SILVER HISTORY

Introduction

There are ten traditional arts, or ‘pans’, in Myanmar. Pan tain, or pan htyan, is the art of the silversmith and the goldsmith. It is the second of the ten pans, also known as the ten flowers of Myanmar culture.

The oldest pieces of fine silver found in Myanmar were made by the Pyu people who dominated central and northern Myanmar from the 2nd to the 9th century CE in the middle to late Iron Age. Thereafter, fine silver is not well preserved in the archaeological record of Myanmar until the much later Konbaung Dynasty that began in 1752. This is due to constant silver recycling and the generally turbulent military, economic and cultural history of the region.

In the Konbaung Dynasty, the supply and demand for fine silver grew rapidly and the ‘pan tain’ art form reached a zenith in the late 19th to early 20th centuries – the Burmese ‘Silver Age’. In Myanmar today, traditional silver is only crafted in small workshops in Sagaing and Inle Lake. Modern culture is not conducive to preserving and developing the special skills required to handcraft fine silver.

Burmese silver occupies a very small niche in the world of fine art. In part, this is due to the 50-year political and cultural isolation of Myanmar that began with a military coup in 1962. This isolation has largely kept Burmese silver off the international fine art ‘menu’ and discouraged collection and research. Another reason for the low profile of Burmese silver is the dearth of published information in the English language. One author above all, Silvia Fraser-Lu (1980, 1989 and 1994), has published invaluable reference works on the art and history of Burmese silver. Other important authors on the subject include Harry Tilley (1902 and 1904) and Wynyard Wilkinson (1999 and 2008).

Pyu Period

The Pyu are a Tibeto-Burman people that migrated into the central, dry valleys of northern and central Burma beginning around 200 BCE. Pyu people probably referred to themselves as Tircul, the word Pyu deriving from the earliest Chinese records of a P’iao people living beyond the Jin Dyansty border tribes of China. The Pyu dominated Myanmar from the 2nd to the 9th centuries, building eight complex walled cities and developing sophisticated irrigation systems. They spoke a Tibeto-Burman language, but used Indian text, including Sanskrit and Pali, for recording dynastic information. Their culture was strongly influenced by Hindu, Brahman, Jain and Buddhist traditions and beliefs. Theravada Buddhism was the dominant religion in late Pyu cities. The Pyu cities may have been linked to the trade routes between Rome and southeast Asia.

Map of Asia showing location of the Pyu city states during the Tang Dynasty (618-907 CE)

Map of Myanmar showing the location of the three largest Pyu cities (c. 450-650 CE) Halin, Beikthano and Sri Ksetra

Silver artefacts, including Buddha images, funeral reliquaries, bowls, jewelry and coins, have been uncovered by farmers and archaeologists from the ancient Pyu city sites. The most significant discovery was made at Sri Ksetra in 1926 with the opening of the Khin Ba mound. This mound contained 450 artifacts, including many pieces of silver which are now displayed at the Sri Ksetra Museum near Pyay.

The centrepiece of the Khin Ba mound treasure is the ‘Great Silver Reliquary’. This well preserved, cylindrical vessel is made from thin sheet silver and is magnificently decorated with four sitting Buddha images in high-relief repoussé. The Buddha images are also gilded. This is the work of an experienced and skilled silversmith. A Pali inscription around the lid of the reliquary has been dated to the early 5th century. The style of the reliquary is Indian and there are artistic affinities to both Gupta and Andhra Pradesh traditions.

The Great Silver Reliquary from the Khin Ba mound, Sri Ksetra
Height 43 cm Diameter 40 cm

The Khin Ba mound also contained silver bowls and plates. This is the oldest preserved decorative silver in Burma and Sri Ksetra is ‘ground zero’ for the 1,800-year-old Burmese artistic tradition of crafting fine silver. 

A gilded silver plate from the Khin Ba Mound, Sri Ksetra. Weight 165 g Diameter 18.5 cm height 2.5 cm

Detail from the repoussé decoration Two large lions and five cubs surrounded by a floral pattern and entwined lotus plants.

A 5-petal edge silver plate from the Khin Ba Mound, Sri Ksetra with a 3 character Pyu inscription on the outer edge. Diameter 18.5 cm Height 2.5 cm

A plain silver bowl from the Khin Ba Mound, Sri Ksetra with a chased or engraved inscription in Pyu around the underside of the rim. Diameter 19 cm Height 3.5 cm

The design and decorative style of the Pyu bowls are embryonic in respect to many of the classical bowls that were crafted in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

Bagan to Toungoo Dynasties

This is a 700-year period beginning with the Bagan Empire in 1044 and ending with the demise of the Toungoo Empire in 1752. The cultural and artistic history of this period is not well documented in English, and there are few, if any, pieces of fine Burmese silver described in the literature or displayed in public museums with verified dates of origin between the 10th and 18th centuries. However, fine silver was almost certainly an important component of royal regalia and court ceremony throughout the period.

Constant recycling, looting of silver during war and general insecurity of ownership are three of many possible explanations for the ‘missing’ silver from the Bagan to Toungoo period. It was a long period of regional and ‘international’ military conflict, ethnic wars, dynastic upheaval, relocations of the capital city and only intermittent economic growth.

A cultural consequence of the wars of conquest was the seizing of skilled artisans, including silversmiths, as prisoners-of-war. These transported silversmiths often remained in Burma, transferring some of their cultural styles into their ‘Burmese’ work – a military style of cross-cultural influence. Two early examples of this practice are the 16th century invasions by the Burmese Toungoo empire of Manipur in India and the Mon kingdom of southeast Asia.

Silver bowls exhibited in the Mawlamyine city museum and dated to the 15th century. (Provenance difficult to verify)

The Konbaung Dynasty

Konbaung kings ruled Burma from 1752 to 1885. The last king was defeated in the Third Anglo-Burmese War and exiled to India. Britain had earlier seized control of Rakhine and Tenasserim after the First Anglo-Burmese War (1824) and Lower Burma after the Second Anglo-Burmese War (1852-1853).

The Konbaung court was extravagant and ruled by complex Brahman ceremonies and rituals. silver was an important element in the royal regalia and an essential gift proscribed on ceremonial occasions. The king and the royal court were often the only patrons of the master silversmiths. Sumptuary laws prohibited general ownership of silver, although high-ranking court officials and powerful political and business elites could circumvent the regulations. In the semi-independent eastern Shan states, the hereditary chiefs, or Saophas (‘Lords of the Heavens’), also owned and used ceremonial silver. And, increasingly after 1824, the colonial British commissioned and purchased Burmese silver.

A formal photo of King Mindon (1853-1878) in the Mandalay palace with a collection of ceremonial silver betel boxes

A Shan State Saopha poses with his family and a collection of fine silver betel boxes.

A minor Konbaung princess with three traditional silver bowls – c. 1880

In 1865 King Mindon started to mint silver coins with a peacock in full display on the obverse side and a wreath on the reverse side. Over 26 million 1 Kyat coins with a purity of 90-91% silver and a weight of about 11.7 g (equivalent to the British Indian rupee) were minted between 1865 and 1885. These general circulation coins rapidly increased the distribution of silver amongst the general population. The ‘peacock’ coin was withdrawn in 1891 after the British conquered Upper Burma. Indian rupees were offered in exchange for the peacocks, although many of the Burmese coins were horded. Over time, these coins were commonly melted down, together with Indian Rupees, to produce silver.

The tomb of King Mindon in the Mandalay Palace c.1880
The chimney of the Royal Mint is visible on the left.

The remains of King Mindon’s Royal Mint near the North Gate of the Mandalay Palace – 2014 The mint’s chimney stands to the right in front of the trees.

Few pieces of Burmese silver survive from the early Konbaung dynasty and there are few English references to silversmithing in the available literature. The first illustrated account of Konbaung era silver is a monologue published in Rangoon in 1902 by Harry L. Tilley, titled ‘The Silverwork of Burma’. A second monologue titled ‘Modern Burmese Silverwork’ was published two years later in 1904. These two monologues are the equivalent of the ‘Rosetta Stone’ for Burmese silver history in the 19th and early 20th centuries.

Tilley’s ‘The Silverwork of Burma’ includes photographic plates of silver bowls and betel boxes reportedly made in the 18th and early 19th centuries during the mid-Konbaung dynasty and before the First Anglo-Burmese War. These represent authentic Burmese and Shan style silver without European influence. Generally, the forms, designs and decoration are relatively simple. Low relief repoussé and minimal chasing is preferred in comparison to the more extravagant and ornate silver crafted later in the 19th century.

According to Tilley, the quality of Burmese silver increased following the sacking of Ayutthaya in Siam in 1767 and the subsequent transportation of skilled artisans back to Burma. Cultural and artistic influence were also ‘imported’ from the Lanna Kingdom in northern Thailand during both the Toungoo and early Konbaung dynasties.

The Konbaung silversmith was either indentured to the royal court or worked independently for patrons on a commission basis. Silversmith’s guilds didn’t exist and the occupation was rarely hereditary. The master craftsmen worked for the royal court and probably lived in the Royal Palace. Their motivation was artistic and not commercial. Tilley reports that commercial silversmiths could make a profit of about 30% on the final value of the work. He also states that a master silversmith’s work was often priced according to its artistic value and not by the value of the silver by weight. A pricing basis that continues to the present, albeit with rather higher prices attached to the artistic value.

Part of Plate II from ‘The Silverwork of Burma’ by H.L. Tilley, 1902
Bowls 1 and 2 are judged to date from the 18th century.

Plate I from ‘The Silverwork of Burma’ by H.L.Tilley, 1902 All bowls judged to be from the first half of the 19th century.

The Burmese ‘Silver Age’ – late 19th to early 20th Century

Burma experienced massive political and economic change in the 19th century due to British colonization and the opening of the country to the commercial world. The maritime provinces of Tenasserim and Rakhine were lost to the British in 1825, Lower Burma in 1863 and Upper Burma and the Shan States in 1885. Thibaw, the last Konbaung king, was exiled in 1885 and the Burmese monarchy replaced by British administrative rule from India.

The impact of colonization on silversmithing was profound. Sumptuary laws disappeared, master silversmiths from the royal court sought new patrons and the British brought disposable wealth and a long-established interest in the art of silver.  There was also an increase in ‘nouveau riche’ Burmese and these people liked to display their new wealth using high quality silver. After about 1860, there were silversmith workshops in all the major towns of Burma and in many smaller villages. The largest silver centres were Rangoon, Prome, Pegu, Sagaing and Thayetmo in Burma and Inle Lake in the Shan States.

The British military conquest of Burma from 1826 to 1885
Lower Burma (red) and Upper Burma (green) were the two major political divisions of the country between 1862 and 1885

There were other important reasons for the profound changes in Burmese silversmithing after about 1860. New hardened steel tools became available after the 1865 discovery of the Bessemer Process for producing low-carbon steel. These tools enabled silversmiths to work with greater precision and to fashion much higher relief repoussé decoration. Also, the design and form of Burmese silver evolved due to the artistic and cultural influence of the British and European residents. Hybrid Burmese and European designs were favoured for the export market, together with entirely non-Burmese forms like tea and coffee services. The cross-cultural silver was often crafted in a more extravagant decorative style. H.K. Tilley decried the loss of ‘restraint’ in contemporary silversmiths in 1902.

The British also provided another catalyst for change in Burmese silversmithing after 1885 – the provincial and international British Empire exhibitions. These prestigious art competitions were held across Burma and in London, Delhi and Calcutta. The master silversmiths produced their best work for the competitions and Burmese silver often took the top prizes. The silversmith Maung Yin Maung from Rangoon won a Class I first prize in silver work at the Delhi Exhibition of 1902-1903. Other pieces from Moulmein, Toungoo, Prome and Thayetmo were also widely acclaimed and the subject of multiple purchase offers.

Plate 9 from the Official Catalogue of the Delhi Exhibition, 1902-1903
The 1st Prize for silver work was awarded to the centrepiece by Maung Yin Maung of Rangoon (centre)

The Master Silversmiths

Traditionally, Burmese silversmiths preferred anonymity and they seldom marked their work with either their name or an identifiable maker’s mark. The European hallmarking system was not adopted. However, there are inscriptions on the base of many pieces of Burmese silver. Typically, these inscriptions simply record the owners name, the completion date and sometimes the weight of the piece in silver coins. Silversmiths also inscribed many pieces with a plethora of ‘maker’s marks’, including animals, birds, mythological beasts and floral designs. The significance of these marks to provenance is not well documented, and the marks in many instances are probably just a final decorative expression of the silversmith without profound significance to provenance.

A small number of master silversmiths did start to engrave or stamp their name on exceptionally high-quality pieces beginning in the mid to late 19th century. These were the ‘stars’ of the ‘Silver Age’ who competed in competitions, won prizes and were rarely short of British and Burmese patrons. These master silversmiths are ‘immortalized’ in the 1902 and 1904 Memorandums by H.L. Tilley.

Plate XIV from ‘Modern Burmese Silverwork’ by H.L. Tilley – 1904
The master silversmiths of the ‘Silver Age’
Maung Yin Maung is seated far left.

One of the first documented master silversmiths is Maung Shwe Yon (in Burmese ‘Maung’ is an honorific term meaning ‘young man’ or ‘brother’). He rose to prominence in Rangoon in the mid to late 19th century when Rangoon was the capital of British Lower Burma. He died in 1889. Many of his best pieces are inscribed with his full name, or his initial M.S.Y, and a deer mark.

Maung Shwe Yon fathered a small silversmith dynasty. His three sons, Maung Shwe Bin, Maung Thu Hlaing and Maung Yin Maung all became master silversmiths and worked together in Rangoon under the umbrella of a family company called Maung Shwe Yon Brothers. The company name and address in English was stamped on some their silver. Maung Ying Maung was arguably the most acclaimed silversmith of the three bothers and perhaps the preeminent artist of the ‘Silver Age’. An extravagant centrepiece attributed to him from about 1900 is displayed in the Silver Gallery at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London.

Burmese Silversmiths - Plate XVI from ‘The Silverwork of Burma’ by H.L. Tilley – 1902

H.L. Tilley’s 1904 Monograph is the last contemporary and authoritative source of information in English on the master silversmiths and their work. It is tempting to believe that an archive surviving somewhere in modern Myanmar might reveal more historical information on the history of Burmese silver. 

A range of traditional Burmese silver crafted in the late 19th century. Offering bowls, betel boxes, lime boxes, vases, cups, beakers, swords and daggers. From ‘Burma’ by Max and Bertha Ferrars – London, 1900

The early 20th century, from 1900 to about 1930, was arguably the zenith of the Burmese ‘Silver Age’. silver was made in both volume and in high quality during this period. And, much of the form and design from this period was traditional Burmese and made for the increasingly prosperous domestic market. Burmese prosperity peaked in the 1920’s and it is reasonable to deduce that silver demand peaked at the same time. After 1930, the silver trade down-sized significantly due to the global economic depression and rising civil disorder in Burma. By the time Burma became a direct colony of the British Empire in 1937, shaking off the dependency on British India, the glorious Burmese ‘Silver Age’ was almost over. It didn’t survive World War 2 and the Japanese invasion of Burma in 1942. The fate of the individual master silversmiths is unknown.

Burmese silver Today

Burmese silver is made today on a small scale in two principal locations – Inle Lake and Sagaing. These centres produce everyday quality bowls, betel boxes and lime boxes for tourists and a small domestic market. Traditional style silver is still used in Buddhist ceremonies and as offering vessels, although, Chinese aluminum is increasingly used as a cheap substitute for authentic Burmese silver.

Burmese ‘silver’ made from aluminum in China – Nyaung Shwe, Inle Lake, 2015. An invasive species!

The survival of the ancient art of silversmithing is under threat in modern Myanmar. Although good quality copies of traditional forms are still produced, the artistic and technical skills of the old master silversmiths are not in evidence and may have been lost forever.

Silversmithing is not an attractive vocation for the young and the small family businesses who struggle to preserve the art must compete with a flood of cheap aluminum copies from China. And, critically, the culture of the 21st century is not conducive to sustaining an ancient craft that requires time, training and personal dedication to master, yet provides limited financial reward. ‘Silver Age’ silversmiths served arduous apprenticeships and valued recognition over money. Their work was not so much a vocation but an artistic ‘labour of love’. Time was not of the essence. A single high-quality piece may have taken a year to complete and there was little concern for the cost of time. This working model is untenable today.

The ‘stars aligned’ in Burma in the mid-19th and early 20th centuries to foster the emergence of a remarkable period of silversmithing. The artistic and technical quality of work from the ‘Silver Age’ equals or exceeds the high standards achieved in many countries that already boasted of an international reputation for fine quality and collectable silver. Burmese silver from the great ‘Silver Age’ is an important cultural legacy and a ‘world class’ decorative fine art.