Chinese dynasties historical records say little about Lao people, although the existence of numerous and often turbulent “southern barbarian tribes” are mentioned. Chinese Shi ji noted: “the different Lao tribes, before going to war, were summoned by the Chief by beating the drum”

Royal Lao chronicles, after the founding reign of Fa Ngum in the 14th century ce demonstrated little local interest in the oldest cultures. During the French protectorate until 1953, Laos was not much studied apart from the remarkable works of Madeleine Colani (EFEO) about the “Plain of Jars”. Meanwhile, Bronze Drums existed in everyday life by reference to reports of gifts through inheritance and, as an astonishing exception in Indochina, regained favor and popularity under the last Reigns up to the communist birth of the Lao People’s Democratic Republic in 1975.

The dethroned King of Laos himself was reputed to possess more than thirty bronze drums and it is clearly remembered by the survivors and their descendants how well they were revered by the “Lao elite”. Each wealthy family had its small or big collection, part of their private festivities, given lovingly to their children, particularly to the daughters like a kind of dowry, although nowadays the drums are generally dispersed. May be because their servants and old slaves, of which the Kmmu (Kemu or Kamu), were among the last tribes to pray and use them for their animist rites at home far away in the hills. Northern Kmmu, and southern Kantu for the same reasons, will logically receive a particular attention at the end of this chapter which is first devoted to a survey of Laos’ main existing collections.

Until recently, they were basically composed of Heger III types created mainly during the last millenary. Now a few more older Heger I types have been excavated at the turn of the 21st century ce, probably announcing more findings to recall an old forbidden culture.


Bronze drums in Laos museums

Vientiane National Museum (VNM)

Fig. 1. VNM Drums old collection general view.
Fig. 1. VNM Drums old collection general view.

a) Five bronze drums of different categories existed in VNM for a long time.

Three of them are from Heger III type, one (first on the left - Fig. 1) quite intact and two others with mantles cut (at bottom).Their upper frogs (from one to three at each quarter) and their central stars (from 8 to 12 points) added to their geometric horizontal and vertical designs are in accordance with their classical descriptions in the previous chapter on Myanmar; therefore not repeated here (average sizes of drums about D50 and H40 cm).

The two oldest other pieces had very different characteristics, comparable to findings made around the Red River Valley not so far distant, even if the Museum has no precise information about their origins and ages. The smaller (third on Fig. 1) looks like a Heger IV with a low design in-between a kettle and a drum (D50 / H35 cm) without basic sophisticated designs. The larger resembles a Heger II type generally found between Tonkin (Mường people) and Guangxi (D80 / H70 cm). (Fig. 2)

Both are clearly distinct from the Lao- Burmese bronze drums’ Heger III family, by their shape, their dimensions, their decoration-Were they unearthed in Laos and where? Or smuggled from abroad and confiscated in the past?

Fig. 2. VNM Heger II (D80 / H70 cm)
Fig. 2. VNM Heger II (D80 / H70 cm)
Fig. 4. VNM Masterpiece from Vilabouly (D110 / H80 cm)
Fig. 4. VNM Masterpiece from Vilabouly (D110 / H80 cm)
Fig. 3. VNM San Island drum (D100 / H80 cm)
Fig. 3. VNM San Island drum (D100 / H80 cm)

b) Newcomers in the Vientiane

National Museum and supremely interesting are two antique Heger I type about two thousand years old, discovered few years ago in the south-east of the country.

The first one (Fig. 3), very damaged, was rescued from the Mekong river near San island in Kong district (Champassac/south Laos). Only half of its lower base remains (possibly D100 cm and H80 cm when fully intact), displaying a rich decoration, nicely made and interestingly composed of feathered dancers and boats.

Fig. 5. VNM Vilabouly masterpiece mantle decoration (dancers/warriors)
Fig. 5. VNM Vilabouly masterpiece mantle decoration (dancers/warriors)

Fig. 6. Vilabouly museum old drum (D60 / H55 cm)
Fig. 6. Vilabouly museum old drum (D60 / H55 cm)

In Vilabouly specifically, near one of the oldest known copper (and gold) mines in Laos, a small new museum contains another similarly discovered bronze drum (D60 and H55 cm) from the same epoch, and with the same characteristics. As the one in Vientiane National Museum it was found in a cave dated by carbon 14 from nearby pieces of wood, “around 200 BCE” (authenticated with the help of a team of experts from Australia).

As personally reported by the young curator “A” Bouarphan Vanvilay, the discoveries occurred respectively 5 to 8 meters deep in the present level of the mine’s earth. No frogs, twelve points central star, four double handles, boats and feathered scenes a typical Heger I design with birds on the tympanum and feathered people in boats on the mantle. (Figs. 5-6 – See also interview in Annex, below)

Fig. 7. Vilabouly old drum. Boat decoration schema on the mantle.
Fig. 7. Vilabouly old drum. Boat decoration schema on the mantle.
Fig. 8. Vilabouly round copper and bronze old ingots (D5 to 10 cm)
Fig. 8. Vilabouly round copper and bronze old ingots (D5 to 10 cm)

Nearby, many old round/flattened cop- per ingots (D5 to 10 cm, Fig. 8) from the mine were ready for transportation or casting, figuring an antique production and a big trad- ing via the Mekong basin to what is now Thai- land or Cambodia; or/and over the near Cordillera to (now) Vietnam and its sea harbors.

Northern tin mines existing not so far away with other metallic ores, a kind of “industrial” production of bronze was possible in Vilabouly and not only a storage for items coming from abroad. Next annual Lao-Australian campaigns of research will provide new studies and pieces, found up to now without any skeleton.

In parallel, villagers encountered by the author “off the record” mentioned clearly, with a few personal photos, many other similar nearby discoveries already smuggled, mainly via the Vietnam boarder at about sixty kilometers away as the crow flies. Of these, a lot of jewelry collars and bracelets from tombs, but also several other bronze drums (of about 40 to 50 cm H.), some with frogs on them. And, supremely interesting for us even if less valued by the villagers, one or two pieces of apparent half-broken decorated moulds were also sold, proving if confirmed that bronze drums were made in Vilabouly and not only imported a long time ago—probably with the help of northern metalworkers able to reproduce so-said Đông Sơn decoration styles. Such a local production would explain the growing number of Heger I discoveries in the Mekong valley and river tributaries around Savannakhet.


Savannakhet Provincial Museum (SPM)

Fig. 9. SPM Sepon big drum (Heger I D120 / H 80 cm)
Fig. 9. SPM Sepon big drum (Heger I D120 / H 80 cm)

Six bronze drums are exposed, of which on a wall an old tympanum without base, two apparently original Heger I type on the ground and three other more recent pieces on a common support – the last ones being “approximately catalogued” as honestly stated by the helpful director of the museum M. Naratevet.

The (alone) tympanum (D67 cm, Fig. 10), from Kaengkabao/Saybouily district, had a central star with 12 rays, and a great circle of flying birds typically “Dongsonian”.

The biggest drum on the floor, in poor condition (D120 and H80 cm if complete) came from Sepon district, near Vilabouly, and resembles the one described above in that museum with feathered dancers too. (Figs. 9-11)

All the main decorations of the early bronze drums listed above are similar and no need to be detailed again. Either they came from the Red River Valley to be distributed around the Mekong or, as their number strongly suggests, could have been produced locally in Vilabouly.


Fig. 10. SPM Tympanum without base Schema (D67 cm)
Fig. 10. SPM Tympanum without base Schema (D67 cm)
Fig. 11. SPM Sepon big drum decoration schema (on the mantle).
Fig. 11. SPM Sepon big drum decoration schema (on the mantle).

Fig. 12. SPM Savannakhet bridge drum (Heger I) with big toads (D90 / H60 cm)
Fig. 12. SPM Savannakhet bridge drum (Heger I) with big toads (D90 / H60 cm)

The medium size bronze drum (D90 and H60 cm) nearby on the floor is more complete, albeit holes and handles partly broken, and very worn by a long stay in earth and waters of the near Mekong where it was recently found when building the Savannakhet bridge in 2006 between Laos and Thailand. It is an early Heger I type from the Red River valley (or Vilabouly nearby?), its decoration is rubbed out but four big toads ornamented the tympanum with a central sixteen rays star. (Fig. 12)

The trio of other drums, of comparable sizes (about D50 / H35 cm) was found between 1980 and 2008 in neighboring districts. The central one is probably an old Heger II but the two others are Heger III although in poor state because long unearthed in accordance with nearly usages reported at the end of this chapter. (Fig. 13)


Fig. 13. SPM Savannakhet Museum drum’s trio – about (D50 / H35 cm)
Fig. 13. SPM Savannakhet Museum drum’s trio – about (D50 / H35 cm)

Pakse (southern) Provincial Museum (PPM)

The three bronze drums displayed cover a large spectre, possibly from late Prince Boun Oum collection supposedly found in Champasak province bordering the Mekong (Fig. 16)

The youngest in the middle is typically Lao/Burmese (Heger III), intact with 3 coupling frogs (x4) on the tympan and in-relief elephants going down the mantle, probably from 18th ce. (D72 / H48 cm-twelve points central star and four classical handles)

The oldest at left is Heger I (Đông Sơn on the verge BCE/CE?) with two ranks of flying anticlockwise birds and two ranks of warriors/dancers around a ten points’ star on its tympan bordered with four big toads; eight plates of human sceneries on the base with four handles; circular geometric decorations elsewhere. (D96 / H60 cm, Fig. 15)

The very damaged last one is an enigma looking either a small Heger II or a high Heger IV with 4x1 frogs (two missing) but astonishingly without any apparent central star on a too much repaired tympan, not excluding a transitory style. (D45 / H35 cm)

Fig. 15. SPM Savannakhet Museum drum’s trio – about (D50 / H35 cm)
Fig. 15. SPM Savannakhet Museum drum’s trio – about (D50 / H35 cm)
Fig. 16. Paksé PM bronze drums trio
Fig. 16. Paksé PM bronze drums trio

Luang Prabang Museum(s) with only Heger III types

Public collection

Unesco World Heritage classified, the old royal capital is best known for its numerous temples than for its former palace becoming public Museum since the communist revolution. No doubt that its staff was recruited accordingly, curtly refusing to answer any questions about the ex-royal collections including sixteen bronze drums (no notices; photos forbidden) of the same Heger III type. A pity as they are the main ornament of two major corridors with very similar dimensions giving them an “air of family” typically Burmese.

Between 63 to 67 cm of diameter and 48 to 52 cm in height, these drums no look so old (at least two hundred years as written somewhere?) and there specific differences can be sum up as such for the 16 pieces, every one having four double-handles intact or not.

Central stars on the 16 tympan: 12 drums with 12 rays and 4 with 8 rays

Frogs on the 16 tympan: 5 (4x1); 4 (4x2); 7 (4x3)

Snails or elephants downing the bulb in 11 cases (/16), with flowers (all in-relief)

As it stands, and it is said that much more was stolen, the collection offers a good sample of the regional Heger III bronze family.

Note: Luang Prabang Public museum presents three other mini-bronze drums from 10 to 15 cm high in a speci c show-case at the entrance but they must be catalogued modern copies.

Fig. 17. Comparative tympanum (about D 60cm) schemas.
Fig. 17. Comparative tympanum (about D 60cm) schemas.

A great private collection in Luang-Prabang

The above interesting royal heritage is now surpassed by a confidential display.

Mr. Sithong Kiangkam, a magnate in public works, recently began a huge private collection (always in progress) of Heger III regional bronze-drums, not opened to visitors. Fortunately a Thai researcher, Phadet Sookasem, received the permission to study them as part of his recent Ph.D thesis about Laos drums. (Khon Kaen University, Thailand, 2013). About thirty specimens have been examined of which we have selected three distinct tympan schemas with the kind authorization of M. Phadet Sookasem.

Our selection was based on the number of frogs put on the tympanum, giving a possible chronology from probably the oldest (one frog/smaller size) to the youngest three frogs/bigger size). (Figs. 17a to c)

a)  The selected drum with 4x1 frogs (D56 / H44 cm) is very simple with only circular ranks of aquatic animals (fishes; ducks) and geometric designs around a central 8 rays star. On the mantle geometric circular bands, four handles.

b)  The selected drum with 4x2 frogs (D64 / H46 cm) had a central twelve rays star but only geometric designs on the tympan; on the mantle a vertical succession of in-relief animals (2 elephants and 2 snails) along with (lotus?) flowers.

c) The selected drum with 4x3 frogs (D64 / H48 cm) had the same above characteristics with twelve rays central star but more abstract designs; the mantle is ornamented with flora and six vertical in-relief animals. (3 elephants and snails in accordance again with the number of topping frogs)

From above related public or private museums in Luang Prabang, all these “Kha” drums, as they are commonly designated in Laos, were always decorated with frog symbols of water and rain on the perimeter of the tympanum, the centre of which being occupied by a kind of star that may have eight or twelve or sixteen rays (points). Other decorations, zoomorphic or geometric motifs, were included in concentric rings on the tympanum and bands of designs on the body of the drum. With often a parade of in-relief miniature realistic animals marching downward on the body; their numbers being usually correlated with frogs on the tympan. Apart from frogs, elephants, snails, turtles, reptiles, insects, and occasionally squirrels, parallel lines included different geometrical items: the single ovals were supposed to be rice grains and lozenges paddy-fields, rosette-type being flowers; all decorations basically linked with a farming society.

Globally, the coherence of the pieces remains impressive for collections typically “Lao/ Burmese”, the so-said Golden Triangle (Burma/Laos/Siam corner) being not so far.


Drums’ practices

Laos and bronze drums in Indochina

a)  The growing and largely extensive discoveries in Laos of early bronze drums (Heger I or IV) of about two millenaries old suggest an ample culture between neighboring areas. These antique drums were possibly made also locally, nearby Vilabouly for instance, and not only bought abroad from the Red River Valley.

Meanwhile, their formats and decorations were similar to the early Chinese and Vietnamese ones detailed in respective chapters, to be discussed again in conclusion.

b)  On the contrary, for the youngest periods commencing at the end of the first millenary ce, the developments of a new era for bronze-drums (Heger III typed) is evident, probably issued from (present) Burmese territories not far from the common Mekong “highway”. Albeit inspired by the old ones it is clearly an original specie meeting local tastes and beliefs before to become a Lao and Burmese symbol as part of “Cluster no.3” defined in the preceding chapter.

c)  We must also remember that these Heger III progressively covered Indochina

entirely, to become official Lao or Siamese gifts to foreign States or war-trophies sent to Europe at the end of 19th century as already related.

No doubt that “Laotian customers”, even in case of “Burmese producers”, were able to easily express their own preferences if we consider the distances involved. As the crow flies not more than one hundred kilometers separates the (Burmese) eastern old Karenni State and the (Laos) western first Kmmu villages. Between them the Mekong river was the only physical obstacle but is not larger than one hundred meters at that stage (not more than the river Seine in Paris), with a lot of visible rocks to help its crossing. At the end of the 19th century, British missionaries said that one of the largest groups of customers for Karen/Shan producers was the (Laotian) Kmmu, so numerous to work in nearby teak plantations in Burma or Siam before to go back to their country with such gorgeous presents.


The last “Bronze drummers” in Laos

Fig. 18. Kmmu bronze drum prayers (courtesy Grégoire Schlemmer)
Fig. 18. Kmmu bronze drum prayers (courtesy Grégoire Schlemmer)

Kmmu, mainly in the north

Of the 6.5 million inhabitants in Laos, more than one hundred and thirty ethnic groups have been officially identified, sub-divided into three broad categories: the Lao Lum (Lao of the lowlands including the Mekong basin), the Lao Sung (Lao of the northern mountain tops) and the Lao Thoeng (Lao of the mountain slopes) to which the Kmmu belong. The last ones represented about half million persons now spread in areas bordering also Vietnam, China, and Thailand (from 2005 official survey).

Kmmu origins remain obscure, at least they preceded the arrival of many others from the north and their first Deluge legend looks great with already...a drum: “During The Flood, one brother and one sister were supposed to have escaped in a wooden-drum, they gave birth to a red pumpkin from which first Kmmu escaped by making a hole in the pumpkin.

Kmmu lived until recently in self-sufficient village communities, farming by slash- and-burn methods in areas of moderate elevation, speaking Austro-Asiatic languages like Khmer and Mon so widespread in Indochina. Under a patriarchal system, each family had an ancestral emblem (plant or animal), fixing the incest and marriage rules. Animists, they believed in interaction between people and spirit worlds; everybody had to feed and respect helping (or harming) spirits with the assistance of local “chaman or medium” known for their aptitudes to communicate with them, all other religions being respected. A lot of rituals existed for anyone, family, clan, village, mainly at Harvest times and for New year decisions, for example to choose collectively fields and plants to cultivate, or sites for reforestation ...

Distinct from so-called “pleasant music”, “ritual music” was needed for these ceremonies, in which bronze drums played a major role being the instruments with strongest sounds.

From the 18th century ce very poor Kmmu began to seek work everywhere in the towns, being more slaves than servants but showing their ritual’s cults and probably inspiring their “masters” drums’ tentative collections. In 1936 Swedish anthropologist K.G. Izikowitz noted that their drums were bought in Siam or Burma in “offering days for the ancestors or special holidays, the Kmmu word for drum being klo just as in the Karen language”, an explicit linguistic link between two distinct people.

With a lot of respect, if not fearfully, Kmmu played bronze drums for all kinds of ceremonies: to pray for the rain to come or to stop, to protect against animals or thieves in harvest times, to help astrologists’ prophecies etc. During funeral services a part of handle or a frog, if not a complete drum in the absence of heirs, were often put in tombs. These habits, as reported by missionaries, gradually declined during the 20th century but it is said that drums could be hidden or buried secretly in villages to be unearthed with great ceremony as in the Kantu example mentioned below.

In 2013 a rare photo had been taken in a private house not far from Phongsaly (north of Laos) where Kmmu devotees lit a candle on a family drum for any kind of prayer. (Fig. 18)


Kantou, mainly in the south

Kantou (or Katu) are linguistically members of the Austro-Asiatic family, like the Mon- Khmer branches or Kmmu. Called Lakam (near to lakhang for bells) their bronze drums are reputed to have protected successfully the village of Vel Kandon (near Vietnam) during the wars, from the French soldiers and then the American shillings. (Kaleum District–Sekong valley, tributary of Mekong - South Laos).

In march 1995, as reported by Yves Goudineau (EFEO), two drums (Heger III) were unearthed, one bigger than the other but both damaged and sounding badly after a long stay in the earth. They bore a central 12 rays star at the centre of their tympanum, 4x1 casted frogs on its perimeter with circular motifs on the base too. Secretly hidden in the near-forest by the heads of the village, their appearance was linked to agricultural rituals, for purification and processional purposes, with other gongs and bells and jars, in a day carefully chosen by the village to please the Spirits.

Suspended semi-vertically with ropes by their handles to the back face of the central common house, at about one meter from the earth, they were played by seated musicians with other instruments, of which the big wooden village’s common drums.

Bronze drums were first prayed and three eggs broken on them, before the beginning of “circumambulations” by multiple of three with ternary musical rhyming dances apparently governed by a female medium. Then the men killed thirteen buffaloes, cutting their necks and offering their blood to the (mountain’s) spirits and then to families to be added to their other food. With alcohol of many kinds (and drugs?) until getting drunk, the festivities continued all night long with two orchestras, one central and one ambulant to govern two 86 types of circular dances, clockwise and not, to possibly pay homage to alive and dead worlds respectively.

Even if we don’t know how old these rites were, or their full meaning, their ternary modes and the rounded shapes of the drums were well in accordance with the houses and village topography, letting remember other Asian cyclic cosmogonies (wheels, compasses, etc.)

In 2015, the author travelling via the (high) Sekong valley was not able to obtain any record of the 1995 ceremonies, nor to find out if the two old bronze drums existed anymore or had been unearthed again: may be Spirits required for the full secret.


Few Parting Thoughts

Laos was until recently a famous “Bronze Drums’ Nation”, both for its native devotees and for the “elite” families—more collectors than believers. In fact these drums were not so old and possibly only produced during the last three centuries in eastern Myanmar by reference to the neo-colonial frontiers. Basically Heger III typed, there is no evidence up to now of their former manufacture in present Laos despite so many legends.

At the beginning of the third millennium ce, the situation is completely different:

  • The long time family collections of Heger III have been dispersed, voluntarily or not, at the end of the last century’s wars and revolutions, often sold far away. In the mean time drum’s rites and (at least) public ceremonies had logically regressed, if not nearly disappeared.
  • The recent discoveries of old bronze drums, contemporaries of early Chinese or Vietnamese ones have multiplied, primarily in the Mekong basin in keeping with its communication role but also in local “ores’ hilly sites” such as eastern Sepon district. Last digs have provided in Vilabouly some “masterpieces” by virtue of their decoration or huge dimensions and their numbers add credence to the hypothesis of a “wealthy old drum culture”, with possibly spots of local castings.

With educated local experts and the help of international missions, no doubt that we are at the crossroads of new discoveries giving a better understanding of “metallurgic” cultures between BCE and CE within the present territory of Laos and its nearby ASEAN partners.


Note: Never forgetting that Western Laos and Eastern Burma may have been, during the early days of the bronze drums, under the same governance on both sides of the Mekong.

Annex to Laos

Interview of Mr. Viengkeo Souksavatdy – Deputy Director General – Heritage Department – Ministry of Information, Culture and Tourism – Laos.

Discoveries in Vilabouly (Sepon – Champassak Province)

Fig. 19. Discovering Vilabouly’s biggest drum; now in VNM (D110 / H80 cm)
Fig. 19. Discovering Vilabouly’s biggest drum; now in VNM (D110 / H80 cm)

“In 2005 a mining Company asked to enquire about the old mines (gold and others) in Vilabouly with the help of mine-clearers in case of last war bomb’s presence; Lao Government gave the adequate permissions with rights of control in case of Heritage findings.

A wall made of old stones was first unearthed with accesses to old mines galleries and it was decided to go further with mine-clearers’ help: soon was unearthed a “big kettle” quickly identified by Viengkeo Souksavatdy as a huge and intact old bronze drum (Heger I).

Other investigations quickly produced other drums, copper ingots, bronze tools which were dated approximately and BCE/beginning ce from the wooden architecture of the galleries, giving birth to Australian archaeological annual missions and recently to the opening of a local small museum in Vilabouly.”

Now the first discovered biggest drum can be seen in the Vientiane National Museum as already reported but the following two photos with mine-clearers show more emotionally its first handlings in Vilabouly. (courtesy of Mr Viengkeo Souksavatdy – Fig. 19)