CIIIBu12:  Burmese Bronze Weights

The animal-shaped weights of the Burmese empires are often referred to as "shway arlay" (gold weights), from an old term meaning "king’s or lord’s weights." From about the 15th century until the late 18th century, the weights were used only by the king’s officers for weighing high value articles like the silver ingots that were used as currency. They are made of a copper alloy and range in mass from about 2 to 4,000 grams, on an essentially decimal scale. The mass unit, the kyat, increased from 12 grams or less before the 15th century to 16.3 grams by the end of the 19th century. Although production of the royal weights ceased in the 1880s, they were still in use in remote locations as late as 1970.

Each of the weight shapes incorporates elements of ancient animism and shamanism as well as contemporary Buddhism and Hinduism. In an empire with fluctuating borders and diverse populations, they evoked powerful symbols that could be understood by everyone: the powers of the animals, the Buddhist injunction to use fair weights, and, not least, the power and authority of the god-king.

The animal weights were made in four shapes: a mythical feline beast (toe), an anserine bird (hintha), a gallinaceous bird, and an elephant (chang). Throughout Asia, birds were associated with heaven, light, water, and the gods. Large felines were associated with the earth, darkness, and kings. The first three shapes were used throughout the Burmese empire; elephants were used only in North Siam. Since the weight shapes fall into a sequence, they can be classified and assigned to periods and places. Identification and text contributed by Ruth Willard. Reference: Gear. Earth to Heaven.


Left: The "toe" is a stylized combination of the parts of four animals: the Asian lion (head and torso), the East Asian muntjac (horns), the ancient Yunnanese horse (tail), and the Indian elephant (feet). Reference: Gear. Earth to Heaven, Plates 19 & 53, Table 21. Group 2 Periods C, D, & E (1757-1802). Characteristics: V-shaped mouth appendage, raised tail-base, 9-rayed star sign on base right front.

Center: The "hintha" (gander, drake). Reference: Gear. Earth to Heaven, Plates 22, 41 & 53; Table 20. Group 2 Periods C & D (1767-1875). Characteristics: Inverted U tail shape, 1, 2, or 3 head knobs, 1, 2,or 3 manes, trefoil mouth appendage, base decoration short verticals, 6-rayed star sign on base right front.

Right: Bird Weight—Mons duck, referring to the time when Pegu, the former Mons capitol, was the capital of Burma. Reference: Gear. Earth to Heaven, Plates 40, 50 & 54, Table 21. Group 4 Periods F & G (1717-1752). Characteristics: No or trefoil mouth appendage, 1, 2, or 3 head knobs.