An exceedingly rare set with fine mother of pearl inlaid string board
Sheathed 79.5 cm
Sword 78 cm
Base 6 mm
Middle 4 mm
5 cm from tip 3 mm
Base 42 mm
Middle 42 mm
5 cm from tip 33 mm
Sheathed 1353 grams
Sword 723 grams
20 cm from hilt
Iron, steel, wood, silver, brass, lacquer, cotton, gold.
Kingdom of Bhutan
19th to early 20th century
European antique art market
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Churi chenm describes a certain type of Bhutanese sword (patag), with churi referring to a triple "W" pattern on its silver-clad scabbard. The pattern resembles a splashing and meandering river. It is considered the top tier among Bhutanese sword scabbards.
Swords with the churi chenm scabbard were traditionally worn by the king himself and senior officials like his changap or chief attendant:
"Churi chenm It has a silver scabbard and three layers of churi design in the middle. Hence the name churi chenm. The churi design is gold plated. This is considered one of the best scabbards. Although the changap of the king particularly wore it in olden days, many high officials today wear it during important occasions. Gongsar Ugyen Wangchuck wore it as is evident from his earlier group picture."
-Dr. Jagar Dorji, Intangible Cultural Heritage of Bhutan
Glossary article: churi chenm
The sword is a classic Bhutanese high-quality patag. It has a straight blade with an almost parallel edge and back, terminating in an oblique point. The blade is made with Tibetan "hairpin forging" but with a more mirror-like finish, as was preferred in Bhutan. The different layers stand out in slight relief and appear more or less depending on the light.
The longitudinal "forging flaws" are typical for Himalayan bladesmithing, where the lower levels of oxygen in the atmosphere made it harder to reach and maintain high temperatures in the forge. They are typically shallow and of no structural consequence and can be seen as a hallmark for proper Himalayan work. Whenever they do not appear, we are often looking at an imported blade.
The hilt is of classic form; its facetted wooden grip is strongly waisted towards the guard and is wrapped with braided metallic wire, in this case, a brass-like alloy held together with lacquered cord on either end. On each side of the grip is an oval silver plate with ribbed edge. On the blade side is a silver collar piece.
The guard is pierced brass, with a stylized umbrella amongst scrollwork at the front and a honeycomb pattern on the back. The honeycomb is a highly stylized lotus seed pod, its seed potentially becoming another lotus, a symbol of enlightenment. The openwork is contrasted by a red fabric background over which the pommel is slid. A brass nail secures it in place.
The scabbard is a classic silver churi-chenm. It consists of three silver sleeves that are slid over a wooden scabbard base, rounded at the back, and with a clear center ridge on the front. The center sleeve is decorated in repousse on both sides with the W-shaped ornaments that give the name churi-chenm to these. They represent highly stylized rivers. Unusual on this scabbard is this W pattern on both sides, whereas we often see a diaper pattern on the reverse. The churi-chenm is bordered on either side by decorative bands of lotus and the eight Buddhist symbols. All decoration was initially parcel-gilt, but only some of it still remains.
The mouthpiece consists of three oval bands with ribbed borders, mirroring the guard. Under that is a stylized lotus border. Below that is the loop for the suspension strap. Curiously, the formal patag such as this one is always worn upright, on the right side, with the edge forward. This is possibly one of the least handy ways of carrying such a sword when you want to draw it out quickly and is probably a symbol of the peaceful intent of the wearer.
Dating & attribution
Such swords were in production at least from the time of Bhutan's first king, Ugyen Wangchuck, and are worn by Bhutanese kings, advisors, and other officials into recent times. The style changed little over time, but by the 1930s all blades were made in India, not exhibiting the typical Himalayan hairpin construction anymore.1 This example, with a good old local blade, is close to the ones presented by Sir Ugyen Wangchuck and therefore probably dates from around 1900.
The highest levels of these swords have pierced iron or silver pommels that are either damascened with gold or parcel-gilt and come with braided silver wire wrap on the grip. This example has a simpler pierced brass pommel with no gilding, en suite with the brass braided wire wrap. I do believe they were born together, as the sword is a perfect fit in the scabbard and there is no difference in wear or patina. This leads me to believe that whoever wore it was of high enough status to wear the churi-chenm but not high enough to mimic the sword of the king and his closest people.
Blade in excellent condition, some blemishes, no pitting, no edge damage, retaining its original surface finish. Scabbard wood is likewise in tip-top condition with that sweet smell of a good old piece that has not been messed with. Hilt in near-perfect condition.
Scabbard covering dented as is usual on these. The bottom plate has separated somewhat, see photos.
There is a period repair; this scabbard construction relies on friction with the wood, helped by two nails on the backside. As the wood shrunk over time, the lower two sections gained space to move, and the silver sheet ripped where the nails were. A previous owner has (crudely) attended to this by securing it with silver staples. The upper part shows several attempts to fix it. As a period fix, these don't bother me, but the buyer should study these parts carefully and consider how much of an issue it is to them.
This sword to me is a very nice package, consisting of good quality and excellent condition patag in original condition with the much-coveted churi-chenm scabbard. All damage and repairs are "of the period" and show that this piece was proudly worn for an extended period of time.
1. See Victoria & Albert Museum accession number: IS.2:2-2007.
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