STORIES IN SILVER
By: Ma Thanegi
Photos: Sonny Nyein
Myanmar has a long and proud tradition of gold and silver crafts since the 2nd century. The Pyu of central Myanmar and the land of the Rakhine on the West coast are two civilisations that flourished almost at the same time. The Greek geographer Ptolemy noted a land called Argyre, Land of Silver, in mapping the sea routes between China and Eastern Asia, a land that scholars identified as Rakhine. Both Pyu and Rakhine kingdoms used silver coins. Less is known of Rakhine gold or silversmiths then of the Pyu, probably due to the fact that intensive archaeological diggings still need to be done in Rakhine. No doubt they will produce countless treasures.
Excavations in the sites where once Pyu cities stood produced a great deal of finely worked gold jewellery. Even farmers have turned up countless items while ploughing or digging wells. The skill of the Pyu goldsmiths seems unsurpassed. (See Enchanting Myanmar Vol. 1 No. 1) The earliest crafted silver bowl is from the Pyu era: a repoussť vessel with a Buddha image. The silversmiths of today remained as skilled in the old techniques as their forefathers. Preferring old methods and tools, and taking pride in fashioning the beauty of their wares by hand, they still produce lovely silver items. The typical Myanmar silver ware is embossed with scenes from the Jataka stories, which are life stories of Buddha before he attained enlightenment. Being a deeply religious Buddhist country of the Theravada school, the Myanmar people are familiar with the 550 Jataka stories. The main 10, which are the ten lives just before Prince Siddhatha attained Buddhahood, are the most popular stories to be told and retold, in books, plays, and theatre and crafted in silver.
In the time of monarchy, talented artisans served the king in teams led by a master. There were records of goldsmiths serving at court but none of silversmiths, as most Royal utensils must be made of solid gold. Commoners are not allowed, on pain of death, the use of gold for certain items such as dinner plates or spittoons or betel boxes, so the wealthy had to make do with silver. Cups or bowls used for religious purposes, such as to hold water or flowers on the household shrine are allowed but not personal items. Even in court, the king dispenses favours by decreeing who could use which gold utensil.
It is not that silver is not treasured. Swords of the Royal guards had handles and scabbards of silver, finely worked with figures and for higher ranks, set with gems.
In 1819 when King Ba Gyi Daw built the Maha Wizaya Yanthi Pa Htoe Daw Gyi Pagoda in Amarapura on the banks of Taung Tha Man Lake, he enshrined treasures of gold, silver and gems in two chambers, one on the East and another on the West. The treasures are in the form of Buddha images and figurines of his ancestors and of himself and his queen. The figurines were cast in solid silver or gold dressed in formal state costumes and in the postures of praying to the Buddha.
Myanmar's rivers and streams as well as various mines have been producing precious metals for centuries. There are no big gold mines but there are two silver mines in Myanmar, one near Namtu Town in Northern Shan State and another called Baw Saing, in the Southern Shan State near Pindaya. Chronicles record that the Baw Saing mines had been worked since 1426.
According to a stone inscription, Chinese miners had been working the Namtu mines since 1412, giving taxes to the Myanmar king. A record of 1827 showed that the mine that year produced 120,000 pounds sterling worth of silver, out of which only 600 pounds sterling was taxed.
As in all crafts, apprenticeship starts early in boyhood, first by working at the atelier merely fetching and carrying for about a year or two, during which the master judges if the boy has any promise. Then he is allowed to do more important work, still basically fetching and carrying or working the bellows and would not be allowed to use the tools as yet. He practised drawing, beginning with the 'Kanote' design, the first of the four basic Myanmar patterns. Kanote means flower and next comes Nari, human figures; Kappi, monkey; and Gazza, elephant.
Kanote lines are curving, graceful and stylised. Nari means drawing the human form. Kappi or monkey represents movement and Gazza the elephant symbolises solidity and weight. Without use of colour or tones, the artist must be able to portray these aspects just with line drawings.
The basic Kanote pattern is the horizontal 'S' and first the apprentice learns to draw this neatly. Then, additional sprigs or curls are put in around the curves of the so that the whole resembles a spray of stylised flowers. The sprig looks somewhat like the graceful Thazin orchid spray and the Kanote pattern is sometimes called the Thazin Coil.
Then he learns the human form in all postures, the Buddha sitting in meditation or in preaching, the monks in attendance, and for secular scenes, people at play and work. After that he goes on to practise movement and weight. He must be thoroughly skilled in drawing before his master allows him to touch a piece of silver.
To make an embossed bowl, the silversmith hammers a piece of silver into a flat, thick, roughly circular shape. Then he marks the radius with a compass and cuts a perfect circle. This he hammers slowly all around so that a bowl is formed. Sealing wax is melted and poured thickly around the insides so that a solid base is formed. A peg with rags stuffed around it is placed securely into
the bowl to fit against the hardened sealing wax.
The designs are drawn all over the outside with a lead pencil with the Kanote flower s around the rim and base,and sections in the middle for human figures. Sometimes whole scenes or series of scenes run around the width of the bowl. A sharp chisel and small hammer are used to tap along all the drawn lines, including facial features and details such as toenails. Then the wax is melted and poured out, and a thick layer of beeswax is applied to the exterior. The silversmith works from the inside of the bowl this time, hammering to make embossed figures or flowers. When the whole interior has been worked, the beeswax is melted off and applied to the interior again for the finishing touches. The convex patterns surrounding the relief figures are then gently hammered in to give more depth.
If the work is to be filigree, the spaces are cut away cleanly.
A sharp look all over the piece makes sure that all is satisfactory, and the wax is again melted off. Residue wax is simply burnt away.
To polish the silver, the fruit of a certain type of acacia is boiled in water, and the silverware washed in the resulting soapy water with a hard brush. Sometimes soot is applied to some areas so that the embossed figures stand out. Although the process is slow and must be done carefully, the silversmiths however take pride in their work, content to produce works of quality.
Inle Lake is well known for good Shan style silver ware and another place which produces as good but in traditional Bama style in quantity is Ywa Htaung Village of Sagaing district, known for the many ateliers. One might say that silversmith work is the main profession of the villagers. Ywa Htaung had existed for hundreds of years. When the *British emissary Henry Yule came to Amaparura in 1885 he travelled in the area and noted the flourishing silver craft work in one village.
It takes years of experience and dedication to work in silver but judging by the amount produced in Myanmar from all over the country there seems no lack of talent for the present or for the future.