Friday, 20 February 2009

Brief introduction to the Pumtek beads of Burma.

The word Pumtek means 'buried thunderbolt' in the Chin language and is currently the most widely adopted name for this unique group of beads. They were originally crafted in ancient times during the Pyu/Tircul period (or earlier) and they can come in a variety of shapes and sizes and display a diverse range of decorated motifs. The meaning of such designs has long since been lost to antiquity. Some types may have been inspired by the decorated stone beads of India or even Tibet, however, many are certainly unique to Pumtek and not found elsewhere. The Chin also have individual names for each bead type and the rarer designs are highly valued.

Pumtek are also unusual because they are created from silicified wood (also known as opalised, fossilised or petrified wood) and in some cases agate or chalcedony. This agatised or opalised material is indigenous to Burma and so Pumteks are therefore very distinct from other stone beads found in Asia. Pumtek have also traveled to neighboring countries, such as India, Thailand and even Nepal and Tibet where they have been adopted as a variety of dZi bead.

In Burma today, Pumtek and other Tircul stone beads are mainly seen on heirloom necklaces belonging to the Chin (also known as Kuki), a tribal group that can be found spread out from Northwestern Burma to Northeastern India.

The earliest Pumtek (often highly contrasted black and white decorated stone beads) possibly date to 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. Wearing these beads was seen as a display of position and wealth within the tribal community and they also acted as protective amulets. Perhaps it was also believed that they were imbued with the power of past ancestors. To the untrained eye, 20th century beads are often confused with much earlier Pumtek because they so closely resemble each other. The Chin also mix antique and ancient beads on the same heirloom necklaces and this can often make it difficult to tell them apart. 

A small Burmese cottage industry was revived in the 1990s and once again bead makers tried to replicate much earlier Pumtek, however, these later beads are a world apart when it comes to the quality of the material and craftmanship. Modern bead makers also started to create beads with contemporary designs to encourage 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. 

A wave of 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 very high prices in Asia and have started to gain special attention elsewhere.

The B & W photo to the right is a detail from a photograph published in 1896 by Carey & Tuck in The Chin Hills Gazetteer and 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 be 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 or more recent 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. At the time of the above drawing, the 1920s Pumteks 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 bead found in the Himalayas.

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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