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The phrase ‘opium weight’, used to describe the small, curious-looking metal animal and bird figures shown below, is somewhat misleading as there is no pictorial or written evidence to support the appellation. What is certain is that these weights were used to weigh mainly valuable items, such as precious metals, gemstones, coral, pearls, spices, musk, expensive medicine etc. Other more mundane items were weighed using marble, dome-shaped weights. It may be that the term ‘opium weight’ was given them by a British colonialist after Burma was conquered and finally absorbed into the British Empire in 1885. The coiner of the term was perhaps a dabbler in the forbidden opium trade which flourished in the lands of the Golden Triangle: Burma, Thailand, Vietnam, and Laos.
Although opium weights were also used in the ancient kingdoms of Siam and Lanna, and possibly also Laos and Cambodia, the most famous and reputedly truly authentic originate from Burma and its occupied territories, such as those of the Shan and Mon; the mountain tribes which straddle the modern Thai-Burmese border. One of the ways to distinguish between the two is, according to some sources, that the Siamese varieties depicted monkeys, snakes, elephants, dogs, and goats, whereas the genuine Burmese items only used mythical birds and specific beasts, often mistakenly called ‘lions’ – ‘toe-naya’ but are more correctly termed quadrupeds. However, as we see later in this article, a respected 18th century Burmese chronicler indicates that a number of the supposedly Siamese animals, specifically elephants and goats, are also represented among the Burmese opium weights.

In practice, a balanced set of scales was used, the opium weight was placed in one pan or basket and the item to be weighed in the other. Any differential was made up in precious metal or barter.

The most popular, the bird-forms, come in three variations: the hintha, the hamsa, the Brahmani duck (which later becomes more resemblant of a cock) and the karaweik, or Burmese crane. The first bird-form is reputed to represent Garuda, (‘hintha’ in Burmese) the divine bird, mount of the Hindu god Vishnu, which bridges the earth and the heavens, but more significantly was credited with the ability to recognize pure gold and silver. The rarer and therefore more expensive mythical beast, the toe, mistakenly referred to as chinthe - lion - so called because of its similarity to Burmese temple guarding lions, is best described as a quadruped, as we shall see. The toe of Burmese folklore has the face of a lion, horns, and the hooves and tail of a horse. However, Burmese folklore has a number of toes, namely toe naya (lion), toe oung (bull), toe myin (horse) and toe nwa (cow), which have been represented in opium weights as the Tibetan bull, crested horse, crested bull and lion. The toe is reputed to represent the Bodhisattva (he who renounces nirvana to save suffering humanity), and was credited with magical healing powers. Significantly, a new toe was issued every time the Burmese Empire expanded. The production of opium weights, according to some sources, ceased shortly after Burma was incorporated into the British Raj in 1885, round iron weights being substituted for them, but this is contradicted by the fact that there is evidence of continued production into the 20th century.

The historical origin of royal opium weights dates from at least the 14th century, (some even say as early as the 11th century) but verification is difficult due to the fact that the new king reissued the royal weights in his own particular style, although the older weights continued to be used so long as  they conformed to the standard weights. These weights generally had between one and four identifying stamps, such as a rayed sun, circular indentation, petalled flower, solar disc, dot, square, bird and a number of other shapes inscribed on the sides or underneath the bases, which were circular, pumpkin-shaped, rectangular, hexagonal or octagonal; all so as to control the supply and levy a tax on the weights when he assumed the throne and had many of the previous ones melted down. The weights of the figures and the bases themselves were approximately the same. Apart from the differently stamped and shaped bases, successive kings also used other stylistic variations. On the birds, head crests, beaks, tail feathers and mouth additions help to identify the era and king, whereas the quadrupeds vary according to their manes, horns, tails, mouth appendages and feet. The larger versions, because of their weight, also had an aesthetically blended carrying handle attached to the head and tail of the figure. The larger versions also displayed considerably more detail, whereas on the smallest versions it was sometimes difficult to actually identify the figure depicted. This also applies to historical era involved as, over the centuries, the depictions became more elaborate and imaginative.

The royal weights were generally made of bronze and latterly brass. Bronze is an alloy of copper, zinc and tin and the predominance of each type of metal helps us to date the variety of opium weights through time. For example, in the 16th and 17th centuries, copper gave the weights a reddish hue, in the late 17th and 18th centuries, tin imparted a silvery-whitish hue. In the late 18th and 19th centuries, bronze gave the weights a light yellowish colour and those from the late 19th and 20th century have a deep yellowish colour because of the brass used.

Weights were also issued to lesser dignitaries, such as members of the king’s household, noblemen or officials charged with overseeing the law, taxation, finance, religion etc. Certainly, provincial governors had their own weights, sometimes representing variations on the royal theme, often hybrid animals, such as a lion with a horse’s tail and the head of Hanuman (the mythical man-god with an ape-like nature), as well as animals from Chinese astrology. Some of the variations may be as a result of relatively remote nature of the Burmese provinces, separated as they were by almost impenetrable tropical forests and mountains. An 18th century chronicler-administrator, Nandabahu, in the reign of King Alaungpaya (1752-1760), who is deemed trustworthy, lists a total of 16 figures used consistently from the 14th to 18th centuries, these include a chicken, stork, stag, elephant, goat, bird of paradise, toe-naya, Tibetan bull, crested horse, crested bull, heron, bear, mynah bird, hintha, red hintha, and koel (cuckoo). Not all of these variations can be found today, probably because many were melted down in the succession process. There were also supposedly tortoise and spider weights found, but these could well have been the products of imaginative but unauthorised craftsman.     

The ruler strictly controlled the number of weights in circulation; all of which were eligible for tax. A master-set of weights was made for each successive king and kept in the Supreme Council of State; this master set being the template for all subsequent productions, all of which had to be as accurate as possible. The standard measure of weight was called the tical and included weights of 100, 50, 20, 10, 5, 2, 1, 1/2, 1/4 and 1/8  tical. In the 19th century other larger weights gained popularity, these were 10, 5, 2-1/2 and 1 viss (1 viss=100). Only a relatively small number of master-craftsmen were authorised to produce these weights. The method of casting used was the cire perdue or lost wax process. Originally, this may have involved the use of clay, and the craftsman first made a bees-wax model, and covered it with wet clay, which was then allowed to dry. Following this, the model was heated slightly and the wax permitted to escape to leave a hollow cavity into which molten metal was poured. Finally, after the metal had cooled and set, the outer case was broken to reveal the finished product. Latterly, however, instead of clay, lead was used as the mould.   

As with all valuable antiques, genuine articles are few and far between, with numerous fakes in circulation. One sure way to tell the difference between the two is that the distinguishing marks, lines and outline have been worn smooth due to long handing, as well as having a greenish, oxidised patina.

In order to test the authenticity of the opium weights, also take note of:

  • the type of animal or bird depicted,
  • the base stamps, although some old weights, especially those from rich households, noblemen, governors, etc had no stamps because they were only employed by this specific group for their own use, not in market trade.
  • a pitted or scratched base, although once again weights from rich households, noblemen, governors, etc. that were not used much have only a few scratches or none at all.
  • the stylistic variations of the figures and bases,
  • the colour variation used in each era.

Some examples of marks or stamps: