The Royal Animal Shaped Weights of the Burmese Empires
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The Burmese, along with the many minority ethnic groups that make up Burma's rich culture have been fashioning objects of beauty and utility for over 2000 years. From royal to peasant, finely crafted objects were used in everyday life. One of the most curious and engaging objects of daily use in Burma was the opium weight. The name opium weight, whimsically dubbed by later visitors to Burma, is somewhat a misnomer. These bronze zoomorphic weights of various styles were used to weigh a variety of materials including silver and gold ingots, pearls, rubies, coral, personal ornaments, spices, musk and costly medicines. More common products of daily commerce were weighed with dome shaped marble weights.
The earliest written evidence for the existence of animal weights is found in a palm leaf manuscript written by Nandabahu, an administrator during the time of Alaung-hpaya (1752-60), which contains a list of weights and their usage. The earliest weights date from the 13-14th century Pinya-Ava period and are exclusively in the form of birds and beasts. The oldest weight I have personally seen is from the late 14th-early 15th century. These weights were also used over North Siam, Laos and Yunnan, the result of periodic domination by the Burmese in these regions.
Opium weights were made using the lost wax method, which may have reached Burma through Bengal or Yunnan. Great care was taken in weighing the amount of molten metal used in casting to ensure that the purported weight was accurate.The weights and measures system was subject to the scrutiny of the king or queen, who after assuming the throne, had a master set of weights made in the animal of his or her choosing. These were housed in the Supreme Council of State (Hlut-taw) and citizens were expected to ensure that the weights they used conformed to the standard weights. Animal shaped weights were cast in Burma up until the British took over Burma in 1885, after which uninteresting round iron weights were used.
Burmese animal weights fall into two representations- the bird and the beast and all stood on bases of different shapes. Elephant shaped weights are from northern Siam. Other animals are not seen in Burma with a few very rare exceptions. Birds weights may be referred to as hamsa, hintha, mon duck, Karaweik, mandarin duck, open mouthed duck, Shan duck and brahmin duck depending on the style. The beast shaped weight is commonly referred to as a lion, chinte', to-naya or to-aung. It is a lion like creature said to have the mane and tongue of a lion, the horns of a deer, the feet of an elephant, and tail of a horse. There is deeply symbolic meaning behind these two forms. In Buddhism, the bird is associated with spiritual purity and gentleness. It was thought that the bird could make a distinction between pure and impure silver alloys and would accurately reflect mass. The beast is thought to represent the Bodhisattva- one who seeks enlightenment out of compassion to release others from suffering. The Burmese believe the beast weight to have magical powers. The introduction of a new beast weight heralded the creation of a new Burmese empire or the expansion of it, and often a new dynasty. Burmese that I have spoken to believe weights produced during the rule of King Bodawpaya have strong healing powers.
The largest genuine weight produced was the 250 kyat/tical weight, though this weight is varely. More common, though still rarely seen is the 1 viss weight 100 ticals /kyat, equating to about 1600 grams. Other weights running down are 50, 20, 10, 5, 2, 1, 1/2, 1/4, and 1/8 tical. Distinguishing features used to help classify weights include: handles as seen on the 1 viss down to 10 tical weights to make for easy carrying, horns on the beast weights, head crests (bird weights), mouths and mouth appendages, manes and chest decorations (beast), tails, base shapes and foundry mark or sign. The signs found on the side of the base and sometimes on the underside of the base take a variety of forms including the 4, 5, 6 and 9 ray star, circular or square depressions, a bird sign and the Burmese character, gha, which is roughly a W shape. Rarely an auxillary sign such as an arrow is present. An analysis of the features of a weight in addition to its general form helps to determine the period in which it was made along with gauging the frequency of production for that particular weight.
Valuing a Weight
The value of a weight is influenced by the level of craftsmanship, the rarity of style, the period in which is was cast, composition of the bronze alloy, patina, and condition. Some of the most handsome weights are more recent ones produced by the Shan, who are noted for their metal working skills. A study of opium weights and a classification table such as found in Donald and Joan Gear's, Earth to Heaven, is recommended for the serious collector. Fakes and replicas abound and make up the majority of weights found on eBay. These weights, often sold at very low prices, can range from obvious, crudely fashioned copies to quite convincing reproductions. A weight claimed by a seller to be a genuine18th century opium weight and selling for $25 should immediately arouse suspicion. Some of the animals currently being produced such as rats, peacocks, monkeys and rabbits were never used when genuine weights were being cast in Burma. Elephants are Siamese, not Burmese and can be very valuable. Genuine opium weights are normally quite scarred and pitted as a result of rough use over long periods of time, though there are exceptions such as more recent weights from the mid-late 1800s. Opium weights are normally dark in colour, sometimes with a brown or reddish colour depending on the composition of the alloy. A silvery hue can indicate a higher tin content or even the presence of silver. Key indicators of an unofficial weight are a strong brassy colour, odd combinations of features, poor styling, forms other than those produced in Burma, those sold in sets, unpitted surfaces if the weight is of the earlier periods or an overly green patina caused by exposure to acids. One feature of older weights that is virtually impossible to replicate in a fake is the smooth, worn away surfaces where lines and grooves have been shallowed by handling over hundreds of years.
It is no wonder that opium weights are growing in popularity as a collector's item. They are aesthetically engaging and represent a fascinating period in history with deep symbolic attachment. Every weight has its own individual characteristics and story to tell. A genuine weight will rise in value over time and from our experience the number of weights floating around the markets and dealer's shops of Buma, Thailand and Laos is diminishing fast. If you venture to Thailand or Burma to hunt for weights you can expect dealers to know the value of the rarer and better crafted weights. Be warned, collecting opium weights can become addictive- finding and taking possession of a sought after weight is quite exhilarating and you may find each weight purchased is soon joined by another to keep it company. Happy hunting!
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