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Panyun (Lacquerware)

Yun-de is lacquerware in Burmese, and the art is called Pan yun. The lacquer is the sap tapped from the varnish tree Melanorrhoea usitata or Thitsee that grows wild in the forests of Myanmar (formerly Burma). It is straw-colored but turns black on exposure to air. When brushed in or coated on, it forms a hard glossy smooth surface resistant to a degree effects of exposure to moisture or heat.

Bayinnaung’s conquest and subjugation in 1555-1562 of Manipur, Bhamo, Zinme (Chiang Mai), Linzin (Lan Xang), and up the Taping and Shweli rivers in the direction of Yunnan brought back large numbers of skilled craftsmen into Burma. It is thought that the finer sort of Burmese lacquerware, called Yun, was introduced during this period by imported artisans belonging to the Yun or Laos Shan tribes of the Chiang Mai region.

Lacquer vessels, boxes and trays have a coiled or woven bamboo-strip base often mixed with horsehair, and the thitsee may be mixed with ashes or sawdust to form a putty-like substance called thayo which can be sculpted. The object is coated layer upon layer with thitsee and thayo to make a smooth surface, polished and engraved with intricate designs, commonly using red, green and yellow colours on a red or black background. Shwezawa is a distinctive form in its use of gold leaf to fill in the designs on a black background.

Palace scenes, scenes from the Jataka tales, and the signs of the Burmese Zodiac are popular designs and some vessels may be encrusted with glass mosaic or semi-precious stones in gold relief. The objects are all handmade and the designs and engraving done free-hand. It may take three to four months to finish a small vessel but perhaps over a year for a larger piece. The finished product is a result of teamwork and not crafted by a single person.

The most distinctive vessel is probably a rice bowl on a stem with a spired lid for monks called hsun ok. Lahpet ok is a shallow dish with a lid and has a number of compartments for serving lahpet (pickled tea) with its various accompaniments. Stackable tiffin carriers fastened with a single handle or hsun gyaink are usually plain red or black. Daunglahn are low tables for meals and may be simple broad based or have three curved feet in animal or floral designs with a lid. Water carafes or yeidagaung with a cup doubling as a lid, and vases are also among lacquerware still in use in many monasteries.

Various round boxes with lids, small and large, are known as Yun-It including ones for paan called Kun-It (betel boxes). Yun titta are rectangular boxes for storing various articles including peisa or palm leaf manuscripts when they are called sadaik titta. Pedestal dishes or small trays with a stem with or without a lid are known as kalat for serving delicacies or offering flowers to royalty or the Buddha. Theatrical troupes and musicians have their lacquerware in costumes, masks, head-dresses, and musical instruments, some of them stored and carried in lacquer trunks. Boxes in the shape of a pumpkin or a bird such as the owl, which is believed to bring luck, or the hintha (Brahmani goose) are common too. Screens and small polygonal tables are also made for the tourist trade today.

Bagan is the major centre for the lacquerware industry where the handicraft has been established for nearly two centuries, and still practiced in the traditional manner. Here a government school of lacquerware was founded in the 1920s. Since plastics, porcelain and metal have superseded lacquer in most everyday utensils, it is today manufactured in large workshops mainly for tourists who come to see the ancient temples of Bagan. At the village of Kyaukka near Monywa in the Chindwin valley, however, sturdy lacquer utensils are still produced for everyday use mainly in plain black.

A decline in the number of visitors combined with the cost of resin, which has seen a 40 fold rise in 15 years, has led to the closure of over two thirds of more than 200 lacquerware workshops in Bagan.

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