Urns or Water Barrel


Urns Or Water Barrel

The Museum Of Asian Art has 10 tempayan (urn) or water barrels originating from Sabah and Sarawak. The designs and decorations on them bear Chinese influence with motifs of clouds and dragons. However, they have become synchronous with the identity of natives of both the states namely the Iban, Bidayuh, Kenyah, Dayak, Kayan, Kelabit, Murut, Kadazan, Punan etc.

Among the common inheritance are the dark brown water barrels with motifs of dragons carved on the surface, medium sized and built with a cover. Some even have designs of human heads and hands while others are built with heads of lions or dragons with holes in the nostrils and parts of the body which are used for tying the covers to the barrels. These barrels are between 0.4 m and 1.5 m in height.

It is believed that the blue or green barrels were taller and "slimmer" in design compared to the dark brown ones and were made by Chinese immigrants living in the Singkawang district of Kalimantan. Historical records revealed that the barrels inherited by the local natives were made in the 16th century. It was brought along by the Chinese traders who used them as food containers and as weights to balance their junks while at sea.

Apart from being used as containers for the concoction of medicinal herbs, the barrels became part of the traditional medication itself. A long time ago, the Melanaus were said to have added fine broken pieces of these barrels into their herbal concoction because they believed that the broken pieces of the barrels had the ability to increase their catch when they went fishing.

To the Muruts and a few other native tribes, these barrels are also important during birth, as gifts for weddings and also as accompaniments for the after-world. During the Gawai celebration these barrels are used to keep fermented rice and fermented drinks. There was a time, Muruts were said to have used these barrels as the second grave for the dead. Corpses were first left to decompose in the open or in a cave for a certain period of time. The bones were then collected, placed into these barrels and buried.

It also became the practice for the wealthy and rich Kadazans of Sabah to have their bodies put into a big barrel of this kind before being buried. In other places, corpses put into these barrels were kept in the home. This is related to the belief of sending the dead back into a place like the mother's womb. For the people who believe that these barrels are a provision for the after- world, their next of kin bury these barrels together with them when they die.

Among the Muruts, the dead are placed into bigger barrels called bengkalan after the body has been laid on the mattress for two days. The barrels are then closed tightly and a lamp is lit. Playing cards with holes pierced to symbolize the shape of a human face are then hung with a belief that this would hinder ghosts from coming to disturb the body.

In some places in Sabah, barrels of this kind are used as an aid to pray for rain. But before being used, it has to be "cleansed" with blood of a chicken or a boar to prevent the spread of disease.

Museum of Asian Art
University of Malaya,
50603 Kuala Lumpur.

Tel  : 603- 7967 3805 / 7967 3936 /

         7967 3849

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