Mandalay, Myanmar’s second largest city and the last stronghold of the ancient Burmese kings, has been considered the country’s cradle of traditional arts and crafts. Shwe chi hto or golden embroidery has been one of the most famous crafts in Mandalay especially during the monarchy period when gold and silver tapestries adorned the kings, queens, ministers, and all the members of the higher class in society.
The eighteenth century witnessed the flourishing of shwe chi hto. Kings and queens wore gold embroidered and gem encrusted robes made by goldsmiths and seamstresses. The outstanding court craftsmen sewed and embroidered the royal raiment for the royal family as crowns, headbands, jackets, robes, sarongs, skirts, and shoes. Tapestries with shwe chi hto were also embellished in the palaces and monasteries.
In Myanmar, ten different kinds of arts and crafts called pan sae myo include panchi (painting), punpu (sculpture), panbe (blacksmith), panyun (lacquerware), panpoot (wooden crafts), panyan (brick and stone building), pantaut (stucco carving), pantamaut (stone-carving), patain (goldsmithing), and pante (copper and bronze smithing). The art of shwe chi hto falls under the category of goldsmithing because in ancient times, the threads used for traditional needlework embroidery was made from gold.
Shwe chi hto is created through handmade intricate needlework processes. Detailed golden embroidered designs are sewn on different fabrics and textiles. In making shwe chi hto, various decorative materials are used, such as sequins, naga-hta strings (gold and silver threads), glass beads, copper spangles, and other materials. During the first step of shwe chi hto, white cloth have to be stretched and tightened on a square and rectangle wooden frame after which outlines for the figures and patterns are sketched with pencil on the white cloth. While in previous generations, the floral pattern designs were stitched with real gold and silver threads, today, artisans use threads colored with silver and gold. Cotton wool is also used under the needlework to give the figures more texture, standing out as reliefs.
Some of the traditional tapestries depict the Jatakas (Buddhist stories), mythical birds (Kainnayi and Kainnayar), traditional festivals, dancing couples, and animal figures.
Even with the dissolution of the Burmese monarchy in the nineteenth century, shwe chi hto continues to thrive as a living heritage in Myanmar culture with traditional embroidery transmitted within Myanmar families, the knowledge and skills to sew the designs are transferred from mothers to daughters because shwe chi hto designs are created by women. The Myanmar government supports the safeguarding of traditional embroidery. Every year, the Saunder Weaving Institution holds tapestry training classes.
Nowadays, traditional designs are particularly popular as tourist souvenirs and for decor for tourist destinations. Some of tapestries adorn the ceilings of Buddhist shrine halls. Some are used as decoration in hotels and royal places. They are also sewn on cushions, pillows, and handbags.
More recently, shwe chi hto has been recreated by fashion designers for haute couture. This intangible cultural heritage element has withstood the social and political transformations in Myanmar.