect water.
  6. King Piliyakka of Benares shoots Sama out of curiosity and for a trophy.
  7. King Piliyakka lies to the mortally wounded Sama and in shame promises to look after Sama’s parents.
  8. King Piliyakka confesses to Sama’s parents and promises to escort them to their dying son.
  9. Dukulaka and Parika weep beside their son and pray for his recovery.
  10. A goddess witness saves Sama and restores the sight of his parents.

 

S047_S038_Composite.jpg

Sama Jataka scenes in ‘port-hole’ style frames encircled with an acanthus leaf and flower design
Upper Bowl (S047)
Lower Bowl (S038)

A Detail from a Shan Style Bowl (S059) Showing Sama and Dukulaka in the Himaval Forest
Surrounded by a Plethora of Animals and Birds

S059_Composite_04.jpg

The Bhuridatta Jataka (543)

S007_Composite_02.jpg

The composite image above features a ‘Middle Burma’ flat style of decoration executed using the piercing, or perforation technique, to create openwork designs. The Jataka iconography illustrates a market scene in Benares with Bhuridatta, the naga prince, emerging form a snake basket and performing to a crowd. On the right, the evil Brahmin Alambayana provokes Bhuridatta. Two nephews of Bhuridatta observe from either side of the snake basket.

The five story panels below from the Bhuridatta Jataka are also from a ‘Middle Burma’ style silver bowl (S088). They illustrate fascinating episodes from the early chapters of the Jataka and include several tiny turtle images which are central to the story.

(a)

(b)

(c)

(d)

S088_Pano_Burridat.jpg

(e)

(f)

(g)

The iconography of each story panel is as follows;

  1. A minister from Benares visits Prince Brahmadattakumara in his hermitage and requests that he return as King. His wife is a Naga from the world below the ocean.
  2. The half naga sons of King Brahmadattakumara play in a lake and are frightened by a small turtle believed to be a yakka, an ogre from the spirit world.
  3. The king orders his attendants to throw the turtle into a whirlpool in the Yamuna river.
  4. The turtle is swept down into the Naga kingdom and falsely claims in front of King Dhatarattha and his two sons that he is a messenger from the king of Benares, who wishes to offer his daughter to the Naga King.
  5. The king of Benares receives two Naga messengers who request his daughter return with them to the Naga kingdom.

 

The Vidhura-Pandita Jataka (546)

S056_Composite_02.jpg

A treasure box (S056) decorated on all surfaces with finely detailed scenes from the Vidhura-Pandita Jataka

 

S056_Vidura.jpg

The magnificently adorned lid of the silver treasure box (S056) with all the detail, depth and expression of a great work of art painted on a canvas.

 

The scene above is set in the central hall of King Dhananjaya’s palace. In the centre is a small table on which the King (right) and Punnaka (left), a yakka or demon, play dice. The demon is using his magical powers to win the game and take Vidhura, the great court sage, back to a Naga queen so that he will be permitted to marry her daughter. Vidhura stands behind the table watching the game. Other kings and court ministers are in attendance to witness the competition. On the far right is a lady who is the king’s guardian deity, his mother in a former life, and she is magically advising the king on how the dice will land. Punnaka senses her presence and uses his murderous glare to drive the deity away. Punnaka wins the dice game and carries Vidhura away on his supernatural horse.

Punnaka’s Supernatural Horse – Punnaka’s magic horse has the supernatural power to walk on water and fly through the air. A favourite scene on Vidhura-Pandita Jataka bowls portrays Vidhura clinging to the tail of Punnaka’s galloping, flying horse. Punnaka is taking Vidhura back to the land of the nagas as a prisoner and trying, without success, to kill him on the journey.

The supernatural horse is a dynamic and powerful beast which inspired silversmiths to craft the horse in high-relief repoussé to emphasize the magnificence of the horse and to capture the dramatic motion of the horse dragging Vidhura through the sky. Three examples of the horse iconography follow, two in high-relief and one in flat, openwork style.

S082_Bowl.jpg

Decoration detail from two silver Vidhura-Pandita silver bowls S082 (above) in repoussé and S107 (below) in flat, pierce or openwork. Vidhura, the Bodhisattva, clings to the tail of Punnaka’s magic horse as it flies through the air. Punnaka’s has the symbolic face of an ogre, or demon – in full (S082) and in part (S107).

 

S107_Detail_Punnaka.jpg

Punnaka’s muscular horse in high-relief repoussé (silver bowl S112) with undercutting to create depth and form.

 

S112_Horse Deyail.jpg

The Vessantara Jataka (547)

The Vessantara is an allegorical story that teaches the virtue of charity. It is the last of the Jataka and arguably the most beloved in Burma and southeast Asia in general. Vessantara iconography is common on many forms of Burmese silver and is easily recognizable since the dramatic episodes in the narrative are limited in number and are often explicit. Also, the Jataka is a linear story of one family only – Vessantara, his wife Maddi and their two children, Jali and Kanhajina.

Visceral human emotion is inherent in the Vessantara story and Burmese silversmiths were adept at capturing and portraying this emotion in the composition of the story boards and in the face detail of the Vessantara family. Animals also have an important role in the Jataka allegory and the silver decoration often depicts elephants, horses, lions and tigers.

S086_Vessantara.jpg

King Vessantara of Sivi demonstrates his generosity by giving away a sacred, caparisoned white elephant to eight Brahmins from a neighboring kingdom. Vessantara pours water on the Brahmin’s hands to memorialize his charity. (Treasure Box S086)

 

S086_Vessantara_Pano_Edit_02.jpg

A magnificent caparisoned elephant in silver (detail from S086)

 

(a)

(b)

(c)

(d)

S060_Vessan_Pamels.jpg

(e)

(f)

(g)

(h)

Eight framed scenes from the Vessantara Jataka on silver offering bowl (S060)

 

The iconography of each story panel is as follows;

  1. King Vessantara pours water over the Brahmin’s hands and gives away the kingdom’s treasured white elephant. His wife and two children observe the act of charity.
  2. Vessantara’s heartbroken father waves goodbye to Vessantara and his wife, Maddi, after they are banished from their kingdom for donating the great white elephant to a neighbouring kingdom.
  3. Vessantara’s family, carrying a few possessions, travel through a forest in the foothills of the Himalaya mountains in search of a new home.
  4. Vessantara, Maddi and their two children enjoy a new life as ascetics, living in a hermitage in the forest created by the god Sakka.
  5. Jujaka, a poor Brahmin, visits Vessantara whilst Maddi is away collecting fruits and nuts. Vessantara quickly agrees to give away his two children to Jujaka and pours symbolic water on Punnaka’s hands.
  6. Three deities take the form of an elephant, a lion and a tiger and block Maddi’s return from the forest to the hermitage so that she cannot witness the traumatic departure of her children.
  7. The wicked Jujaka drags away Vessantara’s unwilling and heartbroken children.
  8. Jujaka is lost in the forest and sleeps the night high on a tree branch to protect himself from wild animals. Two deities assume the form of Vessantara and Maddi to protect the two children left overnight on the ground by the wicked Jujaka.

 

S060_Vessantara_Detail_02.jpg
S060_Vessantara_Detail_01.jpg

Scenes (g) and (h) in detail

 

S086_Vessantara_Pano_Edit_03.jpg
S110_Vess_Detail_01.jpg

The two images above illustrate the banished King Vessantara leaving his kingdom on a horse drawn chariot. In the upper image (silver bowl S086), Vessantara, accompanied by his wife and children, meets a Brahmin who asks for the chariot and horses, both of which are given away happily by Vessantara. In the lower image (silver bowl S110), the children are not portrayed. The delightful and lively decorative style of this bowl with arched frames of bamboo, birds and animals, is typically Shan.

None of the silver in the David and Kathleen Owens collection is decorated with a scene that illustrates the last, and supreme, act of charity performed by Vessantara – the giving away of his beloved wife Maddi to another Brahmin. Fortunately, this Brahmin is the god Sakka in disguise who is testing Vessantara’s charitable capability, and Maddi is quickly returned after Vessantara fulfills his final act of charity without hesitation. Vessantara and Maddi are reunited with their children in the Jataka’s conclusion and Vessantara returns as the king of Siva. These final episodes of the Jataka narrative are not portrayed on any of the silver in the collection.

 

Burmese silversmiths didn’t only find decorative and artistic inspiration in the Dasajati. The animated decoration on the silver bowl above (S109) illustrates the Cullahamsa Jataka (No. 533), a tale of Nalagiri the elephant which teaches the ethical value of renouncing life for the sake of the Buddha.

Nalagiri is a sympathetic beast in the Jataka and an appealing character for decorative iconography in silver. The elephant is portrayed in four of the five frieze-panels on the bowl. Three panel details are illustrated and described below.

Panel 1 - a king has been suborned by Devadatta to help slay the ascetic Gautama using the fierce elephant Nalagiri who doesn’t understand the virtues of the Bodhisattva. The king exhorts the elephant keepers to intoxicate Nalagiri with sixteen pots of toddy liquor and drive the furious animal along the street where the Bodhisattva was expected the next day. The panel shows the elephant keepers beating and driving Nalagiri from his stall after feeding him the liquor from the large, bright toddy pot.

Panel 2 – the drunk and angry Nalagiri charges along the street demolishing houses and terrifying the local people who desperately flee and try to escape his path.

Panel 1 – the intoxicated Nalagiri is driven from his stall by his keepers

Panel 2 – Nalagiri charges towards Gautama and the terrified citizens flee for their lives

Panel 3 – This panel is best described in the original Pali version of the Jataka, “On hearing the voice of the Master, he opened his eyes and beheld the glorious form of the Blessed One, and he became greatly agitated and by the power of Buddha the intoxicating effects of the strong drink passed off. Dropping his trunk and shaking his ears he came and fell down at the feet of the Master”.

Panel 3 – Gautama, the Bodhisattva, subdues the agitated Nalagiri

The lower band of the Nalagiri bowl decorated with alternating ‘windows’ occupied by an elephant head and a human or deity, wearing an elaborate headdress..

Other Buddhist Stories

A large silver bowl (S115) in the collection by Maung Shwe Yon, a mid-19th century master silversmith from Rangoon, is decorated with ten framed scenes from the life story of Patacara, a female disciple of the Buddha Gautama. It is a story of illicit love, staggering tragedy and deep human emotion. Maung Shwe Yon renders this heartbreaking narrative in a natural and almost photo-realistic style. The technical and artistic merit of the decoration is arguably the best in the collection. Human anatomy is detailed and wonderfully expressive, costumes and accessories radiate, and, most remarkable of all, the facial expressions of Patacara and her family are filled with raw human emotion. All ten scenes are illustrated and described below. This is a tour-de-force of Burmese silver art work.

(a)

(b)

(c)

(d)

(e)

(f)

(g)

(h)

(i)

(j)

The ten scenes illustrated above provide a near complete synopsis of the Patacara story;

  1. Patacara is the beautiful daughter of a wealthy merchant in Savatthi. She is forbidden to leave her house by her over-protective parents. Amarshanath is a handsome servant boy in the house who attends to Patacara. The young Amarshanath and Patacara fall in love.
  2. Patacara and Amarshanath elope in the night with just a few personal belongings and some food. The illicit love affair would have been condemned by Patacara’s parents due to Amarshanath’s low class status.
  3. Patacara and Amarshanath live happily in a simple forest hut. A first son is born and then a second. Patacara wishes to take the second child home to show her parents, and during the journey the family is caught in a severe storm in the forest. Patacara sends Amarshanath to collect material for an overnight shelter.
  4. Amarshanath is alone in the forest collecting bamboo and wood to construct a night shelter.
  5. In the morning, a distraught Patacara finds the dead body of Amarshanath in the forest. He was bitten by a venomous snake and died quickly.
  6. Patacara resolutely decides to continue the long journey to Savatthi with her infant and new-born sons.
  7. Patacara must cross the swollen river Aciravati to reach Savatthi. She’s unable to wade across carrying both children, so she first crosses with the new born child and leaves him on the opposite bank before returning to collect her infant son. When she’s in mid-stream on the return crossing a giant vulture swoops down and carries away her new born son. Patacara cries out for her lost baby, but the infant on the other bank mistakes her cry for a signal to go into the raging river. The strong currents sweep away the infant boy. Patacara has tragically lost her husband and both sons to the storm.
  8. Patacara decides to continue the journey to her parents’ house. She has lost all her clothes in the storm and is on the edge of insanity. On the outskirts of Savatthi she asks a stranger for directions to her house, only to be informed that the house was destroyed in the storm and her parents and brother killed.
  9. Two heavenly deities look down on the naked and disheveled Patacara and intervene on her behalf, guiding her to the Buddha who was staying at a nearby monastery.
  10. Patacara prostrates herself at the feet of the Buddha and describes the tragic stories of her family. Buddha explains to her the nature of impermanence and Patacara begins a new life as a Buddhist nun, committed to understanding the monastic ‘rules of conduct’.

The Patacara Silver Bowl by Maung Shwe Yon c. 1880

The Patacara bowl exemplifies the special ability of Burmese silversmiths to use the ceremonial offering bowl as a medium for Buddhist storytelling. Impermanence is a tenet of Buddhist doctrine and the calamitous Patacara allegory is a profound and lamentable tale of the impermanence of human life.

 

Ramayana

The Ramayana is an epic Sanskrit poem of about 24,000 verses written by the sage Valmiki and set in Vedic India around the period 500 BCE. It has significantly influenced art and culture in the Indian sub-continent and southeast Asia. There is a Burmese version of the Ramayana which differs in significant respect from the earliest Indian, Buddhist and later Thai versions.

The short summary of the epic given below offers context to the Ramayana silver decoration. This summary is quoted from the ‘Online Galley of the British Library’;

“Rama, prince of Ayodhya, won the hand of the beautiful princess Sita, but was exiled with her and his brother Lakshmana for 14 years through the plotting of his stepmother. In the forest Sita was abducted by Ravana, and Rama gathered an army of monkeys and bears to search for her. The allies attacked Lanka, killed Ravana, and rescued Sita. In order to prove her chastity, Sita entered a fire, but was vindicated by the gods and restored to her husband. After the couple’s triumphant return to Ayodhya, Rama’s righteous rule inaugurated a golden age for all mankind”.

A super-large ceremonial offering bowl (S106) embellished with dramatic and composite scenes from the Ramayana.

The Ramayana decoration on the silver bowl above (S106) is monumental in scale and detail. The bowl’s spectacular size, (diameter 48.5 cm and height 22.5 cm), provides a colossal silver canvass to illustrate the Ramayana poem. The silversmith has taken this opportunity to craft a canvass filled with a complex and composite narrative featuring a multitude of characters from the poem. Some of the scenes may be interpretive and not precise renditions of verses from the original poem.  Silversmith’s no doubt exercised artistic license in their compositions.

Three small vignettes from the large Ramayana bowl are illustrated below with a best-efforts interpretation of the iconography. The vignettes come from a larger decorative panel that portrays the iconic capture of Sita by Ravana. Each image below measures only about 10 cm x 5cm on the actual silver bowl.

The central figure is Rama who holds a large hunting bow in his left hand. At Sita’s request, he has gone into the forest to capture a beautiful golden deer. The deer is portrayed on the right of the photo as a lady wearing a tall headdress in the shape of a deer’s head with large antlers. The ‘deer’ is Maricha, a rakshasa, who is helping Ravana to capture Sita. To the left of Rama is probably Lakshmana, Rama’s younger brother. Maricha has imitated a cry for help from Rama, and Sita mistakenly sends Lakshmana into the forest to rescue Rama. There is a figure watching at the top left of the image. This is the evil Ravana, Rama’s arch enemy, who has hatched the plot to abduct Sita and force her into marriage on his island kingdom of Lanka.

In the above image, Sita (centre left) is physically seized by Ravana (centre right with a demon face) after Lakshmana has left her alone to help Rama who is fighting against Maricha, the golden deer. The classical Ramayana story has Ravana appear as an old ascetic to lure Sita out from her hermitage, which has been protected by a spell cast by Lakshmana before he left to help Rama. The figures left of Sita and right of Ravana are not described in summary versions of the Ramayana. The left figure appears to be a ‘lady-in-waiting’ to Sita and the right figure is certainly a rakshasa ally of Ravana based on his ‘demon’s’ face mask.

The third image (below) portrays Ravana carrying the captive Sita back to Lanka on a magical chariot that flies through the air without horses. The demon Ravana is now portrayed with a more kindly ‘human’ face with his demon’s mask now resting on the top of his head. This mask is a classical motif used by silversmiths to identify demons and ogres – the bad guys! Sita sits on the edge of the chariot and, understandably, keeps her distance from her abductor. Maricha, the rakshasa who assumed the form of the golden deer in the successful plot to capture Sita, observes the flying chariot with perhaps a look of a ‘job well done’ on her face.

The provenance of the unusual bowl featured in the image below is uncertain and the decorative style suggests cross-cultural influence. The bowl is decorated with twelve human figures, all in unique poses and different costumes. The costume style is a mix of Burmese and Indian. The two figures wearing a headdress in the form of a deer head are probably Maricha from the Ramayana. A figure with a demon mask may be Ravana from the Ramayana.

The decorative architecture of the bowl is broadly compatible with classical Burmese bowls, although in detail, the style and motifs of the secondary bands are unusual. There are several possible interpretations of the provenance of this silver bowl; it is Indian, or influenced by Indian cultural style; the silversmith was an Indian living in Burma; the bowl was made in the province of Arakan which borders India; or the bowl was the rare expression of a more ‘avant garde’ or non-conventional Burmese silversmith. Indo-Burmese costume expertise would help to better understand the bowl’s provenance.

The Royal Court

The King and Queen sit outdoors on a platform under a royal white umbrella (S033).

The silver bowl above is decorated with six framed scenes portraying the life of the King and Queen of Burma, including the King on the Lion throne, the King and Queen enjoying the outdoors, the King hunting, the royal couple in their bed chamber and the Queen walking in a garden. A large peacock in full display is used to separate the scenes. The peacock, a sun motif, was the official emblem of the Konbaung kings and its decorative use was restricted to the royal court. The motif was used more widely after the British ended the Burmese monarchy in 1885. It is interesting to consider what, if any, political significance, might have attached to the display of royalty on silver bowls after 1885 at a time when the British continued to view the Konbaung family as a residual threat to their power.

Legend and Folk Tales

Burmese culture is a wonderland of legend and folk tales, providing silversmiths with many design concepts and images for the decoration of silver. Two examples are illustrated below.

The legendary story of Min Gyi and Min Lay – Silver bowls S103 (above) and S036 (below) In both images, the virtuous weaver Ma Shwe Oo refuses the evil Min Lay and is eaten by his spirit tiger.

The Pyu Saw Htee Historical Legend – a detail from a pierced silver bowl (S057) A monster ‘big bird’ seizes a beautiful young woman from the ground, whilst other sacrificial maidens wait to become the ‘big bird’s’ next meal

The Pyu Saw Htee Pierced and Chased Silver Bowl (S057)
Pyu Saw Htee shoots and kills the ‘big bird’ with a bow and arrow and then plucks the longest feather from the bird, giving it to the sacrificial young women to carry back to the king and report that Pyu Saw Htee had killed the demon. The feather becomes too heavy for the women and they eventually throw it to the ground at a location now known as Hnget Taung Pyit (meaning ‘Bird Feather Thrown’) in Bagan.

Astrology

Astrology is an important influence on everyday life in Burma and a popular theme for silver decoration. The common decorative designs are based on the eight zoomorphic creatures that represent the days of the week (the ‘gyo-shit-lon’ design), and the twelve zoomorphic creatures that portray the months of the Burmese zodiac.

The large, elegant Shan bowl (S011) shown in section below is decorated with the twelve zodiac creatures and a floral motif inserted between every third zodiac image. The Burmese year begins in April and the zodiac zoomorphic creatures for each month are tabulated below.

Photo

Month (English)

Month (Myanmar)

Zodiac (English)

Zodiac (Myanmar)

(1)

April

Tagu

Aries – the Ram

Meik-tha

(2)

May

Kahson

Taurus – the Bull

Pyeik-tha

(3)

June

Nayon

Gemini – the Twins

Mei-don

(4)

July

Wazo

Cancer – the Crab

Karaka

(5)

August

Wa-gaung

Leo – the Lion

Thein

(6)

September

Taw-thalin

Virgo – the Virgin

Kan

(7)

October

Thadin-gyut

Libra – the Scales

Tu

(8)

November

Tazaung-mon

Scorpio – the Scorpion

Byeik-has

(9)

December

Nadaw

Sagittarius – the Archer

Danu

(10)

January

Pya-tho

Capricorn – the Sea Monster

Maka-ra

(11)

February

Tabo-dwe

Aquarius – the Water Pot

Kon

(12)

March

Tabaung

Pisces – the Fish

Mein

        

(1)

(2)

(3)

   

(4)

(5)

(6)

 

(7)

(8)

(9)

        

(10)

(11)

(12)

A large Shan style pierced silver bowl (S011) decorated with the twelve Burmese signs of the zodiac

(Top) The zoomorphic creatures representing the twelve months of the year.

 

(Left) A half image showing the ‘onion’ form of the bowl, the Shan style floral decoration and the framed zoomorphic creatures in a wide band around the centre of the silver bowl.

 

Mythology

Some of the oldest Burmese silver discovered in Pyu burial tombs (c. 300 CE) is decorated with mythological figures. These figures remain important in Buddhist art to this day and are commonly found as motifs or story characters on Burmese silver. The popular mythological figures include the meggan or sea monster, a naga or serpent, a hintha-bird or duck, a garuda bird, a belu or ogre, nats, devas and a kinnara which is creature with a human face and the torso of a bird.

A silver bowl (S039) decorated with mythological creatures
(Top right) A garuda – the king of the birds
(Lower right) – a chintha, the stylized lion of Buddhist scripture and design

Belu or yaksha faces in a band on silver bowl (S103) – these are ogres who can perform guardian and villainous roles in Jataka and other stories.

A female (left) and male (right) kinnara in Himaval forest on a silver bowl (S059)
The kinnara are guarding the young child Sama whilst his parents collect water, fruit and nuts from the forest. The Sama Jataka (No. 540)

Faunal and Floral

There is little Burmese silver without any decorative flora or fauna. Floral silverwork is an almost universal theme used for both primary and secondary decoration. Fauna, both mythological and natural, play key roles in both Jataka and folk tales. Also, the natural world was home to most Burmese until recent times, and they embraced nature in their culture and art. The Shan silversmiths were inspired more than Burmans to decorate their work with delightful images of animals, birds, trees in blossom, bamboo and many other botanical motifs.

A bamboo forest teeming with birds and animals.
A Shan bowl decorated using the piercing, or perforation method (S012)

The life of the bamboo forest in detail.
Bamboo culms and shoots, tropical birds, dragonflies, snakes, tree shrews and squirrels.

‘Spring Time’ decoration on two Shan silver rice bowls (S005 and S006) featuring cherry trees in blossom with perched and flying birds – some Chinese cross-cultural influence.

A Shan box for cheroots or treasure (S066) – 1928. This ‘open-work’ box has an exceptional high proportion of perforation. The delicate lid of the box is decorated with two frogs and stylistic birds.

A Lower Burma or Shan silver bowl (S105) decorated with multiple and interlocking frames containing faunal, floral, human and mythological icons. The human figures are drawn from Royal Court and Jataka themes.

Geometric and Other Themes

Geometric patterns without any discernible faunal or floral imagery are used commonly as secondary and minor decorative themes on almost all Burmese silver. This decorative theme is most commonly used to decorate the many narrow, concentric bands of chasing that typically form the edgework on many forms of Burmese silver. Some Shan bowls use geometric patterns as the primary decorative theme.

A large Shan offering or water bowl (S063) decorated with a pattern of two alternating vertical ribs. One rib is plain, burnished silver and the second is a complex geometric motif, possibly a stylistic fish. A wide upper band includes framed bird and animal images.

The theme and style of the Burmese silver bowl illustrated below is perhaps a decorative outlier. The composition is rather unconventional and the art work trends to the abstract. A naked female torso entwined in acanthus vines and flowers is the central decorative theme. The portrayal of the female torso alternates between upright and inverted. Bird motifs in the upper decorative band merge seamlessly with the surrounding foliage.

A Shan or Lower Burma style silver bowl (S055) – 1907
The bowl is made using the piercing or perforation technique.

Regional Themes

The silversmithing craft was practiced widely in Burma during the period from the mid-19th to the early 20th century. Many small towns supported a silversmith who produced work for the local communities. The highest quantity and best quality silver was made in the capital city of Rangoon and other important cities, including Mandalay-Sagaing, Moulmein, Pegu, Prome, Thayetmo, Shwegyin and a few large towns in the Shan States and Arakan.

Map of Burma showing the main silver centres.
From ‘Burmese Silver’ by W.R.T. Wilkinson, M-L Wilkinson and B. Harding
Arts of Asia – May-June 2013

There are both universal and regional decorative elements to Burmese silver. silver from the Shan States is arguably the most distinctive and readily identified. There are also discernible characteristics, both in decorative style and technique, to silver made in each of the main cities and regions where silversmiths collected and worked. Lower and Upper Burma were the two principal political divisions of Burma during the early period of British colonialism and Upper Burma was not annexed by until 1885. silver made under the Konbaung kings in Upper Burma before 1885 would have been more traditional and less influenced by the British.

The main authority on regional styles of silver in Burma is Wynyard Wilkinson. His research identifies seven major centres with identifiable silver signatures. The characteristics of three regional styles are described in summary below after W. Wilkinson (Arts of Asia – 2013).

Rangoon – convex rims of deeply chased and scrolling flowers, with stylized landscapes rendered with scales.

Mandalay – framed decorative scenes, simple, chased background textures and typically, no convex band below a bowl’s rim.

Thayetmyo – two distinct styles are identified – a ‘prickly’ style created using cast objects soldered to the silver, and a second, flat style of decoration characterized by deeply chased floral and mythological animal figures. Several bowls in the David and Kathleen Owens collection are assigned a ‘Middle Burma’ decorative style which is similar to the flat chased style from Thayetmyo, a town geographically in ‘middle’ or central Burma.

Wilkinson also recognizes that more detailed research is needed to confidently classify and identify Burmese silver according to specific regional or city styles.

 

Foreign Influence

British, Chinese, Indian and Thai artistic styles have influenced Burmese silver design and decoration over many centuries, although the cross-cultural impact on traditional Burmese work was arguably limited in scope. Burmese silversmiths working during the British colonial period certainly adapted to the British demand and fashioned silver to satisfy a profitable new market, although much of this work still retained strong Burmese decorative themes and style. Silversmiths also produced work with an entirely non-Burmese functional form - for example, a milk pitcher made for a British tea-service and decorated with a blend of Burmese, European and Chinese themes (see below).

In fact, the Burmese silversmith was remarkably resilient in the face of foreign influence. This is a testimony to the depth and strength of Burmese cultural tradition and the commitment of the silversmiths to preserve the unique artistic style of Burmese silver.

The dancing ladies are portrayed in a somewhat provocative European style and the pitcher’s handle is either a classical Chinese dragon or a Burmese naga, or serpent, cast in a Chinese style. The background and secondary decoration is typically Burmese.