A notable Bhutanese sword | Peter Dekker's Mandarin Mansion: Antique Arms & Armor

A notable Bhutanese sword

Introduction
A very large and impressive Bhutanese sword. Its silver scabbard is richly decorated, it is of a style called churi chenm or "wavy pattern". These were the most prized of Bhutanese swords, worn by the chief attendant of the king, and most of all, the king himself. Beginning with Ugyen Wangchuck, the practice was continued by Wangchuck's successors, up to recent times.



Overall length in scabbard: 84.5 cm / 33.3 inch
Overall length: 82.8 cm / 32.4 inch
Blade length: 67.5 cm / 26.6 inch
Thickness: forte 6.5 mm, middle 5 mm, near tip 4 mm
Weight of sword: 859 grams
Weight with scabbard: 1617 grams



Blade
The straight single edged blade shows the hairpin forging pattern that is typical for the Himalayan kingdoms of Tibet, Bhutan and Sikkim. This method of forging knives and swords is ideal for high altitudes where lower oxygen levels make it harder to heat larger portions of steel for conventional forge-folding. On this sword the hairpin folds were etched to form a topography, after which the blade was polished bright, both hallmarks of Bhutanese work. Blade in very good condition, no nicks, cracks or bends, retaining its original polish.



Hilt
Handle of fluted octagonal cross-section, wrapped with fine braided silver wire with red lacquer on either side. The octagonal pommel is elaborately pierced and chiseled with Buddhist iconography in scrollwork on the front while the back exhibits a deeply defined honeycomb structure consisting of interlocking Y-shapes. The top of the pommel pierced and chiseled with a viśvavajra or "double thunderbolt", again in scrollwork. The various important details are tastefully highlighted with parcel gilding.

The viśvavajra or "double vajra", a motif of highly stylized thunderbolts, is associated with Vajrayana or Tantric Buddhism, the predominant religion in Bhutan. The viśvavajra also appears in the emblem of Bhutan. The national flag of Bhutan bears the Druk or "Thunder Dragon", and it's king is referred to as "The King of Thunder". The frontal part of the pommel bears a canopy in the middle flanked by two fish, one on either side, and the right most part shows half of a vase while the left most part shows half of a conch shell. These are four of the Buddhist treasures as often represented in Buddhist art.



Scabbard
The wooden scabbard is covered with thick silver plate of high purity, weighing an impressive 758 grams, it is almost as heavy as the sword. It is of ovoid cross-section with a pronounced center ridge on the front side as is the Bhutanese fashion. The scabbard consists of three sections, each section separated by bands of chiseled lotus petals and gilt Buddhist symbols in higher relief, all executed with great precision.

The most striking feature of the scabbard is the richly decorated middle section: Its front chased and chiseled with triple "W" shapes, containing designs of blossoms in scrollwork resembling splashing waves, some parts highlighted in selective parcel gilding, on a dotted background. The reverse engraved with a diaper pattern with stylized Chinese longevity symbols and parcel-gilt blossoms on each panel.

There is one larger dent on the back of the lower, plain portion of the scabbard. Otherwise, it is in good condition with the decorative panels almost 100% intact.



Significance
The triple "W" pattern is referred to by the Bhutanese as churi chenm meaning "wavy pattern". The pattern resembles a splashing and meandering river. The workmanship on these is superb, and it is considered by the Bhutanese to be their height of sword scabbard decoration.1

Such scabbard were worn by the ruler's changap, the chief attendant. According to Phuntsho Rapten, based on pictorial references, a churi chenm decorated patag was also worn by Ugyen Wangchuck himself.2 This practice was continued by all his successors, into recent times.



Jigme Singye Wangchuck, the fourth king of Bhutan, ruled 1972 - 2006, with his churi chenm style sword in 1992.



Ugyen Wangchuck was a fascinating figure. Born in 1862. A son of Jigme Namgyal, the secular leader of Bhutan. At age 17, he already lead troops into battle. At age 21, his father passed away prematurely and Bhutan fell into civil war. Ugyen Wangchuck led 2400 troops in a series of battles and became the de-facto leader of Bhutan in around 1897. In 1904 he joined the Younghusband Expedition as a mediator between Britain and Tibet. In 1907 he founded the Bhutanese monarchy with himself as king.



Sir Ugyen Wangchuck during the younghusband expedition to Tibet in 1904, showing that he already carried his silver scabbardpatag before he became a king. Unfortunately the mid-section is obscured.



Sir Ugyen Wangchuck on a 1907 state visit to Calcutta. Next to him, in the middle of the picture, is Sir John Claude White. This may be the picture that Phuntsho Rapten is referring to, since it is the only one that does show the scabbard. Unfortunately I have not been able to find a higher resolution of this image to verify whether he is in fact wearing the churi chenm decorated patag



Comparable examples
I am aware of no churi chenm decorated swords in museum collections. Yet, some very similar swords turned up that copy the style and workmanship of our example. Of special note are the bands of chiseled lotus petals and gilt Buddhist symbols on either side of the main decorative panel, that can be used to date ours to roughly the same period as those brought back from the Younghusband Expedition of 1903-1904.

1. A sword published in Donald Larocca's "Warriors of the Himalayas".3 The decor follows the same format, with some stylistic differences. On the front of its scabbard, instead of the churi chenm pattern, there is a Bhutanese thunder dragon, the national symbol of Bhutan, while the diaper pattern on the back is done without the Chinese shou characters on ours. The sword in question has an interesting provenance:

It was brought back by Brigadier General Sir James Macdonald who served as Escort Commander of the Younghusband expedition to Tibet in 1903-1904. After his death the sword was given to the Marischal Museum of the University of Aberdeen, where he had studied. It came with the original expedition tags that described it as a "Royal Tibetan Sword".4 According to a list of items taken during the exhibition, it was supposedly presented to him by the regent of Tibet to general Macdonald when he bode him goodbye in 1904. According to LaRocca, Bhutanese swords were often found in southern and eastern Tibet, which lends some weight to the idea that some of these heavily silver-clad Bhutanese swords may have been presented to other countries as diplomatic gifts.

2. A sword purchased by the Metropolitan Museum in 2014, accession number 2014.281a,b bears a striking similarity to the first sword. In its description: "The subtly forged patterns on the blade and the silverwork of the hilt and scabbard represent Bhutanese swordsmithing at its very best.".

3. A pair of swords in the National Museums Liverpool. (53.87.73, not digitized yet.) Of similarly interesting provenance leading back to Ugyen Wangchuck and the Younghusband expedition. They were collected by Frederick Marshman Bailey, an intelligence officer who was also part of the Younghusband expedition. They are not of the churi chenm, like the subject of this article. However, the reverse on both has a similar diaper pattern as ours, one of them also with the Chinese longevity symbols. They also have the bands of chiseled lotus petals and gilt Buddhist symbols in higher relief on the scabbard, in identical style and workmanship as ours.

4. A fourth example, about half the size of the others but of the churi chenm type, was sold last year by our colleague Runjeet Singh. See number 24 of his 2015 winter catalog.



Conclusion
An important Bhutanese sword, that ranks among the best swords known in notable museum and private collections. The churi chenm decorated scabbards were worn by Ugyen Wangchuck and his chief attendant, and various photographs of Bhutanese kings taken over the course of the 20th century suggest the practice was continued until at least 1992. The similarities in style and workmanship to the examples acquired by various members of the Younghusband expedition in 1904 helps date our example to roughly the same period: The life and times of Ugyen Wangchuck. A remarkable find.



NOTES
1. Dr. Jagar Dorji, Intangible Cultural Heritage of Bhutan. Research & Media Division. National Library & Archives of Bhutan. Published auspices of UNESCO. Page 225. (Available online.)
2. Phuntsho Rapten (Researcher at the Centre for Bhutan Studies, Thimphu) Patag, the symbol of heroes.
3. LaRocca (Donald J.) - Warriors of the Himalayas: Rediscovering the Arms and Armor of Tibet, New York , 2006. Item, 73 Pages 171-172
4. Catalog entry of the Marischal Museum accession number ABDUA:56788

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Contact peter@mandarinmansion.com




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