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Colourful Parasols of Myanmar

An Essay by Khin Aung (English) from More Facets of Myanmar.

Pathein umbrella

The Golden Land of Myanmar is full of color, whether natural or man-made. This color is enhanced to some extent by all manner of umbrellas and parasols. The Pathein parasol for one is simply enchanting, with its beautiful design containing sort of artistic paintings on them.

The umbrella is just a personal item, helping to protect one from the sun or the rain. It is essential in a tropical country with good rainfall. But in Myanmar, the role of the umbrella runs from mundane to the most sacred, as the ornamented finial on our pagodas and temples is also called Htee (umbrella). In times of yore, the umbrella was part of the royal regalia or a symbol of rank. It still is a symbol of high honor in Myanmar’s monastic life.

A Handicraft

Myanmar is also well-known for its handicrafts — handmade silverware, lacquerware, artistic wood carvings, caneware, bamboo ware, mother-of-pearl products, ivory carvings, so on and so forth. Umbrella-making does not figure much among them. Yet it is a pure, traditional handicraft in its own right.

We may now leave alone making the ornamented final of a pagoda, or miniature paper umbrellas used as an offertory.

Traditional hand-made parasols are still much used by our Buddhist monks and nuns, even as foreign-made steel and nylon umbrellas are gaining their favor. The traditional parasol for laymen’s use is now virtually extinct, while the Pathein parasol is gradually becoming a decorative thing, or a souvenir item to be picked up by the foreign visitor.

The Myanmar traditional parasol is mostly bamboo and oiled cloth affair, while most of its raw materials are locally produced. The Tin-wah is the favorite bamboo, out of which 18″ – 20″ strips are made. The bamboo is soaked for some time in foul water, to prevent it from the danger of insects later. The head and sliding hub of the parasol is made of teak, manufactured by using the turning lathe. The other important parts are the framework of ribs, the covering or leaves, the rib, the trigger, the handle, and the shaft, which is of various kinds.

The radius for a man’s parasol leaves is 16 inches, a woman’s parasol 14 inches, and the children’s parasol 10 inches respectively. The number of ribs with props for each parasol also differs. However, all these measurements and numbers are the only general. They could differ from locality to locality.

It is said that, in this handicraft, putting the covering (leaves) on the frame is the most difficult, to be mastered only after about three years of experience. The special cloth is weaved in Amarapura, near Mandalay. Before cutting the cloth, sheets of paper cut to scale have to be made to be put thereon.

On the covering of a woman’s parasol are painted natural scenery and landscape. The covering of a man’s parasol has two white bands between which are seen paintings of landscape and royal cities. The monk’s or nun’s parasol is painted red all over.

As mentioned above, the man’s parasol has almost gone out of use. The woman’s parasol, called Pathein Htee or Aindawyar Htee, remains somewhat in use. In this modern era, most people including the clergy tend to favor the folding steel and nylon (or satin) affairs.

Pathein Htee

Myanmar parasols have their origin in Pathein, a town in the Delta of Ayeyarwady Region. Hence their name — Pathein Htee in Myanmar language. In fact, it also is produced elsewhere in the country. When it is manufactured at Aindawyar, a ward in Mandalay, it could be called Aindawyar Htee. The parasol is also made in Yangon. There even is a Htee-dan, a ward in Yangon, meaning Umbrella row.

Umbrella manufacture is said to have originated in Pathein more than a hundred years ago. A group of people came down from Pyay, rather upcountry, and initiated the trade-in Pathein. The covering for parasols at first was paper, to be replaced later by cotton, silk, and taffeta. The oil-soaked cloth is good for long-lasting use.

Pathein parasols are well known for their beautiful designs and dashing colors. The designs are usually floral. The Pathein parasol has seen booming business, aided in no small measure by the appreciation of foreign visitors.

The design and construction of the Myanmar parasol are quite distinct from the Chinese or the Japanese ones. To describe it briefly, the shaft and ribs are of bamboo which is carefully smoothened to uniform sizes, and these ribs are hinged on to the main shaft by threading with twine. The shades are of gay colored cotton, rayon, silk or satin. To add to the covering’s brightness, attractive designs of flowers and sceneries are painted thereon with either oil or watercolors.

There are flat-topped parasols and also another type with its shade slightly curved downward at the outer edge. Most of them have colored tassels attached to the end of each rib. There are inexpensive ones with wooden handles and the special ones with carved silver handles.

Regarding the traditional umbrella manufacture as a whole, the golden umbrella manufacture should remain for a long, long time because it is part and parcel of Myanmar Buddhist rites and customs. But the rest might be a dying art. The Pathein parasol is becoming a souvenir item, a curiosity, or just a decorative thing at trade shows. We should put our heads together to promote it. Such a beautiful thing as the Pathein parasol needs all the protection it can get.

Colorful Parasols of Myanmar by Khin Aung (English)