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Old 15th December 2004, 01:16 PM   #1
Mark
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Post What makes a dha a dha

Per a request in another thread, I will try and set this out briefly, and in one place, and I hope others will elaborate and correct me, and fill in stuff I forgot, so that I don't look too foolish.

"Dha" is a Burmese term that simply means "blade." We in the West use it to refer to a variety of sword-and dagger-length weapons that are used by a variety of people in continental Southeast Asia (which means present-day Burma/Myanmar, Thailand, Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam). The use of what we call a dha also extends into the extreme northeast of India, in the Assam and Naga hills, and into southern China in what is today Yunnan Province.

Swords: A sword dha, called a dha lwe in Burmese and a darb or daab in Thai, is any sword with a single-edged blade that generally widens progressively toward the tip, but not more than to a length/tip width ratio of perhaps about 5/1 or 6/1 (blades with very wide tips are called dha ma - choppers - in Burma). The cut-off is sort of subjective, at least for me. Spines are rounded, flat, peaked or various combinations. Rarely there is a groove in the spine. False edges are not uncommon. Blades are often engraved or decorated with koftgari or inlay, on the flat and spine, some very elaborately. They are often of laminated or inserted-edge construction, and often have a hardened edge. Tangs are usually very short, and "blind," i.e., inserted into the handle and held by pressure or adhesive. I have never seen a pinned tang.

The tip can be upswept, angled (forward or reverse), square, round, convex, spear-shaped or "sheep's foot" (where the spine curves down toward the edge). There are specific names for each of these tips in Thai (see the Glossary page at The Dha Research Index).

Handles are almost always of a round cross section, and can vary in length from about hand-width to about equal in length with the blade. A pommel may or may not be present, and is either spherical, a sort of flattened cone, top-shaped or lotus-shaped (there is a variation of this that looks sort of like a conch shell). Sometimes it is just a simple cap on the handle. I have never seen a disk-shaped pommel, though some round ones approach a lense shape (wide axis perpendicular to the handle). There is generally no guard, though the ferrule often flares toward the blade; some Thai darb have a small tsuba-style guard, and some "montagnard" dha have a diamond-shaped guard that is almost more of a spacer as it barely exceeds the diameter of the handle. "Village" dha often have neither pommel nor ferrule.

Scabbards are generally wood, often with metal bands, or partial or complete metal sheathing. "Village" dha tend to have braided cord or rattan bands. Scabbards usually start with a round cross-section equal in diameter with the ferrule, and progressively transition to a flat cross-section, either square-ended, rounded or more rarely up-swept. In Burmese dha, the scabbard is usually suspended from a cord baldric hung from one shoulder; in Thailand the scabbard can be hung from the shoulder, across the back, or as a crossed pair on the back (this might be the case in other parts of SEA, but I just don't know).

Daggers: Daggers are called dha hmyaung in Burma (not to be confused with a simple utility knife, which is called a dha mauk). I don't know what they are called in Thailand and other parts of SEA. They basically resemble miniature dha lwe, with a single edge and either upswept of spear-shaped tip. Like the swords they can have laminated or inserted edge construction, and hardened edges. Handles are sized to fit the hand, and in style follow those found in swords. Scabbards again are smaller versions of those of sword-length dha, though there is a style of dagger scabbard that has a round cross-section. There is another type of knife used in SEA that has a down-ward curved blade, similar to a yatagan or piha ketta, which we Westerners call a "priest knife" because, surprise, it is used by priests.

Here are a few examples of swords:




A couple daggers:


And a priest knife:


More can be found by searching "dha" on this and the old forum, and at the link above.
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Old 15th December 2004, 03:18 PM   #2
Jens Nordlunde
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Hi Mark,

It is a very nice collection you show .
You wont get many mails on this thread - I think , but then, I am 'only' on Indian stuff.

Jens
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Old 16th December 2004, 10:20 PM   #3
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A good description of what we call a dha, Thanks Mark. I still refer to the notes from your talk in MD but this one goes further than that with some of the new information that has come to light since then
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Old 17th December 2004, 07:03 AM   #4
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Thumbs up

Mark,
Excellent concise explainations. Thanks for putting all this down in one place.
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Old 20th December 2004, 12:28 AM   #5
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I'm still gonna raise a voice over the validity of excluding the short wide workswords of the rural people; dha mauk? which sounds similar to mak, which is the name of the tanged axe that mounts through an angled root-ball at the end of a stick.
In my experience the tangs tend to be around 2 1/2 inches (about 7 cm), which seems short to the modern/western conception, but is fairly typical of such tangs, and quite solid when well-fitted and well-fixed.
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Old 20th December 2004, 02:58 AM   #6
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I've been giving this some thought since we last discussed it, Tom. I'm drifting away from this line of reasoning.

The category "dha" covers a broad range of weapons from an area large in both geography as well as culture. Uniting the weapons we think of as "dha" are elements lacking in the knives you refer to. They are, in my mind, too wide and lack the cylindrical handle common to dha.

Also, while I'm sure they make fine weapons (so do kitchen cleavers) I believe them to be tools first. Dha are usually weapons first, with the line blurring especially when one starts to consider the machete-like dhas of the kachin and "Montagnards".

What do you think. I've got a few of these (including a cool mak I got from you, thanks ) and they remind me of the old yard tools I've got from my grandfather in Pennsylvania.
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Old 5th January 2005, 02:40 PM   #7
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Red face

When I cross-posted this "monograph" on Swordforum, Ruel, not unfairly, challenged the validity of the description because I had not defined what the limits of the term "dha" were, and hence made unclear what it was that I was describing. Though I think the totality of the original post at least tells one how to distinguish what we here call a "dha," I did eventually come up with a list of the essential criteria, and the assumption that underly our defining them as a single type of sword.

So, what I am talking about are those swords used by the peoples of mainland Southeast Asia, defined as present-day Burma, Thailand (exclusive of the Malay peninsula), Yunnan, Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam, and in places like Assam and Bengal, to the extend these people have migrated there. They share a few essential defining features that distinguish them from other weapons/tools used in this area (and when there are exceptions they are due to a limited external stylistic influence), which are: (a) a grip with a round cross-section, (b) a long, generally curved blade and (c) no cross-guard or knuckle-bow, and at most a very small tsuba-like guard.

There are four basic assumptions to the definition, which form the basis of the hypothesis which we are trying to disprove:

(1) These swords are used by the Tai and Tibeto-Burman ethnic groups of these areas, not by the Mon-Khmer and Viet.

(2) The people using them do not make distinction between them, viewing them as essentially a single type of sword with local stylistic variations.

(3) There is not real distinction between "working" swords which are used both as tools and as weapons by non-urbanized users, and strictly "martial" swords used only for warfare or ceremonial/status purposes

(4) They have essentially a common origin

My expectation is that assumptions (1)-(3) will hold true, but that assumption (4) will not, and that we will find at least two, and perhaps three "ancestors" which melded in various ways and in various regions, leading to some of the heterogeneity we see in the appearance of the sword.

We may or may not find a suitable name of these, and will likely end up calling the "swords" in the local languages (i.e., dha or darb, or some common root term).
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Old 8th January 2005, 02:02 AM   #8
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Then there's those other times, when my brain's like a broken down old jallopy by the roadside of thought......

Last edited by tom hyle : 8th January 2005 at 02:12 AM.
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Old 8th January 2005, 05:20 AM   #9
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Tom, you continue to make me think and learn. You know so much about the actual construction of blades. Acknowledging that, let me ask you if this aspect is a substantial variance in construction; most of the SEA "swords" that I've seen have the base of the blade and the tang held in place with a form of pitch, even the ones from central Thailand, however most of the "dual-use blades" that I've seen have a brass or iron ferrule hammered down over the wood/rattan handle which holds the blade in place through friction and many have had shims hammered in to tighten them up. Is that a significant difference?

Montino, screwdrivers DO make excellent throwing knifes, as my Grandfather's garage door can attest to (my first experience at woodworking shortly followed)

Mark and Andrew, you've been holding out! Give up the bibliography or I'll hold National museum database hostage Which I finally received yesterday - unfortunately I leave tomorrow I'll try to pass a copy to Ian when I meet him in Manila (as yet untranslated though)

A final note on quality, as an old business teacher once told me "Quality is measured in the delightment of the consumer".
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Old 8th January 2005, 05:33 AM   #10
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[QUOTE=wilked aka Khun Deng]Mark and Andrew, you've been holding out! Give up the bibliography or I'll hold National museum database hostage Which I finally received yesterday - unfortunately I leave tomorrow I'll try to pass a copy to Ian when I meet him in Manila (as yet untranslated though)

[QUOTE]

Not holding out, Dan. Just procrastinating on some writing that should have been finished a year ago (well, I've been procrastinating anyway ). Give Ian my best, and have a safe trip.
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Old 8th January 2005, 01:30 PM   #11
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[QUOTE=wilked aka Khun Den et me ask you if this aspect is a substantial variance in construction; most of the SEA "swords" that I've seen have the base of the blade and the tang held in place with a form of pitch, even the ones from central Thailand, however most of the "dual-use blades" that I've seen have a brass or iron ferrule hammered down over the wood/rattan handle which holds the blade in place through friction and many have had shims hammered in to tighten them up. Is that a significant difference?
.[/QUOTE]

Yeah, it is. So significant I actually am having a hard time wrapping my mind around it, or believing it, actually. Are you sure? One does see distinct, what I'd call tribal or cultural differences between peasant culture and middle class and aristocratic culture, and this could be one. The ones I've seen, the ferule by and large must be applied before the blade is seated, not as part of that process (as the the ferule is narrower than the blade, though it's possible the last bit of it is driven on as you describe.). My initial guess would be that the pitch tends more to "give" and get field repairs with wedges on the using blades, giving the appearance that it was never there. I don't know; that's an odd situation there. One potential explanation would be the concept of "fit"; the pitch being used as gap-sealer on fancier pieces; similar to how in Europe abruptly thicker blade than tang is used as a feature to cover the tang hole in the guard, and is seen only on "over culture" (industrial, modern, aristocratic, whatever it likes to call itself) blades interested in the concept of "fit & finish", not on traditional blacksmith made blades.
As to the dual use thing; I don't think that's the division; AFAIK most of the larger "sword" dhas are dual use, with only the fanciest being assumed to be weapons only, and that more an assumption about the user (professional soldier or nobleman) than about the sword, really, which is designed and built in the same manner.
Truly, you find this division in construction between plain feild grade sword dhas and the shorter rural swords? How sure are you about this? Anyone else?

Last edited by tom hyle : 8th January 2005 at 01:59 PM.
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Old 8th January 2005, 01:33 PM   #12
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BTW, I've got an arit brought back from the Vietnam war, and the tang is in with a wad of black cloth, similar to what we see with oceanic SE Asian blades. The guy said he got it in Chu Lai; is that a town?

Last edited by tom hyle : 8th January 2005 at 01:51 PM.
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Old 8th January 2005, 05:39 AM   #13
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Wink Looking forward to seeing Dan ...

in Manila. I'm hoping he will have a passion for Filipino weapons too. Somehow Dan has a nose for the information that eludes so many of us for so long.

Ian.
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Old 8th January 2005, 02:29 PM   #14
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More thinking, Japanese work knives (including some that are really swords) tend to be in with tightness/friction only, whereas the fighting swords have pins. Maybe the thinking is that it's easier to reseat the blade on a work knife, as no one is trying to kill you while you do it, and thus less energy put into a positive connection?
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Old 8th January 2005, 11:47 PM   #15
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Default Relook

I relooked the three working blades I have handy and all three are set by friction (all have iron ferrules). One is as you described however, the blade at the ricasso is slightly wider than the ferrule so the ferrule could not have been hammered down over it and the others don't show any sign that they were either. Makes me wonder just how they actually set the blade in the handle. Pounded the handle onto the blade? Another question that will have to wait as I have a plane to catch. Later all!

Thanks Tom
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Old 9th January 2005, 11:49 PM   #16
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Thanks for the report. We could be looking at evidence that the narrow dhas were traditionally made by specialized cutlrs with slightly diffrnt practices and customs?
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