This traditional highly colourful and practical rural craft, still practiced in Myanmar today, has its origins steeped in history.
In pre-colonial Burma, a white umbrella or ‘hti byu’ was a sign of sovereignty limited exclusively to the Burmese king and his chief queen. It was one of the five articles of coronation regalia and use of a white umbrella by anyone other than the king and his chief queen was seen as a declaration of rebellion, punishable by execution.
A pecking order of size and colour of paper umbrella denoted favour or rank in old Burma, with highest officials and royal princes possessing golden umbrellas, with red umbrellas denoting lower-level officials.
The number and sizes of umbrellas owned by an individual was an indication of social status and displayed during processions or in prominent places at home. Certain ritual was also adhered to with the king being allotted 9 white umbrellas, the Crown Prince 8 golden, distinguished statesmen and military generals a lesser number of golden ones, and other members of royalty awarded numbers corresponding to achievement or the king’s patronage.
The umbrellas were works of art, embellished inside and out with pictures of sylphs and fairies in gold, thin gold plates shaped like banyan leaves were fastened to the top and handles of gold adorned with pearls, diamonds, rubies, emeralds, corals and spangles.
Today, although for the most part lacking jewels and gold, Shan umbrellas are still a thing of beauty, offering a lightweight practical relief from the relentless sun, or a colourful decoration and reminder of this lovely country that has suffered so much.
The highly labour intensive process remains unchanged over the centuries. Shan paper is made from the bark of the Mulberry tree. Fibres from the bark are dried for three or four days before being soaked in water for 12 hours and then baked in wood fires for 24 hours with a mixture of wood ash. The resulting paper dough is then literally beaten to a pulp with wooden mallets.
Next, a bamboo frame covered with fine cotton fabric is settled at the bottom of a water-filled tank. The pulp of the paper is diluted in the water before being distributed evenly across the fabric.
At this stage flower petals and other elements are floated over the screen to form the basis of what will become the decorative creative style of each particular umbrella. The frame is now removed from the water tank and dried in the sun for hours, before the new sheet of decorated paper is finally peeled from the frame for use as the umbrella covering.
Meanwhile, a carpentry craftsman has handmade each of the individual elements of the umbrella framework from wood and bamboo, including the handle, pawl and staves that the paper will adhere to. There is no sign of a power tool anywhere, with even the lathe for the pawl being turned by a foot operated mechanism.
These beautiful works of art are not simply tourist souvenirs but are in common use throughout the country and almost as ubiquitous as the conical coolie hat – so instead of a small one in your next cocktail, why not consider the real thing and help keep an artisan skill alive in Myanmar?
If you’d like to combine a visit to Shan State in Myanmar with your own adventure to anywhere in Southeast Asia, then why not ask us to arrange your own tailor-made travel – to immerse yourself in the wonders of this world?
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