Place of Origin: Burma
Date: 18th Century
This dagger is highly unusual in that it has no carved demon or other type of protective being which many dha include due to the superstitious nature of the Burmese culture. The blade, however, is quite typically wide and straight, and the silver collar is also as expected. Unfortunately, the scabbard is now missing.
The hilt is finely carved from elephant ivory into the form of an elegant lady. It is likely that this figure represents someone of the Burmese court as she sits on her knees in a typical courtly pose. Her left hand holds flowers while in her right there is a fan (or perhaps a pouch). Her face is similar to that of a lady who is believed to be Sita, consort of Lord Rama, and shown carved on a dagger-hilt illustrated by Hales (1). Her neat hair combed back into a bun, a long pony tail descends below and rests against a hip-length jacket replete with a jewelled collar. Her lungyi skirt bears an intricate acheik pattern (also shown on the Hales example) which is a distinctive textile motif used only in Burma among the ruling classes, and exported to the Shan states for court ladies there. The photograph Burmese Beauty by Felice Beato, which is featured on the cover of the modern Penguin edition of George Orwell’s novel Burmese Days, shares many similarities with our lady, who is believed to be unexampled in private or public collections.
The only serious attempt at discussing ivory dha handles is a published correspondence from Mr Noel Singer (see the book Islamic and Oriental Arms and Armour, 2013, by Robert Hales, pages 148–158). This type of dagger has been categorised by Western collectors and dealers as Burmese, but Singer states that they are the works of carvers from the Shan states who would travel between Laos, Thailand and Burma. He goes on to explain the correct terminology for these daggers is dah hmyaung, and swords: dah shay.
Provenance: UK art market.
(1) Hales, Islamic and Oriental Arms and Armour, 2013, p.158, no.387(b).