THE SWORDS OF CONTINENTAL SOUTHEAST ASIA
Ian A. Greaves, Mark I. Bowditch & Andrew Y. Winston


Dha” (or “dah”) is a generic term for a sword or knife of the various ethnic groups that make up what was formally Burma (now Myanmar), Siam (Thailand), Cambodia and Laos. It actually is a Burmese term that simply means "blade." The corresponding term in Thai is "daab," or "darb." We in the West tend to use it to refer to a variety of sword and dagger-length weapons that are used by a variety of people in continental Southeast Asia. Thus, what are referred to here as “dha” are those swords used by the peoples of mainland Southeast Asia, defined as present-day Burma, Thailand (exclusive of the Malay peninsula), Yunnan, Laos and Cambodia, and in places like Assam and Bengal, to the extent the foregoing peoples have settled there. They share a few essential defining features that distinguish them from other weapons/tools used in this area (and when there are exceptions we have concluded that they are due to a limited external stylistic influence), which are: (a) a grip with a round cross-section, (b) a long, generally curved, single-edged blade and (c) no cross-guard or knuckle-bow, and at most a very small disc guard. The inhabitants of the region have more specific words for particular swords and knives, for example, the Kachin word "nhtu" for swords, and the Burmese terms “dha-lweí” for swords, “dha-hmyaung” for daggers, “dha-mauk” for a general purpose knife, and “dha-ma” for heavy choppering blades.

Accounts of the Anglo-Burmese Wars in the early 19th Century refer to dha being used by the Burmese. We have found no certain reference in Western literature to the use of dha before the time of the Anglo-Burmese wars, though there are brief references in the regional literature, including an account of the Siamese Prince (later King) Naresuan (reigned 1590-1605 C.E.) climbing over a Burmese stockade during the siege of Ayutthaya "with the blunt edge of a saber in his mouth." Presumably this refers to a single-edged, curved sword, and quite possibly to a dha, meaning that the dha may have been in use at least as early as the late 16th century C.E. Descriptions of “dha” are found in the classic book by Wilbrahim Egerton (1880), and in Francis Garnier’s Further Travels in Laos and Yunnan (a report of the 1866-1868 French Mekong expedition). Several dha (swords and knives) were collected personally by Egerton from about 1855 to 1880, and in his book he described other dha in the Indian Museum collection. Even at that time, however, firearms were beginning to replace edged weapons, and Egerton noted that some groups in Burma were already relying more on firearms than traditional bows, spears, and swords for hunting and warfare. Additional examples of 19th Century dha can be found in the collection of Buttin (1933). The Egerton and Buttin Collections are some of the earliest specimens of dha available for study in the West, at least in any number. Isolated examples can be found in a number of private collections from the 19th Century (for example, the Maharajah of Mysore has three dha from the 19th Century on display in a Palace Museum) but the history of these are often poorly documented. The National Museum of Thailand has several dha in its collection attributed to the "Ayutthaya Period" of Thai history (c. 1350 – 1767 C.E.), which resemble closely dha in the collections of the authors attributed to the same period. A brief description and illustrations of dha appear also in Stone (1934), though without attribution, from Stone's personal collection now at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. We are aware of one Burmese dha (catalogue no. 217) bearing a dedicatory inscription with the Burmese date 1160, corresponding to 1798 C.E. in the Western calendar.

The following account synthesizes some of the information we have assembled to date. Our information is fragmentary but we have tried to stay away from speculation and the temptation to fill in the gaps with educated guesses. What follows is not a comprehensive view, but a basic introduction to the chief types of dha, their origins, general classification, and use.

Origins of the dha
Part of the difficulty in understanding the origins and categorization of the dha is its apparent ubiquity among the people of the region. However, by considering the question in ethnographic/historical terms, without restricting oneself to current political boundaries, it becomes a little easier to answer two questions: Who “invented” the dha?” and “Where were they from?” Answering those two questions should give the answer to a third: “How did the style diffuse throughout the region in the way it did?” So, it is worth discussing a little of the history of the region, and the peoples who have come and gone across it.

The dha seems to be used predominantly by two broad ethnic groupings in Southeast Asia, the Tibeto-Burman peoples (for example, the Burman, Kachin and Karen), and the Tai-Kadai peoples (for example, the Thai, Lao and Shan). There also is some indication that a dha-like sword was used in the Khmer Empire centered in what is today Cambodia, and dha with a Cambodian provenance are known today. Relief carvings from the Khmer capital of Angkor show soldiers carrying what appear to be curved swords of various kinds, with simple, guardless hilts. Excavated swords with curved blades and long, cast bronze hilts have allegedly been found in Khmer-era sites in Cambodia (though not in controlled digs, making this attribution uncertain). There are thus at least three possible "roots" for the dha, though at present we can do no more than speculate as to which is the original source, whether it evolved independently in each, or whether it perhaps came from some other, as yet unidentified group.

The Khmer and Mon peoples had established sophisticated and powerful kingdoms in Southeast Asia before the arrival of either the Tibeto-Burmans or the Tai, the Khmer Empire centered on the city of Angkor (circa 9th century C.E.), and the Mon (Talaing) at Thaton in southeast Burma, and Dvaravati and Haripunjaya (circa 7th century C.E.) to the north (in present-day northwest Thailand). All of these were so-called “Indianized” cultures, meaning that their main influence came from India, as opposed to “Sinocized” cultures such as that of Viet Nam, which were heavily influenced by China. Due to this basic difference between the ancient cultures of Viet Nam and the rest of continental Southeast Asia, the swords of Viet Nam are excluded from this discussion, as they appear to be in large part local variations of Chinese weapons and not connected directly to the dha form used in the rest of continental Southeast Asia. Though there is the indirect evidence from Angkor and uncontrolled digs in Cambodia of the use of the dha in the Khmer Empire, there is no direct evidence that either the Khmer or the Mon as ethnic groups used a sword of the dha form in this period.

The Burmese moved into Southeast Asia from the northwest (via Assam/Darjeeling in present-day India), absorbing the Western Mon after conquering Thaton in 1057 C.E. and dominating all of the Irawady River valley, and the lower Sulawen (Salween) River valley to the east. This was the kingdom of Pagan (Bagan, Pugan). The Burmans were a less “civilized” race than the Mon, and very deliberately appropriated the trappings of the Indianized Mon civilization (literally deporting Mon intellectuals, monks, and artisans from the Western Mon capital of Thaton to help build Pagan).

The Tai moved southwards and westwards from what is today Yunnan Province in southern China, into present-day Burma, Thailand and Laos over a period of centuries, starting as early as the 10th century C.E. During this period, there was significant contact with the established Mon and Khmer, and later the Burman, both as antagonists and as allies. The Tai eventually established, in the early 13th century C.E., the Kingdoms of Sukothai and Lan Na in territory formerly controlled by the Khmer and Mon. The Mongol conquest of China, and ultimately the independent kingdoms of Yunnan in the 13th century C.E., lead to a full-scale migration of Tai peoples southward, and marked the beginning of the ascendancy of the Tai in both Burma (where the Kingdom of Pagan was divided among Shan princes, opening a long period of control by a Shan dynasty) and Thailand. Sukothai was succeeded by Ayutthaya, then Bangkok as the center of Thai power.

This very brief sketch only begins to show the complexity of the political history of Southeast Asia. At various times after its establishment, the "Burmese" kingdom was dominated by Burmans, Shan (Tai), and Mon, and of course the British after the mid-19th century. The area of the kingdom of the Thai was dominated at various times by the Mon, the Khmer, and by the Burmese for a period in the mid-18th century C.E. The picture is further complicated by the wide-spread practice of moving the inhabitants (especially artisans and craftsmen) of entire conquered regions back to the home territory of the victor. So, who "invented" the dha, and when? Perhaps it was the Khmer, as early as the 13th century C.E. (reliefs at Angkor point to this); perhaps it was the Burmans; perhaps it was the Tai who brought the style down from what is now southern China – there are good indications that the dha was in use among the Thai by at least the 16th century. The style doesn’t appear beyond these groups, so very likely one or more of them is the originator of the dha.

Principal forms of the dha
Dha are found in an almost infinite variety of forms, and in lengths from 144 cm (45 inches) or more, down to small knives of 12 or 15 cm (5 or 6 inches), and everything in between. The spectrum of dha forms, however, can be broken down into broad classes. As already mentioned, two main influences can be traced today: one from northeastern India via the Tibeto-Burman peoples, and the second from Tai groups that migrated from southern China and entered Burma and Thailand from the north and east. The influence or role of the Mon and Khmer is, as we have said, unclear, though possibly significant.

The northeastern Indian influence is represented by the dao, a sword whose blade is straight, widens from the hilt to the tip, has a square end, and a single sharpened edge. The dao is used extensively in Assam and Nagaland, and in northern Burma it was adopted mainly by the Kachin people who live along the Assam-Burma border and to the east, in the most mountainous regions of Upper Burma. Catalogue nos. 229 & 230. The Kachin have been a powerful presence in Upper Burma since the early stages of the Anglo-Burmese Wars, when the British used their services to attack the Burmese kingdom. The dao of the Kachin is purely a chopping weapon. From the dao has emerged a longer, slimmer sword version that the Kachin used for combat. This we refer to as the “Kachin” style dha. It has a straight or slightly curved blade with blunt tip and is carried in a closed scabbard in distinction to the dao which is carried in an open-faced scabbard. Catalogue no. 231. The sword of the Shan (Tai) resembles a saber, with either a curved or straight, single-edged blade; the tip is usually pointed, and the sword can be used for slashing or stabbing. See, e.g., catalogue nos. 242 and 243..

Both the Kachin and Tai styles of swords are without a hand guard. These two basic styles seem to have overlapped in Burma, particularly in Lower Burma, resulting in a wide variety of hybrid and highly decorated forms of dha. The Karen people of SE Burma and adjacent Thailand adopted the Shan style dha as did most of the peoples throughout what is today Thailand. As a result, the Shan/Thai dha/dharb is the most commonly seen dha form.

The dha of Cambodia and Laos are also similar to the Shan/Thai forms. E.g., catalogue nos. 228 & 232. These have pointed blades and handles that vary widely in length. Cambodian dha often have blackened hilts and scabbards. The blades of Cambodian dha are a little different from typical Shan blades in that the Cambodian blade is usually straight from the tip to about 6-8 inches in front of the hilt where it often angles abruptly up and this same angle is followed through to the hilt which has an “uptilted” appearance. Catalogue no.263 .

Another dha variant is attributed to the Montagnard tribes in mountainous regions of Vietnam-Cambodia-Laos. This dha generally has a very long handle with a small disk guard, and the blade is hatchet-pointed, being wider towards the tip than at the hilt. The hilt of these swords may be bare bamboo or wrapped with rattan, and the wooden scabbard is usually wound with unplaited rattan. Catalogue nos. 264, 265 and 266. 

Dha construction
Historically, iron ore was mined and smelted locally and sold in bazaars to blacksmiths. The use of iron imported from China was also common. After the mid-19th century C.E., imported European iron and steel gradually replaced local iron. A traditional forge used cylindrical bamboo bellows, a smallish anvil in a wood base, and a trough of water for quenching. Ferrars & Ferrars (1908). Egerton (1880) states that the Singpho (Jingpaw) Kachin of the Assam region used "a lump of stone as an anvil and a rude hammer," yet produced weapons "which are highly prized for their temper and durability." In more recent times, European-style anvils and heavy sledges are used, though the traditional forge can still be seen in both Burma and Thailand.

The basic construction of the dha comprises a forged, single-edged blade, a short tang, and a wooden handle of circular cross-section that is fixed over a blind tang. Bell (1907) describes three ways in which dha were traditionally made in Burma. The Royal troops during the reign of King Mindon (reigned 1853-1878 C.E.) carried swords of iron, over which a thin coating of steel had been welded. The shaped iron dha was heated red-hot, and a thin, red-hot sheet of steel was wrapped around the blade and hammered to weld the metal, the process repeated ten times, and the blade quenched in water. A method used in the upper Chindwin River valley starts with a shaped blade of iron, over which a strip of steel was placed, over all of which was put a coating of clay. The blade is heated until red-hot, causing the metals to bond and the clay to crumble away. The point of the blade is coated again with clay and heated, then cooled slowly until it reaches a dull green color, then given the final quench. In a third method, the back and edge were made separately and welded together with a lap joint. The Chinese technique of inserting a hardened piece of steel between two softer layers (qiangang) can be found on some Shan swords, and even some knives, but perhaps to a lesser extent on Kachin dha. This technique is still used today in Thailand by smiths of Chinese descent. Boyd (2000). Differential tempering and hardening of the cutting edge, resembling Japanese methods, may also be found on some of these swords. Edge hardening is generally achieved by selectively heating the edge in a very hot fire, followed by quenching (as opposed to the use of clay to create different zones of hardening in a uniformly-heated blade, as seen in traditional Japanese sword-making). Boyd (2000). This edge heating results in a visible temper line that is frequently both wider and less even than the hamon of a Japanese sword. Catalogue no.238 . However, blades have a more delicate temper line such as is seen in Japanese swords are known, indicating that the clay differential hardening technique was known. Catalogue no. 237. At least some blades made today in Aranyik in Thailand are cut from a blank of sheet steel, shaped by stock removal, then tempered.

While blade shape may reflect the distant origins of the dha, it actually tells us little of the source of manufacture of a particular sword. Burmese swords do tend to be straighter than Thai swords; the square or concave tip seems more common in Burmese swords, while the upswept tip seems favored in Thai blades. Exceptions are apparent, though, and a particular smith might produce blades of all of these forms. Blades, at least the best ones, tended to be made centrally and dispersed via trade, though local blacksmiths did (and still do) produce utility blades for local consumption. The Duleng Kachin territory (east of the Irawady and north of the Nam Tisang rivers) in the Kachin Hills area, and Mong-Kung and Kehsi in the Shan States, were known to be important centers of blade exportation to Lower Burma and Thailand. Aranyik in central Thailand was, and still is, a major sword-manufacturing center in that country, as is the northern city of Chiang Mai. Taken together with the form and decoration of the fittings, blade shape may give clues as to the original owner of a particular sword; blades (either purchased or made-to-order) usually were decorated and fitted locally to the owners' taste. The owner's choice may show as much personal taste and whim as it does adherence to an ethnic or cultural standard.

Most working dha have a plain steel blade without fullers or ornamentation. The spine of the blade may be flat or peaked, the latter being more common on Shan style swords. Blade thickness just in front of the hilt ranges from about 6-12 cm (0.25 to 0.5 inches), with an average of about 8-9 mm (about 0.35 inches), tapering abruptly towards the tip, until the width at the spine is essentially the same as that of the edge.

Decorative blades may have one or more fullers, although a single wide fuller is probably the most common variant. Koftgari (designs made by hammering wire and/or thin sheets of metal onto the roughened surface of the blade) done in silver, copper, or brass may be seen at the forte, extending for varying distances along the blade, and inlaid work may be found along the spine in front of the hilt (more rarely on the blade). Figures 1 and 2. Koftgari appears to be exclusively a Burmese decoration on dha.

 

Figure 1
detail of catalogue no.
227

 

Figure 2
detail of catalogue no. 218


The dha tang is usually a thin tapering wedge of steel about 7 to 10 cm (about 3-4 inches) in length. The orientation of the tang is in the long axis of the blade immediately before the hilt, so that any curve of the blade is carried through from the forte into the handle. In many cases this gives the sword a graceful curve from tip to pommel.

There is considerable variation in the shape of the tip of the blade – one can find dha with cutlass-like upswept tips, with rounded spatula tips, with squared-off tips, and even with concave, almost forked, tips. In Thailand the term for "tip" is hua, literally "head." Hua lem and hua darb both refer to an upswept tip (e.g., catalogue nos. 258, 259, 260), hua bua refers to a more-or-less spatula shaped tip (e.g., catalogue nos.259, 254), hua khong refers to the concave tip (e.g., catalogue nos. 231 and 228), hua lu guy refers to a so-called "sheep's foot" tip where the spine curves down toward the edge (e.g., catalogue nos.256, 257), and hua tat or hua chuey refer to an angled tip (e.g., catalogue nos.264 and 265).

Hilts are highly variable in form and construction, although some general comments can be made. A style common in Burma has a simple straight hilt of three approximately equal parts: a central wooden piece flanked by two metal ferrules that may be cylindrical or slightly flared at the ends. E.g., catalogue nos. 225, 231 and 232. A bud-shaped pommel is also common. This style of hilt is usually about 17-25 cm (about 7-10 inches) in length and could be used for a single- or two-handed grip.

A second common style is a straight wooden cylinder wrapped with many thin plaited rings of rattan. This is often seen on Shan style swords used for every day chores. E.g., catalogue nos. 243, 244. It is the typical dress of a working man’s dha. These hilts are simple, utilitarian, and found throughout the region. Such hilts vary widely in length; on some swords the hilt can approach the length of the blade itself, perhaps more commonly seen in dha from Thailand and Laos.

Fancy variants of these hilts are common. Silver, ivory, and other exotic materials, with or without elaborate decorations or carving, are found on the hilts of dha. The hilt is often the most elaborately decorated feature of these swords. Figures 3 and 4. Pommels, when present, often are of thin metal over a core of resin, which makes them fragile and prone to damage.

 

Figure 3
detail of catalogue no. 258

 

Figure 4
details of catalogue nos. 218, 221, 223 and 219.


 

Scabbards are typically two strips of wood, often bamboo, that are bound together with rattan or metal. Figure 5. The most usual binding is multiple thin braided rattan strips at intervals along the sheath. Some scabbards are painted black or covered with dark resinous materials, particularly those from Thailand and Cambodia. More ornate scabbards can be partly or completely covered with silver, brass or sometimes gold, reflecting the status of the owner. On some of the more ornate Kachin and Shan scabbards, the foot flares symmetrically and is squared off. Most scabbards have rounded ends, though pointed ends are not uncommon. The more ornate scabbards tend to have squared ends.



 

Figure 5
detail of catalogue no.242

 

The most common suspension system for dha is usually a rope wrapped around the throat of the scabbard and tied into a large loop that is used to hang the sword over a shoulder or sling it across the chest. Pairs of shorter dha are also carried crossed on the back. When worn over the shoulder, the sword is carried hilt forward, with the cutting edge down, and drawn across the body.

Dha Use
Richard F. Burton famously wrote in the opening sentence of The Book of the Sword, “The history of the sword is the history of humanity.” Although Burton never reached past a brief mention of the dha in his writing (tantalizing promises of further discussion in the never-published second volume notwithstanding) proof of his sentiment can be found in continental Southeast Asia, where warfare was endemic. Like many cultures worldwide, the peoples of this region have a rich tradition of sword use, ranging from obvious martial applications as a weapon to more mundane functions as a tool. And like swords everywhere, the dha has also played important status and ceremonial roles. The vast array of shapes, sizes, materials and ornamentation is testament not only to the wide geographic and cultural diversity of dha users, but also to the fact that these swords are used in many different ways.

As the peoples that make and use these weapons diminish, so does our understanding of them and their significance. However, while the modern, urban residents of the region move inexorably away from dha use, rural tribesmen and martial artists maintain some of the traditions.

Despite intense and often heated argument to the contrary, a “perfect” sword really doesn’t exist. Swords develop to suit the environment and user. It cannot be seriously disputed that the primary purpose of a dha is as a weapon. Some hints as to how these swords were used can be found by looking closely at construction and design. The peoples of continental Southeast Asia did not, historically, have to contend with heavy armor or thick, dense textile clothing. As a result, dha are generally light weapons with short spike tangs and a center of balance located close to the handle. A design well suited to cuts against unprotected flesh. Notable exceptions do exist, including some large, massive examples that probably filled niches occupied by cavalry sabers and short pole arms in other cultures. To the casual observer, most swords in the category would appear to favor single hand techniques with an emphasis on slashing and “draw” cuts. This is particularly true of the “Shan” and Thai style weapons. The swords used by some Kachin and “Montagnard” tribesmen are often heavier and seem better suited to a chopping technique.

Real-world data is important when discussing sword use, as the tendency to draw conclusions based solely on speculation is all too tempting. Accordingly, the authors tested a wide array of dha, including antique examples of most known forms, contemporary examples from Thailand and custom swords made with the finest of modern materials and techniques. The test sample numbered approximately thirty sword-length weapons and, while the sample size tested was small and the tester largely inexperienced, some useful information was realized.

Test cutting with a variety of different cutting media (including foam pool “noodles”, rolled beach mats, water-filled plastic bottles and rolled newspaper) yielded impressive but largely expected results. All forms of the sword, antique, contemporary and custom alike, cut all media well. The Kachin and Montagnard variants were, indeed, better suited than their Shan and Thai counterparts to a chopping technique, but cut surprisingly well with a slash or draw-cut. The informal tests revealed that the dha is well suited for its intended purpose: cutting.

One of the pre-test concerns was the stability of the handle/blade junction. With the exception of some truly old swords with deteriorated pitch fixation material, even poor technique did not cause any remarkable failure. The few full-tang swords tested included both peened and threaded pommel examples, and this feature appeared to contribute more to weapon balance than cutting ability. Further in this regard, most dha favored single-hand techniques, despite the frequent occurrence of lengthy handles. Held close to the blade, the long handles on most examples provided an excellent counter-balance to the blade, making for a fast “feeling” weapon. Notable exceptions were encountered, and the longer Shan and Thai swords welcomed two-handed use. Similarly, some of the Montagnard swords had handles equal or longer than the blade, and these were unwieldy if not used with two hands, similar to a short pole-arm.

That the dha has long seen dual use as a weapon and tool is unsurprising. Many of the tribesmen indigenous to the region carry dha as a general sidearm and tool used to satisfy a variety of cutting needs. For instance, members of the various Kachin (Jinghpaw) tribes are unlikely to be seen without a “hunting” sword at their side, often decorated with tiger teeth or sections of tiger jaw to illustrate their hunting abilities. Diran (1997) During World War II, Kachin tribesmen were recruited by the allies to defend the “Burma Road”. The British found the local weapons particularly suited to the environment and, for a short time, issued military-grade dha for use by some British troops, much as the U.S. and other forces employed machetes.

 

Figure 6
British marked Military Dha (detail of catalogue no. 236)


One way to obtain information about any weapon is to examine the martial arts that utilize it. This is far from perfect, however, as most modern weapon arts have necessarily moved away from their original martial applications. Moreover, it is not uncommon in the martial arts community, for different schools, organizations and instructors to hold radically different opinions on the origin and techniques of a particular art. However, this introduction is not intended to comprehensively explore the various martial arts that feature or include dha in their systems, and a brief examination can be edifying.

Although most modern martial arts shy away from “live” blades and a certain degree of dilution is usually encountered, the treatment given to tradition, technique and form is important. Fortunately, the dha is featured in some of the formalized modern martial arts of Burma and Thailand. In Burma, the term Thaing (“total combat”) is often used to refer to indigenous martial art systems believed to descend from ancient Burmese arts. Green (2001)
In Thailand, Krabi Krabong (“sword and staff”) refers to various weapons systems influenced and based on hundreds of years of warfare. Draeger & Smith (1969).

Different styles of Thaing are occasionally associated with specific Burmese ethnic groups, including Burmese, Chin, Chinese, Kachin, Karen, Mon, Shan and Talaing. Draeger & Smith (1969) and Green (2001).
Accounts of centuries of warfare between some of these groups date back hundreds of years to the Pagan Empire (11th Century C.E.) under King Anawrahtar, and some modern practitioners claim their particular arts descend from systems developed during these periods Green (2001). It is believed that, during the Pagan era, martial arts were one of the eighteen subjects to be mastered by the aristocracy, giving rise to a rich martial tradition, which ultimately included the dha. Green (2001). Coalescing under the armed sub-style of Banshay, likely derived from Indian and Chinese arts, some modern dha practitioners combine dance with weapons practice. Draeger & Smith (1969).
In 2003, the world was treated to a rare exhibition of modern Burmese martial arts in the 1st Kachin Martial Arts Exhibition held in Northern Myanmar. The video documentary of this historic event showcased the rhythmic intertwining of dance, music and weapons. While unlikely to be representative of actual fighting, the Kachin demonstrations did provide insight into the rapid, smooth techniques these weapons are so well suited to. The dha routines demonstrated by the exhibition’s participants featured circular strikes and blocks characterized by slashes and draw-cuts. Some two-handed exercises were evident with large swords, but single-handed forms with either one or two weapons predominated.

Unlike Thaing, Krabi Krabong is an essentially homogenous style of fighting with the daab and other weapons. Differences exist between different schools and teachers, but the basic themes remain fairly consistent due to official sanction by King Rama IV (r. 1851-68 C.E.) and later formalization in 1936 as part of the curriculum of the Thai College of Physical Education. Draeger & Smith (1969). The actual origin of the art is the subject of some debate, but roots in Indian and Chinese arts and later influence by Japanese mercenaries are likely. Draeger & Smith (1969).

One of the characteristic Krabi Krabong drills involves the use of twin daab, one in each hand (“daap sawng meu”), a style of fighting purportedly traced back to the Ayutthaya period (1350-1767 C.E.). These swords are usually of the short bladed/long handled type and held close to the guard. Like most drills and training in modern Krabi Krabong, the use of twin daab includes ritual dance and mock fighting, with emphasis on pre-arranged drills wherein the participants attack and defend in turn. Draeger & Smith (1969).

The rich ornamentation of some dha, often featuring use of ornately carved ivory and lavish decoration with silver, gold, copper, brass, enamel and, occasionally, precious stones, is evidence that, like the swords of other cultures, dha were historically symbols of power and status. Codified rules governing the form and materials of dha decoration are found in the historical laws of both Burma and Thailand. Examples exist with handles of ivory so intricately carved and pierced that they resemble sugar confections, and could not possibly be intended for fighting or actual use. Still other examples have entire “blades” fashioned from the tusks of elephants. It is speculated that such swords were carried by the aristocracy, perhaps to comply with a prohibition against bringing “live” blades into the presence of a king. In any event, it cannot seriously be disputed that such items are useless as actual weapons and, instead, serve as potent symbols of wealth, status and power. Today, knives and swords ornamented with silver and ivory remain important status symbols among many tribal men of the region. Lewis (1984).
Ceremonial use of dha is established by anecdotal evidence gathered from those who have spent time amongst the various ethnic groups in Thailand and Burma. The Mien, a Taoist tribe in Thailand, have complex “ordination” ceremonies in which participants climb a ladder constructed of wooden “swords”. Lewis (1984). Mien priests also perform burial ceremonies with knives and wooden swords, to drive away evil spirits. Lewis (1984). Similarly, Kachin tribesmen perform traditional dances and ceremonies in which their ever-present swords play a prominent role. Other ethnic and religious groups use dha in various Buddhist blessings and ceremonies and swords with blessings etched into the blades are seen (catalogue no. 245), in addition to the ubiquitous “temple” swords that vary in quality and size.

Finally, dha have been used as presentation gifts to commemorate auspicious occasions or honor the recipient, and examples with dedication plaques affixed to their scabbards are not common, but do appear from time to time carrying invaluable provenance. Presentation dha vary in quality, but are usually finely decorated and well made, commensurate with the importance of the recipient or occasion. E.g., catalogue no. 217.

Conclusion
Due to the lack of written material available, the study of these weapons can be as frustrating as it is fascinating. In fact, it is likely this very lack of information has fed the desire to learn more about dha and the cultures that use them. Fortunately, our knowledge about these wonderful weapons grows daily, and causes us to frequently change the way we think about and study them. For the casual collector, the seemingly endless variations of dha present ample opportunities to obtain genuine, often luxurious weapons to have and enjoy. For those who crave greater “immersion” into the form, dha represent a rare mystery in the world of arms and armor ripe for exploration and discovery.

References

- Catalogue de la Collection D’Armes Anciennes Europeenes et Orientales de Charles Buttin, Rumilly, 1933.
- Bell, E.N., A Monograph on Iron and Steel Work in Burma, Superintendent of Government Printing, Burma, 1907.
- Boyd, Francis, Blades of Bangkok, Blade Magazine, March, 2000, pp. 136-143.
- Burton, Richard F., The Book of the Sword. Dover Publications, Inc., 1987.
- Diran, Richard K., The Vanishing Tribes of Burma. Amphoto Art, 1997.
-
Draeger, Donn F. and Smith, Robert W., Comprehensive Asian Fighting Arts. Kodansha International, 1969.
- Egerton (Lord Tatton), Wilbrahim, An Illustrated Handbook of Indian Arms and Those of Nepal, Burma, Thailand and - Malaya. 1880 (reprinted 1981).
-
Ferrars & Ferrars, Burma. Sampson Law Marston & Co., London, 1908.
-
Fraser-Lu, Sylvia, Burmese Crafts. Oxford University Press, 1994.
-
Garnier, Francis, Further Travels in Laos and in Yunnan : Volume 2 of the Mekong Exploration Commission Report (1866-1868), reprinted by White Lotus USA, 1996.
-
Ginsburg, Henry, Thai Art & Culture: Historic Manuscripts from Western Collections. Universtiy of Hawai’i Press, 2000.
-
Green, Thomas A., Martial Arts of the World: An Encyclopedia. ABC-Clio, Inc., 2001.
-
Lewis, Elaine and Lewis, Paul, Peoples of the Golden Triangle: Six Tribes in Thailand. Thames and Hudson, Ltd., 1984.
-
Lintner, Bertil. The Kachin: Lords of Burma's Northern Frontier, Sollo Development Limited, 1997. ISBN 1-876437-05-7
- Stone, George Cameron, A Glossary of the Construction, Decoration and Use of Arms and Armor in All Countries and in All Times. Brussel, New York, 1934 (reissued 1961).

 
 

Hit Counter