John Nisbet.

Burma under British rule--and before; (Volume 2) online

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turned in teakwood, and glass ornamentation was a feature
of some of the reception rooms. The palace buildings,
taken as a whole, however, were essentially Burmese in
general design and artistic features ; while most of the
monasteries around the city, built of teakwood richly
carved and gilded, were beautiful specimens of pure
Burmese art. The destruction of many of these during
the incendiary fires of April, 1892, was an irreparable
loss, though some of the finest and purest specimens are
fortunately still spared.

The leading characteristics of Burmese art are bold-
ness and freedom of design. It lacks finish ; but then
any very high degree of finish would be artistically
inconsistent with the whole genius of the more or less
hereditary national designs. This want of finicking
finish is no more a drawback to the artistic value of
Burmese wood carving and silver work than the want of
minute detail in works by the impressionist school of
painters. Rougher and more impressionist, the teak
carvings and the silver work of Burma, when of pure
uncontaminated Burmese design, stand on a much higher
artistic level than the blackwood carvings and the Cutch
silver work, of somewhat similar design, produced on the
Bombay side of India, because they have a boldness and
a freedom, which are essentially strong and virile. For
very fine finish the royal teakwood would in any case
have been unsuitable from its coarse grain. There is
a national individuality about Burmese carving, which
distinguishes it entirely from Chinese art, and raises it
above the more closely allied Siamese designs.

Unfortunately, however, it is now extremely difficult to
obtain recent work of pure Burmese design, or to ensure
that orders given shall result in work of this class. Even
the carvers and silversmiths themselves seem to be
rapidly losing all trace of hereditary instinct with regard
to what ornamentations are truly Burmese and what are
innovations of western origin.

About 1883 Government began to interfere actively



with "« sc/ieine for the encouragement of art industries','
and established an art workshop in Rangoon, which did
much to hasten the process of degradation of art in
Lower Burma. Under this, to quote from an official
record, —

The improvement of art work after Burmese models has been
sedulously fostered. Workmen are provided with photographic models
of good work, servile imitation of non-Burman work is discouraged,
and effort is made to secure the development of a thoroughly national
school of art. All the best workmen now devote their energies princi-
pally to the production of work which is Burmese in character, and
their productions during the year (1885-86) have, with few exceptions,
been Burmese in shape, design, characteristics, and details. , . . The
scheme for the encouragement of art industries advanced another step
in the direction of self-support. At the close of the year (1886-87)
five of the leading artists in Rangoon associated themselves together
and formed an informal company. They have obtained the services of
a trustworthy clerk, who will act as secretary and accountant, and will
see to advertising in the Indian papers, to the proper registration of
orders, to their execution in due rotation, and to their despatch. . . .
The object of Government is slowly to withdraw its support from the
artists and to keep a keen look out that the handicrafts of Burma are not
debased into manufactures where hundreds of articles of exactly similar
design are produced in a slovenly and inartistic manner. There has
been a steady demand for the silver work of Thayetmyo and Rangoon
during the year. The wood carving institute has done well and has
more than paid its way notwithstanding a heavy charge for establish-
ment. Government connection with this institution ceased with the
close of the year. . . . The prices of art ware have remained steady
throughout the year.

With such a foster-mother, how could poor Burmese art
thrive ? It naturally sickened and declined ; but, from
the combined influence of various causes, this was bound
to happen as the necessary result of the various political,
social, and material changes which have been taking
place throughout the valley of the Irrawaddy during the
last half-century.

Sometimes Government have permitted acts of sheer
vandalism to be perpetrated by their Public Works
Department, which are almost incredible. Thus, there
were nine golden thrones in the royal buildings at Man-
dalay, though only four of these now exist ; the rest
were dismantled. For years the pieces lay about the
passages in the palace buildings, but now they have long
since vanished, having probably been broken up as fire-



wood by natives of India employed within the palace pre-
cincts. Some of these were certainly deserving of being
sent to South Kensington as objects of unique interest.
Again, in November, 1891, immediately before the
Commander-in-Chief (Sir Frederick Roberts) revisited
Mandalay on tour, many of the rooms of the palace, in
which the military offices were located, were whitewashed
with lime over the rich gold gilding that covered the
whole of the ceiling and the walls. Of this there is
no doubt, for I saw the whitewashingf beinof done.

The carvings in and around monasteries are often
illustrative of legends, or of episodes in the life of
Gaudama as described in the Zat or " birth-stories." In
the exterior carvings there is usually a careful balance.
A central piece [Damd7t), richly carved with figures,
terminates in a long ornamental pole capped with a
miniature umbrella { Ti), whilst on either side of this
carved wings {Apyduk) extend symmetrically either in
one piece or else in wave-like sections. The outer
wings in all important pieces of carving — as on the royal
thrones, over the entrances to monasteries, or forming
the gable-ends of roofs having ornamental eaves-board-
ing and finials — invariably point inwards towards the
central portion, and thus form a characteristic feature in
Burmese design. Around the eaves, the carving is in
wave-like sections, the highest being at the corners and
in the middle of the building. They consist of separate
pieces representing Gaudama, monks, men making obei-
sance, or birds, or else they may be mere indefinite
ornamentation, each item being larger than that next
below it. It has been suggested that these pieces repre-
sent tongues of fire shooting upwards, but this seems
rather a fantastic and far-fetched notion ; for on the
Burmese throne, around the principal monasteries, and
in all the more highly finished carvings to be seen at
Mandalay these upward pointing pieces are elaborated
with figures. It is only in the coarser work, and on com-
moner buildings like rest-houses, that the designs become
less definite ; and even then they far more closely re-
semble the upper portion of a bird than tongues of
fire. Moreover, tongues of fire have no connection with



Buddhism unless they might be taken to represent the
burning flames of lust and passion referred to in Gau-
dama's celebrated Sermon on the Mount, in which he first
enunciated the mystery of the law to his disciples. These
pieces very frequently, when exhibiting a fair amount
of finish, unmistakably represent the breast, neck, and
head of the peacock, the royal bird of Burma ; hence it
seems not improbable that the small graded uprights
in each Apyduk or section of carving are more likely
abortive representations of peacock's heads rather than
tongues of flame. Even the carvers themselves, how-
ever, can give no satisfactory account of what they
mean. According to them, they are merely hla bo —
" for the sake of ornamentation." Leogryphs, demons,
dragons, mythological birds and figures, and running
leaf-scrolls are freely scattered throughout most of the
more ambitious designs, while they form the most im-
portant features in all minor pieces of carving.

As teakwood is somewhat light in colour, the effec-
tiveness of large pieces of Burmese carving is much
heightened by the dark coating of earth-oil given to
preserve them against the ravages of climate. Many of
the carvings, exterior as well as interior, in the royal and
the sacred buildings at Mandalay were richly gilded and
often ornamented with mosaic work in coloured lookincj
glass. Many were also picked out in colours with red,
blue, yellow, and green paint. The results are some-
what crude and barbarous, though undoubtedly effective ;
for the strong sunshine and the whole environment seem
to permit glaring combinations of colour that would be
displeasing under other circumstances. Now that the
thick gilding has been washed off to a great extent by
the rains of the last fifteen to twenty years, many of the
monasteries around Mandalay convey only a faded and
imperfect impression of what they once were, while the
incendiary fires of 1892 caused much irreparable loss.

The palace at Mandalay contains many examples of
coloured looking-glass work, but some of the finest
specimens of this, and of the application of colours
to wood carving, as distinct features in Burmese decora-
tive art are to be found in lonely jungle shrines far off



the beaten track. One of the finest specimens of this
particular kind of ornamentation is to be found at
Bawyethat, in the Southern Shan State of Nyaungyvve,
about ten or twelve miles north of Fort Stedman, where
the carving is of a high order, while the looking-glass
mosaics and the vivid colouring with paints combine
to form a singularly complete example of pure Burmese
art of this description. This picking out of carved
work with gaudy and often startlingly unharmonious
colours, and tricking it up with coloured looking-glass,
are certainly crude and somewhat barbaric methods ; but,
if not examined too closely, the work is very effective, and
in front of it one feels face to face with what is undoubt-
edly art, though it follows lines diverging widely from
those along which Western ideas run. It is perhaps in
such out-of-the-way places that the gems of Burmese
wood carving are most often to be found.

Ivory carving of great delicacy is executed by artists
in Moulmein, who have a practical monopoly of this
kind of work. The designs are very much the same
as in wood carving, with of course a higher degree of

Next to wood carving, silver work occupies the chief
place among the arts of Burma. The ornaments
attached to the court dresses of high officials consisted
of richly chased masses of silver, but the great bulk of the
work executed by silversmiths was in the form of bowls
of different sizes, in shape somewhat like the lower half
of a barrel only more convex, of betel boxes, cups, and
small boxes for lime. Teapots, vases, racing cups and
such like are all of them European innovations. Although
the designs on these may be Burmese in form, such pro-
ductions can never be considered specimens of pure
Burmese art work in silver. On many of the larger
bowls legends and episodes from the life of Gaudama
were often represented, as in the more ambitious wood
carvings, while the smaller and more solid articles were
chiefly adorned with designs of animals and chasing of
scroll tracery varying in depth. The elephant figures
frequently among the designs in silver, whereas it is much
less common in wood carving. One of the most



typical standard designs on silver cups [Paid] consists
of the twelve signs of the zodiac, each embossed within
one of a series of shields or divisions of equal size.

When orders for any work are given to a silversmith,
rupees to the required weight are handed to him for
melting down, and an advance has at the same time
to be made : for it is seldom that any Burmese handi-
craftsman commences work of any sort without receiving
a cash advance in accordance with custom. The silver
is first of all cast in the form of a plain bowl or cup.
Then it is filled with melted lac ; and when this hardens,
repousse work of figures, animals, and scroll tracery is
blocked out before the finer chasing is done with very
simple graving tools. Almost invariably a line of chased
ornament running round the top or the bottom represents
the leaves of the sacred lotus or water lily.

Boldness, breadth, freedom of design, and a general
want of careful finish, are the leading characteristics of
Burmese silver work ; yet some of the chasing and
engraving on small solid boxes, more especially on those
made by Shan silversmiths, show that some of their
artists were capable of imparting a very high degree
of finish to their work.

Old silver can often be obtained in the bazaars for
a mere trifle in excess of the weis^ht of the articles in
coined rupees. Many a pleasant half-hour can thus
be spent in the Mandalay Zegyo or chief market place
by those acquainted with the language and desirous of
collecting the old specimens of Burmese silver work
which sometimes find their way there in the shape of
unredeemed pledges. To estimate the quality of the
silver a fine-grained, smooth, black, waterworn test-
stone (H7}iai Kyauk) is handed to the would - be
purchaser, who rubs the edge of the bowl or box on
this stone in order to compare it with the colour of the
rubbing from a rupee. According to the amount of
copper that has been used as alloy, the rubbing shows
a yellowish red divergence from the clear white of pure

Niello work {Afeinla) is occasionally executed, though
to no large extent and chiefly by Shans. The greatest



recent artist in this branch was a leper who used to live
in the town of Shwegyin, and who died there about
twenty years ago. Some of his productions were very
superior ; but, as a rule, most of the specimens of this
class of work are unfortunately to be found worked into
inferior silver.

Silver ornaments are despised by the Burmese, except
perhaps as charms to be worn by children ; and often
they constitute the whole clothing that is given to
these. Gold jewellery alone is worn by the women,
in the shape of solid bangles, ear cylinders, rings, and
necklaces. The spittoons and betel boxes used by the
king and the Shan chiefs were of solid gold, and small
images of Gaudama in pure gold are known to have
existed ; but otherwise gold was, and is, used entirely
for ornamental purposes. A good set of gold ornaments
is a safe form of regular investment, as money can
always be raised upon them, whenever necessary. The
rings and the front end of the ear cylinders are often
set with diamonds, rubies, spinels, and sapphires. In
Arakan the necklaces are mostly in the shape of large
hollow beads, but in Central Burma the favourite form
is the Dalizan, consisting of rows of peacocks' heads
or other ornaments connected with each other by small
chains and diminishing in number from the upper row
downwards. Necklaces are usually stained to a dark
reddish colour by being boiled in a decoction of tamarinds
and many other strange ingredients.

A form of art which has now all but disappeared in
Burma is gold lacquer work. Formerly the interiors
of monasteries were often decorated in this manner, the
whole of the walls being covered with legendary designs
in black and gold ; but now almost the sole remaining
traces of the art are the small boxes, platters, and tables
— these latter purely European in design — which are
made in Prome. Twenty - five years ago a splendid
specimen of this art, dating from before the second
Burmese war, was to be found in an old, abandoned
monastery at the southern end of Myanaung on the
Irrawaddy ; but, neglected and left to the ravages of
a hot, damp climate, for years back not even traces of



the handsome work have there remained any longer
in existence. Tiie whole surface having been gilded,
designs were drawn in black varnish [T/iitsi) and the
intervening portions were coated with goldsize ; when dry
the whole was gently washed with warni water, when the
figures and ornaments stood out in black from the back-
ground of gold, and the whole was fixed with a coating
of transparent varnish. Covers and trays [Byat and Ok)
for carrying offerings to priests, presents of pickled tea,
and so forth, are also made of lacquered ware, though in
Mandalay these used to be richly gilded and studded with
imitation precious stones.

Lacquerware in colours is manufactured in several
parts of the country, as all the drinking cups and most
of the betel boxes are made of it. This industry is
followed at Prome, in Lower Burma, but the great
centre is Pagan, in Upper Burma, where the workman-
ship often rises to a really artistic level. The basis of
the box, platter, or cup is formed of very fine bamboo
wickerwork to ensure great flexibility. The interstices
being filled up with a coating of cowdung and black
varnish, the rough shell is dried for four days at a
temperature of about 130°. It is again coated over and
dried, before being put on a rough lathe and polished
with silicious bamboo or a pumice of sand and lac.
When smooth, a coating of bone charcoal and black
varnish is applied, which, when dried and hardened, forms
the groundwork of the designs cut out with an iron style.
Except where figures and ornaments are to stand out in
black, this groundwork is cut away for some depth and
a coating of body colour is given. When this has
thoroughly hardened in about a fortnight's time, the
article is again polished till the black design shows
up completely. The style is again used to cut away
all parts not intended to show up in this first coat of
colour, and a coating of a different colour is then applied.
Similar operations are repeated as often as necessary,
only so much of the last applied coating of colour being
left unremoved by the style as forms part of the
intended design. Only three body colours are thus
used besides the black varnish of the groundwork —



Chinese vermilion for red, and orpiment for yellow
(imported largely from Yunnan for this purpose), while
green is formed by adding indigo to the orpiment. Each
of these main colours, or whatever shade of them be
desired, is slightly mixed with black varnish to enable
it to set and harden quickly. When these three or
more successive coatings of paint have been applied
and polished, the figures and main designs appear in
rich black, with an edging, say, of red, which may rank
next in importance in the scheme of colour. Beyond the
red appears the yellow throughout the design : and last
of all comes the green relieved by dots and lines of the
original black. The whole is like a geological map of
regular design, the black being the elementary rocks,
and the red, yellow, and green forming successive strata
always occurring in regular sequence. After the last
pumicing, by which the colours are softened into slight
blending, a final polish is given with a little oil and
paddy-husk. Some of the Zat Kuneik, or more elabor-
ately ornamented betel boxes of Pagan, are quaint and
interesting objects of Burmese workmanship.

Most of the designs on these are demons and mytho-
logical animals, very much like those which form the
stock-designs of the "artist in ink" when tattooing
boys' thighs, as previously described (page 197).

The arts which have as yet remained almost absolutely
untouched by contact with Western ideas are sculpture in
alabaster, and the founding of brazen images of Gaudama,
of all sizes. The great centre of these art-handicrafts — in
the pursuance of which, however, there is little oppor-
tunity for individual talent, as the images follow precisely
the lines of hereditary conventional types — consists of
little villages situated immediately to the south of Man-
dalay, below the great Arakan pagoda. Alabaster is
quarried largely for this purpose at the Sagyin hill, about
twelve miles to the north of Mandalay, and also in the
Sagaing hills on the western side of the Irrawaddy.
The most colossal images are those made of alabaster
and representing the Buddha in a recumbent position ;
but those made in brass and marble in largest numbers
represent Gaudama seated, cross-legged, in an attitude



of deep contemplation, his left hand resting across his
knees, while his right hand hangs downwards in front of
him. Upright figures are more frequently made of
priests than of the Buddha himself.

The most famous of the brazen images is that in the
Mahamyatmuni, "the great saint's" or Arakan pagoda
at Mandalay, which was brought across the Arakan
Yoma by the Padaung pass near Prome in 1784, as a
trophy of the conquest of Arakan by King Bodaw Payd
in 1783. Peculiar sanctity is attached to this image, as
it is said to have been made during the life of Gaudama
and to have been miraculously founded after several un-
successful efforts. It is about twelve feet in height, and
represents the Buddha in the usual sitting posture,
abstracted in profound meditation. Popular report says
this colossal image was brought over from Arakan intact,
but it really was conveyed in pieces. For the service of
the temple enshrining this sacred image 120 families of
the defenders of Arakan were condemned to slavery,
and an endowment of one Pe (175 acres) of land per
head was made for their subsistence.

In founding brazen images, the design is first fashioned
in clay and then coated over with wax to the thickness
of about half-an-inch, over which another coating of clay
and chopped straw is packed and allowed to dry for some
days. Apertures are made in this for the subsequent
pouring in of the metal, and air-holes are provided with
pieces of straw. The whole is then placed in a furnace
and the molten wax allowed to run off through a hole
at the base left for this purpose. This being plugged up
after all the wax has been removed, the now hollow
mould is ready to receive the molten brass. At this stage
there is often failure, and only one out of every three or
four moulds proves successful. When the outer casing
of clay has been removed, the work of filing and burnish-
ing the metal occupies a considerable time.

Besides founding images of Gaudama, the chief use to
which brass is put is for making gongs and pagoda bells.
In the Shan country and Karenni the national form of
gong [Kyeziii) is in the shape of a drum, open at one
end ; but the true Burmese gong {^Maujig) consists of a



roughly triangular disc of brass with turned up corners,
somewhat concavely hollowed at the centre but thicken-
ing towards the outer edge. These are suspended by a
string or rope, and are struck with a wooden mallet on
the corner to make them revolve while emitting their
note. As the yellow-robed priests make their mendicant
round every morning, one of the small attendants keeps
beatinof such a eonsf so that those livino- alono- the line of
progress may be ready with their dole of rice. The tone
of each gong depends on its size, on the thickness of the
metal, and the concavity of the central part ; but the
richness and mellowness of the note is increased when
silver has been added, as is sometimes done.

When he\\s{ICai/no/au7io-)3,rehe'\ng cast, — which usually
forms the occasion of a great local festival, — silver, gold,
and jewellery are frequently throwm in large quantities
into the cauldrons containing the metal to be poured into
the earthen moulds. The pieces of gold and silver are
often plainly noticeable in the bell through incomplete
fusion with the rest of the metal. The casting takes
place much in the same way as with the brazen images.
The bells are thick and massive, being supported by a
ring at the top so that they can be slung to a crossbar
supported by two uprights. There is no clapper, the
note being struck by hitting the lip of the bell with a
wooden pestle or with the rosette end of a stag's horn.
On all pagoda platforms, and near sacred shrines, large
bells are to be found with wooden pestles and deers'
antlers for sound ingf them : for the Burman is careful to
call in this manner the attention of the good spirits con-
cerned to the fact of his being about to earn religious
merit for himself by repeating the religious formulae.
There is no hiding of such light under a bushel.

There is a smaller kind of tiny bell {Swe/zcc) often
attached to the " umbrella " or iron framework surmount-
ing pagodas. This is provided with a clapper in the shape