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Images from The Beede Gallery

Saùng-gauk (Arched Harp), Burma (Myanmar), ca. 1960

Click on any image below to see an enlargement

NMM 2375.  Saùng-gauk, Burma (Myanmar), ca. 1960. This highly decorative arched harp, formerly associated with the Buddhist dynasties that ruled Burma for centuries, is the national instrument of Myanmar. Similar harps can be seen in Burmese iconography dating back to the 2nd century AD. Beede Fund, 1978.

NMM 2375. Saung-gauk, Burma (Myanmar), ca. 1960

Neck and Strings

Red cotton tuning cords and tassels, view 1 Red cotton tuning cords and tassels, view 2

Loose ends of strings

Side view 2 of saung-gauk, Burma (Myanmar), ca. 1960

The long, elegant neck of the Burmese arched harp is carved from the naturally curved root of the sha tree, which typically grows in this shape on a hillside. The NMM's harp has sixteen silk strings attached to the neck within hand-twisted, three-ply, red-cotton tuning cords. At the end of each cord is a tassel symbolizing a flower. Height: 30-7/16". Longest string length: 26-1/2". Shortest string length: 7-11/16".

Neck Collar

Side of neck

The NMM's arched harp is gilded with gold, the non-corroding metal that symbolizes life, light, immortality and truth in Buddhist philosophy. The spiraling rings on the collar may symbolize the Buddhist's eight-fold path to enlightenment.

Front Views, Flowers, and Bo-Tree Leaf

Front view of saung-gauk
Floral decoration made of mica on front of saung-gauk

Detail of front of saung-gauk

Bo-leaf on front of neck

The harp's neck terminates in a highly decorated representation of Bo-tree leaf (Buddha is said to have received enlightenment underneath the bodhi tree). The harp's body and stand are decorated with pieces of mica ("Mandalay pearls"), glass, gilt, and red-and-black paint. Five styles of flowers are represented on both the harp and its stand. Each of the large flowers has twelve inner petals—a number specifically associated with the lotus flower—surrounding a red-glass center. According to one tradition, during the third week of enlightenment, lotuses grew out of the Buddha's footprints while he paced.

Resonator and "Cobra Hood"

Side view of saung-gauk
Detail of decoration on side

Detail of decoration on side

Floral design

Another floral design

The Burmese describe the arched harp's resonator as a bowl or a house. During the construction of a Burmese arched harp, a ceremony may be conducted to invite nat spirits to dwell within the harp, to "enliven its tunes." These spirits are believed to leave the harp through the soundholes while it is being played and return afterward. The loop at the end of the body is said by some to resemble the shape of a traditional court hairpin and, by others, a cobra hood. Some players grip this loop with their knees while tuning and playing the instrument.

Top View of Resonator


Decoration on top of soundboard

The resonator (covered with deer skin) is penetrated by the neck or string bar (decorated at both ends with stylized Bo-tree leaves). The string bar is acoustically the most important part of the arched harp since it transmits the vibrations of the strings to the resonating membrane. The top of the arch in the string bar produces a lump in the membrane that is symbolically referred to as the monkey head (the lump symbolizes the monkey's nose). Widest portion of resonator: 6-1/2".

Front and Side Views of Stand

End view of stand Side view of stand

The Burmese arched harp is placed on an elevated stand when it is not being played.


"Gallery IV Opens November 16!" The Shrine to Music Museum, Inc. Newsletter, Vol. 6, No. 1 (October 1978), p. 1.

Thomas E. Cross, Instruments of Burma, India, Nepal, Thailand and Tibet, The Shrine to Music Museum Catalog of the Collections, Vol. II, André P. Larson, editor (Vermillion: The Shrine to Music Museum, 1982), p. 3.

Thomas E. Cross, Instruments of Burma, India, Nepal, Thailand and Tibet, M.M. Thesis, University of South Dakota, May 1983, p. 56, plate XXII.

Linda Simonson, "A Burmese Arched Harp (Saung-gauk) and its Pervasive Buddhist Symbolism," Journal of the American Musical Instrument Society, Vol. 13 (1987), p. 39-64.

André P. Larson, The National Music Museum: A Pictorial Souvenir (Vermillion: National Music Museum, 1988), p. 28.

Ido Abravaya, "Musical Instruments," Music at First Sight II (Raanana:  Open University of Israel, 2006), cover.

"Wall Street Journal Focuses Attention on Music Museum," Arts Alive South Dakota, Vol. 10, Issue 2 (Winter 2008), p. 7.

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