History of Burmese opium weights

The idea of using animal shaped opium weights seems to be of Burmese origin and the history can be traced back several hundred years.

It is not exactly known when this sort of weight developed or which ruler was the first to have standard animal-shaped weights. Sylvia Fraser-Lu points out that two small brass sculptures resembling a duck and a lion were found during an archaeological excavation in Central Burma near a Pyu settlement dating back to the years 100-400 A.D. However it is not possible to say whether these were used as weights or not.

Many documents written between the 11th and the 19th centuries refer to weights and their uses. King Anawratha, the first king of Burma, united the country under his reign and Pagan ascented to the great power in the middle of the 11th century. Magnificient temples, such as the famous Ananda temple, were built in Pagan’s Golden Age under the reign of King Kyanzitha (1084-1112). Weights and measures are mentioned in inscriptions dating back to that epoch but unfortunately up to the present day, none of these have actually been found.

Recently, U Maung Maung Tin, a member of the Burma Historical Commission of Mandalay discovered a palm leaf manuscript said to be written by Nandabahu, administrator in the time of Alaungpaya. King Alaungpaya reigned from 1752 until 1760 and is regarded as one of the major national heroes of Burma.

The description of standard weights in Nandabahu’s manuscript ranges from those in use during the 13th century to those of the author’s time. In the 18th century, Nandabahu made a list of different types of weights and their chronological classifications, respectively their introduction. After his presentation the animal shapes were used as follows:

Chicken 1340 - 1628
Stork 1342 – 1421
Stag 1363 – 1367
Elephant 1526 – 1542
Goat 1421 – 1468
Bird of paradise 1439 – 1442
Toe naya 1426 – 1672
Tibetan bull 1629 – 1648
Crested horse 1394 – 1750
Crested bull 1322 – 1723
Heron 1401 – 1605
Bear 1425
Mynah 1312 – 1322
Hintha 1425 – 1714
Red Hintha 1348 – 1584
Cuckoo 1367 – 1590

We do not know the sources that Nandabahu made use of for his research work. Frequently the different species of birds are stylized or the characteristics are lost as an affect of wearing off. Therefore it is sometimes impossible to define the animal represented on the sculpture.

In 1885 British troops occupied Mandalay and the last king of Burma, Thibaw, was forced to capitulate (because he made the great political mistake in making contacts with the French). The Britisch administration introduced round and flat iron weights. From that time officially no more bronze weights were cats.

Unofficially, the production of animal-shaped brass weights was continued and this even survived into the 20th century.

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