Kathasaritsagara (the Ocean of Story)

by Somadeva | 1924 | 1,023,469 words | ISBN-13: 9789350501351

This is the English translation of the Kathasaritsagara written by Somadeva around 1070. The principle story line revolves around prince Naravāhanadatta and his quest to become the emperor of the Vidhyādharas (‘celestial beings’). The work is one of the adoptations of the now lost Bṛhatkathā, a great Indian epic tale said to have been composed by ...

Appendix 2.2 - Umbrellas

Owing to the great antiquity and significance of the umbrella, and to the fact that there appears to be no recent comprehensive work on the subject, I shall give here a few notes on its history and Western migration.

In the first place the etymology of the word is interesting. Our English word umbrella is, of course, a misnomer, for being derived from the Italian diminutive ombrella (Latin umbra) it means “little shade,” and has no reference whatever to rain. It is curious that we do not use a correct self-explanatory word, like the French parapluie, the German Regenschirm, and the Spanish paraguas, etc.

Turning to classical references we find the word umbraculum, meaning “a sunshade,” used by Ovid (Fasti, ii, 311; Ars Amat., ii, 209-210); Martial (xiv, 28); Tibullus (ii, 5, 97); and Ammianus Marcellinus (xxviii, 4); while the word umbella occurs in the same sense in Martial (xi, 73-76) and Juvenal (ix, 50). The Greek equivalent σκιάδειον occurs in Arrian (Indica, xvi), where he states that the umbrella is used by all Indians of consideration; and Athenæus (ii, 31). It is also found represented on numerous ancient Greek vase-paintings. The word parasol appears to be of much later origin. It is mentioned in the Petrarchian vocabulary (fourteenth century) as the equivalent of saioual (from the Persian sāyāban or sāiwān, “an umbrella”). The word is now only used to denote the fragile and elegant variety of sunshade used by ladies.

It is impossible to say with any certainty where the umbrella originated, but evidence seems to point to the Mesopotamian region as its home. It was the emblem of royalty in both Babylon and Assyria, as can be seen from the marvellous reliefs in the British Museum, excavated by Sir Henry Layard. The Nimrūd Gallery contains sculptures from Calah, and some of the reliefs show Assur-nasir-pal in his chariot or on his throne with the royal umbrella held over him. Similar reliefs will be found in the Nineveh Gallery.

The ancient Egyptian kings used the umbrella in exactly the same manner as the Assyrians. It appears from a Theban painting reproduced in Wilkinson’s Manners and Customs of the Ancient Egyptians (vol. i, 1878, p. 235) that the honour also extended to members of the royal family. In this particular case it is an Ethiopian princess, and the umbrella, composed of lotus leaves, is fixed into the chariot on the left-hand side.

The use of the umbrella as a symbol of power and sovereignty appears to have existed in all parts of Asia from a very early date. In the Far East the centre of the practice was undoubtedly China, and bas-reliefs dating back to the eleventh century b.c. have been found depicting its use. In Dr Bushell’s Chinese Art, vol. i, 1905 (H.M. Stationery Office), Figs. 1 and 5 show such bas-reliefs of the Han Dynasty. The latter represents an umbrella being held over the head of King Ch’êng of the Chou Dynasty (see op. cit., p. 18). Elaborate examples, such as those in the bas-reliefs, were used only by the sovereign and those to whom the honour was specially granted. The usual variety was made of varnished paper on split bamboo. Large quantities of these were, and still are, exported to Siṅgapore, whence they find their way through Java, Sumatra and Malaya to the coastal towns of Burma.

It is, however, chiefly to Burma, where the etiquette has remained unchanged, that we look for the full significance of the umbrella. As in ancient India, so also in Burma the colour of the royal umbrella (tibyu) was white. It was about twelve or fifteen feet high, with a diameter of nearly six feet. It was carried only over the king, and possibly his chief wife. It formed, moreover, one of the five articles of regalia, the others being the crown (makō), sceptre (thanlyet), sandal (chenin) and chowrie (thāmyi yat). The umbrellas have distinctive names attached to them, such as “the trembling,” “moon,” “golden,” “sun,” “lotus,” “uplifted” and so forth. When Superintendent at Port Blair, Sir Richard Temple managed to get drawings and carvings made of the complete regalia of the Burmese kings.[1] Nine white umbrellas mark the king, while the heir-apparent has eight golden ones, and a lesser number are allotted to other members of the royal family, the tributary chiefs and other high officials. If a king abdicated, he forfeited the right of the regalia. An exception to this rule, however, occurred in the case of King Kunzaw of the eleventh century, who abdicated on religious grounds. He was allowed to continue the use of the royal symbol, and also of the title Tibyuzaung (“wearer of the white umbrella”), which is attached to all Burmese kings.[2] The lesser officials have red umbrellas, though in some cases leave was given to cover the outside with coloured silks or satins, usually pink or green. Fringes were considered an additional honour. The inside was nearly always black.

The common umbrellas in general use were made of native parchment-like paper glued to spokes of split bamboo and coated with black varnish. Priests were allowed a yellow varnish, giving a diaphanous appearance.[3]

A favourite trick of King Noung daw Gyee was to continually issue new edicts as to the length of umbrella handles allowed, with the result that district officials made small fortunes by fines.[4]

As can be expected, the umbrella had also a religious significance, and we find images of Gautama crowned with this symbol of sovereignty. In Buddhist architecture the “Wheel of Light,” symbolising the Buddha, is overshadowed by an umbrella, and every Burmese pagoda is surmounted by a htee, htī or ti, which are really metal (and occasionally stone) umbrellas with bells and other decorations attached.[5] The significance of the ti is shown by an incident connected with the history of the famous Shwë Dagōn pagoda at Rangoon. When, in 1768, it reached its present height of 321 feet from the platform, it was crowned with a ti by the Môn kings of Pegu. This was destroyed by an earthquake in 1768, and five years later King Sinbyushin replaced it by one of true Burmese shape, and the event symbolised the complete Burmanising of the Môn country and celebrated the recent successes against Siam, China and Manipur.[6]

Passing to India we find similar evidence of the great importance attached to the umbrella. It appears in ancient rock sculptures and enters into Hindu iconography. In the Bharhut tope there is a carving of a casket containing relics guarded by a seven-headed Nāga, and over it is an umbrella of state. At Sāñci we find sculptured representations of two and even three such symbols placed one above the other over temples, the double and triple canopies of which appear to be fixed to the same handle or staff, as in the modern state umbrellas of China and Burma. Thus we have a primary idea of the accumulated honour of stone or metal discs which subsequently became such a prominent feature of Buddhist architecture, culminating in the many-storied pagodas of China and Japan.[7]

It will be remembered that in our text in the Ocean of Story (p. 49) the colour of the umbrella is given as white, while on p. 55 it is described as “gleaming white like snow.”

In this connection it is of interest to quote a paragraph from Yule, Marco Polo, vol. i, p. 355:

“An Indian prince, in a Sanskrit inscription of the ninth century, boasts of having wrested from the King of Mārwār the two umbrellas pleasing to Pārvatī, and white as the summer moonbeams. Prithi Rāj, the last Hindu king of Delhi, is depicted by the poet Chand as shaded by a white umbrella on a golden staff.”

This was also the colour in the Jātakas. In the Rās Mālā, however, Forbes[8] describes an image of Wun Rāj (Vanarāja) in which the king is covered by a scarlet umbrella.

The question naturally arises as to why the umbrella had such a universal importance throughout the East. Several suggestions have been put forward, some of which seem quite feasible. In the first place it was thought to symbolise the firmament owing to its shape, and in support of this view Russell (op. cit., pp. 450-451) states that

“when one of the early Indian monarchs made extensive conquests, the annexed territories were described as being brought under his umbrella; of the King Harṣa-Vardhana (a.d. 606-648) it is recorded that he prosecuted a methodical scheme of conquest with the deliberate object of bringing all India under one umbrella— that is, of constituting it into one state. This phrase seems to support the idea that the umbrella symbolised the firmament. Similarly, when Viśvāmitra sent beautiful maidens to tempt the good King Hariscandra, he instructed them to try and induce the king to marry them, and if he would not do this, to ask him for the Puchukra Undi or State Umbrella, which was the emblem of the king’s protecting power over his kingdom, with the idea that that power would be destroyed by its loss. Chhatrapati or Lord of the Umbrella was the proudest title of an Indian king. When Śivaji was enthroned in 1674 he proclaimed himself as Pinnacle of the Kṣatriya race and Lord of the Royal Umbrella. All these instances seem to indicate that some powerful significance, such as that already suggested, attached to the umbrella. Several tribes, as the Gonds and Mundas, have a legend that their earliest king was born of poor parents, and that one day his mother, having left the child under some tree while she went to her work, returned to find a cobra spreading its hood over him. The future royal destiny of the boy was thus predicted.”

Another suggestion as to the original significance of the umbrella is that it was used to protect the eyes of the sovereign from the people—his glance being considered magical and harmful. This, however, seems more unlikely than the opposite—namely, that the sacred person of his Majesty should be protected from the common gaze of the populace; but both ideas lose their value when we remember the use of the symbol on temples and the fact that the umbrella is always represented as held vertically over the king’s head, thus protecting it from the powerful rays of a tropical sun. It seems, however, quite possible that, apart from the actual harm it might do, the sun should never be allowed to shine direct on the sacred person of the king. This idea is strengthened by the fact that at the most important period of a Brāhman’s life he had to keep the sun from shining on his head. Thus we read in the Gṛhya Sūtras[9] that on the day when a Brāhman student of the Veda took a bath to signify that the time of his studentship was at an end, he entered a cow-shed before sunrise, hung over the door a skin with the hair outside, and sat there: on that day the sun should not shine upon him. Frazer[10] includes this under the various taboos of sacred persons in the section “Not to see the Sun,” and gives numerous examples where the sovereign (as in the case of the Mikado) was so sacred that the sun was not worthy to shine upon him.

The migration of the umbrella from East to West was slow and gradual. This is not to be wondered at when we remember the great size of the state umbrella, and the fact that as yet the folding variety was unknown. The costliness of such articles would also be a great disadvantage, besides being very hard to obtain. Mediæval accounts given by travellers are not very numerous. Marco Polo, in describing the Court of Kūblāi Kaan in 1292 says[11] that generals who have command of 100,000 men are awarded a tablet of gold according to their rank, etc., and that everyone, moreover, who holds a tablet of this exalted degree is entitled, whenever he goes abroad, to have a little yellow canopy, such as is called an umbrella (palieque in Pauthier, unum pallium in the Latin text), carried on a spear over his head in token of his high command.

In Europe the umbrella was not unknown at this time and Martino da Canale, a contemporary of Polo, states that in Venice

“when the Doge goes forth of his palace, ‘si vait après lui un damoiseau qui porte une umbrele de dras à or sur son chief,’ which umbrella had been given by ‘Monseigneur l’Apostoille’ There is a picture by Girolamo Gambarota, in the Sala del Gran Consiglio, at Venice, which represents the investiture of the Doge with the umbrella by Pope Alexander III, and Frederick Barbarossa (concerning which see Sanuto Junior, in Muratori, xxii, 512”).[12]

Ibn Baṭūṭa (ii, 440) tells us that in his time (c. 1332) parasols were in general use at Constantinople. It was also in the fourteenth century that the folding umbrella was first noticed. It is described by Marignolli as

“a thing like a little tent-roof on a cane handle, which they open out at will as a protection against sun or rain. This they call a chatyr; I brought one to Florence with me.”[13]

The next mention of a similar variety appears to be that given by Duarte Barbosa.[14] They are described as “made of finely worked silk with many golden tassels, and many precious stones and seed pearls.” In an interesting note Dames states that the next mention of umbrellas which open and shut is probably that in a passage in the Decadas of Joäo de Barros (III, x, 9, f, 264, ed. of 1563). It speaks of events which occurred at Cananor in 1526. The first part of the passage is quoted in Hobson Jobson (ed. 1903, p. 851), but the description itself is omitted. It is as follows:—

“All this is mounted on a staff as an awning, as we have said, and the canes play up and down, shutting and opening to close it or spread it out. And when they would put up the great crown which gives the shade, they insert into that staff (piam) a very light wooden shaft (aste) about fifteen palms in length, and then they run it by means of a socket (noete) working on the wooden staff, in order that it may be fully spread out when it arrives at the top of the staff. There they put a cross-piece of wood through the shaft, in which there is a hole, so that it remains fixed and does not fall down.”

Although umbrellas were used by the Anglo-Saxons,[15] as is shown in the Harleian MS. (603 in the British Museum), they do not reappear in England till the seventeenth century, and even then remained practically unknown until early in the following century, when it became the practice for coffeehouses to keep large umbrellas for use of their patrons[16] in very much the same way as they are used to-day by commissionaires of clubs and hotels. The custom, however, could not have been very familiar, for in 1752 Colonel Wolfe noticed their use in Paris and wondered why they had not been introduced into England.

Jonas Hanway (1712-1786) is stated to be the first man to habitually carry an umbrella. It is interesting to note that the Anglo-Indian term used for an umbrella in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries was “roundel,” a word of early English origin applied to a variety of circular objects, as a mat under a dish, a target, shield, etc.[17] The form “arundel” is also found.

The fact that the Anglo-Indians called the umbrella a roundel and regarded it as a symbol of sovereignty or nobility indicated that it was as yet little known in England. W. W. Skeat[18] points out that

“some kind of umbrella was, however, occasionally used by ladies at least as far back as 1709; and a fact not generally known is that from about the year 1717 onwards a ‘parish’ umbrella, resembling the more recent ‘family’ umbrella of the nineteenth century, was employed by the priest at open-air funerals, as the church accounts of many places testify.”

Murray’s New English Dictionary gives a long and interesting list of quotations under “Umbrella,” the earliest being as follows:—

“1611. ‘Many of them doe carry other fine things... which they commonly call in the Italian tongue ‘umbrellaes.’... These are made of leather something answerable to the form of a little caunopy and hooped in the inside with divers little wooden hoopes that extend the umbrella in a pretty large compass.’— Coryate, Crudities, iii.”

Among others may be mentioned two references from the writings of Swift:

“1704. ‘A large skin of Parchment... served him for a Night-cap when he went to bed, and for an Umbrello in rainy Weather.’—Tale of a Tub, ix.”

c. 1712. ‘The tuck’d up semstress walks with hasty strides
While streams run down her oil’d umbrella’s sides.’—A City Shower.”

Finally the following lines from Gay’s Trivia, Bk. I, give quite a good idea of the history of the umbrella:—

“1716. ‘Good housewives all the winter’s rage despise,
Defended by the riding hood’s disguise;
Or underneath the umbrella’s oily shade
Safe through the wet on clinking pattens tread.

Let Persian dames the umbrella’s ribs display
To guard their beauties from the sunny ray;
Or sweating slaves support the shady load
When Eastern monarchs show their state abroad;
Britain in winter only knows its aid
To guard from chilly showers the walking maid.’”

Very few early examples of English umbrellas appear to have been preserved, and the earliest specimens in the Victoria and Albert Museum date only from the first half of the nineteenth century. They belong to the class which have whalebone ribs, thick wooden sticks and large oiled silk covers. In time gingham (a kind of cotton cloth first made in Guiṅgamp[19] in Brittany, the yarn of which is dyed before it is woven) was substituted, and in 1848 William Sangster patented the use of alpaca as an umbrella covering.

The chief invention, however, was the “Paragon” rib, patented by Samuel Fox in 1852. It is formed of a thin strip of steel rolled into a trough section, thus combining lightness, strength and elasticity.

Huge umbrellas have always been in demand in native courts in all parts of Africa, and many are made in England for this purpose. Brewer (Dictionary of Phrase and Fable — “Umbrella”) quotes a paragraph from The Graphic of 18th March 1894, p. 270:

“An umbrella is now being made in London for an African potentate which, when unfurled, will cover a space sufficient for twelve persons. The stick is... fifteen feet long.”

In 1874 the sacred umbrella of King Koffee Kalcalli of the Ashantees was captured and found its way to the South Kensington Museum. Many similar ones were to be seen at the Empire Exhibition, Wembley, in 1924.

In his famous Pilgrimage to El Medinah and Meccah, three vols., 1855-1856 (vol. iii, pp. 140-141) Burton describes the Sherif of Meccah as being “plainly dressed in white garments and a white muslin turban... and the only emblem of his dignity was the large green satin umbrella borne by an attendant on foot.” And in a note he adds:

“From India to Abyssinia the umbrella is the sign of royalty: the Arabs of Meccah and Senaa probably derived the custom from the Hindus.”

When visiting the Emir of Abyssinia at Harar,[20] Burton was received by his Highness under a red satin umbrella heavily fringed.

Apart from the references already given, the following may be consulted:—

O. Uzanne, UOmbrelle, Paris, 1883 (see the interesting copy in the Ashbee Collection, British Museum). It was translated into English as The Sunshade, the Glove, the Muff, London, 1883. References to the umbrella in the Rāmāyaṇa and Mahābhārata will be found on pp. 13-16. See also by the same author, Les Ornements de la Femme, “L’Ombrelle (Le Parasol—Le Parapluie),” Paris, 1892, pp. 131-195.

For further information see W. Sangster, Umbrellas and their History, 1855 (see also the 1871 edition by Cassell & Co., with illustrations by Bennett); “Pagodas, Aurioles and Umbrellas,” F. C. Gordon Cumming, The English Illustrated Magazine, 1887-1888, pp. 601-612, and 654-667; S. Baring-Gould, Strange Survivals, 1892, p. 129 et seq.; numerous short articles are referred to in Poole’s Index of Periodical Literature.

Footnotes and references:


See Ind.Ant., vol. xxxi, Nov. 1902, pp. 442-444-.


See R. Grant Brown, “The Pre-Buddhist Religion of the Burmese” Folk-Lore, June 1921, vol. xxxii, pp. 77-100. In his address to the Governor-General of India in 1855, the King of Burma styled himself “the monarch who reigns over the great umbrella-wearing chiefs of the Eastern countries.”


See J. Nisbet, Burma under British Rule and Before, 1901, p. 204.


See Shway Yoe (Sir George Scott), The Burman, his Life and Notions, 1896, p. 406.


For details of the ti in Burmese architecture reference should be made to J. Fergusson, J. Burgess and R. Phené Spiers’ History of Indian and Eastern Architecture, 2 vols., 1910 , vol.i, p. 70, and Sir George Scott’s article, “Burma and Assam (Buddhism in),” Hastings’ Ency. Rel. Eth., vol. iii, pp. 42, 43.


See Nisbet, op. cit., vol. ii, p. 385. The subsequent history of the ti is to be found in Captain C. J. F. S. Forbes’ British Burma and its People, 1878, pp. 200-201.


See Journ. Indian Art and Industry, vol. xvi, April 1912, p. 3. It is quoted by Russell, Tribes and Castes of the Central Provinces, vol. ii, p. 449.


See the 1924 edition, with notes by H. J. Rawlinson. The umbrella is shown in vol. i, p. 40. See also note on p. 440.


Oldenberg, Sacred Books of the East, vol. xxx, pp. 165, 275.


Golden Bough, vol. x, pp. 18-21.


Yule, Marco Polo, vol. i, p. 351.


Idem, ibid., p. 354.


See Yule and Cordier, Cathay and the Way Thither, vol. iii, p. 2 56.


The Book of Duarte Barbosa, trans. by M. Longworth Dames, Hakluyt Society, 1921, vol. i, pp. 206-207.


See Fig. 23 in Mrs Ashdown’s British Costume, 1910.


The Tatler, No. 238, 17th October 1710.


See Yule, Hobson Jobson, under “Roundel,” also “Umbrella,” “Kittysol,” “Sombrero”; R. C. Temple, Ind. Ant., December 1904, p. 316; and Murray’s New English Dictionary under “Roundel.”


The Past at our Doors, 1911, pp..97, 98.


The New English Dictionary derives the word from the Malay ging-gang, meaning “ striped.”


First Footsteps in East Africa, 1856. p. 336.

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