Wednesday, February 16, 2005

Land of Sacred Jars III

Beginning at least by the 15th century, Lusung began trading its most sacred jars on the open market. I would submit this was no less than auctioning off the Amrita Kumbha or the Holy Grail. There were interested buyers and they were willing to pay great sums for these unassuming pots.

Jesuit Ludwig Froez wrote about the Philippine jar trade in 1595:

In the Philippines, jars called boioni which are esteemed low there but highly priced in Japan, for the delicious beverage Cie (Cha) is well preserved in them; hence what is counted as two crown by the Filipino; is much higher valued in Japan and is looked upon as the greatest wealth like a gem.

Hideyoshi the Taiko was said to have had a jar made for himself in Rusun (Lusung). He monopolized the commerce in Rusun pottery, seizing possessions from Japanese Christians returning from the Philippines and blocking any other trade of the items. When Carletti came to Japan from the Philippines in 1597, all passengers were searched for Rusun ware which the king wished to purchase.

The Tokiko, a Japanese historical text on early ceramic trade, mentions that Rusun pottery was already considered of the highest value more than a century before Hideyoshi's time.

Despite the pottery's high worth, Antonio de Morga, the governor of the Philippines, was far from impressed with its quality.

On this island, Luzon, particularly in the provinces of Manila, Pampánga, Pangasinán, and Ilócos, very ancient clay vessels of a dark brown color are found by the natives, of a sorry appearance; some of a middling size, and others smaller;
marked with characters and stamps. They are unable to say either when or where they obtained them; but they are no longer to be acquired, nor are they manufactured in the islands. The Japanese prize them highly, for they have found that the root of a herb which they call Tscha (tea), and which when drunk hot is considered as a great delicacy and of medicinal efficacy by the kings and lords in Japan, cannot be effectively preserved except in these vessels; which are so highly esteemed all over Japan that they form the most costly articles of their show-rooms and cabinets. Indeed, so highly do they value them that they overlay them externally with fine gold embossed with great skill, and enclose them in cases of brocade; and some of these vessels are valued at and fetch from two thousand tael to eleven reals. The natives of these islands purchase them from the Japanese at very high rates, and take much pains in the search for them on account of their value, though but few are now found on account of the eagerness with which they have been sought for.

Fedor Jagor and his associates traveling through the Philippines in the 19th century relay a similar account taken from Carletti:

In 1615 Carletti met with a Franciscan who was sent as ambassador from Japan to Rome, who assured him that he had seen one hundred and thirty thousand scudi paid by the King of Japan for such a vessel; and his companions confirmed the statement. Carletti also alleges, as the reason for the high price, "that the leaf cia or tea, the quality of which improves with age, is preserved better in those vessels than in all others. The Japanese besides know these vessels by certain characters and stamps. They are of great age and very rare, and come only from Cambodia, Siam, Cochin-China, the Philippines, and other neighboring islands. From their external appearance they would be estimated at three or four quatrini (two dreier).... It is perfectly true that the king and the princes of that kingdom possess a very large number of these vessels, and prize them as their most valuable treasure and above all other rarities .... and that they boast of their acquisitions, and from motives of vanity strive to outvie one another in the multitude of pretty vessels which they possess.

According to St. John writing in the 19th century, the Sultan of Brunei possessed a sacred "speaking jar." When asked if he would sell it for $100,000, he was said to have replied that he would not part with it for any sum of money. Likewise the Datu of Tamparuli was said to have paid $3,500 for one jar and to have had another of astronomical value. Here we find direct mention of the sacred and magical qualities of these high-priced pots. We should also note that Hideyoshi was known to have presented Rusun wares to temples throughout the country.

We will identify these precious pots in our next blog.

Paul Kekai Manansala


Jagor, Fedor, Comyn, Tomás de, Virchow, Rudolf Ludwig Karl, The former Philippines thru foreign eyes edited by Austin Craig, Manila: Philippine Education Co., 1916.