Friday, 20 February 2009

A brief introduction to the Pumtek beads of Burma.

The word Pumtek means 'buried thunderbolt' and should be regarded as the generic name for a large variety of decorated stone beads that are crafted in various shapes and sizes. They are made from silicified or opalised fossil wood ( also known as agatised wood or petrified wood ) and in some cases they were made purely from agate or chalcedony. Today they are primarily found on heirloom necklaces of the Chin tribe. The earliest Pumtek are normally dark brown to black in colour and are completely opaque. They are typically round in shape and display white decorated lines or eyes. Other shapes and designs are also known and some may date to as early as 400 BCE.

Early 20th century Burmese bead makers also adopted the name Pumtek for their own newly created fossil wood beads. These beads were designed to replicate the Pumtek found on their much prized heirloom necklaces and also copied other beads that they recovered from the ground. 
The first wave of very old heirloom beads first appeared in the West during the 1980s and they were soon to end up in private collections. They were very affordable at this time because little was known about them. Nowadays they command high prices in and outside of Asia, where they are avidly collected.

A small Burmese cottage industry was once again revived in the 1990s, and bead makers tried to copy much earlier Pumtek to satisfy demand. They also created beads with comtemporary designs to stimulate new interest. It is also clear that they copied shapes and designs more commonly associated with the dZi beads of Tibet. Since genuine dZi beads command very high prices in the Himalayan regions, Pumteks with similar designs began to appeal to a wider and more commercial audience. 

Above Left: Detail from a photograph published in 1896 by Carey & Tuck in The Chin Hills Gazetteer. This is probably the earliest known publication that mentions these beads. It shows a woman from the Chin tribe wearing a necklace of round six stripe Pumtek and also a number of Pumtek with the zig zag decoration. In the same article the following is said about these beads: "the sacred once the most prized and the most costly possession of the Haka, a tribe found in the Chin hills of north-west Burma...[and]...always readily exchangeable for any number of valuables such as cattle, guns and slaves".

Excerpt from the Hand Book on the Haka Chin Customs by W. R. HEAD (Published 1917)

"Tradition says that a man possessed a goat and according to the food he gave it, its dung became pumtek beads. Good food produced good beads and vice versa. Mahooya beads (another name for Pumtek) are highly prized. Now-a-days they come from Gangaw in the Pakku District, but, where they are bought, the Chins do not know : some of the modern ones are of just as good quality as the old beads : there are ten varieties round, flat and cylindrical they are of a black background with white stripes. They vary from annas 8 to Rs. 100, but heirlooms are priceless and cannot be bought. Lyen Mo of Sangte possesses the most, but the best specimens belong to the Sangpi family. Lyen Dun, Chief of Klang Klang Tribe, also possesses many beads."  

The Hand Book on the Haka Chin also mentions the following:

"It is customary for Chiefs owning very special beads (or property) of good quality to hold a feast, and, in front of the assembled company, to forbid his heirs to part with certain beads and gongs and order that they must be kept in the hmunfi [family] : the result is that no Chins will dispose or part with these heirlooms if he did so, ill-luck would befall and he would die and, further, his wife become barren."

N.B.The above report by W. R. Head was published in 1917 and mentions that 'modern' Pumtek (or Mahooya) beads were available in Burma at this time. This clearly shows that some of the more recent Pumtek were being made prior to the 1920s, however, it is still unclear when this production started or whether there had been a continued (or sporadic) production since ancient times. It is clear that many Pumtek show signs of being much older than early 20th century manufacture, however, they are not old enough to fall into the 'ancient' category (more than 1000 years old). 

We do know that Pumtek were being made in the 1920s, however, this was not the only period of production for these beads. Ancient Pumtek are believed to date somewhere between 1000 and 2500 years old , and are often referred to as "Pyu" beads. However, there is a huge variety of ancient Pyu beads (including those made from glass and other types of stone), so I refer to Pumtek from the Pyu or Tircul period as 'ancient Pumtek' for clarity and simplicity. It is also important to note that many beads that are given the name 'Pyu' (or believed to be from the Pyu/Tircul period) may in fact be from a much earlier time. Some of the decorated agates that we see on heirloom strands were probably traded to Burma from India in ancient times.

Above: A drawing of an heirloom Pumtek necklace (shown in 'The Lakhers' by N. E. PARRY - published 1932). Many of the beads are likely to have been made from a more agatised or opalised material and it is likely that some of them were made from chalcedony. Many of the designs shown are associated with the very earliest Pumtek from the Pyu/Tircul period. It is possible that some of these beads may have been traded in antiquity from India and later adopted by the Burmese as their own. This particular necklace belonged to the chief of Chapi, a leader of the Chin people. 

If Parry's information is accurate, then the name Pumtek was used for many types of decorated stone beads that were both ancient and antique. Remember that at the time of the above drawing, the early 1920s Pumtek beads had only been in production for a few years.  It is therefore highly unlikely they would have found themselves on the above 'heirloom' necklace. We can therefore have confidence that the beads on this necklace had their origins in antiquity. So it is important to stress that Pumtek is not a name given exclusively to early 20th century fossil wood beads. Many beads that are known by the Chin tribe as Pumtek clearly have an ancient origin. Each bead is numbered in the drawing because the Chin have unique names for each design. In much the same way that Tibetans have unique names for the many varieties of dZi.

In 'The Lakhers' Parry tells us: 

"In the families of chiefs and nobles, heirlooms are handed down from generation to generation. These generally consist of necklaces of Pumtek beads, rahongs, gongs or guns. Rachi, the Chief of Chapi, has a very fine necklace of Pumteks (see drawing above) which came to him from Khilai, one of his ancestors, and which he says nothing will induce him to sell. Heirlooms, in fact, are never sold unless the owner is in very great distress indeed."

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