BURMESE BEADS - OLD AND ANCIENT BEADS FROM MYANMAR

PUMTEK DZi BEADS

                     Largest dholak bead : 38 * 9 mm                                               Largest ball bead: 15 mm    -    Click on picture for larger image


The high quality beads you see displayed above to the left are not ancient. They are from the
early 20th century, most probably made by the people of the Payagyi village. The density of
the stone mass in these beads is very heavy, indicating that they are made, not of the much
more poruous and light weight palm wood, but of petrified hardwood.
I sourced these beads in India, Punjab, near the Pakistani border.


The beads to the right were sourced from the Bagan area.
They are (mass) production beads from the early 20th century.

Pumtek beads, also called buried thunderbolt beads are important heirloom beads
among the Chin who live in the Chin Hills of western Burma/Myanmar
 and the adjacent area of eastern India, where they are called Kuki.

The original Pumtek beads were made over 1000 years ago by the Pyu, the builders
of the first city states in Burma, but somehow the Pumtek bead art survived in the
mountains, far from the fertile rice plains of Bagan in its heydays.

Ancient Pumtek beads are often small, often made of the opalized
wood of the palm Borassus flabellifer. This type of beads will fluoresce under a short-wave UV lamp.
 
Instead of opalized palm wood many Pumtek beads are made of other forms of
petrified wood -
often in the form chalcedony
. Still they can be ancient. Petrified wood originating from all kinds of
wood can be found all over Burma. It is only natural that ancient bead makers (as well as
contemporary ones) have chosen this beautiful material to create beads out of.

 
There are a lot of different varieties
of petrified wood in Burma. (Museum in Mandalay)
Many Burmese beads are made of petrified wood.

As you can see on the bead scans, the original form and structure
of the wood is preserved in a form of a woody grain.



VERY OLD SMALL PUMTEK BEADS FROM THE CHIN CULTURE

Click on picture for larger image
Small Chin Pumtek ball beads - 5,5 mm

These small Pumtek beads are from the Chin state. The workmanship is very delicate.
The man I got them from told me that they were not original Pyu beads, but Chin 'copies'
made around 500 years ago.
According to him the original Pumtek beads from the Pyu city states
have been made continuously for the last 1000 years in the Chin area.


Small rectangular Chin-Pumtek beads                   Elongated small Pyu beads

      
Click on picture for larger image
12 * 10 * 5 mm - average size                                                            Largest 24 * 6 mm



Wonderful ancient beads from Burma

47 * 9,5 mm - Click on picture for larger image
 

   

33 * 11 mm                                                                    28 * 10 mm


   
32 * 10 mm                                                 30 * 9 mm


     
27 * 10 mm                                                    24 * 10 mm


47 * 15 * 5,5 mm - Click on picture for larger image
Rare etched bow bead in black fossilized hardwood. The above dholak shaped beads
show a great variety in different kinds of petrified or agatized wood used as bead material.
 
Pyu repair bead

15 * 14 * 5 mm -
Click on picture for larger image

This ancient Pyu bead has been 'repaired' by cutting of the ends of the bead.
The repair itself seems to be quite old.
 


Large, rare & wonderful ceramic Pyu bow Bead

91 * 17 * 5,5 mm
This rare ceramic bow bead was found in the Bagan area
together with the square beads with cruciform patterns displayed below. The bead is a little bit 'scarred'
by its long sleep in what appears to be acidic soil.

         

       20 * 20 * 5 mm                         
30 * 30 * 5 mm              17 * 17 * 3 mm
Square ceramic beads with the typical Buddhist cruciform pattern.


Very ancient Tibetan DZI

Click on picture for larger image
61 * 12 mm

When I showed this bead to a Tibetan expert dealer in DZI-beads in Kathmandu,
he said that this bead was a very ancient form of tibetan DZI-bead being capable of
preventing stroke and brain hemorrhage. Note the many formations of eyes.


ZOOMORPHIC BEADS

Elephant beads

Largest 16 * 14 * 10 mm

These wonderful elephant beads are crafted
in jade, easily found in Burma. There are many 'well crafted' copies
of these small elephant beads. Most of these copies are made
in the villages Myint Kyan and Pyaw Byay near Thi Lar Township in Bagan.
 
Peacock carnelian bead

Click on picture for larger image
61 * 8,5 * 7,5 mm
As one can see on the scan, the bead is broken and has been repaired.


Huge Jade tiger

91 * 30 * 23 mm

There are a lot of well crafted fake copies of these huge zoomorphic tiger or lion beads,
but all doubt disappears when you hold an original like this one in your hand.


The tiger bead seen from the front

 Carnelian tiger beads

    
40 * 13 * 10 mm                                    32 * 12 * 8 mm

Lion bead in jade

33 * 14 * 10 mm

ELONGATED TRANSLUCENT CARNELIAN BEADS

Largest  bead 57 * 8,5 mm

The kind of amber like glow of these translucent
elongated carnelian beads is remarkable. An Indian bead collector
and personal friend
of mine is convinced that these beads originate from
India. I agree about the Indian origin of these beads. However I have only seen this
amber like translucent shining carnelian in Burma itself.
Unfortunately the scan is not able of show the true sheen
of the remarkable beads.


Elongated carnelian beads   
      
Upper: 49 * 6 mm
                                                         

Elongated jade bead

 
Bow beads - carnelian and agate

Click on picture for larger image


ETCHED BURMESE BEADS

70 * 16 mm - Click on picture for larger image
Large wonderful Jaspis bead with 3, 5 and 3 white stripes.
The white stripes in this big red Jaspis bead seem not to be
etched into the bead. They are almost carved into surface.


Etched 12 striped carnelian bead with earth-oil patina


63 * 10,5 mm - Click on picture for larger image

Military beads?
This ancient carnelian Pyu bead has been colored by oil, gas and pressure.
You can read more about it here. On the net these kinds of beads are presented as military beads.
I find it odd that a peaceful Buddhist culture like the Pyu's would have so many beads with military symbols.
Stripes on beads, especially carnelian beads, are found everywhere in Greater India.
The stripes most probably indicate animistic magic properties in a Buddhist context.
However, particular this bead is typical for Burma and not for India.
 

ETCHED BEADS

Etched carnelian with 4 stripes

29 * 15 m
Etched carnelian with 5 stripes

31 * 11 mm
 

Etched carnelian with 12 stripes

35,5 * 6 mm


Most probably many of these etched carnelian beads have travelled between India
and Burma with Buddhist monks and traders more than 1000 years ago.
They were found in Matehtilay, Maline.
 
Burma embraced Theravadan Buddhism, influenced from Thailand around 1050.
These artifacts however, show the strong and direct Indian cultural
influence during the times of the Pyu City states from 200 B.C. to around 1000 A.D.


Striped Burmese Ball Beads


16 mm


15 mm


15 mm
 


9,5 mm
 

9 mm
 

10 mm

10 m

8,3 mm

10 mm

7,5 mm

10 mm
 

8 mm

8 mm

7 mm

8 mm

10 mm

7,5 mm

8,5 mm

7,5 mm

Black Striped Beads


20 * 10 mm


9 * 8 mm


Dholak shaped bead

26,5 * 10 mm - Click on picture for larger image
 


Click on picture for larger image
Upper: 21 * 10 mm



Square Carnelian with cruciform etched pattern


13 * 3,5 mm


11 mm

Genuine Solomon's agate beads

Largest 19 * 5 mm


25,5 * 18 * 5 mm
A wonderful bow bead.
 

  22 * 5  mm
This bead is done in the exact same material as
the bow bead displayed to the left.

Read here about the difference between
Sulemani agate and Solomon's agate

12 * 6 * 4,5 mm

11 * 7 mm

    10 * 10 * 9  mm

  11 * 7 mm




Dholak shaped Sulemani agate beads

Click on pictures for larger image
Average: 30 * 10 mm

Matehtilay, Maline.

These exceptionally beautiful Sulemani beads look like new beads.
I have not seen such colors, black translucense and banding as one can observe in these beads.
A close examination of the holes shows that the beads have almost not been used.
However, they are most probably ancient, displaying the most wonderful excavation
patina with a lovely soft sheen. They have been stored away as precious jewels.
 
You can read more about excavation beads here.

I marvel at this ancient skill of letting the artful patterns emerge out of the raw stone.
These beads may have originated from India, but could also be a product of Burma's own craftsmen.


30 * 10 mm

I have singled this bead out of the lot because of its exceptional beauty.
A Tibetan bead trader called it a single chakri bead.



VARIOUS ANCIENT BURMESE BEADS


  9 mm
 

  9 * 6  mm


   9 * 4,5 mm

  7,5  mm

   18 * 9 * 6 mm

   17 * 9 * 6 mm

 

   17 * 7 mm
 

   18,5 * 8 mm

  21 * 8 mm

   15 * 8 mm

 

   14 * 10 * 5 mm
 

   15 * 12 * 9 mm
 

   19,5 * 9 * 8 mm
 

   22 * 10 * 7 mm
 

   14 * 12 * 10 mm

   14,5 * 10 mm

   25 * 7 mm



 

  17,5 * 7,5  mm

   11 * 6 * 4 mm

   14 * 9 * 8 mm

   11 * 8,5 * 6 mm
 

   13 * 8 * 6 mm
 

   11 * 5 * 3 mm

   9,5 mm

   20 * 16 * 13 mm

   27 * 18 * 11 mm

   16 * 10 mm



 BURMESE GLASS BEADS
  
Click on picture for larger image
Down left: 24 * 14 * 7 mm
 

Colourful glass beads from the Mon Dynasty


Click on picture for larger image
16 * 5,5 mm

These Pyu glass beads
are made in resemblance of
the typical Burmese jade.




Burmese Nagaland glass beads

Click on picture for larger image
largest beads in upper chain: 13 * 9 mm

These wonderful blue glass beads are from the Burmese part of
Naga Land. They are around 100 years of age, made in India as copies of
the much sought after Venetian glass pearls. These old Indian
copies are not refined as the original Venetian pearls. However
they have their own charm in their more 'primitive' design.

THE PUY CITY STATES AND THE BUDDHIST INDIAN INFLUENCE
The most spectacular and beautiful beads from Burma originate mostly from the Pyu city state culture.
As you have seen on this page they also cover a huge variety of beads.


Part of Burma, showing the Pyu City states
 
The affluent and peaceful Pyu-culture
The Pyu city states had an impressively long life.
They began around 200 B.C. and declined 1000 years later around 1050 A.D.
 
Contemporary Chinese visitors characterized the Pyu city states as
peaceful and affluent. Chinese chronicles note that the young Pyu monks wore
silk cotton instead of real silk in order not to kill the silk worms.
 
The Pyu's sample the Indians
Even though the Pyu-people as a Tibeto-Burmese tribe originated from the
Yunnan province, they soon became deeply influenced by India.
  
Their culture became penetrated from bottom to top levels of society by the Indian
Ashokan Buddhism and later by the Guptas. This influence came together
with extensive trade. Indian culture was most visible in the southern Pyu areas where most
trade with India was conducted by sea. Here the 'indianization' can be observed by the fact
that the southern kings at Sri Ksetra gave themselves Indian titles like Varmans and Varma.

Both the southern and northern Pyu states were influenced by India. Some of the northern Pyu
Kings (Tagaung) claimed that they descended from the Sakya clan of the Buddha.
  
India was a super power
The Pyu city states had a small population. At its height the Pyu
numbered no more than a few hundred thousand people. A culture consisting of
so few does not have the critical mass required to create an independent society.
 
Compared to India the Pyu city states were very small.
The ancient Indian empire had one of the world's largest populations. 
When Ashoka converted the Indian Empire to Buddhism he
was the King of the world's largest economic power.
  
We find evidence of the deep Ashokan Indianization at several Pyu sites.
They have yielded a wide variety of Indian scripts from King Asoka’s edicts written in north
Indian Brahmi and Tamil Brahmi, both dated to the 3rd and 2nd centuries BC, to the Gupta script
and Kannada script dated to the 4th to 6th centuries AD. 
      
The thousands of stupas and pagodas in Bagan exemplify an architectural style that is pure
Indian Buddhist. Most probably these stupas were built by Indian engineers and architects.
 
The Pyu settlements were ruled by independent Kings, established courts largely
modeled after the Indian monarchy, especially the south east of India.
     
Kings and Monks
 
Due to the influence of Ashokan Buddhism, Kings were not divine in their own right,
but had to be 'baptized' into power by the Buddhist institutions. The people of Pyu and the later Burmans
followed the original Ashokan empire state Buddhism. Here the monastarys and stately government
had gone into a symbiosis where Kings could not exist without being divinized by the Theravadic institutions.
       
Since the beginning of the Pyu culture and up to the English conquest of Mandalay in 1885, the Buddhist monks
have been central to the Burmese kings. The monks sanctified the rulers by making the right endorsing
rituals that divinized his right to rule. As a return the royal families supported and financed the Sangha.
This system slowly vanished in India with the rise of the Sunghas. In Burma it continued until the English
in the last Anglo-Burmese war in 1885 crushed the royal classes in Burma. 
   
     
Animist Buddhism 
By the 4th century, most of the Pyu had become predominantly Buddhist. However like in
contemporary Burma the Buddhist behavior still in many ways is more or less a kind of surface
like the Burmese lacquer art. After many layers of lacquer you arrive at an innermost core of
animal horse hairs. Basically the Burmese culture is still animistic in its deepest core.
Burmese Buddhism can only be understood in this animistic context. 
The bead culture and especially the magic understanding of beads must be seen
must be understood from to basically opposite spectrums: Animism and Buddhism. 
      
The rise of the Burman culture
Later, around 800 AD, when the Pyu culture slowly was overtaken by the Burman culture,
starting from Bagan, the new rulers, like seen so many times in history, forgot their own
culture and started to sample the culture they had defeated. A clear example is seen in the
new Burman ruler, now with a new entirely Indian name, King
Anawrahta, when he in 1044 stated
his conversion from Ari-Buddhism to Thervada Buddhism with building the Schwezigon Pagoda.
This pagoda is built in typical Pyu architectural style.
   

Schwezigon Pagoda, Bagan, 1044
  
Buddhists and Hindus together
The Pyu civilization and the later Burmans were Buddhist cultures. However, like big
brother India, they had a large and respected Hindu minority. Sadly much of the evidence of
a thriving Hindu culture has been destroyed after the military coup by in 1962.
In Bagan there were several hundred ancient large Pyu Shiva-lingas before
the military started systematically to destroy them in order to clear out all Hindu
culture from Burma. At the same time millions of Indians who resettled during English
colonialization, were forced out of Burma by the new military dictators.  
 

Bead history
The same thing happened to the bead production. It was overtaken and copied by the new B
urman rulers.
Hence it sometimes can be difficult to ascertain if a bead is a genuine Pyu bead or a bead made by the later
Burman's of Bagan. I talked to some Burmese people who have based their livelihood in searching for beads.
These people are so far the most knowledgeable bead experts I have encountered in my time as a bead hunter.
They told me that for them it is quite easy to tell the difference between a Pyu bead or a later Bagan-Burman bead.
After the decline of the Pyu-period, the art of bead making declined simultaneously.  
 
So the Pyu beads definitely have their own identity and artistic beauty. However one
should not forget that the design of these beads, together with the beads themselves
came as bearers of cultural and religious signs from the Buddhist heartland India.
 
When we look into the design and symbolic meaning of Pyu and later Burmese beads,
we have to consider this well documented relation to and dependency on trade with India.
Also we have to take into consideration, what is somehow forgotten:
India was a Buddhist country at the time of the Pyu civilization. All beads from this period
and even later have to be understood in the light of Animistic Indian Buddhism.
  
Today Pyu bead culture is often seen as an isolated phenomena, in the same way as
Ghandara art has been wrongly viewed as a culture belonging only to Afghanistan.
Ghandaran art was not merely a local expression of art. It was a part of the thriving
State Buddhism of Greater India.   
      
Displayed below are some etched beads I sourced in Bagan. These beads have the exact same design
as the ones I found in Northwest India and Pakistan. As so many times before, we can see beads as travelers.
On one hand they lose their history by traveling, on the other hand they create history by traveling.
    
Beads from Bagan, Burma

 

Beads from Northwest India
  
 
Are the Pumtek beads ancient?
In the west Pumtek beads are often described as Pyu beads. In Burma all the
diggers, collectors and sellers of beads did not recognize this categorization at all.
Many of them did not even recognize the term 'Pumtek'. They simply call them Chin beads,
beads originating from the Chin province in the North West of Myanmar.
This has, together with my historical investigations led me to following hypothesis:
 
In the beginning of the Pyu culture there was no distinct and outstanding bead culture in Burma.
Like the architectural styles of the pagodas, the life of the Kings and so on, it
was all a sample of the culture of the Indian Buddhist neighbor. Hence the earliest beads we find in
Burma are beads with pure Indian design, either made in India or by Indian influenced craftsmen living
in Burma. Only later the different tribes of Burma found their own style and art of
bead making. This is exactly what happened with the stupas and pagodas in Burma.
In the beginning, at Bagan they were pure clones of Indian architecture. Later, when the
Burman culture expanded and influenced neighboring tribes and areas,
Burma did develop its own stupa and pagoda style.
            

Bagan-Indian cloned stupa style

One of the main features that characterizes Pumtek beads is that they are made out
of petrified or agatized wood. India does not have petrified wood like Burma. 
Seen in this light the Pumtek-Chin beads represent a later, 'customized' and more independent
development of Burmese bead making, taking place not at the old power centers of Burma,
but later at the outskirts of the country. I do at the moment not have enough evidence to prove
this hypothesis. It is only what one could call a working model. However, seen in this light
the Pumtek-Chin beads are not as old as claimed, at least not more than a maximum of 1000 years.

The Buddhist cruciform
One of the most frequent symbols on the Pyu beads is the cruciform.




      
17 * 8 mm                                16 * 4 mm

Old fossilized beads with the typical Burmese cruciform patterns with dots

No doubt that the Pyu's loved this symbol more than anything. However this symbol did not
originate from the Pyu culture. It came as a messenger of Buddhism from India.
 
The cruciform was one of the most important symbols of early Buddhism.
Most stupas and pagodas incorporated the cruciform in their architecture.


Cruciform stupa structure

of Somapura, Greater India

Just as an experiment I showed several intellectual Buddhist monks in Myanmar some cruciform beads
as the one displayed below. My question was: What is the first thing that comes to your mind when
you see this symbol? Most of these monks had never seen these cruciform beads before.
Their answers were like I had anticipated.

This symbol depicts the four noble truth of the Buddha...

This symbol depicts the mission of the Buddha, like seen in the Ashoka pillar.

Buddhist cruciform jasper bead
        
Click on picture for larger image
26 * 24 * 9 mm

front                                             back

Again we witness the strong influence from Indian Buddhism.
This pre Christian cross was the 'logo' of the famous Buddhist
University at Taxila in North West 'Greater India'.


Below you can see a bead from Taxila in Pakistan.



It is my firm belief that the patterns depicted on etched beads are a simple sign language
that has its root in a Buddhist culture. These simple signs could, like the simple mudras of
the Buddha, unify all the Buddhist societies spread along the enormous distances
of the trade routes. These different Buddhist cultures had different customs and different
languages, but they were able to unify in the understanding of the humanistic messages of the
Buddha, messages of tolerance and human understanding so important for the upholding of the
trade routes. You can read more about this subject here.

 


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