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Silver Craft in North Thailand

large silver bowl VISITORS TO THE NORTH are almost invariably fascinated by the intricate, are beautiful designs wrought in silver object of various shapes. This highly developed art of silver craftsmanship is the skilled manual expression of cultural motifs and is a source of considerable local pride.

While many people consider Chiangmai silver to be synonymous with silver from the upper Maekhong area, this is not entirely correct. There are distinct patterns and shapes which alone or in combination will help to identify a piece as being Chiangmai, Burmese, Shan, Hilltribe, or Lao. Stores in the North also display products from Bangkok and this is sometimes referred to as being "Thai silver."

It is sometimes difficult to tell whether a Burmese style bowl was made in Chiangmai or up in the border town of Mae Hong Sorn. A Shan style bowl can may come from the Shan States of Burma, from a Shan village near Chiangmai or it may have been made by a person of Shan descent working in a local silver shop.

For well over 200 years, Chiangmai and Chiangrai were part of an independent country which extended south to Lumpang and north to the Shan States of Burma. Thai was the Kingdom of Lan Na or Lanna Thai. The first ruler to emerge was King Mengrai, who founded both a dynasty and the city - state of Chiangmai in 1296. After a good deal of fighting years later, the Burmese overran all of Lanna and occupied it until 1775. Following a lengthy siege by King Taksin of Ayutthaya, Chiangmai was recaptured by the Thai. The Kingdom of Lanna Thai was eventually incorporated into Siam in the reign of Rama V.

bowls The Kingdom of Lanna Thai was a cultural melting pot for over 1,000 years. There was continual interchange of art and ideas following the fortunes of war along the Upper Maekhong River and over the mountains into Burma and the Shan States.

In the North, the origins of silver work came much later and were primarily a result of Burmese and Shan silver methods and styles in the 13th century. The tradition of silver work in both Sukhothai and Lanna developed rapidly in the 14th century, and by the time of the Thai Ayutthaya Kingdom in the 15th century, a fantastic combination of techniques and designs were prominent in the area.

Northern Thai Silver is among the most famous in Thailand and the methods and styles vary greatly from the central and Southern Thai silver wares. Northern Thai silver got its start in the late 13th century with the fall of Pagan in Burma (1287 A.D.). Because of that event, hundreds of Burmese silversmiths fled Burma for the new capital of Lanna, Chiangmai. Here they set up their craft anew and Chiangmai silver was the inheritor of the Burmese tradition. At about the same time and thereafter the Shan tribes lived throughout northern Thailand and northern Burma, and northern Thai silver also has many Shan attributes. Thus, when we speak of Chiangmai silver, we are also speaking of both Burmese and shan silver.

Silver work in Burma got its start with the Pyu civilization the 6th and 7th centuries A.D. The Pyu silver coins used in trade have been found at various sites known to have been Mon in the 7th and 8th centuries. The impact of Burma and the Burmese on Thai silver, both during and after Pagan, was constant. In Burma itself, a colorful and varied silver craft developed because of the Burmese practice of taking slaves in war and transporting them to Pagan to add their craft to the ongoing development to the Burmese art. The most valuable slaves to the Burmese were the craftsmen and they made a practice of capturing craftsmen particularly.

The Burmese penchant for forced labor in the crafts resulted in the unique nature of many of Burma 's crafts, including silver, and when Burma later occupied Lanna in the 16th to 18th centuries, the Burmese transported craftsmen to various parts of northern Thailand. It was during these centuries that the northern Thai silver crafts continued to change and develop, and at the same time other crafts, such as lacquerware, also found a home in the North.

The connection between Burmese silver and lacquer is close, especially since northern Thai designs are based on the Burmese shapes and patterns. Many of the Burmese and northern Thai silver shapes are similar to those of the lacquerware. One of the most prevalent is embossed silver lime boxes which are part of betel sets. One of the most striking is embossed globular bowls in repousse which are base on the monk's begging bowl. Cylindrical betel boxes in incised silver are also works common to both Burma and northern Thailand; and, in addition, the cylindrical boxes are also common to the Shan. Covered trays on pedestals, votive food containers, and bowls with straight sides are also a highlight of Burmese and northern Thai silver.

'Repousse' is a characteristic feature of Northern Thai silver work. There are, however, wide shades of differences in the degree to which any particular design is fashioned. While most bowls and epergnes made in Bangkok have a flat surfaced pattern, Burmese bowls will show figures which extrude and inch or more from the background design. Chiangmai products are generally in between these two extremes.

small articlesOn these bowls scenes are hammered into the silver in high - relief, 'repousse' and this silver is made in most of Chiangmai's factories today. Scenes on the silver bowls and boxes usually depict characters and symbolism from the Buddhist Jataka Tales, and scenes from the Indian epic, the Ramayana. There are direct Burmese styles and northern Thai silver just as often contains the floral and flame patterns described above. Foliage and scenes of nature on northern Thai silver are as frequent as Buddhist motifs.

A favorite pattern of local silversmiths is a wide semicircle which has a curl at each end. Sometimes the curls are called 'Goan-Hoy' (shells, snails) and the semicircles are called 'Klom Pling' (leeches).

Figures on bowls may be human, mythical, or animal. Of the mythical figures, the best known are the Tepanom and the Garuda. Other bowls show scenes from the Ramakian legend. One may also find depicted in silver the legend of Pra Wej Sundorn, or the life of Buddha before enlightenment, in which Prince Gotama renounces all aspects of material and worldly life. Such a bowl will show a variety of scenes as he sends away his wife, his children, and gives away chariots and white elephants.

The final design of major importance is that which represents the twelve - year cycles of life (Sibsong Rasri). Many times this is found in combination with the "pineapple pattern"; it appears by itself on Shan bowls and boxes. The 'Sipsong Rasri' in traditional order are:mouse; ox; tiger; rabbit; dragon; small snake; horse; goat; monkey; chicken; dog; pig (elephant in Chiangmai).

Chiangmai and the surrounding area has a long history of the Silversmith Craft. Whether a result of natural business evolution or simply the typical slow dissipation of artistic skills that occurs in so many industries in every country which always seems to follow modernization.

"If proper training can be done and if an artistic sense of the value of the traditional silver - making process, as well as the other silver arts can be instilled in the younger artisan recruits, then the tradition will go on." Reputable places to buy Silver are : Sipsong Panna, Arts & Crafts, Iyara Art, Gems Gallery, Amata Lanna, Baan Phor Liang Muen plus see Chiangmai Shoppimg Directory for details and directions.

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