A Southeast Asian Bronze Rain Drum

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A Southeast Asian Bronze Rain Drum

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Hpa-si (bronze drum)

Karen people

The most powerful ritual object used by the Karen people of Burma and northern Thailand; its sound is believed to please spirits and attract rain.

Cast in bronze, the top with concentric bands of decoration and with four stylized frogs, equidistant, and with a tapering body which has double loop handles each side.

20th-century

Height – 18”     Diameter – 24”
 

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These magnificent tables are known as rain drums for both the fertility images depicted in the design and for the unique sound they make when struck by the heavy monsoon rains of Southeast Asia. The drum shapes replicate huge bronze artifacts manufactured over thousands of years by the Dong-son civilization in Southeast Asia. A radiating raised sun pattern in the center of the drum head is surrounded by concentric rings of geometric pat terns moving toward the edge.

Dating as far back as 1000 BC, the Dong Son culture of Vietnam was arguably the earliest civilization in Southeast Asia to enter the Bronze Age. In some of the most ancient burial sites of this culture are examples of these cast bronze drums. Over the next three millennia they spread throughout the area and artists from Indonesia to Burma and southern China created stylistic variations. In primitive societies, ownership of these drums, which were also used in religious ceremonies, implied influence over hidden forces believed to govern events, as well as providing a status symbol signifying material wealth for those powerful families able to afford large cast bronze pieces. Some civilizations may have pounded the drums to multiply the sound created by armies on the march in order to frighten and impress enemies.

The original drums were used by the Dongson culture in ritual ceremonies. Many have been uncovered from ancient burial grounds, suggesting an important role in funeral rituals. Indeed, some of the drums uncovered were used as urns to hold the cremated remains of presumably important members of the Dongson culture. The drums were also used to call soldiers to war.

Over the years, competing assertions have been made that the rain drum originated in China, India, Thailand, or Vietnam. It would appear that interpretations of the significance of archeological discoveries have often been influenced by national pride. The rain drum is now believed by most independent scholars to have originated in northern Vietnam in the fifth century BC. Some have asserted an origin dating back to 2500 B.C., although scientific evidence to support this claim is preliminary. The best conclusion is that bronze casting began in Southeast Asia (most likely in Vietnam and Thailand) and was later borrowed by the Chinese and other cultures. In truth, the entire region can be proud of the accomplishments of the Dongson culture for these people occupied an area that encompasses parts of present-day Vietnam, Thailand, and South China.  During the Dongson era in which Vietnam came to develop a strong national identity, the tribes of north Vietnam constructed drums (now often referred to as "Dongson drums") out of bronze using lost-wax casting methods. Over the years many drums dating back to antiquity have been found in this region. New drums are being discovered to this very day.

Through early trade and perhaps emigration, the rain drum made its way from Vietnam to much of Asia.  Ancient specimens have been unearthed in South China, Taiwan, Hong Kong, Laos, Thailand, Cambodia, West Malaysia, Burma, Madagascar, Borneo, the Philippines’s, and especially throughout most of Indonesia.  Within the immense expanse of the Indonesian archipelago, rain drums of considerable age have been found in Sumatra, Java, Bali, Alor, Flores, Sulawesi, and even as far west as Irian Jaya (now called West Papua). The age of many of the rain drums found outside of Vietnam evidences an early spread.  For example, a 2000 year old Dongson drum has been found in Sulawesi and many ancient "moko drums" have been found on the Indonesian island of Alor.  

The Dongson culture may have introduced the rain drum, but most of the Southeast Asian peoples assimilated this art form into their own cultures. Each may have developed unique styles, but most of the motifs evident in the oldest of recovered Dongson drums are present in the rain drums made today.  The rain drum lives on through the skilled artistry of bronze craftsmen in such places as Vietnam, Indonesia, Burma, and Thailand.

Compare:  An 18th/19th century example sold at Christie’s NY, The Collection of Robert H. Ellsworth, 21 March 2015, Lot 1011 ($32,500). 

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