by Maganjeet Kaur
The solitary bronze drum standing exposed at the Lost Kingdoms exhibition (ongoing until April 2020) at Muzium Negara is an intriguing representation of an ancient drum-casting tradition from Vietnam. Its shape identifies it as a Type III in the Heger I-IV bronze drum classification system. This classification was developed by Franz Heger, an Austrian ethnographer, in an attempt to categorise the diversity of bronze drums derived from the Dong Son culture in northern Vietnam.
‘Dong Son’ is the name given to the bronze-age culture extending across the Red, Ca, and Ma river valleys in northern Vietnam from around 500 BCE to the third century CE. The intricate mushroom-shaped drums produced by this culture have been found distributed widely in Southeast Asia and in southern China. They were regalia of power, gifted to local chieftains to seal trade agreements. All the drums manufactured at Dong Son fall into the Heger Type I category; they are simply known as Dong Son drums. Both the bronze drums on display in Gallery A, National Museum of Malaysia, are of Heger Type 1.
Drums in the Types II to IV categories were local adaptations of Dong Son drums. Their distributions were therefore limited; the Heger Type III drums were found only in Myanmar, Laos and Thailand. In terms of shape, the Heger Type III drums are smaller and less bulbous. Unlike Dong Son drums, their tympanums (beating surface) extend over the top, resembling a lid.
The Karen and their Drums
The majority of Heger Type III drums were found in Myanmar, the prized processions of the Karen, a Sino-Tibetan ethnic group inhabiting the highlands between Myanmar and Thailand. According to Karen legends, their homeland was in the upper reaches of the Yellow River in China; they migrated southwards via Yunnan, China, and reached Myanmar around 600-700 CE. In Yunnan, they became acquainted with the bronze drum and its associated culture. Dong Son drums imported into Yunnan gave rise to a local tradition known as the Dian drum. Compared to the Dong Son drum, the upper segment of the Dian drum is cup shaped. The Karen prototype drum probably developed in Yunnan, its shape adopted from the Dian drum.
The Karens have continued to use their drums into the historical period and they may have thus preserved the ancient cultural practices of Dong Son and, especially, Yunnan. The drums served many functions, not least in instilling fear in an enemy and during celebrations after a victory in war. Reverberating in the hills, the pleasing tones emanating from the drums placated Nat spirits residing in trees, streams, rocks and other objects in the natural environment, thus ensuring these spirits would look kindly on the Karens and help them in times of need. The drums were also beaten to invite ancestor spirits to partake in feasts as well as to witness important ceremonies such as weddings and funerals. It was important to conciliate ancestor spirits as they could intercede with Nat spirits on behalf of the Karen.
The Karens practised dry-rice farming and the drums were beaten in agricultural rituals during the planting and harvesting seasons. Their basic slash-and-burn farming methods made them dependent on heavy rainfall and the drums accompanied a ritual dance to summon rain. It is thought that the low-frequency pitch produced by the beaten drum induces frogs to crock and croaking frogs are a harbinger of rain. Thus, Heger Type III drums are also known as rain drums or frog drums. All Karen drums have three-dimensional frogs embedded on their tympanum, an indication of the usage of these drums.
By the 19th century, the Karens had lost the knowledge to manufacture bronze drums and the drums were cast for them by Shan craftsmen, who were noted for their metalsmithing work. These craftsmen were based at Ngwe Taung, a small town located about 14 kilometres south of Loikaw. By this time, Karen culture had influenced other tribal groups such as the Lamets and Khmu in Laos and they too adopted the frog drum into their rituals. Annually, in October-November, at the end of the rainy season, all the various tribal groups would converge at Ngwe Taung to purchase these drums. On estimate, a hundred drums were produced and sold at Ngwe Taung annually.
Designs on the Drum
The rain drum displayed at the Lost Kingdoms exhibition has a 12-ray star at the centre of its tympanum. A star in this space is common to all Heger drums with the only difference being in the number of rays. Generally, for Heger Type III drums, the older drums have eight rays while the newer ones twelve. The symbology behind the star is unknown although many theories abound. The star is the location where most of the drumming takes place and hence it is raised to strengthen the area. Heger Type III drums commonly have a butterfly motif between the rays of the star. This appears to be missing on the drum exhibited, another indication this drum is of later manufacture.
There are 21 decorative panels of varying broadness around the central star; each panel is separated by a pair of concentric rings. Majority of the designs on the panels are common geometrical motifs – dots, ‘S’ shapes and circles with a dot. The design on the fourth panel from the star is however unique. It looks like a stubby tree and it has few parallels on other drums. Another unique design is the motif on the 2nd, 10th and 16th panels, which also resemble trees; the repeating motif faces clockwise in the second panel and anti-clockwise in the other two. This drum is lacking the typical motifs that decorated older drums – ducks, fishes and rice grains.
Four pairs of three-dimensional frogs have been placed in an anti-clockwise direction around the edge of the tympanum, straddling four decorative panels. In each pair, a smaller frog sits atop a larger one. Such superimposed frogs are a distinctive feature of Karen drums; some drums even have three superimposed frogs.
The body of the drum can be divided into two segments – a bulging upper segment and a conical lower. The decorations on the upper segment are made up of the same geometric patterns as on the tympanum. This segment also contains two pairs of handles, decorated by vertical lines. Unusually, each pair of handles is placed directly under a pair of frogs; their usual position is between the frogs.
The conical lower segment is divided into three sections. The top and bottom sections have the geometrical patterns seen on the tympanum while the middle section is plain. An interesting depiction on the bottom-most section is a procession of three elephants and two snails walking towards the base of the drum. This is common on Karen drums but not present on Dong Son drums. However, unlike on the exhibited drum, the animals are usually placed under a pair of handles. Elephants were a symbol of wealth while snails are another iconography of rain – snails come out into the open when it is raining.
The middle section is seemingly plain but it does have some enigmatic symbols. Art historian Richard Cooler has likened the Karen frog drum to a ‘magic pond’; the middle section does have symbols that could indicate a pond-like environment. Straight vertical lines separate the ‘pond’ from the lower section and the chevron-like pattern above the lines can be seen as representing eddies in the pond. Notice that the snails are in the pond section of the drum. Additionally, there are two taro leaves (daun keladi in Malay) in the pond section; the taro is a tropical plant that thrives in a wet environment and hence is common around ponds and lakes.
In summary, the Heger Type III drum on display at the Lost Kingdoms exhibition is believed to be a later drum based on features such as 12 rays of the central star, missing motifs between the rays of the star and elephants/snails walking on a plant (the plant is not present on older drums). Although originating from the Karen tradition, this drum has a number of unique features. Designs on the tympanum does not include the conventional aquatic animals and rice grain motifs but instead includes tree-like motifs. Other atypical features are its placement of handles and inclusion of taro leaves. The drum may have been cast for a different tribal group.
Three other bronze drums at the exhibition, displayed in glass cabinets, are also from the Karen tradition. Two of these drums are much smaller compared to the one discussed in this article but their shapes are typical of Karen drums. The third drum has an atypical cylindrical shape. However, this third drum has the designs, especially the fish and duck motifs, typical of Karen drums. It also has some enigmatic inscriptions and is deserving of an article of its own. All four drums belong to the collection of the Department of Museums, Malaysia.
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Cooler, Richard M (1995 ) The Magical Bronze Pond: The Classification, Authentication and Significance of a Late Karen Bronze Drum
Cooler, Richard M (1995 ) The Karen Bronze Drums of Burma: Types, Iconography, Manufacture, and Use. Leiden: Brill.
Fraser-Lu, Sylvia (1983) ‘Frog Drums and their Importance in Karen Culture’, Arts of Asia.
Siti Munirah Kasim and Nasrul Azam (2020), email communications.