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Pumtek Beads

Pumtek ("buried thunderbolt") beads are important heirloom beads among the Chin, who live in the Chin Hills of western Myanmar (formerly Burma) and the adjacent area of eastern India, where they are called Kuki. The beads were made over 1000 years ago by the Pyu, the builders of the first state in Burma. Early in the 20th century people living in a village near the ruins of Wadi (Waddi) began finding these beads and selling them at an annual fair to the Chin. As they ran out of the beads they learned to drill the decorated blanks they found.

Genuine Pumtek are made on the opalized wood of the palm Borassus flabellifer. They will fluoresce under a short-wave UV lamp.

(Donor: Judy Carlson)

A close examination shows the vascular bundles that characterize palm woods. They show up as thick lines along the sides and dots at the ends.

As these blanks ran out around 1926, the people of Payagyi village began making copies. The Chin continued to buy them, though they knew they were copies, but paid much less for them. Eventually, this demand folded and beadmaking stopped some time before 1980. It has since resumed because there is now a worldwide demand for the beads.

Imitation Pumtek were also made on fossilized wood, but it was neither opalized nor from a palm. It is a more common fossilized wood (Myanmar is full of this material), probably of the tree Dipterocarpoxylon burmenses. It does not fluoresce under an UV light.

The grain of this wood is also finer
and more wood-like or it is even
rather plain.

Other imitations have been made more recently since the bead became a collectors' item beginning in the mid 1980s.

Left: a poor imitation made of horn in India. (Donor: Torben Sode)

I have seen what appear to be stone imitations from Myanmar from the 1990s. The ends and edges are blackened. I don't have any. Perhaps someone will send me a few or at least a picture or scan.*

* Before sending a scan, write me first, please.


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