A-le are bronze weights from Myanmar (formerly Burma). Popularly – and incorrectly – labelled as “opium weights”, they have long been misrepresented by travellers, dealers, and even museums. It is not clear exactly where the label originated, but certainly a romanticised image of these weights started in the 1960s as a marketing device for tourists.
A-le were in fact integral to the daily economy of pre-colonial Burma. They were used to determine the measure and price of commodities such as food, raw materials, and jewellery in marketplaces throughout the country. They were prized possessions. Traders and shopkeepers often kept their a-le in specially made wooden boxes along with a set of beam balance scales. On receiving the goods to purchase, they would produce the animal-shaped a-le and set them in a basket attached to the beam balance. The desired commodity would be added to a basket on the other side until the weights matched and the price was confirmed.
Usually, a-le came in sets
of ten. Their mass was calculated by units of tical, which is the equivalent to around 16 grams. The largest weight was called a viss, or 100 ticals, followed by a 50, 20, 10, 5, 2, and 1 tical ending with a 1/2, 1/4 and a 1/8 tical. To help with lifting, the weights above 20 ticals usually came with a semi-circular handle connected with the head and tail of
These weights were ornate and usually cast using the lost-wax method in the shape of animals. The three most common animals featured on existing weights are the hin-tha (Brahmin duck), karawaik (Burmese crane), and to-aung (bull-like creature with the head of a lion) although other weights in the shape of elephants, tigers, rats, and guinea pigs can also be found.
There is a stylistic continuity with the animal shapes of a-le which can be traced provisionally from the 16th century up until the 19th century. The form and style of the base of the a-le indicates more specifically the time period of their use. The weights from 16th to 17th century have the animals sitting directly on large pumpkin-shaped bases. The ones from the 18th century are supported on a smaller circular base. The 19th century examples are set on sloping rectangular, hexagonal and octagonal bases as seen in the ones here.
With much of the commercial economy dictated by the use of these weights, the ruling order set the standard and scrutinised the system of weights and measures. The King, on his accession, would commission a set of master weights in the animal of his choosing. The weights produced during his reign would then be given a specific stamp, and the weights fabricated in the capital and distributed throughout the empire. The use of any others during their reign would be completely prohibited and local officials would be required to inspect the weights and give them stamp or seal to confirm their legitimacy.
The use of bronze a-le ceased shortly after the British assumed control of the entire country in 1885. They were gradually replaced with plain iron weights set to the standardised weights and measures of the British Empire. In subsequent years, a-le have been remade in brass for the tourist trade, marking the beginning of their falsified history.
Among The South Asia Collection’s recent acquisitions are 24 a-le which were donated by a lady whose family had lived in Burma for three generations. Of these, four are the oldest examples used by the donor’s mother in the 1930’s. They are on display in the new acquisitions display cloche. Do visit us to have a look at the a-le and a number of other items from Myanmar (Burma).