Traditional Umbrellas

Photo - Phoe Nyan

In old Myanmar culture, the use of umbrellas is more to symbolize prestige than to give protection from the weather. All stupas and temples have a ‘Hti’ umbrella made of metal perched on the tip of the highest sphere, gilded with pure gold, set with real gems and hung with silver or gold bells. In the old days of monarchy, only those of Royal blood and those favoured by the king with special permission were allowed to use umbrellas although not white, because that colour is exclusively for the king. The common folk had to go around with round hats made of palm leaf, bamboo or paper while the court officials walk under large, round, tray-like covers held over them by a servant.

In fact, they are called ‘Byet’ which is the same term as for ‘tray’ which is very similar in shape.

The gold umbrella is a symbol of religious prestige but monks have a different type of umbrella: a dark brownish-red, made of stiffened cloth, over a frame made of wood and bamboo. However nowadays they are allowed to use simple folding umbrellas of a dark brown colour since heavy rains will destroy their cloth and bamboo umbrellas in one shower.

The old fashioned parasols for women and girls are made of the same materials but are in all pretty colours and painted with flowers although they are now used as decorative pieces for hotels and restaurants since modern girls are a huge part of the urban work force.

The traditional method of making parasols requires several parts made of wood or bamboo: the round tip of the umbrella called the head; the bole of the umbrella, the handle, the ring which encircles the bole and on which the spokes rests. These are made of teak while the spokes and the frame of the umbrella are of bamboo.

First, the head, ring and handle must be sanded until smooth. Small niches are then cut around the ring and the head in the number of spokes to be used. Tiny holes are bored through the dividing wood of these niches, so that a thread can be pushed through to tie the spokes. Then the spokes are cut from split bamboo. If the umbrella is large, i.e. if the frame spokes are to be 20 inches long, 50 spokes are made. For an umbrella with a frame 22 inches long (i.e. the diameter) 60 frame spokes are made.

Small holes, one at the tip and another one third of the way down, are drilled in each smooth rod of bamboo. The spokes are then strung and tied with string over the top of the handle. The top is glued on, using either handmade paper or thin cotton. The edges are trimmed and turned under. The inner spokes are threaded with coloured wool so that it forms a neat, tight web.

The top surface of the umbrella is then painted a plain colour and decorated with painted flowers or designs. After the paint is dry, the umbrella is opened and shut a few times, with the edges of the folds pressed by hand to form the grooves. A circle of thick paper or cloth is glued to the very tip, and then the ‘head’ attached. Then the whole surface is coated with oil to make it waterproof. The last steps are putting on the wooden handle, a cane ring and at the tips of each spoke, there is tied a small pom-pom made of coloured silk or wool.

We can we see our grandmothers in old faded photographs holding up such a parasol, with high chignon on her head where flowers cascade to her shoulders, a fluffy short fringe of hair on her forehead, dressed in a thin blouse with wide sleeves and her sarong  falling to her velvet slippers. She gently smiles at the camera which was most likely held by father, brother, cousin or fiancé; life was simple and sweet then

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Ma Thanegi writes prolifically about Myanmar, especially the people who are the country’s true representatives. She lives in Yangon."


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