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Sarawak’s ceramic jars

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The status and wealth of members of Sarawak’s indigenous tribes depended on how many ceramic jars they possessed, and you can still see impressive models in longhouses as well as in the Sarawak Museum. Ranging from tiny, elegantly detailed bowls to much larger vessels, over a metre in height, the jars were used for such purposes as storage, brewing rice wine and making payments – dowries and fines for adultery and divorce settlements. The most valuable jars were only used for ceremonies like the Gawai Kenyalang (the rite of passage for a mature man of means, involving the recitation of stories by the longhouse bard), or for funerary purposes. When a member of the Kelabit people died, the corpse was packed into a jar in a foetal position to await rebirth from the jar, its “womb”. The Berawan did the same, and as decomposition took place, the liquid from the body was drained through a bamboo pipe, leaving the individual’s bones or clothing to be placed in a canister and hoisted onto an ossuary above the riverbank. It’s said that the jars can also be used to foretell the future, and can summon spirits through the sounds they emit when struck.

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