Making traditional products by hand, often without the aid of electricity, is still part of many people’s daily lives in Burma / Myanmar. Different areas are known for different products and one of the experiences we most enjoyed on this journey, was visiting families who hand make products such as paper, umbrellas, material, ironware, pottery, lacquerware, embroidery and wooden products.
Pindaya is well known for the making of paper from mulberry bark, for making umbrellas and parasols and for weaving bamboo hats – all of which are used in daily life by Pindaya folk and local farmers as well as being sent to other town markets for sale. Sales to tourists are growing.
The family we visited in Pindaya are farmers who supplement their income by making paper and paper based parasols and umbrellas. Their home and workshop is in the shade of some the very old trees at the foot of the ridge and the 8,000 Buddha cave. The small brick house is typical of this town.
Dirt roads are the norm; motor bikes the most common form of town transport (1 to 3 passengers); and tourists arriving on a big coach are still worth a look by the small boy from the house opposite.
The family’s workshop and small warehouse/shop was no more than a concrete platform in front of their house. Here some newly made paper is drying in the sun. The lady is wearing traditional longyi and shirt. The chairs are another hand made product (from another village probably) made of bamboo and wood. They are a very commonly used type of chair in villages. There are no department stores here.
Fine, flower-strewn paper like this is used for wrapping paper in city shops as well as for making fans, lamp shades and decorations used in homes, hotels and restaurants all over the country.
The first process in the paper making is to strip the bark from young branches of the Paper Mulberry, Morus papyrifera, a tree native to eastern Asia. It grows to 15 metres, is a rapid grower and is really rather a weed, so it’s a resource that regenerates quickly. The bark is composed of very strong fibres and makes high-quality paper that is generally tougher than ordinary paper made from wood pulp.
The bark is first soaked for a day or so and then boiled for about eight hours. Then the bark needs to be sorted for variations of hue and roughness. The most delicate and regular-hued segments are chosen for paper, while rougher and darker segments are destined for rope or thicker boards and paper such as that used for the umbrellas. Then the process of pounding the fibres to a pulp begins.
Mashing the boiled fibres is a long process of rhythmically pounding with two mallets. I watched in amazement as this girl pounded away, sitting on a very uncomfortable looking small wooden block. I remembered my own paper making efforts years ago – as a hobby only. I boiled the pulp in a pot on an gas stove and I mashed it in a blender! As I watched this girl pound and fold and pound again on the wooden block, I wondered if she would get RSI in those wrists from pounding with those heavy mallets. There’d be no compensation for her here!
When the pulp is soft enough, it’s rubbed into a small bowl of water and swished to mix.
A rectangular wooden frame with a stretched cotton base is placed into a bath of water. When the pulp in the bowl is liquid enough, it’s carefully poured into the water.
A good swishing spreads the pulp evenly in the water across the cotton base.
After the pulp has settled, petals and leaves are added to decorate the paper. These were bougainvillea petals but sometimes dendrobium orchid petals are used – whatever is available locally and in season.
After a minute or two of settling, the frame is lifted from the water bath and put into the sun to dry.
The finished paper is then very carefully prised from the cotton backing.
Only human effort and renewable, local resources have been used.
This is a family that treads lightly upon the earth.
Next, the family showed us how they make paper umbrellas and parasols… the change of tasks was a welcome break for them. The umbrellas they make are used to protect from both sun and rain. For the farmers, especially, the umbrellas are lacquered to make them shower proof.
A variety of wooden pieces are required to make an umbrella like this. The man of the house, an old friend of Sunshines, makes these on a very simple equipment. The girls put the pieces together, add the paper covering, paint the paper, add lacquer to rain umbrellas and add decorations to shade parasols.
A very simple lathe made from pieces of wood has been in use for many years in this family business. There’s no need to look for the next model on the market! Repairs are made as needed right here.
No electricity is used, no pollution – foot power alone pumps the rope that drives the lathe.
Toes are a useful tool to hold the bits when piecing together the fine wooden spokes of the frame.
Each part of these rib sections are made by hand and put together by hand – and toes.
The first layer of paper is pasted onto the spokes. The smaller spokes will slide in the slots of the larger spokes. Nothing is precision made by machine – here, it’s years of practice makes perfect. For parasols, only two layers of paper are added. For the umbrellas regularly used by farmers in the fields, or anyone wanting an umbrella to shelter them from rain, five or more layers of thicker paper are added. The paper on those umbrellas is then lacquered to make them shower proof.
The final product. These come in all sizes from tiny parasols used for table decoration, to every day umbrellas used by just about everyone, to very large ones used for garden umbrellas.
The very large garden umbrellas are much more complicated in their structure and piecing together – but still all by hand.
The poles for these larger umbrellas are made from bamboo – a hollow product that’s lightweight but strong.
The tips of the umbrellas are also turned from wood on the lathe and the tops covered by another layer of paper. Labour intensive! The little shop sold a variety of goods made from their hand made paper. We just had time to enjoy looking at the goods they make and buy a few items before it was time to get back onto the bus. Because of the strict customs rules in Australia, I only bought a couple of small items – a fan and a book. When we arrived home, I showed them to customs officers and was given the all clear to keep them because the bark had been boiled and the paper contained no seeds. So when I go back……..
I shall enjoy using my Burmese fan on a hot summer day in Canberra.
I also bought a small book made up of a variety of papers made by this family – a great souveneir.
The bus awaited and We still had a long way to go before we reached our destination, Inle Lake.
We’ll share some photos of that drive through some of Shan State in the next journal entry.
Jennie and David
Photography © JT and DY of jtdytravels