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IN THE COURSE OF A 30-MONTH STAY IN SARAWAK in the mid-19th century (ca 1844-1846), the famous botanist Hugh Low recorded the ritual uses of large ceramic jars of unknown origins by Indigenous Dayak peoples. He actually wrote the first full-length monograph describing the country under its first White Rajah, James Brooke 1.


Later, it was discovered that most of the ancient ceramic jars found in Borneo came from China or Southeast Asia, the so-called Martavans jars (a term coined from the name of a Burmese harbour town from where ceramics were shipped to Insular Southeast Asia). Actually, it was under the Yuan (1279-1368) and Ming Dynasty (1368-1644) in China that huge numbers of large Dragon jars were produced in Eastern and Southern China kilns for export to Southeast Asia (Philippines, Champa, Borneo, the Malay Peninsula, Indonesia…). The same trends continued with much activity under the new Qing Dynasty. Because of its favourable geographical position on the South China Sea, Sarawak (and Brunei) has probably the largest amount of Chinese ceramics found in Borneo.

In Borneo, large stoneware Chinese jars would be bartered in the coastal settlements against forest produce (resins, camphor, gaharu fragrant wood… including luxury items: rhinoceros ivory, helmeted hornbills skulls…). Later, local Malay and Chinese traders would also peddle them upriver alongside other ceramics (plates, bowls, guci containers of various sizes…). Indigenous Dayak peoples when visiting trading posts and bazars would take a fancy to the dragons jars because of their impressive appearance and the refined dragon patterns whirling all around them. The glaze and bright colours of the jars - ivory, beige, blue, light or deep brown, green or a combination of various colours - produced a striking aesthetic experience.


1 Sarawak. Its Inhabitants and Productions. Being Notes in That Country with His Excellence Mr. Brooke. London 1848; compare Lucas Chin, Ceramics in the Sarawak Museum.  Kuching,1988. 

 1. Small brown glazed ovoid jar with six loop handles from an aristocractic household, it shows a two rattan strings pattern (upper section) and a "singing dragon" below. Long Lunuk, Upper Mahakam, East Kalimantan, Indonesia.

2. Tall polychrone light grey glazed jar with six loop handles showing a singing dragon pattern. Kuching, Sarawak (Bong’s Gallery).

3. Tall polychrone browish glazed jar with huge dragons chasing the flaming pearl spread between two rattan strings. Pasir area of East Kalimantan.


The indigenous Dayak peoples, such as the Iban, Bidayuh, the Orang Ulu and melanau (a-liko people) have attached numerous symbolic associations to the large ceramic jars that came to their longhouses and villages.

In the course of time, the indigenous Dayak peoples, such as the Iban, Bidayuh and the Orang Ulu and Melanau (A-Liko people) have attached numerous symbolic associations to the large ceramic jars that came to their longhouses and villages. Generally, they stand for wealth and prosperity. They are often represented in carvings on ritual posts or painted on murals in the longhouses. In short, the jar has become an iconic object in Dayak social life. Besides their aesthetic value and ritual role, the tempayan jars also had practical uses: they served to make and drink rice wine made from fermented plain or glutinous rice – named tuak or burak – drunk direct from the jar with a straw, or to store husked rice in the longhouse.


In such a way that the dragon jars became objects of a great value for the indigenous peoples living in the interior of Sarawak and Kalimantan.

Transported on men’s backs, they eventually reached the heart of central Borneo (upper Baram and Baluy Rivers, Usun Apo, Apo Kayan,

Bahau area, Kerayan-Kelabit Highlands…). The main ceremonial function of the dragon jars (tajo, tajau naga) for the wealthy people was

that of a prestigious burial urn in the context of the secondary treatment of the bones (nulang) practiced by many ethnic groups in central Borneo,

but noticeably not by the Kenyah and Kayan (although some components of this cultural group maybe have followed the practice in the past).

The Orang Ulu, especially the Kelabit and Lun Bawang, favoured the later more colourful and enamelled ceramics. Some individuals in ulu communities

have developed a keen knowledge of antiques jars, as well as more recent ones. They are the local experts.

4. Tall dark green glazed dragon jar with "ascending dragon" pattern, six handles loop. Early Qing Dinasty (17th Century) ;

5. Dark green ovoid shape glazed jar with "singing dragon" pattern and flat botttom. Six hoop handles. Probably Mid or late Qing Dynasty (18 th Century/19th Century).(4 & 5 Bong’s Gallery)

6. Tall polychrone green-grey glazed jar showing two rattan strings and coiled dragons in medaillons. East Kalimantan, Indonesia.

7. Tall ochre brownish rudak glazed jar with six loop handles in the shape of dragons facing upwards. Banjarmasin, South Kalimantan, Indonesia.


Then the jars became also a kind of ‘currency’ in connection to the marriage exchanges given as bride-price (brian) by the wife-takers’ group. They were used to pay the customary adat fines or to seal ritual alliances between communities. In the course of time, particular jars were even considered as having a ‘residing spirit’ (antu, to’) and the idea of a ‘haunted jar’ became part of the culture. Jars could be heard ‘moving’ during the night in the longhouse and people would even make offerings to them annually or on special occasions. Famous jars were given proper names and these were a prized part of the loot during war and headhunting times. The most valuable jars were also buried or stored in barns outside the longhouse to protect them from fires or thiefs.

While the old jars usually became family heirlooms (pesaka’/pusaka), some peculiar dragon jars were considered as ‘sacred heirlooms’ while others were just ‘ordinary jars’. The former could not be sold or exchanged and they were passed from one generation to the other because of the spiritual value they hold. Now some families still keep a large collection of antiques dragon jars and other Chinese ceramics in their longhouses’ apartments or separate houses. In the near future some of these rare items may become part of the public cultural heritage exhibited on a long-term loan to the Sarawak Museum or to other institutions in the State. While local jar collectors are still very active in pursuing their passion, there are still enough treasures to be found in Sarawak, or just across the border in the vast expanses of Kalimantan and Sabah.

Antonio J. Guerreiro initially trained in architecture and social and cultural anthropology and later moved on to museography. Since the 1980s he has published extensively on Malay/Indonesian ethnic cultures, specializing on Borneo. He is currently senior researcher at the Institut de Recherches sur l’ Asie (IrASIA, CNRS/Aix-Marseille Université). He is also the Secretary-General Society of Euroasiatic Studies at the Musée du Quai Branly, Paris.

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