The Dha: An Ancient Sword from Thailand
What’s in this article?
The Thai dha (or Thai daab) is a traditional Thai sword with a long and rich history. Made by blacksmiths using simple foundries with bamboo bellows, the dha has played an integral part in the history of sword-fighting in Thailand. Whilst the sword is no longer used by warriors on the battlefield, it is still used by Thai fighters in traditional martial arts today.
This article discusses the characteristics, uses, and brief history of this remarkable sword.
The length and weight of dha swords vary depending on the region. Measuring around 20 inches (50 cm) and weighing about 1.1 lbs (500 grams), the Thai dha is extremely light and suitable for Thai fighting styles which are quick and made up of complex movements.
The Thai dha has a long hilt and short, single-edged blade which curves slightly to resemble the Japanese katana. There is often either a decorative or maker’s mark on the base of the blade by the hilt.
The tip of the blade can come in the following forms:
- Sheep’s foot’ (spine curves down toward the edge)
The sword face (the area from the tip of the blade to about a third of the way down) is used for attack whereas the sword catch (lower part of the blade) is used for self-defense. The sharp edge of the blade is intended for cutting and chopping while the blunt edge is intended for blunt attacks. The blades are usually made out of materials like high carbon steel.
The scabbards of a Thai dha are usually made of two semicircular pieces of wood. These two halves are held together by bands that run the length of the blade. In more expensive and ornate examples, silver is used. However, a Thai dha that was designed to be used by warriors in battle used rattan, copper, or iron bands.
The end of the scabbard (in which the sword is inserted) is characteristically circular with a hole perfectly molded to the shape of the blade. In uncommon instances, the other end of the scabbard is often flat and pointed. This is not typical of European swords, but does have some similarities to Chinese scabbards.
The baldrick is also a characteristic element of the dha. Often made out of rope which is wrapped around the scabbard, it goes over the wearer’s head and sits on their shoulder. The rope is short, so that the sword sits right up underneath the wearer’s armpit.
The reasons for this design are unknown. However, having the sword sit so high up on the wearer’s body would have made it both easy and quick to reach and remove from the scabbard if needed.
Since the hilt is perfectly cylindrical, self-righting the blade edge during a fight is difficult. The hilt can be made out of a variety of materials ranging from light metals to wood (like teak).
Another characteristic of the dha is the lack of a guard. However, there are some cases where the ferrule flares slightly out towards the blade. The lack of a guard links to Thai fighting styles due to the lack of heavy armor in Southeast Asian warfare. This is attributed to the high humidity and temperatures which may have led warriors to fight in very little clothing.
Therefore, Thai warriors did not have to thrust into heavy armor with their swords and as a consequence, were not in danger of their hands slipping onto the blade.
This fighting style is also the reason why the Thai dha has a long hilt. The quick and complex movements which involved cutting and slashing rather than thrusting, meant that the sword needed to be counterbalanced.
Some historians have argued that the long hilt may also be designed this way to allow for two-handed sword fighting. However, experts in Southeastern martial arts tend to argue against this theory. Both the ferrule and the pommel of the dha are typically made of thin sheet metal, making them light. Note that not all dhas have pommels.
Where pommels are present, they can come in a variety of forms. They can be spherical, flattened cone shape, top-shaped, or lotus-shaped. Other times, the pommel is simply a cap on the end of the hilt. They can also come in decorative or symbolic forms. In some cases, the pommel was used as part of the weapon and could be used to stab or hit enemies.
How was the Dha used?
The dha is often used in conjunction with body weapons like warriors’ fists, feet, elbows and knees. Whilst some fighters chose to use two dhas at once, the most popular way was to use the dha alongside a weapon like a shield or staff for self-defense.
Both the design of the dha and the fact that it is very light imply that the sword was used for cutting and slashing, rather than for thrusting into heavy armor. In addition to this, their low point of rotation means that they are perfect for high-speed fighting techniques and complex movements.
Dhas were not used aggressively. Rather than clashing into their opponents’ weapons (as expected of an axe), warriors would use the power from the enemy’s blow to fuel counterattacks and to reposition the weapon.
The dha sword is also used heavily in the Thai martial art known as krabi krabong. Krabi krabong teaches its warriors to use a collection of weapons, often two at once (and alongside other Thai martial arts which do not involve weapons like muay thai).
The other weapons warriors are trained to use alongside the dha include pole weapons, daggers and shields.
A Brief History of the Dha
The exact origins of the Thai dha are difficult to discern because dhas have been broadly used across much of Southeast Asia throughout history. However, it is evident that the dha has been used in warfare in Thailand for centuries.
The development of the sword and its features may have come from a variety of influences including the Burmese, the Chinese, and simple Thai weapons like the rice truncheon (gab) or the weed scythe (gab gleeh). The latter two were early improvised weapons which resemble the dha and were used to fend off Chinese invaders in ancient Thailand.
The dha is thought to be as old as Angkor Wat (a temple founded in the 12th century) as murals on its walls show soldiers with the weapon. Some pictures show the sword being used by the royal guards in Hue, Vietnam (1910) as well as by the Kachin Rangers during the Second World War.
The dha remains a prominent symbol of Thai history and tradition today. Not only were they used by fierce warriors on the battlefields of ancient East Asia, but they were also used by the highly trained, agile students of krabi krabong.
There is no doubt that the dha sword has a rich history. With its intricate designs and curved blade, it is a rather impressive sword to behold.