Tale-telling earthenware

EVEN THE smallest antiques shops in the city are flooded with urns or old jars, which are sure to catch the curiosity of any antique lover. Their shapes, sizes and costs provide an eclectic display in the antique showrooms. Some appear rather marred while others appear to have successfully survived an epoch of events, all of which, however, carry a history with them. And thus, a curious look into the beginning of the jars transports us back to the time of the spice trade when Cochin (Kochi) played hub.

Legends proclaim that most of these urns or pots were filled with water and used as weights to balance the Portuguese ships that sailed to India, which were subsequently emptied to carry pepper and other spices back to Europe. All of the pots that came to Cochin originated from China and some were used to bring honey in exchange for the more exotic Indian commodities.

The story continues that they soon became popular amongst the natives of Cochin and were eventually brought to be sold at a price, so much so that the Maharaja towards the 19th Century started levying a tax on this product. In due course of time, the natives damaged many of the urns that came to Cochin in order to reduce the taxes levied.

In the beginning, urns were associated with the affluent and the rich, and even today, the largest of urns in Kochi may be seen at the Mattanchery Palace.

These urns were eventually improvised by local craftsmen with coir covering to prevent damages during the process of cleaning, while the loops near the mouth of certain urns were bound with leather to help lift them. Today more than three to four centuries later, Chinese urns continue to occupy a position in our homes, maybe not so much for storage purposes, but as an artefact to be adorned. "People look at it as art or an investment that has a good resale value," explains Sunny Malayil, an antique dealer . "When we first started buying these jars in 1989, it cost around Rs.150 for the small white glazed urns, now they can be purchased only at around Rs.1500 per piece, while the larger urns start at an average of Rs.4000.The urns that came to Kochi, so the story says, were of two main types. The smaller variety from Canton or Shanghai that has thick white glazing with blue motifs and the larger brown or black urns used to store dry ingredients like spices, came from Marthban in China. The Cantonese jars that carried ginger preserves had ceramic covers sealed with lacquer that were replaced with wooden ones once broken.

"Each of the motifs on the urns symbolises an event or an emotion, like happiness in marriage and so on and differed with the province from which it came", explains Malayil.

"The jars we have today in Kochi include both Chinese as well as Burmese ones. The Chinese jars are more expensive, ranging from Rs. 20, 000 to Rs. 30, 000 for a four feet urn. They have a thicker glazing, which is done in three steps and the glaze poured from the mouth of the jar. The glazing on the Burmese jars aren't thick and have a painted effect", he elaborates

Tale-telling earthenware

"These were produced much later, say around 1940 or so and were brought to India by the Burmese traders who used to take urns as security for money lent, the cost of which today may vary anywhere between Rs.10, 000 to Rs.12, 000. The truth is, this is a complicated field and I can show you 200 to 300 different types of jars of which 65 per cent have been collected from the Malabar and the Coramandel regions", he adds. Nevertheless, even so many years later, these jars continue to be a part of the Malayali lifestyle.

Grandmothers recall them as excellent storage devices for pickles, home made wines and the must for any Keralite home... . `Uppumanga', while others display them simply as priced possessions.

And so, it appears that the story of these priceless pieces would never cease, they continue to carry with it tales from one era to another, from one home to another... .


THE COLLECTION of these jars has been an ongoing procedure, where pieces have been unearthed from far and wide of which some are obtained broken or cracked.

Local craftsmen, over the years, have devised a procedure by which they are restored, the whole of which is painstakingly done by the deftness of their fingers... "We use M-seal to put back broken pieces back together and even to create missing parts, mainly because it is pliable and due to its strength, which we believe is as much as that of granite. Once the pieces are put together and the shape recreated, the new parts are levelled using a blade or a sharp instrument, which is then the smoothened using sand paper. The final procedure involves giving the hine and colour. For this, we use araldite mixed with colour powder in order to create the required effect."

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