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Protection From Above

I f monsoon is here, can umbrellas be far behind? An umbrella is an invention so wonderful that Rihanna devoted an entire song to it. The history of umbrella spans almost across entire span of modern human civilization. Initially created from natural materials such as leaves of eucalyptus and palm trees, advancements in technology enabled creation of first umbrellas. Many kinds of umbrellas are produced in many countries, but traditional Burmese umbrellas are specific and distinctive because of interesting workmanship. Stylish, strong, colourful Myanmar traditional umbrellas are still used widely today. One of the earliest homes of umbrellas was China, where three thousand years ago first umbrellas were made from silk and paper. They were true works of art due to which were limited only to wealthy merchants, noble families, and royals. Created from frames of mulberry bark and bamboo, Chinese workers painted the umbrellas’ silk top with various designs of dragons, nature, landscapes, animals, figures, flowers, and scenes from their mythology. Sometime in 1st century BC, first paper umbrellas appeared and very quickly found their way into the hands of wealthy females who by then accepted sun-shade umbrella as an integral part of their fashion accessory. Even though carefully crafted, the delicate umbrellas from paper and silk weighted only few hundred grams, they were capable to protect their bearers from the rain because of the special process of applying oil on their cover.

Because of their scarcity and high cost, umbrellas quickly became a symbol of power in China and also in surrounding Asian countries. To differentiate themselves from the rest of population, Chinese royal members carried only red or yellow umbrellas, while the rest of the population used blue ones. As the centuries went on, cost of Chinese umbrellas went down which enabled its use by general population and even by the males. Personal use was not the only application for umbrellas; many innovative designs were introduced even as early as 3rd century AD such as, collapsible mechanisms, extendable shafts, umbrellas for horse riders and carriages.

Surrounding countries adopted the umbrella into their tradition, often showcasing intricate designs and artwork with great pride, especially by royal members in Korea, Burma and Siam. Acceptance of umbrella as an integral part of culture took greatest hold in Japan, where even today pale female skin represents a measure of beauty.

Such important fashion statement did not stay in Asia for long, and travellers from the west soon carried Chinese umbrellas to Europe. The Europeans were eager to adopt new fashion trends from distant lands. Enchanted by the artful and feminine Chinese designs, umbrellas soon took over the female nobility in Italy, France and England, where they managed to slowly evolve umbrella into the general accessory that is used by everyone, today.

Even though modern plastic and wooden umbrellas represent majority of worldwide sales, traditional Chinese umbrellas are still respected by many. People employed in traditional areas of umbrella production in Fujian and Hunan Provinces are still making millions every year and the most respected Hangzhou style umbrellas are today celebrated for their quality and beauty.

Myanmar umbrellas have different styles, designs and are sturdy and long lasting. They can be used in all seasons, even in normal rain and snow. Traditional handmade parasols are still much used by a Buddhist monks and nuns as it is part and parcel of Buddhist rites and customs even though steel and nylon umbrellas are gaining favour now. The traditional parasol for laymen’s use is now virtually extinct, while the Pathein parasol is gradually becoming a decorative thing or a souvenir item for foreign visitors.

The Myanmar traditional parasol is made with bamboo and the raw materials are locally produced. The Tin-wah is favorite bamboo, out of which 18″ – 20″ strips are made. The bamboo is soaked for some time in foul water, to prevent it from being infected with insects. The head and sliding hub of the parasol are made of teak, manufactured by using lathe. The other important parts the framework of ribs, the cover or leave, the rib, the trigger, the handle and the shaft, which is of different variety. The radius of a parasol is about 10 inches. The number of rib win props for each parasol also differs. They could differ from locality to locality. It is said that, in this handicraft, putting the covering (leaves) on the frame is the most difficult part of its making. Usually, this art is mastered in more than 3 years. The special cloth is woven in Amarapura, near Mandalay. On the covering of a woman’s parasol, normally, natural scenery and landscapes are painted. The covering of a man’s parasol has paintings of landscape and royal cities, though its use is almost over. The monk’s or nun’s parasols are all painted in red. The woman’s parasol, called Pathein Htee or Aindawyar Htee, , a town in the Delta Region, remains somewhat in use. In this modern era most people including the clergy tend to use the folding steel and nylon (or satin) umbrella Umbrella manufacturing is said to have originated in Pathein more than a hundred years back where it became a booming business. Pathein parasols are well known for their beautiful designs and dashing colours. A group of people came down from Pyay, a township in the Bago Region, 260 km northwest of Yangon, and initiated the trade in Pathein. The production of the Pathein umbrella is more or less a family industry. There is division of labour in the making of a single umbrella. Each worker is assigned a different task with one responsible for making the framework of ribs and another for making the shaft while others make the canopy.The covering for parasols at first was made of paper, later, replaced by cotton, silk and taffeta. Oil-soaked cloth is good for long lasting use. The design and construction of the Myanmar parasol is quite distinct from the Chinese of the Japanese ones. Most of them have colored tassels attached to the end of each rib. There are inexpensive ones with wooden handles and the special ones with carved sliver handles. The canopy of the parasol is dyed in pastel shades of mauve, pink, green and blue to deflect the sunlight but there are a few darker shades too, such as black, dark blue and bottle green. When the canopy has been fixed to the rib frame, small flowers of varying shapes and colours are painted on the background colour. Burmese umbrellas are now beginning to catch the attention from abroad. Soon, it could become part of the international fashion scene.