Farhana is one of five modern-day collectors selected by the Royal Anthropological Institute to research and acquire new objects for our collections. Here she reveals what she has learnt about an intriguing family heirloom in a Bangladesh community.
When I first came to Bangladesh's Chittagong Hill Tracts in January 2013, I interviewed two women from the area's Marma community in the town of Bandarban. We discussed coin garlands, which are family heirlooms which act as a link to their Burmese heritage. The women were originally from Ruma, which is close to the border with Myanmar (Burma).
Since then, I have looked into the custom of coin garland making. The men of the family would collect the coins and when they had a sufficient number, they would make a garland. The garland would be given to the eldest daughter as dowry to take with her into marriage.
Women used to wear the garlands all day, while working and sleeping, carrying their ‘personal value’ with them mainly because there was no way of keeping valuables safe in their remote bamboo homes. Today, the garlands are worn on special occasions or at Marma cultural events.
The garlands are typically made up of Indian Rupee coins, sometimes threaded on string or on a small chain. Sometimes there are plastic beads between the coins or white metal beads made from melted-down coins. I am told the garland designs are Burmese in origin but that the makers had to rely on local Bengali smelting techniques and craftsmanship as well as local materials such as plastic beads and chains.
When I visited the Tribal Cultural Institute in Bandarban, I found garlands made from Indian Rupee coins with the heads of Queen Victoria, Edward VII and George V and East Pakistan Taka coins depicting George VI. Equally interesting is the fact that all the local tribes wear and value similar garlands.
Whilst the Marma call the garland 'Puaitha Loing Hrui', other tribes have different names. The Chak call it 'Tang Grik'; the Mro, 'Keng Leng' and the Lusai 'Cheng Thui'.
The coin garlands reflect the chequered history of the region. At different points in time, the people of the Chittagong hills have been incorporated into an ever-changing larger state, becoming minorities first in India, then in British India, then in Greater East Pakistan and finally in Bangladesh.
The British Empire played a prominent role here: the region was annexed as far back as 1860, becoming a British protectorate to keep the tribes safe against raids by a collection of guerrilla tribes.
Since the 1970s, this area has experienced huge upheaval, guerrilla warfare, and a Government-encouraged Bengali immigration. The latter was in response to the growing impoverishment of the Bengali population due to famine, disappearing delta land and a need to move to higher and fertile ground. The migration of Bengali people into the Hill Tracts was also seen as a way of integrating the Hill Peoples into Bangladeshi culture.
Therefore this area has many competing identities, with tribal people living alongside Bengalis and a fluid border. Objects such as these coin garlands reflect these multiple and dynamic influences.
Collecting a Coin Garland for the Horniman Museum
Returning to Bangladesh this year, I put out the word that I was interested in collecting a Marma coin garland for the museum because the object reflects not only the history of the area but carries cultural meaning for this community that has migrated to this area from Burma in the 1600s.
Many coin garlands vanished during the insurgency period in the CHT (1971-1997) or had already been sold to collectors. After months of gentle reminders, I received news that a family in Ruma wanted to sell their coin garland. Leaving our motorbikes behind, we walked the narrow trails along jum (slash and burn) cultivated slopes and mountain ridges to Ruma. However when we arrived, the family had changed their mind about the garland so we set off to another village to find another.
When I began chatting with the children in this village in a mixture of Bengali and Marma, the elders came out to see us and the owner of the coin garland invited me into his house. He was not willing to sell his garland but allowed me to see it, and I was able to ask him questions about the significance of it to him and his family. I explained how long I had been walking and was so far away from anything I recognised yet nonetheless here on his table, were coins with my British king on them! They laughed with me. Why, I asked, did they collect coins with another king’s head on? They were after all subject to their own king – the Bohmong Raja - but here they were wearing the coins of another king from very far away. He pointed out that these British kings were the ‘kings of everywhere’ and that the coins held great power and value as a result. My meeting with this owner drew a crowd from the village and everyone listened to the stories recounted.
After two more visits to Ruma, I was told of a lady who wanted to sell her coin garland. She grew up with her grandparents because her mother had died when she was 5 years old. Her grandparents gave her the garland when she was 15 years old. As her husband died in 1999 and she has no children, she had no one to pass the garland on to. The thread is original; there are 12 Pakistani coins, 11 taka coins and 27 connecting beads – silver coins melted down. Some of the coins are missing, possibly 3 in total.
When I met this lady for the first time, she uncovered different parts of the necklace slowly. They were hidden in different places in somebody else’s house. The necklace was not fully strung: there were loose coins and a broken string. We laid out the necklace so that we could take a photograph of her with her heirloom and she indicated how the necklace should look.
Back in the UK, the necklace was fixed before being handed over to the Horniman.
I wore it so that I could feel its weight and imagine what it must have felt like to wear such a heavy ornament all day. Worn by three generations of women, far away in the exotic remote hill tracts on the border between South Asia and South East Asia, this ornament is not only rich in history and meaning, but is also quietly exquisite.