The history of metal art in this region may be traced back as to far as the Neolithic Age, also known as Paleometallic Age, at around 600 BC. Discoveries made near ancient mausoleums of Loc vac in the district of Dong son, Vietnam indicated that the leaders were buried along with artifacts made of bronze.The knowledge of producing bronze and copper using the cire-perdue technique has contributed tremendously to the art of producing other metal paraphernalia.
In Malaysia, the tradition of manufacturing and trading of copper utensils began in Kelantan and Terengganu in the early 17th century. Tools made of bronze designed for daily use were cheaper than those made of gold or silver. Apart from kettles, trays and other utensils, ceremonial paraphernalia like tepak sirih or betel-leaf containers, cannons and musical instruments such as the gong were also created out of bronze.
Copper Utensils Collection Of The Museum Of Asian Art
For generations, copper was known to exist in three forms namely red, yellow and white copper. Red copper is used in making utensils for daily use such as cooking pots and containers to store water or grain. It is soft yet sturdy. The surfaces of utensils made of red copper are usually coarse due to the methods used in shaping them.
Yellow copper is usually used in making kettles and accessories for cultural ceremonies. White copper is more expensive, perhaps due to the process of creating it. Silver is added to enhance the finished product making it rust-free.
Historically, making copper utensils using the manual “pouring method” originated in Funan during the Dong-Son Age. When trouble broke out in their homeland, the Funan were believed to have fled to the Malay Archipelago taking along with them this art of copper crafting.
Copper crafting is actively practiced in Terengganu. Despite the introduction of modern machinery, the original technique is still maintained. Items made using this method are utensils such as the tepak sirih (betel leaves container), kaki lilin (candle stand), tempat bara (censer), and pahar (legged-tray).
Tepak Sirih (Betel Leaves Container)
Made of copper or silver, the betel leaves container or tepak sirih is one of the many unique Malay crafts which comes in many designs. Terengganu is well known for producing good quality tepak sirih made from copper. Until the late 70’s, almost all Malay homes especially in the rural areas had a tepak sirih. Culturally, a betel-leaf serving consists of three standard or main ingredients namely the betel leaves, the areca nut, tobacco and the kapur.
Being, portable, it is easily carried around while conveying a verbal invitation to a respected elder or head of community for a wedding or some traditional ceremony. In Perak, a wooden tepak sirih is usually wrapped in satin decorated with golden embroidery. This is often taken along for marriage proposal or the wedding ceremony itself.
Caping is an ancient metal ornament worn by young girl to cover their genitals. It is usually heart shaped or oval like the shape of the betel leaf and measures between 6.0 cm x 7.8 cm until 8.0 cm x 9.0 cm. Hooks or rings are attached to the top portion which is usually wider. A string is then pushed through them and tied around the waist. Caping wearing ceased to be practice among Malays since the early 20th century. It is likely that the present generation has neither seen nor heard of it. The Museum of Asian Art carries a collection of 12 caping originating from the east coast of the Malaysian Peninsular. Today, the caping is perceived as a unique object due to its small size and elaborated decorative workmanship. Some connoisseurs of silver art even choose to wear a caping as a locket with their necklace.
The Keris Picit was the earliest created weapon found in Vietnam dating back as early as 2,000 years ago and it is often quoted in folklore, the famous one being the tale of Princess Tatiban of East Java. According to Raffles, producing the keris picit was once a qualifying test of spiritual strength for the silat or the Malay martial arts student. A flattened piece of iron was given to the student to squeeze and mould using only his fingers to make the keris (thus explaining the fingerprint marks seen on some of these weapons).
The Museum of Asian Art collection of keris picit is not in anyways intended to highlight incomprehensible human feats, but more as a historical record of human skill of the Nusantara people.