Burmese Carved Ivory Tusk, ca. 1900
Burma, also known as Myanmar, is a country in Southeast Asia situated between India, China, Laos, and Thailand.
(Map source: CIA World Factbook)
An Asian elephant.
(Photo credit: Semnoz, July 2004.)
During the 13th century, the Italian explorer Marco Polo visited Burma and reported that this lush and tropical country in Southeast Asia was full of wild animals, including elephants. However, Polo made no mention of objects carved from ivory, a smooth, yellowish-white substance that forms the teeth and tusks of elephants, walruses, and other animals. (While the teeth inside these animals' mouths are used for chewing, tusks are long, pointed teeth that protrude outside an animal's mouth. They are used for digging or fighting, and they continue to grow throughout an elephant's life, sometimes reaching a length of 12 or more feet.)
In Burma, the practice of carving objects out of elephant ivory did not begin until the 1860s. As ivory gained popularity in Europe and India, Burmese carvers learned to craft objects from ivory as well as from wood. They produced combs, shoehorns, jewelry boxes, hairpins, fans, picture frames, chess pieces, and chairs.
Burmese craftsmen also produced religious objects, including the carved ivory elephant tusk presented in this segment of ANTIQUES ROADSHOW. Created sometime between 1880 and 1920, this large and intricate piece was intended for use at Buddhist pagodas in Burma. (A pagoda is a temple or sacred building.) The carving depicts a series of Buddha figures. Each is seated, with legs crossed and hands in the mudra, or position, known as Bhumisparsha. This position — which translates as "touching the Earth" — portrays the Buddha at the moment just before he attains enlightenment. All five fingers of the Buddha's right hand touch the ground, symbolizing his request to Sthavara, the Earth goddess, to bear witness as he undergoes a spiritual awakening. The Buddha's left palm is turned upward, in a pose of meditation. He is surrounded by vines and lotus flowers.
Buddhism originated in ancient India some 2,500 years ago. The religion was founded by Siddhartha Gautama, a spiritual teacher who became enlightened through the process of meditation. After this experience, Gautama's followers referred to him as the Buddha, which means "Enlightened One." Adherents believe that the Buddha gained a perfect understanding of the causes of suffering, as well as how to overcome it. Mastery of these insights, which are known as the "Four Noble Truths," allows followers to achieve nirvana, a state of complete liberation.
By the 3rd century AD, missionaries from India had introduced Buddhism to Burma, and the religion gained a significant number of followers in the ensuing centuries. After a long series of wars, Britain conquered Burma and made the country part of the British Empire in 1886. The British colonizers clashed with the Burmese over Buddhist customs. This was symbolized by the "Shoe Question" — the colonizers' refusal to abide by the Buddhist tradition of removing shoes upon entering Buddhist temples. Strongly resentful of this action, Buddhist monks led protests and hunger strikes in support of independence; these coincided with independence movements that were gaining ground in other British colonies, including India. In 1948, Burma became an independent republic with a democratic government. Democratic rule only lasted until 1962, however, when a military coup instituted a repressive, one-party system of government. A pro-democracy movement emerged in 1988 to challenge the military government, but this movement was crushed and thousands of demonstrators were killed.
The nation's new leaders declared martial law and changed the country's official name to the Republic of the Union of Myanmar in 1989. Although the United Nations recognized the new name, many governments, including that of the United States, refused to do so and still call the country Burma, arguing that the military government seized power illegally and therefore did not have the right to rename the country. The United States and other governments also point out that the military government disregarded the results of national elections held in 1990, when opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi of the National League for Democracy was elected. Instead of being allowed to serve as Prime Minister, Suu Kyi was placed under house arrest and was not released until November 2010.
At the same time that Burma was experiencing intense political conflict, its wild elephant population was dropping as a result of habitat loss, poaching, and the capture of animals for use in the logging industry. Beginning in 1975, many countries agreed to a global ban on the sale of ivory obtained by killing elephants, but Burma did not join CITES — the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species — until 1997. (The United States was the first country to ratify this treaty, which is now in force in 175 nations.) Under the terms of this agreement, it is illegal to kill elephants for their tusks, though it remains legal to buy tusks trimmed from living elephants or from privately owned elephants that die of natural causes; it is also legal to carve and sell ivory, provided it is obtained under the guidelines of CITES. As the appraiserAn expert who assesses the value, quality, and authenticity of works of art or other objects. notes in the video, the art of ivory carving is once again flourishing in Burma.
A Closer Look
- What is the provenanceThe record of ownership of a work of art or antique object, often used as a guide to the item's quality, authenticity, and value. of the ivory tusk? How did it come into the possession of its current owner? (The owner's great-great-uncle purchased the tusk during a trip to Asia in the early 1920s; it was presumably passed down within the family to its current owner.)
- Where and when was the tusk carved? Does this object qualify as an antique? (The tusk was carved in Burma between 1880 and 1920. According to the ANTIQUES ROADSHOW glossary an antique is an object that is more than 100 years old. Since the tusk may date from 1920, it cannot definitively be classified as an antique.)
- Using context clues, define "tusk" and "ivory." Check your definitions against a dictionary. (A tusk is an elongated, pointed tooth projecting outside an animal's mouth; ivory is a hard, yellowish-white substance from which tusks and teeth are formed.) From what material is the tusk carved? (Ivory.)
- What is depicted on the tusk? (A series of Buddhas.) In what position and with what expression are the Buddhas shown? (The Buddhas are seated cross-legged, with one hand touching the ground; the Buddha has a peaceful, meditative expression.) What details stand out to you? (Answers will vary.) What can you deduce about how and by whom this object was used? (The object was most likely used by religious people to honor Buddha at pagodas, or Buddhist temples, in Burma.)
Activities and Investigations
- Find out more about when and why restrictions were imposed on the sale and importation of ivory objects. One good source for this research is an article on the ANTIQUES ROADSHOW website titled "The Ins and Outs of Owning Ivory". According to this article, what laws have been enacted to protect endangered elephants? How effective have these laws been? Then visit www.cites.org, the website for the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species, which covers approximately 30,000 different species. Click on the "Species programme" link at the bottom of the first column and select one of the species or materials — such as elephants, great apes, falcons, mahogany, or sturgeons — to learn more about its status as an endangered species. Visit www.cites.org/gallery/species/index.html to see photos of the species you are researching. Using statistics and images from these sites, design a poster to boost awareness of the need to protect the species you chose to investigate.
- Hand gestures, known as mudras, are commonly portrayed in Buddhist art, along with a series of symbolic traits, such as extended earlobes and a dome on top of the Buddha's head. But what do these gestures and traits mean? To find out, go to www.pbs.org/wgbh/nova/tibet/buddha.html and launch the interactive feature entitled "Deciphering Buddha Imagery." Learn about each of the traits and mudras. Then, working with a small group of classmates, look back at the Buddha figure depicted on the tusk from Burma. What hand gestures and traits are shown in the carving? Compare these mudras and traits to those of another Buddha figure and discuss the similarities and differences with members of your group. For a gallery of images from various cultures, go to www.asiasocietymuseum.org and enter "Buddha" in the Search box.
- Imagine that you have been asked to curate a museum exhibit in which the ivory tusk from Burma will be displayed alongside two or more related objects. The objects can be related by category (Asian arts); by form (carving); by material (ivory); by function (religious pieces); or by other shared criteria. Visit the ANTIQUES ROADSHOW video archive at www.pbs.org/wgbh/roadshow/archive/index.html and use the Search field to locate objects for your exhibit. Present your choices in a museum-style catalog that includes a title for the collection and an introductory essay explaining the connections among the objects, along with photos and descriptions of each piece and its distinguishing details.
- In November 2010, Burma held its first elections in 20 years. Find out more about these elections and the current state of political affairs in Burma. Why did the government decide to hold elections, and what was the outcome? What was U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's reaction to this event? How did opposition leaders within Burma respond? Locate at least three sources for your research and present your findings in the form of a short news story geared to an American audience.
For Further Exploration
Elephant and Ivory Trade in Myanmar
From the World Wildlife Fund, this is a report on illegal elephant hunting and ivory carving in Burma.
Buddhist Deities: A Primer
This ANTIQUES ROADSHOW feature contains a guide to the most common features in Buddhist art from a range of Asian cultures.
Deciphering Buddha Imagery
This site includes an interactive feature that describes the traits and hand positions in images of the Buddha.
Aung San Suu Kyi Release Sparks Celebration, Caution
This news report on the 2010 release of Burmese pro-democracy activist and Nobel Peace Prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi includes an interactive timeline.
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