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Five Go Collecting: Kingly Swords

Modern-day collector Farhana updates us on her fieldwork in Bangladesh, where she has been aiming to collect objects as part of the Horniman Collecting Initiative.

I am in the early stages of my fieldwork in Bandarban, contextualizing and deepening my knowledge of the Marma community. I am trying to understand how Marma people remember and celebrate their unique history, and have begun by studying those who are the leaders of the Marma community – the Bohmong families.

When visiting the current leader, Bohmong-Gree U Chaw Prue, I noticed photos of previous Bohmongs on his wall. They all appear to be carrying the same sword with gold ornate hilt as part of their ceremonial dress.

Apparently, every Bohmong has inherited a kingly sword. All previous swords appear to be lost but the one in these photos still lives on. It is thought to have been a gift from a British governor to this region, possibly Thomas Herbert Lewin in the period 1864 to 1875.

In order to understand the origins of this kingly blade and the symbolic power that it holds, we need to delve into the history of this dynasty.

The Bohmong families are descendents of the legendary Emperor Tabin Shweti (1531-1551) of the historical Pegu Empire in neighbouring Myanmar (Burma).

In 1599, Emperor Tabin Shweti’s successor, Emperor Nanda Baran was defeated and killed in a battle against a formidable coalition made up of the kings of Taungoo, Siam and Arakan. The King of Arakan took the son and daughter of the dead king as captives.

Accompanying these surviving members of the royal family were 33,000 ‘faithful followers’, thought to be members of the royal court of Pegu. They carried the spoils of war and symbols of royal power - weapons, gold and four white elephants - to the court of Arakan. (I wonder at this point whether the bodyguard’s swords in the photo may date back to this period.)

In 1614, the captured Pegu prince, Maung Saw Pyne, was sent to Chittagong, then part of Arakan province. He defended the region against Portuguese pirates and was honoured with the title of ‘Bohmong’, the King of the Generals. He was given a sword which is lost.

In 1710, the then King of Arakan and the 4th Bohmong Hari Nyo were able to re-conquer the region after it had been invaded by Mughal forces. In return for his valour, Hari Nyo was given the title of Bohmong-Gree – the Great King of The Generals.

In 1900, now part of the British Empire, the Chittagong region was divided into three circles, with each headed by a Circle Chief. The descendents of the Pegu prince became Bohmong rulers of the Bandarban circle. The present Bohmong Chief is the 17th of his dynasty.

Therefore the history of the Bohmong family has its roots in central Myanmar (Burma), but the captive prince of Pegu became a ruler again in his new incarnation as the Bohmong of Bandarban, and the ‘faithful followers’ have become part of the present-day Marma community.

It appears that the original sword that was lost has been reintroduced in the twentieth century: it represents military prowess in the face of Portuguese and Mughal invaders, and shows that Bohmong authority was sanctioned both by the Kings of Arakan and the British Empire.

Although it does not seem possible that the Bohmongs of the twentieth century would have been directly involved in battle, it is likely that the early renditions of this sword were more than symbols of military prowess; they were battle-ready swords.

The sword has gained significance through its placement in this dynasty’s story, even though it is a relatively new addition to the ceremonial wardrobe. It expresses a commitment to maintaining a link with an ancestral heritage, connecting the present with different moments in the history of these people. Moreover, it reinstates the vanquished prince of Pegu to his former kingly power.