Source: Period accounts
Mindan is a village in Yamethin district, just south of Mandalay. It was known for its industry of making fine dha with fine silver overlay.
A number of typical Mindan style dha.
(The pommels on the top and bottom one are later replacements, the middle two are more typical.)
Mandarin Mansion stock of 2019.
In historical sources
"The inlaid dha and dagger blades of Mindan near Yamèthin are well-known. The dhas are inlaid in gold, silver and brass."1
-Gazetteer of Upper Burma and the Shan states. 1901.
"Of the 26,221 workers and dependents shown in the census returns under the head of workers in iron and hardware, few can have been capable of executing anything more than the coarsest blacksmith's work. An exception must, however, be made in favour of the forgers of the inlaid knife-blades produced in Yamethin District, some of whose work is really meritorious." 2
-Imperial Gazzetteer of India, Provincial Series, Burma Vol 1. 1908.
The most thorough account on their work is Bell's monograph on Iron and Steel production in Burma:
"Another artistic development has its home in Mindan Village, Yamethin District, where every household depends mote or less on its smithy, though there are only a few professors of the particular art to be described, which consists of an inlay of silver wire upon an iron surface. The usual articles produced are ornamental dalwes or da-hmyaungs, scissors, ...
This industry is said to have had its origin five generations before Saya Lan whose son Saya Pyo, the chief local artist, turned out the articles shown in the illustrations. The originator's name is forgotten, but the art is traditional, from father to son, each improving on his ancestors, as Saya Lan himself said:
"I was better than my father, and now my son, Maung Pyo, is better than I ever was." 3
-E.N. Bell, Rangoon, 1907.
When he wrote his monograph in 1907, the tradition was said to have started five generations before Saya. Assuming some 30 years for each generation, this puts the origin of the work in about the middle of the 18th century.
1. James George Scott, John Percy Hardiman; Gazetteer of Upper Burma and the Shan states, Part II, Vol III, 1901. Page 386.
2. Imperial Gazetteer of India, Provincial Series, Burma Vol 1. The Province; Mountains, Rivers, tribes, etc.; And the Arakan, Pegu, Irrawaddy, and Tenasserim Divisions. Superintendent of Government Printing, Calcutta. 1908. Page 79.
3. E.N. Bell I.C.S.; A Monograph on Iron and Steel Work in Burma. Rangoon, Superintendent, Government Printing Burma, 1907.
Origin of the work
The type of overlay resembles the koftgari done in India, with the difference than on Indian work usually only the place where the design is placed will be crosshatched. On these dha, a larger surface is crosshatched and the design "drawn" with a piece of metal wire that is carefully hammered in. This method was also common on Ottoman pieces, where gold wire was used to, among others, create fine islamic calligraphy on cartouches on blades.
This seems a long shot, but especially Burma's coast has a very long history of Islamic settlers. By the early 18th century, many port authorities were of Armenian descent.1
1. Moshe Yegar; The Muslims of Burma.
Well-decorated Burmese swords were naturally only affordable for the upper class. A few sources point towards their use by high ranked officials and their retainers. There is also evidence that they were commissioned by British who had served in Burma, such as the Rundle dha.
Some other hints towards the use of lavish dha in Burma:
"Rubies, also, are a sign of rank, and only permitted as ornaments in the swords and cups of the very highest dignitaries. The former point out rank very distinctly, those of the subaltern chieftains having merely silver scabbards and handles, whereas the superior officers have theirs made of gold, and often handsomely ornamented with precious stones." 1
-Thomas Abercromby Trant, 1827.
"The advanced posts of the army under Shumba Woonghee, had now appeared on the banks of the Rangoon River, seven miles from Rangoon."
"The carnage was very great, at least five hundred men being slain in the first stockade, and amongst them was Shumbah Woonghee."
"In this stockade was a battery of nine small guns, and ranged in a row behind, wore the Burman colours. They were made of red silk, swallow-tailed, and having the figure of a Braminy goose in the centre, and when furled, were bound round with green leaves instead of cases. A great many stand of arms were captured and destroyed, and many handsome spears, the shafts headed with chased silver, swords with gold and silver handles and scabbards silver caps, and even the Tsaloeh or gold chain of nine links, worn by the Woonghee became the property of the soldiers. The latter ornament was afterwards sold for six hundred and fifty rupees." 2
-Thomas Abercromby Trant, July 1824.
In the last account, many lavishy decorated swords and spears were captured. This is probably not just the regalia of the Woonghee, a powerful noble rank, but of his retainers as well.
1. Thomas Abercromby Trant; Two Years In Ava (1824-1826). William Clowes, London. 1827. Page 269.
2. Ibid. Pages 65-69.