Asian Antiques: Treasures of the Khmer Empire & Beyond

June 3rd, 2015

We made another trip to Cambodia in May where we visited Phnom Penh and surrounding areas and searched for antiques to offer in the gallery.

A highlight was a visit to Phnom Chisor, a temple from the Angkor Period, built by the Khmer king, Suryavarman, who practiced Brahmanism. The temple sits upon a solitary hill in Takeo Province, offering wonderful panoramic views of the countryside below. It’s quite a climb up a long series of steps in the heat of the dry season.

Ruins of Phnom Chisor, Cambodia
Ruins of Phnom Chisor, Cambodia

The site was originally known as Suryagiri and the main temple is constructed of laterite and brick with carved sandstone lintels. The temple complex is enclosed by partially ruined walls, and inside, inscriptions can be found dating from the 11th century. Rituals were held here 900 years ago with the king accompanied by his entourage, who would climb the 400 steps. Here they would pay homage to the Hindu gods, Vishnu and Shiva. The main temple is still active and now houses an image of the Buddha along with the Hindu gods. Inside you can receive a blessing where a prayer is offered and a red string tied to the right wrist.

Hindu Temple, Phnom Chisor, Cambodia
Hindu Temple, Phnom Chisor, Cambodia
Hindu Temple Complex, Phnom Chisor, Cambodia
Hindu Temple Complex, Phnom Chisor, Cambodia
Ancient Ruins of Phnom Chisor, Cambodia
Ancient Ruins of Phnom Chisor, Cambodia

We also visited the National Museum of Cambodia in Phnom Penh, next to the Royal Palace. The museum houses one of the world’s largest collections of Khmer art including sandstone sculpture, bronzes, and ethnographic objects. Despite being looted during the Khmer Rouge regime, many impressive pieces remain. The collection dates from prehistoric times, pre, present, and post Khmer Empire period, up to the 19th century. It’s a fascinating place to spend a few hours. The scale and quality of artistic endeavour from the Angkorian Era is breathtaking, but we were also reminded of the beauty of pre-Angkor art.  The Angkorian period began in AD802 when Jayavarman II declared himself a universal monarch and lasted until the late 14th century.

Khmer Empire Sandstone Sculpture, National Museum Cambodia
Khmer Empire Sandstone Sculpture, National Museum Cambodia
Khmer Art, National Museum of Cambodia
Khmer Art, National Museum of Cambodia

We returned with a collection of  Khmer antiques including 18th-19th century lime pots, bronze bells, lacquer-ware, and other rare artifacts, some of which are featured below.

Khmer Antiques from Cambodia
Khmer Antiques from Cambodia
Khmer Artifacts from Cambodia
Khmer Artifacts from Cambodia
Antique Khmer Bronze Bells, Cambodia
Antique Khmer Bronze Bells, Cambodia
Antique Khmer Bronze Lime Pots
Antique Khmer Bronze Lime Pots
Antique Khmer Bronze Lime Pots Cambodia
Antique Khmer Bronze Lime Pots Cambodia

Opium Weights from Northern Siam & Laos

April 1st, 2015

Over the past year or so we have been introducing more opium weights from Northern Siam and Laos to our collection. These weights are quite distinct from the better known weights cast in Burma that fall into mainly two categories- the beast and bird weights of various incarnations tied to the change of monarch. Weights from Siam and Laos include the elephant, toe, and hamsa and later, certain animals from the oriental solar zodiac including the horse, rooster, tiger, bull, goat, snake, rabbit, monkey, dog, and pig. The bronze is generally of high quality with a dark patina varying from grey to chocolate brown. These weights make a nice addition to Burmese weights for the collector. In our experience, they are found in fewer numbers than Burmese weights.

Opium Weights from Siam and Laos

Siam

It is reported in the Annals of Chiangmai that in 1460 AD, the Siamese adopted the Chinese word peng to refer to a particular mass and today is used to refer to the bronze animal weights in general. In 1558 AD, Chiang Mai, the capital of the La-Na Kingdom, was sacked by the Burmese who destroyed the weights and measures system, and along with it, the currency of the kakim silver ingot. The Burmese introduced their own floral ingot as well its own standardization of weights and measures. It is likely that elephant weights were cast at this time and continued to be produced after the Burmese lost control in the second half of the 18th century. Following the departure of the Burmese, other animal shaped figurines made their appearance and it has been suggested that other than serve as weights, they were used as currency. In 1858 Siam began producing machine made coins eliminating the need for bronze figurines to serve as currency. Even so, animal shaped figurines continued to be cast. In Earth to Heaven, Donald and Joan gear suggest that the elephant weights originated in northern Siam rather than Laos.

Elephant Opium Weights
Elephant Opium Weights from Siam & Laos

The bases of Siamese weights were mostly octagonal and occasionally ellipse. The sides are commonly stepped and often vertically striated. Astrologers of the time were known to keep a set of these figurines used in predicting future outcomes. In general, elephant shaped weights have a sign marked on the base resembling the blades of a windmill. Occasionally, other animal shapes were also marked with a sign on the base, mostly in the form of radiating stars with 4,5,6,7 or 8 rays.

Bronze elephant weights from Siam (and Laos) were often used to weigh silver bullion, opium (which was widely used at the time), medicines, as well as a form of money. Mostly, the mass varied from 5 to 300 grams. A common feature of Siamese weights is that a small lump of bronze has been removed from the base to adjust the weight – evidence that the figurines were in fact used to weigh materials. Conversely, some weights appear to have been adjusted up in weight with a lump of solder between the legs. Early French travelers to Siam were suspicious that Siamese merchants kept two sets of weights of indistinguishable appearance – one slightly heavier set that were used when buying goods, and a lighter set to be used when selling. It’s clear on inspection of surviving examples that Siamese weights tend to be less accurate than Burmese weights.

Bronze Animal Opium Weights from the Solar Zodiac
Bronze Animal Opium Weights from the Solar Zodiac

Laos

Despite our efforts, we have not found any substantial written material specifically about opium weight production in Laos. During regular visits to Laos over the past 14 years we have seen and acquired a number of opium weights in the form of the elephant, lion-beast, the various animals from the solar zodiac, as well as some rarely seen forms such as the stag.   The Gears’ deduce in their guidebook, Earth to Heaven, that elephant weights, while not originating in Laos (as popularly thought), were cast there along with other animal forms. A  Laotian friend and enthusiastic antique collector was confident in telling us that opium weights were cast in the 19th century (and probably much earlier) in Phongsali, a town amongst the mountains in the far north of the country. She suggested that the weights were commonly used to weigh opium cultivated by the Hmong hill tribe people, as well as other precious items. Along with our friends who collect opium weights, we are often unable to distinguish between weights cast in Laos and those cast in Siam and so tend to group them together. Visit our opium weight collection.

Buddhist Manuscripts: Translations from Ancient Pali in the Digital Era

October 21st, 2014

A rare antique kammavaca (Buddhist Pali manuscript) currently offered in our gallery was recently featured in the fall edition of the well known Canadian based quarterly magazine, Buddhadharma. The article titled, Milestones – Exploring Buddhist Translation Today, discusses the historical and ongoing work of translating the Pali canon, as well as the many subsequent Buddhist texts from the Mahayana Buddhist tradition so that they are preserved and made available for study today and for future generations of seekers.

Buddhadharma Quarterly Magazine

In the countries where Buddhism first spread, namely, Sri Lanka, China, and Tibet, the translator’s role was extremely important and highly honored.  An error in translation could lead to a missed clue of vital importance about the nature of consciousness. To do justice to the work was to perform an act of great merit, for if it facilitated the awakening of even one being, the existence of the text was priceless. “The Tibetan word for translator is lotsawa, meaning cosmic-eye.”

The article notes that, “Forty years ago, Buddhist books in English were hard to find, and today there are probably more translations than most of us can read in one lifetime.” Fellow of the Tsadra Foundation, Sarah Harding makes the comment, “Until about 2000, many translation efforts were random, and often began when a lama asked for a text in his lineage to be translated or when academics would find good PhD projects to undertake. Now a number of organizations are working in a more cohesive fashion. Because of the massive volume of some anthologies, a number of translations today are only published digitally.  Technology has changed translation tremendously, just in terms of time and the ability to look something up quickly (on the internet) without flipping through giant pages of text.”

Griffith Foulk, co-editor-in-chief of the Soto Zen Text Project expresses concern that, “we’re building digital canons; they’re so easy to access that they’ve become almost the only thing people look at. There is a danger that what isn’t input digitally will fall by the wayside and be ignored. Then, when everything exists on the cloud, civilization will pull the plug on the whole thing and it will go poof!”

Also calling into question the wisdom of relying too much on the fickle longevity of digitally preserved documents is Bhikkhu Bodhi, “There are older Pali texts preserved in the form of palm-leaf manuscripts…..across Sri Lanka, Burma, and Thailand. In these tropical countries, the manuscripts tend to decay…Now that they’re no longer being copied, what’s coming to pass is that the electronic edition  becomes the single authoritative version of the text; variant readings preserved in these palm-leaf manuscripts will likely be lost.”

Kammavaca from our gallery featured in Buddhadharma Magazine

Below is a collection of rare antique Buddhist manuscripts and manuscript pages offered in our gallery – click on the image for more information. Please contact us at info@sabaidesignsgallery.com to inquire about any of these artifacts.

Framed Buddhist Pali Leaf Manuscript Pages
Pages of Antique Kammavaca
Pages of Antique Kammavaca
Antique Pali Manuscript Pages
Antique Pali Manuscript Pages
Antique Buddhist Manuscript Box with Pali Manuscript
Complete Antique Buddhist Pali Manuscript
Complete Antique Buddhist Pali Manuscript
Antique Burmese Kammavaca available at sabai designs gallery
Antique Burmese Kammavaca available at sabai designs gallery

Buddhist Art: Tibetan Thangka Paintings

June 16th, 2014

Buddhism lies at the heart of all Tibetan art with thangkas (in Tibetan thang yig meaning ‘recorded message’) emerging as one of the most important Tibetan art forms. Tibetans have always revered thangkas as a treasure of great value and today the popularity of Tibetan thangkas has spread throughout the world.

Tibetan Thangka Paintings available at sabai designs gallery

The beginnings of Tibetan art can be traced to the time of King Songtsen Gampo of the 7th century who married Nepalese and Chinese princesses, both Buddhists, who each brought with them their Buddhist shrines. By the 8th century, Buddhism was established as the state religion and Tibetan Buddhist art began to flourish, embracing the iconographical art of India as well as notable influences from China and Persia.

Thangkas or scroll paintings first originated in India and served as a richly symbolic portrayal of the cyclic nature of the world of samsara or illusion and the means of transcending it as taught by the Buddha. This form of thangka is commonly referred to as the ‘Wheel of Life’. Buddhist pilgrims would travel with thangkas rolled up, unfurling the paintings in village squares to help convey the basic tenets of Buddhism including the binding nature of desire, ensuing suffering, and the source of karma which keeps one ‘lashed to the wheel’ of material existence with inevitable rebirth.

In Tibet, where a significant number of the population was nomadic, thangkas developed a wider use. They always accompanied the caravan of monks and abbots in what was essentially a mobile temple. It is recorded in the ‘Book of the Crystal Rosary’, that when the 7th Karmapa, Chotrag Gyamsto (1454-1506) traveled, over 500 donkeys were required to transport the tents, religious documents, portable shrines, decorated banners and other paraphernalia. To provide a sense of the magnitude of this traveling monastery, it’s thought that as many as 10,000 monks would participate in this style of itinerant Buddhist camp, or in Tibetan, gar.

Iconography of Tibetan Thangkas
Iconography of Tibetan Thangkas

The art form of creating thangkas was most often passed on from father to son as a family tradition with a long apprenticeship requiring commitment and discipline. Typically, a thangka would be commissioned by a monastery and the master artist would be surrounded by students including his sons while he worked. The apprentices would fill in colour and perform the less demanding aspects of painting the thangka. Master and apprentices would be well taken care of by the monastery while the work was being completed with weekly feasts held and gifts presented. Final payment for the thangka may have included livestock, butter, cheese, grain, clothes, and jewellery.

Most thangkas are painted on linen stretched over a wooden frame, though Chinese silk was sometimes used. The linen would be prepared with chalk mixed with a thick gummy substance such as animal based glue.  With the excess base scraped off and the cotton dry, a charcoal outline would be drawn. Natural pigments used to apply colour included blue from lapis lazuli, pink from flower petals, red from cinnabar, green from tailor’s greenstone, and yellow from sulphur. After the basic colouring of the various elements of the painting had been completed, the master would add shading and 24K gold which would be burnished with an agate stone. The eyes of the celestial spirits, and lastly the Buddha, signaled the completion of the painting of the thangka in the “opening of the eyes” celebration. Later, silk brocade would sometimes be added in blue, green, red and yellow, with a curtain falling over the front of the thangka regarded as a ‘door’ leading into the ‘world’ depicted in the painting. Wooden dowels act as support rods top and bottom. Thangkas were sometimes created using silk appliqué or embroidered silk. Mantras written in the ancient language, Sanskrit, may also be added in designated panels at the bottom of the painting.

Tibetan Thangka 'Life of the Buddha'

While the creation of thangkas was mostly undertaken anonymously by lay people whose family had a long lineage of passing on the tradition from one generation to the next, occasionally artistically disposed gurus or abbots painted thangkas to express their own deeps insights and thereby enrich the body of spiritual understanding for future students of Buddhism.

As well as being used as instructional aides to convey the teaching and life of the Buddha, thangkas serve as subjects of meditative inquiry, particularly when in the form of the mandala. As well as monasteries, thangkas are found in the homes of lay people, though sadly, most were confiscated or destroyed during the upheaval of the Cultural Revolution.

For information on the specific iconography found in the “Life of the Buddha” and “Wheel of Existence” form of thangkas, please visit the individual pages for the thangkas currently offered in the gallery in the Buddhist Art category. The three thangkas listed are from Ladakh, in the Indian Himalaya, where about half of the inhabitants are Tibetan Buddhists. The thangka coded ABA51 is a rare museum quality piece from the 19th century.

Images from Ladakh, India, where the thangkas offered in our gallery were created.
Images from Ladakh, India, where the thangkas offered in our gallery were created.

Asian Antiques from Laos: Opium Pipes, Tribal Silver Jewellery, Bronze Temple Bells & Opium Weights

March 5th, 2014

On our most recent trip to Laos in search of antiques and artifacts for the gallery it soon became apparent how few genuine antique pieces were available compared to previous visits. However with a determined effort we managed to find some special items from the 19th and early 20th century which we are highlighting here. Also included are a few photos from the wonderful Wat Si Saket and Haw Pha Kaew Museum, King Setthathirat’s former royal temple. Just click on the images below to be taken to the relevant page for each category.

These are the two finest antique opium pipes that we have had in the gallery to date. Genuine antique opium pipes are exceedingly rare now, having become a highly sort after international collectible. These two pipes were used by the Hmong hill tribe people and are of Chinese origin, being much more refined than most hill tribe opium pipes.

Antique Opium Pipes from Laos
Antique Opium Pipes from Laos

Below is a small collection of antique hill tribe silver jewellery, much of it from the Lao Hmong, and includes soul lock pendants, bracelets, and torques.  These are wearable pieces from the late 19th – early 20th century with a silver content of about 92%. They have been given a light clean but can be brought to a high shine if desired. The Hmong are famous in Southeast Asia for their penchant for silver and the skills of their silversmiths.

Antique Tribal Silver Bracelets from Laos
Antique Tribal Silver Bracelets from Laos
Antique Tribal Silver Torques from the Hmong
Antique Tribal Silver Torques from the Hmong
Antique Soul Lock Pendants from the Hmong
Antique Soul Lock Pendants from the Hmong

This collection of antique bronze bells is from Vientiane where they once hung from the eves of temple buildings before being replaced by newly donated bells. They have developed a lovely aged patina and possess distinct ring tones, which at the temple are heard as a reminder of the Buddha’s deep wisdom and endless compassion.

Antique Bronze Temple Bells from Laos
Antique Bronze Temple Bells from Laos

We returned from Laos with just these two charming opium weights. They are from Phongsali in the northern mountains and were used by the Hmong to weigh out opium in the 19th century. While Siamese and Laotian opium weights are said to be less accurate than Burmese weights, these two are beautifully cast. The deer is a particularly rare form.

Opium Weights from Laos

We hope that you enjoy these rare Laotian artifacts from a bygone era. Please let us know if there are any pieces that are of particular interest. We’re happy to answer any questions you may have about these pieces. We will also soon be listing a few exceptional examples of silk weaving from a studio in Vientiane along with a few antique tribal textiles.

Haw Pha Kaew Museum, Laos
Haw Pha Kaew Museum, Laos
Wat Si Saket, Laos
Wat Si Saket, Laos
Haw Pha Kaew, Laos
Haw Pha Kaew, Laos

Asian Decor: Buddha Statues, Burmese Antiques & Textiles

December 4th, 2013

We recently acquired some wonderful Asian antiques now listed in the gallery including Buddha statues, lacquerware, bronze bells, ceramics and textiles, mostly from Burma. Sometimes it’s difficult to fully appreciate pieces offered in the gallery without the opportunity of seeing them in a home setting so we are displaying them here to provide a sense of context.

Asian Home Decor with Antique Buddha Statue, Monk & Lacquerware
Asian Home Decor with Antique Buddha Statue, Monk & Lacquerware

Displayed here are an antique wood carving statue of the Buddha and a monk as well as an antique lacquerware vessel know in Burma as kun-it. Burmese artisans are well known for their expertise in wood carving. The tradition of lacquerware is centuries old in Burma and a great variety of vessels exist. They can be made from bamboo, rattan, or  jackfruit wood which are then applied with several layers of natural and pigmented lacquer which is then decorated with an iron stylus using various motifs.

Asian Home Decor: Buddha Statue, Bronze Bell, Lacquerware Box
Asian Home Decor: Buddha Statue, Bronze Bell, Lacquerware Box

This entry incorporates both European and Asian influences without a conflict in aesthetics. With a little experimentation, Asian and European decor can complement and contrast one another beautifully.

Asian Decor: Dining Room Decorated with Burmese & Thai Antiques
Asian Decor: Dining Room Decorated with Burmese & Thai Antiques

This exotic dining room incorporates a cane dining setting decorated with a silk runner and 15thC Swanakhalok shipwreck jar. In the background are a decorated Burmese lacquered panel and sideboard upon which sits an antique bronze elephant bell, antique Burmese ox cart ornament and antique monk wood carving. And most precious of all, Lilly getting her beauty sleep.

Buddhist Art from Burma
Buddhist Art from Burma

Mirrors bring light and depth into rooms, reflecting colour and art work , and creating shifting visual effects. Featured in this photo is a rare Shan Buddha statue carved from wood, lacquered and then gilded. Beside the Buddha are a monk and lacquer-ware box. On the wall hangs a painting by a Laotian artist and reflected in the mirror is an antique Lisu hill tribe silver necklace.

This photo shows a wider view of the dining room with the addition of a pink orchid. Orchids are surely one of the most exquisite members of the botanical world and lend themselves to creating a relaxing Eastern ambiance.

Asian Decor: Living Room Decorated with Asian Antiques and Etching by Thai Artist

This living room features a collection of Burmese antiques and an etching by Thai artist, Vorakorn Metmanorom. The timber, furnishings and lighting used help create a warm atmosphere.

Asian Interiors
Asian Interiors

Another shot of the dining room with the concertina doors opened. Decorative pieces include a Burmese Chin runner, Burmese lacquer-ware, Buddha statue with attendant monks and Chinese overhanging gilded frame.

The decor items featured in these photos are available at the time of posting and represent just a small selection of the Asian antiques, art, silk and tribal textiles, as well as collectibles available in the gallery.

Antique Ceramics: Sawankhalok / Si Satchanalai & Sukhothai Pottery of Thailand

September 13th, 2013

The high-fired glazed stoneware ceramics that were produced at the kilns in the Kingdom of Sukhothai from the 13th – 16th century are the pride of Thailand and much coveted by curators of museums and private collectors around the world. Although beautiful red earthenware unglazed urns and other artifacts dating back to 3600BC have been excavated at Ban Chiang, the zenith of ceramic production in Siam (Thailand) is frequently cited as Sawakhalok jars, plates, bowls, and vases in celadon (light green) and dark brown glaze from the 15th century.

Confusion sometimes arises over the nomenclature of antique Thai ceramics from this period. The term Sawankhalok is generally used interchangeably with ceramics from the city of Si Satchanalai in the Kingdom of Sukhothai, although it is also used to refer to a much wider area covering many hundreds of kilns in central Thailand. Ceramics produced in Sukhothai city are distinct from Si Satchanalai / Sawankhalok wares and comparisons of clay are made; Sukhothai is known for its courser clay with a high iron content, resulting in black specks. Studies of excavations sites at Ban Noi indicate that the production of glazed ceramics began in Si Satchanalai earlier than in Sukhothai. Another term encountered in the study of ceramics from this period is Sangkalok, a Thai term for ceramics made in both Si Satchanalai and Sukhothai during the Sukhothai period. As a side note, although the Lanna Kingdom in the north of Thailand produced beautiful glazed stoneware during the same period, it was not known to be exported.

Sawankhalok Ceramics: Antique Celadon Plates 16th Century
Sawankhalok Ceramics: Antique Celadon Plates 16th Century

Sawankhalok / Si Satchanalai & Sukhothai Ceramics (13th -16thC)

Ceramic wares from the hundreds of kilns located along the Yom River in Si Satchanalai as well as from Sukhothai city were exported in vast quantities to Indonesia and the Philippines where demand was great. Sawankhalok ware was also exported to Japan and the Middle-East. The export of both Thai and Vietnamese ceramics experienced a surge when the Chinese imperial court placed a ban on foreign export during the Ming period, leaving a gap to be filled. For the duration of the 15th century, Thailand and Vietnam became the most important suppliers of ceramics to the SE Asian market. During the first half of the 15thC Vietnamese and Thai iron-painted ware were popular but by the latter part of the 15th century it was Thai celadon and Vietnamese blue and white wares that were in demand.

A deeper understanding of Thai trade ceramics during this period has been made possible largely by studies of the maritime trade in Southeast Asia, in particular shipwrecked junks carrying ceramics to Indonesia and the Philippines. Over the past 22 years some 10 shipwrecks have been discovered in the gulf of Thailand and the South China Sea. Often amongst the cargo were Chinese ceramics for which stronger dating was possible thanks to detailed records, allowing the basis of a chronology of Thai ceramics to be formed. The foremost expert in the field was the late Dr Brown whose book, “The Ming Gap and Shipwreck Ceramics in Southeast Asia- Towards a Chronology of Thai Trade Ware” was published in 2009.

Excavations in Indonesia and the Philippines and recoveries from shipwrecks indicate that the iron-painted black fish and floral motif plates constituted the first wave of popular Thai ceramics in SE Asia, probably originating from the kilns of Sukhothai. The earliest Sukhothai iron-painted wares were discovered at the Turiang shipwreck dated around the late 14th century. Thai wares made up around 35% of the cargo and included some Sawankhalok celadon jars and vases. Early Sukhothai wares were sparsely decorated with fish or floral motifs. More elaborate decoration was present on pieces from the Nanyang wreck dated to the 1420-30s.

By this time large celadon plates (also termed shallow bowls) from the Sawankhalok kilns were in production. In the 1450-60’s iron-painted wares lost popularity to Thai Celadon and Vietnamese blue and white wares though production of iron-painted ware continued in a reduced capacity and consisted of mainly jars, plates and bowls. Usually a circular scar of the support disc could be seen on the base.

16thC Sawankhalok Ceramics: showing circular scar from support disc
16thC Sawankhalok Ceramics: showing circular scar from support disc

The Royal Nanhai Shipwreck

Another wreck that has provided important information on the chronology of Thai trade ceramics is known as the Royal Nanhai Wreck, a Siamese junk that is thought to have sunk off the coast of Malaysia in the South China Sea around mid 15th century, supported by carbon 14 dating corresponding to 1400 A.D +/- 70 years.  The junk was transporting over 20,000 pieces of green and brown glazed celadon ceramics to Eastern Java. The wreck was discovered in 1992. Most of the Thai cargo consisted of celadon ware from the famous Si Satchanalai kilns as well as black glazed stoneware jars with lids. The presence of blue and white Chinese porcelain confirmed a dating of the cargo to the mid-late 1400s.  Of the some 20,000 pieces on board, only 20% were recoverable, with nearly 3,000 pieces going to the National Museum in Kuala Lumpur. A small number of pieces became available for sale, allowing some of the finest 15th century Si Satchanalai ceramics ever seen to be offered to private collectors and museums around the world, including the Victoria & Albert Museum in London. Very few pieces remain available for sale today.

Si Satchanalai Jars from Royal Nanhai Shipwreck Circa 1460
Si Satchanalai Jars from Royal Nanhai Shipwreck Circa 1460
Marine Growth on Jars Recovered from the 15th Century Royal Nanhai Shipwreck
Marine Growth on Jars Recovered from the 15th Century Royal Nanhai Shipwreck

By 1500, during the Ming Hongzhi period in China, blue and white wares emerged as the most highly demanded ceramics in Southeast Asia. Thai celadon and brown wares lost favor and as demand fell so did the quality- dramatically. In an effort to revive Thai ceramics exports in the 16th century, Thai  potters introduced decorations in underglaze iron-painted black and created a niche in cover boxes, kendi and bowls. It was also during the 16th century that opaque white glaze wares were introduced. By the middle of the 16th century the Burmese invaded Siam in the first of the Burmese-Siamese wars, effectively ending production at the Sawankhalok and Sukhothai kilns. In the centuries that followed, unglazed stoneware was produced at Singburi and near Ayutthaya and Chinese and Japanese blue and white wares were imported for everyday use. In the early 20th century the production of ceramics began to thrive in Chiang Mai and Lampang, both in celadon and blue and white ware, some of which was influenced by Chinese designs. The ceramics featured in this article are currently available – just click on the photos for more details.

Early 20th Century Ceramic Vase from Chiang Mai
Early 20th Century Ceramic Vase from Chiang Mai

Antiques, Artifacts & Tribal Textiles from Burma

May 2nd, 2013

The diversity and beauty of Burmese arts, crafts and architecture was immediately apparent to early visitors of this ethnically rich region, and today, as the doors of tourism open wider, more people are discovering the wonderful artistic traditions of Burma which began over 2,000 years ago.

Shwedagon Pagoda by Night in Yangon, Burma
Shwedagon Pagoda by Night in Yangon, Burma

Distinctive works of art to be found in Burma include remarkable feats of architecture (notably the magnificent Shwedagon Pagoda and the temples of Bagan), bronze work, wood carving, lacquerware, jewellery, ceramics, and textiles. These artistic traditions are largely the legacy of two great influences. Firstly, there are 135 officially recognized ethnic groups in Burma, divided into eight main groups, each with their own unique culture, customs and artistic traditions. Secondly, over the centuries, animism and Buddhism have provided a major source of inspiration for artisans. Evidence of this is apparent at every turn in Burma, from pagodas, images of the Buddha in wood and bronze to Nat spirit sculptures believed to act as guardians and which fulfill an important role in the ‘supernatural’ aspect of life for the peoples of Burma.

Pagodas of Bagan in Rainy Season
Pagodas of Bagan in Rainy Season
Temple at Inle Lake
Temple at Inle Lake

Burmese art forms are often highly imaginative and robust, with an emphasis on surface decoration. Unlike the perception of art in the west, the Burmese make no distinctions between so called ‘fine arts’ such as painting and sculpture and ‘applied arts’ such as the making of lacquerware, bronze bells and wood carvings. Objects of beauty were made for the purpose of furnishing Buddhist temples, royal courts as well as providing common people with well crafted, attractive objects for everyday use. Objet d’art includes highly decorated lacquered bamboo containers used for storing food, bronze zoomorphic weights once used in the market place, bronze bells worn by livestock, and even skillfully carved images made to adorn the facade of simple ox carts. The use of gold and precious stones was generally reserved for works of art found in temples and the royal court.

Featured below and now available in the gallery are some of the artifacts from Burma referred to above. We’ve also included a few photos of these artifacts in a home décor setting and additional Asian home décor photographs can be viewed in the Photo Gallery.

Burmese Antiques: Shan Pipe, Opium Weight, Buffalo Bell
Burmese Antiques: Shan Pipe, Opium Weight, Buffalo Bell
Burmese Antiques: Naga Sculpture, Lacquerware Box, Spirit Wood Carving
Burmese Antiques: Naga Sculpture, Lacquerware Box, Spirit Wood Carving
Burmese Antiques: Collection of Burmese antiques from the gallery.
Asian Home Decor: Hsun-Ok Lacquerware, pre-16thC Sukothai Cermic Bowl
Asian Home Decor: Hsun-Ok Lacquerware, pre-16thC Sukothai Cermic Bowl
Antique Bronze Bell, Antique Buddha Robe Fragment, Antique Naga Carving
Antique Bronze Bell, Antique Buddha Robe Fragment, Antique Naga Carving
Naga Tribal Sofa Throw, Bronze Buddha, Naga, Silk Runner, Sukhothai Pottery
Naga Tribal Sofa Throw, Bronze Buddha, Naga, Silk Runner, Sukhothai Pottery

We recently supplied a selection of tribal textiles from the Naga living in north-west Burma for an upcoming exhibition at the Rubin Museum of Art in New York City and have since added several excellent new examples of Naga weaving resplendent with ancient tribal motifs.

Bronze Buddha Statues & Buddhist Art

December 31st, 2012

Of all the works of art originating in Asia, bronze Buddha statues and devotional paintings are amongst the most beautiful and inspiring artifacts to be incorporated into home decor. Statues and paintings of the Buddha help to create a serene and aesthetically pleasing home environment, reminding us of one of the most profoundly important figures in the history of mankind. The story and teachings of the Buddha are deeply intriguing and offer for the earnest seeker, liberation from suffering and direct insight into Absolute Truth. Buddhism has survived nearly 2600 years and remains an extremely important source of practical wisdom today. The teachings of the Buddha, along with the works of subsequent enlightened teachers of the various schools of Buddhism, provide a guide to realizing one’s true nature beyond duality, psychological conditioning, and delusion.  Unlike most world religions, Buddhism neither seeks nor requires exclusive allegiance.

The world of Buddhist art is rich and extensive and takes many forms, varying from the highly descriptive Japanese 14th century Taima Manadala to the profoundly spiritual such as the 14thC Thai Buddha statue in the ‘calling the earth to witness’ posture; the informative such as the 10thC Pala Indian stele with the ‘Eight Great Events of the Buddha’ to the meditative serenity of the Amitabha Buddha from central Java. There is still much debate over when and where the first images of the Buddha appeared, though most historians agree that the earliest works of Buddhist art in India date back to 1st century B.C.

While these few examples shown are major works of Buddhist art found in museums, more affordable   representations of the Buddha made in the last century often retain the same beauty, and communicate the same profound message of freedom that remains the legacy of the Buddha.  Below are examples of Buddha statues from the 20th century and devotional temple paintings on canvass listed in our gallery as well as photos of impressive Buddha images that we’ve encountered in our travels throughout SE Asia. They demonstrate the various mudras or hand positions of the Buddha, each with a distinct meaning. We will soon be adding more bronze Buddha statues to our gallery. For a brief description of the life of the Buddha, the essential teaching of the Buddha, and an explanation of the mudras and symbols of Buddhist art, read Buddhist Art and its Symbolism.

Bronze Buddha Statues

Thai Buddhist Temple Scroll Paintings

Asian Antiques from Laos

October 12th, 2012

Asian antiques from Laos are amongst the most interesting artifacts to be found in SE Asia. With its diverse ethnicity, Laos has a rich tradition of fashioning objects of beauty, many with utilitarian value. The people of Laos enjoy a simple, slow paced lifestyle, and are known for their friendly nature. We always enjoy our trips there and have made some good friends over time, especially ‘Mrs Vong’, an antique dealer who is one of the sweetest and quirkiest people we’ve met in our travels. Here I will feature a few of the antiques that we returned with from our most recent trip there as well as a few silk textiles that, while not antique, embody an art form that draws on techniques and symbolism that are over a thousand years old.

Antique Asian Sword Dha from Laos

This antique sword is commonly referred to as a dha, or daab and is one of the more ornate forms of this style of sword seen. The dha is common to Laos, Cambodia, Thailand and Burma and is thought to date back to as far as the 16th century. It has served for centuries as a key weapon in disputes between neighboring SE Asian countries and is to light handle, and very effective.  We were told that this particular dha was not used as a military weapon but would most likely have been owned by a wealthy Laotian for personal use, indicated by the detailed bronze work found on the handle and scabbard. More commonly, the two bamboo pieces that form the scabbard were bound using rattan and sometimes resin. Read more about this dha

Elephant Opium Weights Laos
Elephant Opium Weights Laos

Elephant shaped opium weights are common to both Laos and Siam and are thought to have been in use from around the late 16th century. The elephant weights featured here are most likely from the 1800s and were popular amongst the Hmong minority hill tribe people to weigh opium. In contrast, animal weights from Burma which were in common use since the 14th century were used to weight a variety of materials including silver, gold, medicines and spices. We have seen genuine elephant weights in three sizes as featured here. Another les common variation is a mother elephant with baby, also available in the gallery.  Read more about elephant opium weights

Antique Opium Pipes
Antique Opium Pipes

We’ve been looking for genuine antique opium pipes for some time now and were fortunate to find two excellent examples made by the Hmong on our last trip to Laos. The Hmong were the first hill tribe to successfully cultivate opium poppies in the region, most notably in the area known as the Golden Triangle that encompasses Laos, Thailand, Vietnam and Burma. Both pipes are from the late 19th century and each is unique – one with a deer horn mouthpiece and the other with a decorated bronze smoking bowl and bone mouthpiece. The other pipe featured is a very handsome tobacco pipe that we couldn’t resist and is decorated with ornate silver bindings, a ceramic bowl and bone mouthpiece.  View our Antique Pipe Collection

Antique Hmong Silver Jewelry
Antique Hmong Silver Jewelry

The Hmong hill tribe people are famous for their love of silver jewelry and in the past fashioned beautiful, often flamboyant adornments by melting down French silver coins. Hmong silversmiths are recognized for their considerable skills and creative designs.  Hmong women often wear several large pieces of jewelry including silver torques, bracelets, pendants and hairpins. Featured here are an antique silver torque, soul lock pendant, and hairpin from the Hmong of Laos.  View our Antique Tribal Silver Jewelry Collection

Silk Wall Hangings from Laos
Silk Wall Hangings from Laos

With a population of just 6.5 million people, Laos is a small country with few exports. One of the most beautiful artistic traditions of Laos is their silk weaving, a tradition that has been handed down from mother to daughter for countless generations. It’s difficult to appreciate from photos alone the beauty of these woven works of art as it is the incredible skill, time and concentration that goes into weaving them. A complicated piece such as the first wall hanging featured here took over a month to complete. Woven into the textiles are deeply symbolic ancient motifs that are an integral part of Laotian culture. 

Please email us info@sabaidesignsgallery.com if you have any questions about any of the items featured here.