Wednesday, Aug 17, 2022
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Where It Rains Umbrellas

A short drive from Thailand’s Chiang Mai, we meet a community that has been making paper umbrellas for over a century

Bo Sang
Bo Sang Shutterstock

Purple, pink, lime, blue, yellow, white, red, green. In every shade of every colour imaginable, umbrellas line the alleys of Bo Sang in Thailand’s Chiang Mai. In this village, approximately 10 kilometres from the city centre, women are hard at work, their nimble fingers working deftly on bamboo and strings to make the frames for paper umbrellas that are a cultural heritage of this region. 

Bo Sang
These parasols are made from mulberry pulp and bamboo Mallika Bhagat

How these umbrellas came to be an integral part of Lanna culture in Chiang Mai is an interesting legend. A Buddhist monk, Phra Inthaa, is said to have brought back the skills to make these nifty umbrellas from Burma (now Myanmar). Realising how people back in his village had access to all resources needed to make parasols, he imparted the necessary skills to them. These skills have navigated generations, and fought imposing modernisation to survive and thrive here. Over the years, Bo Sang has been commercialised and turned into a hub for artists to display and sell their craft.

On a walk around the Bo Sang Umbrella Making Centre, we see a production line working as it has for a 100 years now; the first task at hand is making the paper. Called Sa, the paper for the sail of the umbrella is made from mulberry pulp. After cutting and boiling the pulp, it is beaten, mixed with solvents and then dried in the sun on a sieve. Once dry, the paper can be put on a bamboo frame and tied with strings. You’d imagine these umbrellas to be a mere artefact, with little practical use. However, Bo Sang umbrellas are painted over with oil polish, making them effective even outside the precincts of the centre even when it rains.

Bo Sang
The skeletal structure for the Lanna umbrella is made from bamboo sticks Shutterstock

It is interesting to note how almost the entire production line is run by women, young and old, all working simultaneously on different parts of the handicraft, a well-oiled machine refined over decades. A walk along the corridor of the centre reveals a woman cutting and chiselling bamboo pieces into required sizes before bundling them up. Another group of artists sits in one corner, attaching the Sa paper to the bamboo skeleton; after a brief moment in the sun, the paper parasol is ready to be doused in colour. 

Bo Sang
Women at the assembly line attach the Sa paper to the bamboo structure Mallika Bhagat

Everywhere my eye darts, there are hundreds of umbrellas; many hang from the ceiling inside a souvenir shop, where visitors can purchase them in all shapes and sizes - from handheld umbrellas, beach umbrellas to the ones that have an entire landscape adorning their frail shape. The centre too has diversified its offerings, selling small parasol magnets, hand fans and more, made from sa paper and bamboo. A kind artist also offers to paint my phone corner, and turns it into a delightful canvas before I can spell Bo Sang. But my eyes were set on blank canvases that lay on one shelf inside the building; they were plain parasols, waiting to be painted over. 

We purchased a few colourful umbrellas and acrylic paints, making our way to the table at the entrance of the centre, apparently reserved for the artistically aligned. I tried not to be fooled by the ease with which a young woman was making strong strokes on the umbrella; I knew I couldn’t paint and needed to have realistic expectations of what art I could produce. From flowers to religious symbols and Harry Potter names (this was me), we spent a good part of an hour struggling with colours, only to realise how intricate the craft truly was and how ambitious a project we had undertaken.

Bo Sang
Each parasol is painted with different designs and colours Shutterstock

 Not just practical in a tropical country like Thailand, these colourful handicrafts are an integral part of Chiang Mai’s history and culture. Across various countries in Asia, parasols are not just shields against the sun; they are symbols of prosperity and royalty. Small umbrellas are also used as good luck charms, and for protection against evil spirits. Bo Sang’s umbrellas are also sent to different parts of the world, adorning entrances, markets and temples. Hopefully, carrying their good luck with them.
 

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