WIDELY SEEN in curio shops and stalls in both Burma and Thailand are delightful, boldly modelled bronze figures of birds and animals of varying sizes set on solid round or rectangular bases. They are referred to as "opium" weights. The term immediately conjures up visions of dingy secluded rooms off dark winding alleys, where frail trans-parent Orientals with glazed unseeing eyes lie lethargically on platform beds puffing intermittently at long clay pipes packed with a wad of opium which has been carefully measured using one of these weights. It is indeed tempting to contemplate that a notorious substance such as opium, the reliever of pain on the one hand and the cause of untold suffering to many on the other, should have its own distinctive and special set of weights and measures.
This, alas, seems to be but a myth. The term "opium" weight for these measures was probably coined by a foreigner with a vivid imagination and a fascination for the forbidden. While it is true that some of the smaller weights could have been used for measuring this drug, "opium" weights served a much wider, more useful and down-to-earth purpose: they were used to gauge the weight of the daily items of commerce found in the Burmese market-place. All types of food, raw materials and metals, both ordinary and precious, were sold in quantities determined by these weights. Items were measured by a beam hung with two baskets or trays. The correct weight was placed in one basket and the other basket filled with the desired material until the two baskets balanced.
These weights have long attracted the attention of travellers to Burma. Early adventurers to the court of Pegu in the sixteenth century noted that silver bullion was weighed with these "curious animal" weights. Yule, an emissary of Queen Victoria, illustrated one in his book, A Narrative of the Mission Sent by the Governor General of India to the Court of Ava in 1855. It is quite possible that these weights were also once used over much of Thailand and Cambodia, but for the purpose of this article, the discussion of weights has been limited to those actually found in Burma.
It is not known exactly when these weights came into existence. Two small metal figures resembling a lion and hintha bird were uncovered during the 1956 archaeological excavations at Beikthano, near Taung-winggyi in central Burma, a Pyu site thought to date from A.D. 100-400. Unfortunately, there is no evidence to confirm that they were actually used as weights. There are references to weights and measures in the inscriptions of Pagan (A.D. 1044-1287) but to date, no actual examples have been found that can be ascribed to that period with any certainty. U Thaw Bita, an eminent scholar-monk of the Shwegaing Chaung Monastery in the Sagaing Hills of Upper Burma, has made a diligent survey of the chronicles and other written records from the eleventh to the nineteenth centuries. He has uncovered many references to weights and the occasions on which they were used. Unfortunately, this material is at present only available in Burmese.
Opium weights come in various sizes and up to the nineteenth century a complete set consisted often units. The largest was a viss, a unit of weight of Indian origin equalling approximately 3-1/2 lbs or 100 ticals. This was followed by the 50, 20, 10, 5, 2 and 1 tical, ending with 1/2, 1/4 and 1/8 ticals. For easier lifting, many of the one viss, 50 and 20 tical weights came with a handle attached to the head and tail of the weight. These handles blend in well with the animal and give the larger weights a certain elegance which is lacking in the smaller ones. During the nineteenth century, larger weights such as 10, 5 and 2-1/2 viss became more popular.
Very occasionally, Burmese digits representing the year of manufacture or the actual units of weight may also be inscribed on the base.
Opium weights were cast by the cire perdue or lost wax process. Since they were to be used as standard measures, great care was taken in weighing the amount of molten metal needed in casting. Extreme caution was also taken in measuring the amount of wax needed when making a mould. For one viss of bronze, ten ticals of wax were used. The proportion of wax would vary slightly depending on the composition of the alloy. Made of lead, the animal mould would be in two half pieces, while the base mould consisted of only one piece. During casting, the molten metal was poured in through an opening in the base. Occasionally a weight might be found with a very small base. This was due to the mould being a little too large for the amount of metal used. The further addition of metal would alter the weight, so the base was left incomplete. The basic metal used was bronze, an alloy of copper, tin and zinc. The earliest weights found dating back to the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries are reddish in colour due to a higher proportion of copper being used in the alloy. During the late seventeenth and the eighteenth centuries, tin became more dominant in the alloy, ranging from 10 to 40 per cent, thus giving the weights a slightly silvery-whitish hue. Weights made during the late eighteenth and the nineteenth centuries display the typical light yellowish colour associated with bronze. Late nineteenth and twentieth century weights, being made of brass, assume a deep yellowish colour. Weights in Upper Burma were made by craftsmen either in Ava or the Tampawaddi district, half way between Mandalay and Amarapura. In lower Burma, during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, weights were made in the Pegu district.
Let us take three of the most common animals depicted on opium weights, the hintha bird, the karaweik and the toe, and look at some of their different forms as a possible guide to tentative dating.
The earliest hintha weights found are thought to date from around the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. They are set on a pumpkin-shaped base. The head is large and crested, while the neck is usually plain. Sometimes an object may dangle from the mouth. The breast is quite small and the wings large. The upturned tail resembles a sprig of curling foliage. The feet are barely discernible and the bird appears to be sitting on the base. A small circular replica of the hintha may be embossed on the front of the base. There may also be other round or square seals bearing letters and numbers on the sides of the base. Some of the loveliest hintha weights uncovered date from the eighteenth century. They are generally supported on a smaller round base, a few of which tend towards the octagonal. The beak closely resembles a duck's bill. The larger weights often have an object suspended from the mouth, touching the centre of an ample breast. The eye is usually outlined and the head is crowned by a two or three-point curling crest, which is echoed in the four or five layers of feathers lying flat against the nape of the neck. The wings and tail curl gracefully upwards in a restrained manner. The larger weights, too, are equipped with a plain hook-shaped handle attached to the back of the neck and the base of the tail feathers. The feet show a little more sculpturing than in previous examples. Some weights have a small niche at the front of the base in which an outline of a hintha has been imprinted. Unfortunately, many of these marks are very blurred and the hintha outline is most difficult to make out.
During the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, a hintha weight closely resembling a traditional duck form also came to be used. The shovel-shaped beak is set right against the breast as if in a sleeping position. The neck, wings and tails are very simply moulded with little attention to detail. The bird is mounted on an octagonal base with sloping sides.
Another most popular animal form expressed in Burmese weights is the toe, often erroneously referred to as the chinthe,due to its resemblance to the Burmese lion which guards the entrance to temples throughout Burma. The toe is a fabulous animal supposed to inhabit the Himalayan forest. It has the face of a lion, horns, and the hooves and tail of a horse. There are different species of toe in Burmese folklore such as the toe naya which resembles a lion, and the toe oung which is like a bull. The toe myin has certain characteristics pertaining to the horse, while the toe nwa is not unlike a cow. Semblances of these different types of toe have been seen in opium weights and probably refer to such names as Tibetan bull, crested horse, crested bull and toe naya mentioned in Nandabahu's list of weights. Some of the earliest toe found which date back to the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries stand on a low octagonal base. They are thought to resemble the toe oungor Tibetan bull. The face with its bared teeth and flaring nostrils resembles a lion, while the round plump body, long tail and round hooves are more like a horse. The head is crowned with a pair of horns, below which are small pointed ears. Some are decorated with sprigs of foliage curling from a grinning mouth. Many have curvilinear mouldings over the chest and face. Sometimes on the base there is a small niche containing an outline of the animal.
Like other nineteenth century weights, the later toe becomes much more flamboyant. The face is still that of a lion with the body of a horse and could well be a toe myin rather than a toe oung. The head, in addition to ears and horns, now bears one or two extra curling protuberances, as do the mane and tail. These are also repeated on the handle. Instead of a sprig of foliage suspended from the mouth, many have what looks like a beard issuing from the chin and curling up slightly on the chest. The base in most cases is rectangular with sloping sides incised with horizontal decoration. Some bases have a round mark at the back, while others have the star flower. Some of the transitional types, while like the toe myin in form, retain a circular base and sprig issuing from the mouth.
These three types are the most common animals to be found on opium weights. Other animals such as the elephant, chicken, horse, tortoise, spider and even a fish have been seen but they are extremely rare. When not in use, weights were kept in a beautifully carved semicircular wooden box especially made for the purpose. The lid is carved in bas-relief with floral or animal motifs, while the inside of the base is hollowed out into depressions to accommodate the two trays of the scales and the weights which are neatly arranged around the scales. These boxes, along with the weights, are very good examples of the care and craftsmanship that the Burmese have put into fashioning their everyday objects.
Because of their popularity with tourists, fakes and reproductions of opium weights abound. Weights in bronze ceased to be made shortly after the British took over Burma completely in 1885, and they were gradually replaced by the familiar round iron weights widely used in many countries today.
When collecting weights, it is advisable to select separate examples rather than purchasing them in a set, for fakes are commonly included in some sets. It is relatively easy to purchase some of the larger and medium weights, but it takes a little more persistence and patience to rummage around antique shops to acquire the smaller units. This is part of the fun for most collectors. Collecting weights is not expensive, but dealers (in Thailand and Burma) are aware of the rarity and superior craftsmanship of certain weights and will charge accordingly. Nothing can match the joy and exhilaration experienced by a collector who finds exactly what he has been looking for over a period of time...the opium weight collector is no exception.
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