The Burmese Dha

I believe that "dha" is the generic Burmese name for an edged weapon, whether it is of sword length or of knife length. Dhas come in all sizes.

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The dha is the national edged weapon of Burma. Some have plain wooden hilts and scabbards which are undecorated or with carved designs, or decorated sparsely with silver or copper. The plainer dhas have no damascened design on the blade. These plainer examples are used for every imaginable daily purpose and the Burmese, from childhood, are extremely expert in their use.

Higher quality dhas exhibit more metal overlay over the wooden scabbards and hilts. The higher quality pieces, like the one illustrated, have both scabbard and hilt completely covered with chased and engraved silver sheet (or silver plated brass) and both sides of the blade have inlaid (usually damascened) designs done in silver wire. The steel of such blades is given a dark (usually bluish) coloration so that the silver damascened decorations are seen with a better visual contrast. High quality pieces are probably too precious for the Burmese to use for mundane tasks and are most probably reserved for ceremonial use and for wearing on festive occasions, or as a status symbol of officials or possibly by dancers in public performances. The photos of the dha illustrated below were sent to me by its owner. It is about 4-feet long in the scabbard, is covered with silver plated brass and was presented to him by a Burmese diplomat.

All dhas are single-edged. Most dhas have a long tapering point, while some have a squared-off point. It is my belief that the latter type is more practical for utilitarian work in the jungle and village, since the center of gravity (and the center of percussion) is closer to the tip and, being broader, is less likely to bend or break.

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The photo (c.1935) shows a Burmese blacksmith working on the blade of a dha. (Note that the configuration of his hammer is very similar to that used by Japanese swordsmiths who were forging blades for well over a millennium.) The blacksmith's helper is shown operating a double bellows whose cylinders are fashioned of large bamboo stalks. The pistons are worked in push-pull fashion. I presume that some kind of flapper valve arrangement is incorporated into the face of the close-fitting pistons. The pumped air is conducted through bamboo tubes to the charcoal forge which is visible in the right side of the picture. A bellows operator's job is long and tedious, as you can imagine.

The steel chains on the ground are probably those used to tether elephants which abounded in great numbers in Burma, mainly for use in pulling heavy teakwood logs from the jungle to a river, down which they would be floated to a collection point and exported. These chains are probably in need of repair. It is also conceivable that the smith may also use the links of these chains to fashion a billet from which dha blades could be forged. The links would be a seemingly unending source of steel, I imagine.

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Additional information on this subject has been received from Edgar S., who has this to say:

  • "Interestingly, my recent catalog from "The Japan Woodworker" says that the best, hand forged chisels and plane blades are the ones made from anchor chains made prior to the turn of the century. The tool smiths seek out these old chains to make their carefully forged, and very pricey, tools. The iron of which the chains were made is the closest to the iron made by smiths in Japan before the Tokugawa's nationalized iron production."

The damascened pattern on this blade contains Burmese script which is composed of characters of circular shapes. There are hardly any straight strokes in Burmese script. The reason for this is that, in early days, the Burmese wrote their text by incising it onto the surface of large leaves. Since the leaves are made up of parallel rows of fibers, any straight line scratch would impair the physical strength of the leaf and would promote to its breakage. Circular strokes cannot run parallel to the fiber orientation. I have seen an example of such ancient Indonesian leaf writing in a collection in Connecticut.

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