By Veera Sachdev
“Kalaga” is the traditional name for embroidered tapestries done entirely by hand from Myanmar (Burma) and Thailand. This traditional handcrafted art goes back more than a century, with origins from both regions.
The ancient craft technique was to attach gold and silver threads, called “Shwe Chi Doe” in Burmese, on backing cloth and decorated with glass beads. Mostly they were also adorned with real jewels and gemstones. These materials were quite rare at the time, and this made ancient kalagas exclusive to the royals and riches.
Early recorded kalagas featured narrative designs of religious significance like Pagodas (Buddhist Temples) and tales from the “Jataka”. Jatakas refers to folklore-like literature native to India concerning stories of previous birth of the Buddha until his enlightenment. Here, mythical and auspicious creatures are often pictured. For instance the Hintha (symbol of noble character and purity), peacocks (represents the sun and beauty), the naga or dragon (guardian spirit) and royal elephants are often seen. Designs of Royal Palaces and Courts have also been found, and this also shows strong influence from Myanmar's royal palaces in Mandalay.
Kalagas has undergone through a lot of change during the years. After Burma's conquest of Ayutthaya (Thailand) in 1767, new materials like sequins, marbles, cut glass, gemstones, wool and more were brought in by traders. These sequins were made from copper extracted from telephone wires and given a silver finish by washing it with potassium. Though these sequins eventually rust and fade in color with time, it retains a unique ancient, antique charm making it still popular today. At present, Plastic sequins and colored glass have been increasingly seen in the past 30 years.
It is interesting to learn how a kalaga tapestry in being made in Thailand and Myanmar. We have a complete section dedicated to this subject. Click here to learn how they are made!
Most of Kalagas today are still being made in family workshops in the old capital of Mandalay, using locally available materials. The people who make them are local whose skills and trade has been passed down from generations.
Today, kalaga production and design are primarily aimed at the export and tourist markets. Boosted by huge tourist demands from Thailand and ASEAN countries, many new workshops have been set up in Thailand, mostly in provinces like Maesai and Maesot which is close to the Burma’s borders. Popular designs made for tourists include those of elephants, dragons, flora like lotus and vases.
With its sheer beauty and intricate patterns, many people who come to this part of the world make it a point to buy kalagas. After all, it is suitable as gifts for your loved ones. It also easily makes an instant hit on the walls, a great conversation topic between your guests. It is very easy to clean and maintain as well.
Types of Kalagas