Antique Bronze Bells from Burma, Thailand, Laos and Cambodia

May 27th, 2009

Antique bronze bells have become one of the most popular items offered in our gallery. Most of our bells are from Burma, but some are from Laos, Thailand, Cambodia and India. The bells of old are generally far more beautiful than bells crafted today. They were cast in bronze and bear a range of attractive designs and often interesting inscriptions. In Burma the tradition of blacksmithing has always been an honoured occupation associated with courage, strength and integrity.

Temple bells donated to the Sangha (order of monks) are held in high esteem. They are sounded three times at the conclusion of personal devotions as an invitation to all sentient beings to share the merit accumulated by their spiritual practices. Onlookers may respond with the congratulatory refrain- thadu, thadu, thadu– well done, well done, well done. The casting of large bells is a major event which takes place with an air of great ceremony and rejoicing. Sweetness of tone is very important for the temple bell. Unlike bronze Buddha images, the bronze was normally composed of 83% copper and 17% tin. In some cases, lead or even silver was added. The smaller temple bells with clappers are often found suspended on the eves of pavilions around temples and are said to attract the attention of the deva of the Tavatimsa Heaven. The gentle tinkling ring serves as a reminder of the Buddha’s endless compassion and deep wisdom. Small temple bells are also used to signal various activities to monks and nuns including the time to rise, meditate, chant, eat and rest.

 Our pastoral bells worn by cattle or buffalo are called hka-lauk in Burmese. They are normally trapezoidal or semi-circular in shape with closed rings at the top so that the bell can be suspended around the animal’s neck with a cord.The clapper is held in place with wire entering through two small holes made in the upper surface of the bell. They are often decorated with very handsome scrolling or geometric designs on the surface. When travelling, the animals would follow the sound of the bell worn by the lead animal. The sound would also warn travellers of their presence on narrow mountain passes. The bells are also said to scare off predatory animals as well as help farmers locate their animals after being set free to graze.

The spherical elephant bells known in Burma as chu are similarly decorated and would help the mahout locate his elephant after being set free to forage in the jungle. Though popularly referred to as elephant bells, we are told by our Burmese friends that these bells were also worn by other animals including ponies and oxen.

Bronze bells often have interesting inscriptions including the seal or name of the maker, information about historical towns and their economic situation, customs of the people and the orthography of the period in which the bell was cast. For example, bells may bear the names of kings, queens or members of the aristocracy as well as high ranking military officers. The value of a bell depends on age, quality of bronze and patina, decoration and condition. Each bell has its own individual physical characteristics, ring tone, and story to tell.