Thanks to the taste and appreciation of the Dayaks, Kalimantan is home to a variety of the best antique Chinese stoneware jars.
Historical data shows that traders from the Chinese southern coast have been busy trading around the region, including to present day Myanmar, Thailand, the Philippines, Malaysia and Indonesia.
Antique and ancient ceramic enthusiast Boedi Mranata said trading activities with the Chinese had been going on since the turn of the second millennia and had since grown more intensive.
The stoneware jars – which are also known as martavan – were firstly used by the Chinese to transport liquid goods such as soy sauce and alcohol on trading ships to business destinations in Southeast Asian ports.
In Indonesia, ancient martavans can also be found in Aceh and Java, but the numbers, variations and quality are dwarfed by those found in Kalimantan.
Of all the places and the people the Chinese traded with, why were the best collections of jars only owned by the Dayak in Kalimantan?
“It’s apparently a matter of taste and preference. More than the goods traded, the Dayak were more fascinated by the containers they were brought in,” Boedi said.
From his research, Boedi found anecdotes that Dayaks would agree to trade with the Chinese, but then get rid of the soy sauce or alcohol and keep the jars.
“The Chinese traders later realized the jars were the better goods to trade. Catering to the demands of the Dayaks, better and better quality jars were brought by the Chinese for more profitable trade,” he said. “Later, some jar designs were customized for consumers, with an inclination toward tribal motifs.”
The Dayaks were apparently fascinated by the design and motifs of the jars and made their own interpretation of the jars, with some being considered very religious and sacred.
One type of jar, earth-colored with four handles connected by chrysanthemum leaf motifs and a smiling face on the vessel’s belly, was used by Dayak tribes to signify the end of wars between them.
The smiling face jars, made during the Ching Dynasty (1644-1911), were given to the victorious tribe as a token of peace and goodwill between the warring groups.
Another jar, also made during the Ching period, glossed green or white and displaying two dragons side by side, intertwining with six or more handles, would be put by a Dayak family in a visible spot, such as in front of their house or on the roof, to tell other Dayaks they had a daughter ready for marriage.
After successfully finding a husband for their daughter, the family would break off one of the handles. The number of broken handles would signify the number of married daughters in a family. For some families, more broken handles equaled more pride.
One jar from the same era, a gloss finished earth-color vessel with brown dripping from the top to the bottom of the body, was held in such importance by the Dayaks that they kept it covered under a cloth inside their barn and would only allow it to see daylight during important ceremonies.
The Dayaks perceived the downward motif on the jar as putussibau. They saw its varied length – some lines dripping further downward, while others stopped midway – as a representation of human lives: some managing to make meaningful lives before their end, while others failed half way there.
Chinese jars were massively produced during the Tang Dynasty (618-907) through the Ching era and later copied by craftsmen in Vietnam, Myanmar, Thailand and Indonesia until the modern era.
Together with Indonesian Ceramics Association vice chairman Handojo Susanto, Boedi is writing a book on the jars titled Ancient Martavan: A Great Forgotten Heritage.
Handojo said the book was originally planned to be completed in two or three years.
“However, it turned out that we needed 12 years to complete it. We did not expect it would be really hard work and time consuming to prepare and research this book, in which we expect to offer comprehensive data and information on martavans in Indonesia.”
Handojo said other Indonesians should be thankful to the Dayaks, who had managed to store, preserve and defend their jar collections – some types of which had not been seen in China again – with their blood.
“It’s our task to know them, love them and preserve them for future generations,” he said.
— Photos by Andreas D. Arditya