Map of antique drum discoveries in Thailand before 2000 CE
Map of antique drum discoveries in Thailand before 2000 CE

Coming slowly from China, the ancestors of modern Thai infiltrated southward and finally established their independence and their first capital in Sukhotai (Northern Thailand) in 1238 CE. Encountering the pre-existing cultures Thai people adopted their musical instruments including bronze drums inherited from northern countries.
A written Royal report is found around 1345 ce in “The three worlds according to King Ruang”, describing the Buddhist cosmology and its Realm of Men with “choruses accompanied by instruments (including) metal drums, very loud and festive”. In 1350, the southern Ayutthaya capital was created, long before Bangkok in 1782 by the present Chakri dynasty, old Siam becoming Thailand in 1939.
During all these centuries, bronze drums were played and talked about at the successive Courts, from King Borom Trilokanath (1448-1488 CE) where the “Head musician played a bronze drum”, to the present Royal Audience Hall when they sound for a few seconds “together with trumpets when the (enthroned) King enters or leaves the chamber” in formal audiences; not forgetting bronze drums sometimes located on the Royal barge during the Water Festivals. For example, during the Tot Kathin Water Festival in 1944, four drums were placed on the young king’s barge and were struck when he first came into view and during the procession.
In fact, all the above historical records only concerned the “second age” Heger III type bronze drums from Burmese/Lao origins, frequently lacquered or gilded during the last millenary, but never the “early” Heger I types which have been recently unearthed. These last ones, made between BCE and CE and long forgotten, will be first examined below as representing an early bronze drums’ age all over the present territory.


First Age: Antique bronze drums in Thailand

Fig. 1. BNM Uttaradit biggest drum with shell detail (D65 / H54 cm)
Fig. 1. BNM Uttaradit biggest drum with shell detail (D65 / H54 cm)

From the Bangkok National Museum (BNM) studies, the discovered antique “Bronze kettle drums” numbered about fifty in the kingdom at the end of the 20th century, a minimal quantity compared to the black market of smuggled ones. In good or bad shape, all were found by chance during public or private works, leading us to imagine many more relics in Thailand where discoveries are recurrent. All regions, from north to south, look quasi equally concerned as shown in the museum’s map confirming the probability of a strong “Bronze drum culture” before the arrival of the Thais. The selection of old drums described below tries to give a fair representation of them with first few examples concerning respectively the northern and central regions. The southern region, being so important with its links to Malaysia and Archipelagos, is more in-depth reported with its discoveries and routes. (Fig. 1)


Northern and Central areas

An example from Northern Thailand in Wat Kasem Chittraram

Fig. 2. Schema of Wat Kasem Chittraram tympan (BNM-D65 cm)
Fig. 2. Schema of Wat Kasem Chittraram tympan (BNM-D65 cm)

 Muang district - Thao Sao sub-district - Uttaradit - Figs. 1-2)
Now displayed in the Bangkok National Museum (no. KP1) this drum was unearthed and presented in 1927 to the Fine Arts Department. Damaged and partly corroded the drum was cast from bronze through lost wax processing from two attached moulds, the handles being added at the end (D65 / H54 cm - noticed erroneously about 1000 BCE, probably from late BCE, typically Heger I)
The tympanum was decorated with a 10 rays star surrounded with geometric ranks, the two largest wearing head-ornamented people and birds (herons?) flying anti- clockwise; on its edge were four high-reliefs figurines of shells, relating the importance of waters after comb-line patterns. The cylinder was decorated with only circular lines.


An example from Central Thailand in Mu 6 - Trat Province

Fig. 3. Mu 6 drum (D72/H53 cm)
Fig. 3. Mu 6 drum (D72/H53 cm)

In 1988, Mr Samoe Imthasan discovered this bronze drum in his pineapple field, an elevated area near a canal containing another one. Buried 60 cm underground, damaged, the top and the body still attached, the drum was upside down (maybe to protect human bones?—said to have existed but not attested). It contained different artefacts like chisel, axe, knife —all in iron—and fragments of bronze including bracelets and ustensils dating back to late BCE.
The bronze drum was cast through lost wax process, the handles with spiral patterns being added at the end (D72 / H53 cm, Heger I type, Figs. 3-4)

Fig. 4. Schema of Wat Kasem Chittraram tympan (BNM-D65 cm)
Fig. 4. Schema of Wat Kasem Chittraram tympan (BNM-D65 cm)

The top was decorated with 10 rays star with peacock tail motifs between the rays; on the outer rim was a band of people with head ornaments and two rows of different birds flying anti-clockwise; in between, comb-lines circles were connected together with straight lines. The base of the drum was also decorated with comb-lines, circles, straight lines, and designs of people with head ornaments in boats, except in the plain lower part.
All these ornaments, according to the notice, were possibly linked to a description of the universe with divine creatures such as peacocks featuring possibly gods, and terrestrial references such as grains of rice or river-birds.
In total a perfect resemblance to the drums produced in the northern Red River Valley (China/Vietnam) also well received in the south (Malaysia-Indonesia).

The Ongbah cave

Fig. 5. Ongbah cave drum (no. 86) schema (D67/H54 cm)
Fig. 5. Ongbah cave drum (no. 86) schema (D67/H54 cm)

The Ongbah cave is situated in Central Thailand, 120 km of Kanchanaburi. It is famous for the discovery, in the same place, of six bronze drums studied by a Thai- Danish team (P. Sorensen), of which two were kept in the Copenhagen National Museum. All were typically from “Red River culture” more than two thousand years ago confirmed by the age of ninety boat shaped wooden coffins excavated conjointly (radiocarbon gave about 200 BCE for them but the big trunks could be much older than the burial. (see Fig. 7)
One of the drums numbered 86 (D67/H54 cm) shows two house motifs and birds on the tympanum but no pictorial decoration on the mantle. (Fig. 5)


Fig. 6. Two Ongbah drums in Wat Lad Kam (D60/H50 cm probably)
Fig. 6. Two Ongbah drums in Wat Lad Kam (D60/H50 cm probably)

On its tympanum with twelve points central star could be distinguished eight zones of decoration with interesting pictorial middle ranks detailed as such // zone three (from the center): nine stylized birds in counterclockwise arrangement of which one has circlets at the end of the tail, probably a peacock//zone four: stylized feathered figures of human beings divided into two groups separated by houses (two families? two worlds?) // zone five: eight stylized long-beaked flying white herons looking standard but in fact with individual features.
The decoration of other repertoried drums were for some of them only geometrical (Fig. 5-6), one had four sculptured frogs on its top and fragments of sea-boats and birds on the upper mantle (Fig. 7). Globally we face a stretch gamut of Heger I, a large fan offered to customers if is supposed a drums’ hub
Situated in a small cliff overhanging a lake, other caves existed nearby and locals, off the record, mentioned other discoveries. Of which two other Ongbah’s drums (not repertoried above or elsewhere), can be visited in Wat Lad Kam (40 km east from Kanchanaburi)
The clever and welcoming Abbot of this huge monastery (28 statues of Buddha Temple) hosting these drums is proud to have personally helped their protection. Both with twelve rays’ central star and initially four double handles, they are in very poor condition. With a lot of holes and missing parts but so emotional because never cleaned nor studied, even if the same designs and characteristics related to their “official brothers” above could be imagined on them. (see Fig. 7 and Annex below)
To explain the Ongbah’s numerous discoveries and their relative homogeneity many hypothesis were examined. The best accepted was the existence of a kind of trade centre if not a religious cross-road for people and goods transiting from the eastern Chao Phraya River irrigating Ayutthaya to the southern Mae Klong River till Kra isthmus; not so far also from the northern Burma via the Three Pagoda Pass – in brief a possible hub between the north and the south of the peninsula.


Southern areas

Down to the present Malaysian frontier, a succession of discoveries paved the Thai water routes giving access to the south, demonstrating a spread bronze drum’s culture. Successively going down along the Mae Klong River and Thachin River from Kanchanaburi to Ratchaburi and Petchaburi, then to Chumpon and finally via various lakes and rivers or littorals to the present southern frontier. Near 1500 kilometers might be covered in six weeks for goods as determined from Chinese travellers’ early reports; in total two to three months were required from the Red River Valley via the Mekong and Mun River, crossing the Khorat Plateau, and then the Kra isthmus to finally reach Indonesia.
About twenty “Dong Son type” drums are officially reported in that southern area zone, many more for sure remain to be excavated.


Museums in Thailand

Ratchaburi Museum

Ratchaburi was a centre for the famous albeit almost unknown Dvaravati culture so influenced by India from the 4th century CE, preceding the Khmers’ occupants from the 11th century and then the Chinese (Mongols) and Burmese invaders. A long and early melting-pot route which can be explained geographically by the beginning of Kra isthmus, obligatory terrestrial way from Thailand to Malaysia and then Islands.
Three “kettle pots” were discovered in Khu Bua (Ratchaburi province), of which one broken and one tympanum (Fig. 8) are kept in the museum with one bi-millenary boat- shaped wood coffin (Fig. 7) in good condition from Ongbah,its bird’s prow included.
The broken bronze drum (D50/H44cm) had a ten rays central star, no frogs, four double handles and borrowed sculptures but evidently is a “Dongsonian mushroom “type”, as was the lone tympanum nearby (D65 cm). (Figs. 8-9)

Fig. 7. Ongbah boat-shaped wood coffin in Ratchanaburi museum (5m long)
Fig. 7. Ongbah boat-shaped wood coffin in Ratchanaburi museum (5m long)
Fig. 8. Khu Bua broken bronze drum D50/H44 cm
Fig. 8. Khu Bua broken bronze drum D50/H44 cm
Fig. 9. Tympan schema from Khu Bua drum (D50 cm)
Fig. 9. Tympan schema from Khu Bua drum (D50 cm)

Chumpon Museum

The masterpiece of the new Museum is unquestionably a bronze drum, quite intact and looking golden (due to its bronze alloy or to cleaning methods?) in the centre of the largest room containing several other ones, some complete, some not. This relative abundance is the testimony of many local findings linked to the proximity of the place where the Isthmus of Kra is the tightest. There, only forty kilometers of land separates the Indian Ocean and the waters of the nearby Pacific Ocean, an early “hub” for all traffics between China and India to avoid a much longer and dangerous navigation between the islands surrounding the present-day Singapore. Accordingly, it was a very rich area with customers able to pay for costly artefacts and also the place of many shipwrecks with precious cargo - certainly other pieces will be found as the researches are only beginning.
The “golden bronze drum” of the Museum was discovered in Kao Sam Keo (main local harbour) in 2011 only, a few years after another big one (D72/H 56 cm - 12 rays star) and, as well, a small one (D18/H15 cm - 8 rays star) with many other parts of drums and a lot of pearls or jewelry. (Figs. 10-11)
The “golden” tympanum had fourteen rays central star surrounded by three bands of birds of different types, (terrestrial and sea species), and circles with geometric designs; the cylinder is ornamented with few undecorated ranks and two double handles, no frogs. No doubt that this pure “mushroom type” piece originated from Bac Bao gulf about two millenaries ago.
Fig. 10. The “golden drum” from Kao Sam Keo (D70 / H50 cm)
Fig. 10. The “golden drum” from Kao Sam Keo (D70 / H50 cm)
Fig. 11. Kao Sam Keo golden drum tympan schema (D70 cm)
Fig. 11. Kao Sam Keo golden drum tympan schema (D70 cm)

Nakhon Si Thammarat Museum

Fig. 12. Wat Khi Lek tympanum schema (D51 cm)
Fig. 12. Wat Khi Lek tympanum schema (D51 cm)

A bronze drum from Wat Khi Lek/Nam Rop district was cast with bivalve moulds, the handles being attached to the upper part after the drum was finished (D51/H44/thick 0.2 cm), typically Heger I. (Fig. 12)

Damaged, partly broken or pierced, the tympanum was decorated with a star of twelve rays, ornamented with peacock tails (god figures?) in between; surrounded by circled ranks of which four giant herons flying anti-clockwise, the outer rim bearing comb-line patterns. The cylinder was decorated with three pair of horizontal parallel lines, its base remaining plain.

This drum featured bigger spacers used to fill the bronze liquid into the mold of the tympanum, a typical “Dongsonian” technique.

General comments about early Bronze drums in Thailand

As seen in the above examples, the early bronze drums of Thailand were part of the great northern family (clusters 1 and 2) two thousand years ago. Even if are missing appropriate local moulds, the hypothesis of a domestic production cannot be excluded considering, first, the growing number of discoveries everywhere in Thailand and, second, the attested presence of all necessary ores and early mining in many areas of the vast Khorat plateau. At least must be mentioned in Ban Non Ha, near Mekong River and present Laos border, the recent discovery of smelting vestiges including part of stone mould of drum (Mukdahan Province–Naudomvanaam Temple/60km from Mukdahan).

In majority the dimensions of the early drums discovered in present Thailand were more or less “standard” with diameters of the tympanum close to 60 cm and height about 50 cm. The bronze itself is composed of copper (between 70 and 80%), tin (about 8%) and/ or lead (about 6%).

In many cases several drums were discovered in one spot, meaning a cemetery for the richest people with presence of bones nearby and may be initially in the drum itself when (apparently) upside-down. Nobody knows how to exactly interpret why most items were so deeply hidden – may be family treasures – nor to describe precisely the populations or cults involved. Be that as it may, the early pre-siamese existence of such drums certainly signified large exchanges of goods, if not craftsmen. One day more specific casting spots in Thailand could be discovered, as in Wong Prachan Valley (central Thailand) where 50,000 copper ingots were found from the first millennium BCE permitting a massive local bronze industry.


Second age: Heger III drum’s family in Thailand

It can be remembered that Heger III “younger” drums (see Myanmar and Laos chapters) are characterized by a less-bulbous cylinder, a protruding lip of the tympanum, one to four (coupling) frogs around the periphery of the top, with flora or fauna often sculpted in-relief descending the base. In Thailand nowadays they are only played in official ceremonies no longer using the classical Karenni techniques with suspended ropes but with the help of a kind of table. In fact, the body of the drum is fitted into a four-legged vertical wooden frame, also more adequate for transportation, and played with heavily padded sticks which are used to produce tones by striking the tympanum at the centre, sometimes by moving another stick quickly at mid-way to the periphery then back to the centre for additional sounds, not excluding the cylinder’s percussion with small bamboos from the other hand.

As reported by a scholar, more than twenty six Heger III drums existed recently in the Royal Palace in Bangkok and were played periodically during the stay of Queen and King Rama.Some were given to Buddhist temples before WW2 as did Rama IV in Bangkok to Wat Bovornivet and Wat Phra Keo, pursuing a long tradition. Thai people give importance both to original oldest production from Burma and to modern copies presenting no archaeological interest. The last ones can be bought by any hotel or shop for pure decoration; at times Thais use them as part of their domestic altar for ancestors, not to be played anymore but to receive food or candles for the deceased.


An example of Karen drum in Chiang Mai museum

The description of this drum resembles the ones related in Myanmar or Laos chapters and so are all Heger III type encountered in Thailand but coming originally from the Shan production for Karenni in Burma. (D48 / H39 cm) (Figs. 94 and bis)

The tympanum was decorated with an eight rays star with peacock tail patterns between each ray; these decorations were surrounded with dotted lines, circles, comb- lines and/or chain patterns; three main ranks included fish and small birds flying anti-clockwise, with petal flowers; four high relief frog images were featured on the edge.

The cylinder was decorated with many parallel lines with peacock tails, chain or combined patterns. On the side of the drum, one vertical high relief elephant and two shell figurines were attached under the pairs of handle.

All in all, an archetype of Karenni bronze drum and its large cosmology, probably pertaining to the first generations (with only 4x1 frogs) produced during the second millenary CE in Burma.

Fig. 13. Karenni Classical Heger III drum (Chiang Mai museum D48/H39 cm)

Modern Karen drums in Bangkok National Museum

Fig. 14. Modern Karen drum (D60/H50cm) with cervid horns in Bangkok N M
Fig. 14. Modern Karen drum (D60/H50cm) with cervid horns in Bangkok N M

Heger III drums presented here are never very old, and for several may be copies casted during the 20th century either in Mandalay (Burma) or in Chiang Mai (Thailand).

The great interest of such modern items in a famous museum is to demonstrate the recurrent sympathy of the Thais for bronze drums and to contemplate the fascinating way they are shown to the visitors (room 407).

Looking magnificently new and lacquered with gold lines; the biggest drum with twelve rays central star on the tympan and three elephants going down the body, the biggest drum is surrounded by two magnificent actual animal horns, animist references indeed.

By so doing the Museum is building a bridge spanning the centuries, showing the probable origins of the bronze drums, terrestrial instruments also invented to dialogue with the spirits and with the other worlds generally speaking. Looking at the visitors, often very young and coming with their schools, these cleaned items that they can touch are certainly the best way to interest and instruct them. (Fig. 14) By contrast, the magnificent but sometimes damaged oldest bronze drums of the Museum (room 302- Fig. 1) do not captivate their attention.


Royal gift from Mongkut (Rama IV) to the French Emperor Napoleon III

Now in the National Museum of Fontainebleau (France–near Paris), a bronze drum and its paddle stick were part of the gifts presented to France by a Thai embassy senior official in 1861, and simultaneously to the British Queen Victoria in London and to the President of the United States Abraham Lincoln. The three lists of governmental gifts were in principle the same and incidentally a demonstration of the active Thai diplomacy in front of the leading World Nations of those times. Heger III typed, may be originals from Burma or local copies amazingly received as typically Thai, these bronze drums remain significant as it is proved once again how symbolic and important they have ever been for the still reigning Chakri dynasty.


A Few Parting Thoughts

It appears that the bronze drums story in Thailand is not unique:

  • on one side, the Nation, both at the levels of Royalty and people, paid first attention to the second age of bronze drums (Heger III) invented and produced until recently in Burma, before to be copied elsewhere.
  • Inversely the existence of a first drum’s age, two millenaries ago, was quite forgotten until now before the growing discoveries of unearthed antique pieces as almost everywhere in Indochina. In early times, they were first bought abroad in the northern Red River Valley or Guangxi but a local production must not be excluded considering the many tools moulded in bronze around the central Khorat Plateau—all ores being available—and why not with the help of foreign craftsmen in times of great movements of goods and people.

Note: If we remember how recent are the present (colonial) frontiers of the different countries within Indochina, the results of this quick survey of bronze drums in Thailand must be considered in a larger perspective: all the hypothesis we made above may be extended to a large antique drums’ culture in Southeast Asia which begins to emerge.

At least, considering so many similar old drums in southern Malaysia and beyond, no doubt that antique Siam was a crucial bridge from Red River Valley to Archipelagos, from MSEA to ISEA.


Annex to Thailand

A kind interview of Hon. Abbot (Buddha) Phrakhrupalad Phloen Sondi

a. Venerable Abbot in his official armchair to receive and bless the devotees in the Hall
a. Venerable Abbot in his official armchair to receive and bless the devotees in the Hall

Wat Lad Cam shows among others twenty eight big golden Buddha statues outside and seven huge Buddha covered with satang coins inside the great Hall containing also archeological pieces: of which two bronze drums from Ongbah (caves at 100 km) found by its Reverend Abbot now aged 62. (a)

How did you discover these two antique drums in Ongbah?

“About ten years ago I had the opportunity to meet a group of local people researching buried pieces in Ongbah caves and around. At about one meter depth they found dictinctly two drums and a lot of other pieces like a bronze small bell (b) and few bones, a cemetery place indeed. The local team was convinced to better protect the drums inside Wat Lad Cam.” (Fig. 6)


b. Bronze small bell (D10 cm) found near a drum in Ongbah grounds
b. Bronze small bell (D10 cm) found near a drum in Ongbah grounds

Among the findings was a skull now put inside one drum, was it the case originally?

“The skull was with other bones or objects scattered in the earth but not surely put inside a drum”

Why these dicoveries were not sent for a scientific examination at a national level?

“A lot of things already disappeared during other findings and it is the honour of Wat Lad Cam to protect them better. We want not to repeat the problems known for example during the Thai-Danish missions at the end of the late century (“robberies”).”

Do you think that other drums remain unearthed in Ongbah?

“Other findings have already been stolen and we were told that treasure hunters could remain active with more sophisticated tools in the cave(s) or nearby, for smuggling in Bangkok or abroad.”

How do you explain the large number of bronze drums found around Ongbah?

“No doubt that before the coming of new beliefs (i.e. Hinduism and Buddhism) at the beginning of CE animist people of Ongbah was very fond to use drums at least for funeral purposes as demonstrated, if not to organize their large distribution as supposed by many scholars, probably for both reasons.”

As Abbot how do you consider these drums as far as they correspond to animist beliefs?


“We must not mix the two aspects; bronze drums were part of antique cultures before the coming (from India) of Buddhism always open to any respectable thinking. Drums came probably from the north but we must convince the local people of their (precious) historical importance and stop any smuggling. As we try to do it in our small museum open to all visitors in our great Hall.”