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Antique Bells and the Artistic Traditions of Burma

Updated on May 16, 2016

Antique Bronze Bells of Burma

Antique Bronze Bells Burma
Antique Bronze Bells 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

Temple Bell and Nga Tin-de
Temple Bell and Nga Tin-de

Temple Bells

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.

Temple Bells

Antique Bronze Temple Bells
Antique Bronze Temple Bells

Pastoral Bells & Horse Bells

Pastoral 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.

Horse Bells

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

Pastoral Bells and Horse Bell
Pastoral Bells and Horse Bell

Elephant Bells

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.

Elephant Bells

Antique Elephant Bells
Antique Elephant Bells

Collecting Antique Bronze Bells

Collector’s Items

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.

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    • profile image

      Josie Cow 

      8 years ago

      Having read your article on most causes of death in the states I was most impressed , I will certainly follow up on more of your articles.

    • shimla profile imageAUTHOR

      shimla 

      8 years ago

      Hi Ovidiu - you have an enviable collection of beautiful bells. Nice to meet another collector of bells. I love looking for old bells in market places. Thanks for the link!

    • profile image

      ovidiu 

      8 years ago

      Hi!

      I am a bell collector you can see its on link above.

    • shimla profile imageAUTHOR

      shimla 

      8 years ago

      Thanks Mr Nice - I love Thailand too - just got back from a hike up Doi Suthep, the mountain that is the backdrop of Chiang Mai and had khrapao gai for lunch served buy a lovely old Thai lady. It's hotting up here as we say goodbye to the cool season. I will take a look at your hubs now. Oh I missed Shimla on my trip to India too but did make it to McLeod Ganj, which was beautiful. See you around.

    • Mr Nice profile image

      Mr Nice 

      8 years ago from North America

      Swadee khrap shimla,

      Interesting user name, Shimla is a beautiful city in India, which I missed during my visit to India, other city I missed was Kashmir.

      Interesting hub about Burmese antiques. I love Thailand & I visit often. This summer in July I will be in Bangkok & also plan to visit Chiang Mai.

      Have a wonderful day.

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