The Ancient Pharsi Drums of Burma


    The ancient bronze drums of South-East Asia particularly those from the northeast regions of what used to be known as the Indo-China Peninsula have long been the subject of research. As maybe be expected researchers have sought to classify the drums according to certain characteristics.

    According to Franz Heger of Vienna in his " Metaltrommeln aus Suedost-Asien" ( The metal drums of South-East Asia) published in 1902, the bronze drums were classified into four main types after close study of 165 specimens. The first type which is believed to be among the earliest known is peculiar for the shape of the drum body which has flaired mouth ; the middle part is a straight cylinder and the top part is bulbous, curving up gently to meet the drumhead whose diameter is slightly smaller than the diameter of the bulbous part at its broadest.

    In both the second and the third types, the most noticeable characteristic is that the drumhead proper projects a little beyond the body of the drum like a ledge. The resonance case or the body of the drum generally has a more graceful configuration than the first type. The flaired mouth gently narrows towards the waist and then broadens out again with just a hint of a bulge before it meets the projecting drumhead.

    The third type which approximates with the pharsi bronze drum of Burma has bands of horizontal ridges or lines in relief encircling the drum body. And of course there are also the distinctive frog figures which adorn the outer rim of the drumhead.

    Incidentally, the frog motif is peculiar not only to Burma. Bronze drums with similar decorations have also been found in other parts of South East Asia.

    Since 1902 many more drums have been discovered and more classifications may have been made. For instance, W.Foy in  " Uber Alter Bronze Tromeln aus Sudest Asien" classifies South East Asian bronze drums into give categories placing the pharsi in the fifth category.

    But no matter what the classification, it is generally agreed that the drums of the first type are among the most ancient possessing the characteristics of what is known as Dongson culture a term given after an excavation site near Dongson, south of  Hanoi in north Vietnam where large bronze drums and other bronze artifacts of a high degree of artistry were unearthed.

    Later discoveries have however shown that Dongson drums which were at one time believed to be among the oldest discovered are actually, quite recent chronologically, being cast only about BC 100 though some drum fragments later discovered in Malaysia have been dated earlier-- about BC 200. The grandfather of them all , as far as is known, is the Ngoc-lu in the province of Ha-nam, Tongkin. This drum has been ascribed to be as early as BC 450.

    In the opinion of Doctor John Lowestein in his paper on the " Origins of the Malayan Metal Age" published in the Journal of the Malayan Branch Royal Asiatic Society ( Volume XXIX , Part 2; May 1956 ), "Within Type I we know of a few drums which are rightly regarded as constituting the very first specimens ever cast. These are adorned in a naturalistic style with figures of warriors wearing large feather head-dresses and with elaborate pictures of houses and boats, as well as representations of animals, musical instruments, etc,. which are in fact the most ancient cultural records in South East Asia. On later examples of Type I drums the representations become more and more stylized and finally disintegrate into ornaments the original features on which could not be detected if none of the 'parent' drums had ever come to light."

    If we are to take this as basis, the predominance of realism as against geometric design may serve as useful reference to antecedents.

    Considering this, the ancient pharsi bronze drums of Burma with their combination of geometric designs and mixture of stylized as well as realistic animal figures mark in development though not necessarily chronological. we cannot totally disregard the possibility that bronze drum culture if we are to call it that, goes even further back than has been believed.

    It is interesting to note the comment made in the " the Kares " section of the series entitled " Cultural Traditions and Customs of the National Races of the Socialist Republic of the Union of Burma" published by the Burma Socialist Programme Party. The comment which appears on page 322 states, " ... a thriving pharsi bronze drum casting industry emerged in the Wa region not only because of the abundance of metals but also because the drums were used a barter for trade in the city of Tagaung."

    This claim that pharsi bronze drums were already in existence by the time of the near-legendary city of Tagaung may not be too farfetched as it may seen to be. For, according to U Aung Thaw in Historical Sites in Burma, " the re-establishment of the capital (Tagaung) by a second refugee prince is believed to have taken place about is believed to have taken place about 6th century B.C.". Even if the second founding of the city took place later than stated, its is known to have existed as a city-State at least up to about BC 200.

    This would place the period of existence of Tagaung, traditionally known as the cradle of Burmese civilization in about the same chronological spectrum as the earliest bronze drums which have so far been found.

    Considering the advanced casting process evidently used and the high degree of artistry seen in them, there is powerful reason for researchers to fell that art of making bronze drums could have begun much earlier than shown by discovered evidence.

    If we are to follow traditional orthodox reconstruction, of the spread of bronze culture, bronze was supposed to have been first discovered in western Asia and then taken to Greece about 3,000 BC from where it spread to eastern Europe. And it is believed that a migration from eastern Europe at about 1,000 BC, moving east and south entered China during the Western Chou Dynasty (1122-771 BC) bringing with them not only a knowledge of bronze work but also a new art form in which they decorated their bronze with geometric patters as well as scenes of animals and people.

    As applied to South East Asia this culture was termed Dong-son. It was felt that the people of Dong-son first introduced bronze and the geometric art style which can be see on practically all the bronze drums of South East Asia. This is based on the presumption that South East Asia got its bronze culture from the north through China.

    However this hypothesis does not seem to quite match the discovered evidence which reveals that bronze culture was in China even earlier than that Chou dynasty. In fact the lat capital of the Shang Dynasty ( 1523-1028 BC) near Anyang in North Honan is the oldest Bronze Age site known in China. But here too as in the case of South East Asian Bronze Drums advanced that " the assumption of a more archaic phase became almost imperative " as the Encyclopedia Britannica (Volume 2 : Archaeology) put it. It presented a problem which has confounded pre-historians, archaeologists and anthropologists alike. As William Watson commented in his Early Civilization in China. "InHonan, the Shang are found to have discovered bronze and to have mastered the art of using it in a manner comparable to that of the Late Bronze Age of the Mediterranean." Herein lies a problem which has not been fully solved. Archaeologists have long sought an earlier civilization, particularly evidence of primitive bronze technology which would give color to the theory that the main development of the metallurgy was accomplished in China independently of any considerable influence from the bronze-using civilization of the Near East and the Mediterranean World."

    What is even more significant, they are not conspicuous in either the Shang or the Chou dynasties.

    But more recent excavations in other parts of South East Asia are beginning to point to a more obvious solution which seems to have been overlooked. Writing in the National Geographic Magazine ( march 1971 ) Dr. Wilhelm G Solheim II, professor of Anthropology of the University of Hawaii gave an account of how excavations at Nok Nok Tha in northern Thailand resulted in the discovery of bronze tools of advanced design including bronze axes cast in double sand-stone moulds pre-dating Dong-son culture by at least 2,000 years, suggesting that South East Asian bronze industry began around 3,000 BC or even earlier. This would put it some 500 years earlier than the first known bronze casting in India and some 1,000 years before any known in China.

    Studies of plant domestication have also shown that the  South East Asian peoples made early and important strides of their own in the domestications and cultivation of staples and other vegetables round 10,000 BC. Carbon-14 dating of a post shred with the imprint of a paddy grain has shown it to date at the latest from 3,500 BC, as much as 1,000 years earlier than rice dated for either India or China where some archaeologists claimed, rice was first domesticated.

    The only people who fit in chronologically with the new evidence are the Haobinhian -- a term coined after a site near the village of Hao Binh in northern Vietnam to denote a primitive culture prior to Dong-son.

    The Padahlin caves in eastern Burma excavated in 1969 and wehre many cave paintings were found is a Haohinbian site. Indeed, Padahlin has the distinction of being the most western-most Haobinhian site so far reported. Yet another Haobinhain site is the Spirit Cave in northern Thailand. Standing high on the side of a limestone outcrop, overlooking a stream which ultimately drains into the Salween river in Burma, the Spirit Cave showed signs of human habitation which on carbon-14 dating showed periods ranging from 9,700 BC to 6,000 BC.

    The fact is that many archaeologists have tended to regard prehistoric South East Asia as a relatively passive land -- a cultural cul de sac as it were of ideas and influence from neighboring regions. Recent evidence thought spares -- Burma itself is virtually unknown prehistorically -- and uncorrelated facts have provided suggestions which in the opinion of at least one archaeologist's appraisal South East Asia added to the world culture as much if not more than it received.

    As Dr. Solheim suggested, it is not improbable that instead of civilization coming down to South East Asia from the north, the first Neolithic ( Late Stone-Age) culture of North China known as Yanghshao developed out of a Haobinhian subculture that moved north from northern South East Asia at about 6,000 or 7,000 BC.

    If this, be so , is it not then also possible that the sophisticated bronze casting methods and the fine artistry evident in the Dong-son culture began and developed not in areas further north in China anywhere else but within South East Asia itself criss-crossed with the fertile valleys of great rivers like the Mekong whose civilization would have the best chance of springing up.

    In this connection Poo Taw Oo (Thra Bu Mu) in Karen Bronze Drums states that Karens ( or their ancestors) used to make the pharsi bronze drums long before they arrived at the present location in South East Asia. This is according to ancient Karen ballads, poems and folklore which quite explicitly state that their ancestors used to live "at the headwaters of the Mekong". The pharsi bronze drums, according to the Karen folklore, were said to have been made by a certain race of Shan Kareans known as Khamon, Khamu or Khmu who roved from place to place and eventually settled down at a region inhabited by "wa" people where there was n abundance of metals such as tin, tungsten, zinc, silver and others.

    Strangely enough, the region of South East Asia where the Khmu people may still be found in great numbers today is in Laos where exist the headwarers of the Mekong. At the same time the region where the Wa or the Lwa people as they are also known may be found today forms a broad belt which runs north to south on eastern part of Burma covering such well-known mines a Bawdwin and mawchi in the north to numerous other mines lower down including Ngwedaung of Kayah State which even today is known as prominent place where the Pharsi bronzed drums were at c time manufactured in great numbers.

    Anthropologically speaking, the Khmer, the Khmus, the Lawas all belong to the Austro-Asiatic stock of Mon-khmers.

    Hence from the angle of both folklore and recent archaeological discoveries it becomes evident that the bronze drums of South East Asia including our cherished pharsi bronze drums are more than just a link with South East Asian's bronze age-- they represent nothing less than a direct link with the earliest bronze age culture in the world and perhaps even with one of the oldest human civilization found anywhere in the world.