Antique Bells and the Artistic Traditions of Burma
Antique Bronze Bells of Burma
Bronze Bells of Burma's Past
Artistic Traditions of Burma
After living in Southeast Asia for a couple of years I began to take an interest in Asian antiques and the artistic traditions of Burma in particular. The Burmese have been fashioning objects of beauty for over 2,000 years and craftsmen have always been honoured by Burmese society and admired for their creative abilities. Centuries of exposure to Buddhism has influenced and inspired Burmese art in tandem with ancient animist beliefs. The Burmese make little distinction between so called fine arts such as paintings and applied arts – metalwork, wood carving, and lacquerware are considered as important as painting or sculpture.
On my first visit to Burma it struck me how even everyday objects like tobacco boxes, food containers, and chairs were crafted with artistic endeavour. One of my favourite Burmese crafts is bronze bells which come in a variety of interesting forms with beautifully detailed surface embellishment including flowering vines and insignias. Antique bronze bells from Burma have become collector’s items today and make charming relics of Burma’s ancient artistic traditions.
Metal Work in Burma
Metal work in Burma is regarded as an honourable occupation, associated with strength, integrity and courage. This respect is echoed in folklore where an ancient spirit guardian called the Mahagiri Nat, Nga Tin-de, or in English, Mr. Handsome, is thought to be the most powerful of all such spirits of which there are many. Nga Tin-de was a blacksmith of incredible strength who was eventually killed by a jealous king and his army. Folklore reports, “He wielded two hammers – with his left hand he held a hammer weighing 25 Viss and with his right he held an iron hammer of 50 Viss. When Nga Tin-de worked his smithy and rained blows against the anvil, the whole city quaked and trembled.”
The Burmese used the lost wax method for casting bronze and excelled in this skill. Under a ferocious sun, the work was hot, dusty and malodorous. Foundries were located at the edges of towns in open bamboo shelters. The crucibles for pouring the molten metal were handled with shafts of bamboo during casting. The hearth was simply a shallow hole in the earth where hollowed bamboo bellows with feather cloaked pistons forced air over the burning charcoal. When the British arrived, leather bellows replaced the bamboo design, as ingenious as it was.
Temple Bell and Mr Handsome
In Burma, massive, impressively decorated bells weighing up to 90 tons are found in temple grounds. One of the most famous temple bells is called the Maha Ganda or Singumin and resides in the Shweidagon pagoda, weighs 23 tons and was made between 1775-1779. In a comical and at the same time tragic episode, the British tried to steal it in 1825 during the first Anglo-Burmese war. In the process of trying to get it into a boat on the Rangoon River, it slipped into the muddy water and instantly sank to the bottom. The Burmese later recovered the bell and triumphantly restored it to its rightful place in the pagoda.
Large temple bells are donated to the temple by lay people and are highly regarded – they are struck three times at the end of personal spiritual practice as an invitation for all to share in the good fortune accumulated and others show their approval by declaring thadu, thadu, thadu, which means well done, well done, well done. The casting of these imposing temple bells was an auspicious occasion shared by the entire village with much rejoicing. During the casting, onlookers sometimes threw in silver at just the right time which would then appear on the surface of the bell as white streaks.
Smaller temple bells are hung from the eves of temple roofs and folklore maintains that their sweets chimes caused by the wind draws the interest of the deva of the Tavatimsa Heaven. Their intermittent ringing also acts as a prompt to be thankful for the deep wisdom and compassion of the Buddha.
Pastoral Bells & Horse Bells
Bells of a noticeably different styling were made for buffalo, cows and goats to wear and are referred to as hka-lauk in Burmese. Rather than domed shaped they are semi-circular or trapezoidal with closed rings at the top for a rope to pass through. Handsome scrolling vine and flower designs often adorn these bells, the purpose of which was to help farmers locate their animals after being set free to graze. They have a duller tone than temple bells – more of a comforting clonk than a musical ring.
Bells worn by horses are easily recognizable by their bevelled dome and comparatively small size. They often have a lovely crisp ring tone and also bear an insignia that could be the name of the maker or the owner of the horse.
Pastoral Bells and Horse Bell
Known as chu in Burma, elephant bells are very different again, and are spherical in shape with a metal ball that rolls around inside making gentle metallic rolling sounds. Elephant bells are often inscribed with leaf designs and circular patterns as well as the maker’s insignia in Burmese characters. With the older bells, the name of the king of the time or the name of the person who commissioned the bell may be present.
Collecting Antique Bronze Bells
There is something admirable about a people who take the time and make the effort to turn everyday objects into works of art. Creativity seems inherent in the Burmese soul. Bronze bells are charming objects displayed and each has a character of its own. Bells I’ve collected range from 90-200 years old. My collection of bells can be seen here.
Plight of the Burmese
I sympathize greatly with the plight of the Burmese people who have had to contend with long periods of oppressive rule from unstable ancient kingdoms, greedy colonial powers and the junta of today. Along with the people, the artistic traditions of Burma have suffered from the stranglehold of heartless rulers. Let’s all make a wish that good forces unite to see the end of the current regime and the arrival of a time when Aung San Suu Kyi can lead her people to freedom and prosperity as they so deserve.