Crafts of Burma: kalaga wall hangings

 Kalaga wall hanging depicting peacocks
Late 19th century kalaga wall hanging; embroidered wool with silver and gilt threads and sequins, with appliqué of coloured braids, silk and felt fabrics, padded. The Victoria and Albert Museum

Kalagas are traditional beads and metal-thread embroidered pictures that originally were used to decorate the walls of the palaces and the temples, served as a room partitions or as screens hung outside the house on festive occasions. The word "kalaga" literally means "foreign certain" and referrs to the fact that the original idea was imported from Thailand. The art has been practised in Myanmar for well over two hundred years. Kalagas's most distinctive feature is richly decorated, applique figures that are padded to give a soft relief on an ornamented background.

Myanmar traditional wall hanging kalaga depicting a dragon

The base fabric for a kalaga is cotton if it is to be completely covered by the embroidery or black velvet if part of the background is to be exposed. In this case the black colour creates striking contrast for the sequinned figures.
The most popular themes for the kalagas are scenes from the last ten lives of the Buddha - the Buddhist Jataka tales, as well as the Hindu epic poem the Ramayana. The signs of the Zodiac, animals and auspicious motifs are other popular choices.

Burmese traditional wall hanging depicting scenes from Jataka stories
 Late 19th century kalaga hanging; embroidered silk and cotton, with stitch-work and appliqué with silver-gilt threads and sequins. The Victoria and Albert Museum   

Late 19th century kalaga hanging, close up detail. The costumes of the figures are depicted in the stylised tradition of Burmese theatre and relate to the fashions worn in the Mandalay Court of about 1880

Traditional wall hanging of Myanmar depicting mythical Chinthes (lions)
Kalaga depicting Chinthes. The Chinthe is a mythical half-lion/half-dragon creature that is thought to bring protection and good luck. It is also commonly used as the Lion (Leo) zodiac symbol. It is considered one of the most auspicious animals in Burmese culture and mythology.  source

The main motifs form the central parts of the design,  at first they are worked separately on  to cotton cloth and outlined with metal threads and filled with sequin layers. These are then stiffened on the back and cut out of the cloth to be applied later to the final backing. The cut motifs are sewn down and the outlines covered with more applied metal threads. Spaces are left open for the stuffing to be prodded in with a pointed stick. The final embellishment is of glass beads which are not true beads having no central hole for threading, each one is simply glued to a base glass square. Threads are tacked over the corners and metal threads are couched around to hold them in position on a kalaga. There is nothing machine-made about a kalaga, each kalaga is a completely hand-made piece of art.

Burmese traditional wall hanging depicting the Zodiac sign the Archer  Late 19th century Burmese kalaga; velvet with appliqué in cotton, and silver wire embroidery, sequins.The zodiac sign Danu (the archer) in the centre surrounded by foliate and figurative borders. The Victoria and Albert Museum

Myanmar traditional wall hanging depicting Prime Minister offering White Elephant to Burmese King
Burmese kalaga wall hanging depicting a scene with a Prime Minister offering a gift of a White Elephant to the Burmese King. source

The kalaga tradition has survived thanks to exports of these popular hangings to both neighbouring Thailand and Laos as well as to Europe and the United States. These padded pictures are now also included on bags and purses and even articles of clothing.

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