Big-bellied jars and the people of Central Highlands

Jul 10th 2016.

Central Highland region is home to dozens of ethnic groups. They have a lot of cultural similarities and are close to each other, including the practice of using big-bellied jars, a type of ceramic materials that plays an important role in their lives.

When we visit the Central Highland tribes, and step up their stilt houses, the objects that we first see are the big-bellied jars, which are lined up in order of large, small objects, right close to the front wall of the house, as if the owner wanted to show guests the family’s socio- economic position.
Central Highland jars have got many names and each ethnic race has its own name for jars: The Mạ ( Đrắp and Jăng), K’ho (Yàng), Ê- Đê (Cheh), M’Nông (Jăng),.. Additionally, there are other names based on the décor characteristics or by the sizes of the jars, for instance, Ê- Đê people name the jar having the turtle ears Tang Krua (Krua means turtle), and the jars having the monkey head Ako kra (kra means monkey). The K’ho call the large jar Yàng, medium – sized jar Jro and small jar Gri …

Big-bellied jars

Big-bellied jars

Every ethnic group has different preferences for jar types: The Mạ like popular types of jars with engraved patterns of waves or leaf veins, and dark brown glaze. Unlike the Mạ, M’Nông people usually prefer the type of jar having low, round shape, black glaze and shiny body. The Ê- Đê have a preference for the type of jar having white, blue glaze with tall & large posture … In addition, the “Mother cradling babies” jar (1-4 small jars attached to the jar’s shoulder) is also a specially rare one, and are particularly liked by the Central Highland people. Rare and precious jars may sometimes be bartered for 30 – 40 buffaloes or an elephant.
The value of jar, in addition to the color of the glaze and the numbers of ears on the jar body, also depends on people’s belief in whether the jar is blessed by gods, since it has been used several times in the rituals relevant to crops, good health and the owner’s good luck.Or in their dream, people often see God recommending them to buy a “sacred” jar, or a certain jar should not be used and conceded to other people. Therefore, the value of jar also depends on the seller and the buyer. In some cases, buyers pay for 30 buffaloes, but the owner declines the offer and chooses to concede to another person at a much lower price.

The journeys to look for jars

Central highland people do not produce jars.The types of high-value jars mainly originate from China, Japan, Thailand … They indirectly exchange through neighboring ethnic people, especially Chăm people, for their language is rather close to that of the Central highland communities.
Village chief Ka Điểu Măng, of the Mạ origin living in Băng tribe said;” In order to have a precious jar, you do not only have buffalo, deer’s horns, elephant tusks, panther’s skin, honey or blankets, beautiful sarong to barter but you have to go to Chăm community which is very far. People must walk along small paths in the jungle, noticing the smooth surface of the tree bark, then find the place where Chăm people are living. . .”. Every time they go to barter for jars, they must gather about 15-20 people, each carrying crossbows, javelins to fight against beasts. Sometimes on their way they meet groups of traders from other tribes in Daklak, carrying elephants to barter, our group gathers to their group, with lots of people, up to 50 members…”.

Retuals relating to “Sacred” Jars

According to the concept of the Central Highlands, “sacred” jars are those jars in which Gods are living. Therefore, when carrying jars home, they don’t often take jars into the house immediately. The homeowner must celebrate rites to welcome gods home and “enter” the new jar. In ritual ceremony, sacrificial animal blood is applied to the jar’s mouth Choe. This practice is considered as having the presence of the god in the new jar. After that, the new jar is brought into the house and carefully placed in the most solemn position, only during important occasions are they takwn out for use.
In the Central Highlands, whether in the communal house or in private stilt houses, there is always a Pole (cây nêu) for the wine jar. This pole is usually about 1 meter high from the floor, but in the communal house, it soars up to the roof, the decoration on the Pole depends on the particular traits of each tribe. When drinking wine, they always tie the jar firmly to the Pole to avoid breaking it (if the jar is broken they will receive rebukes from divine gods). Based on the experience of the elderlypeople: the older the jar is, the better the wine, for the inner part of the old jar is unglazed, thus making it easy for wine yeast to grip on and quickly ferment. Therefore they cherish old jars.

For the ethnic groups in the Central Highlands, jars are not just useful containers closely associated with the habit of drinking ethnic “Cần” wine, but also signs of accumulation of assets of the family, the measurement of wealth and power, the offerings in ritual ceremonies, the material objects as fines for those who violate customary laws of the community, the wedding presents for engagements and weddings, and the dowry given to children and the assets divided to decedents.

Nowadays, the jar is no longer a commodity barter as it was before, but it still occupies an important position in each family and communy of Central Highland ethnic groups. In any festival there must be the presence of ethnic “Cần” wine jars. Moreover, wine is now seen as one of Central Highland “specialty” drinks. Especially, at the cafes or the ancient villas, even in modern homes, … ancient jars are considered precious ornaments. For this reason, jars have contributed to the preservation, conservation and promotion of traditional cultural values of the Central Highlands region.

By Thanh Binh

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