Like many Goan homes, ours too had earthenware heirlooms scattered about the house. They were ovoid jars of varying size, and years of dust and grime and use had obscured their features. With the water shortages (remember the Opa crisis and the molasses scandal?), they assumed the role of reservoirs, and therefore found their place in our kitchen and bathrooms.

martaban jar

But like so much else that innocuously hides in plain sight in Goa, they had a story to tell, so here it is. Let’s start with their name. They are called Martaban jars, named after a port Mottama in Burma (modern-day Myanmar) where they were produced in bulk, but soon became a generic term for similar jars used along the spice trade route between East and West.

The demand of traders initially from the Indian subcontinent and the Arabian Gulf, and later the Europeans as well, for large jars in which to store water, oil, wine, spices and other commodities was met by the supply at Mottama/Martaban of Chinese, Sawankhalok (from the Sukhothai province, Thailand) and local jars so that the term ‘Martaban’ was used for a wide range of jars from many sources. The Burmese connection persists with similar jars still being manufactured, using the same processes, at Kyaukmyaung in upper Myanmar.

Following the Portuguese conquest of Malacca in 1511, a feitoria (‘factory’) was opened by them in Martaban in 1521. Joost Schouten (c. 1600-1644), diplomat, administrator and negotiator for the VOC (Vereenigde Oost-Indische Compagnie) or the Dutch East India Company, reported that “apart from foodstuffs, the Peguans [natives of Pegu, modern-day Bago in Myanmar] imported gold, rubies, musk, tin and Martaban jars into Malacca, which they exchanged for cloth, sandalwood, pepper, cloves, silks, porcelain and iron pans.” Garcia de Orta (1501-1568), pioneer of tropical medicine and ethnobotany, refers to “jarras martabaas” in his epic ‘Colóquio dos simples e drogas e cousas medicinais da Índia”.

Jan Huyghen van Linschoten (1563-1611), Dutch merchant, trader, historian and likely espionage agent who copied and later sold Portuguese maritime secrets to the Dutch and helped end the Portuguese rule of the Indian Ocean, also records the presence of these jars: “In this town, many of the great earthen pots are made, which in India are called Martavans, and many of them are carried throughout all of India, of all sorts both great and small; some [are so great that they] hold to full pipes [1 pipe= 2 hogshead= approximately 105 gallons] of water. The cause why so many are brought into India, is for that they use them in every house, and in their ships instead of cask. There are none in India but such as come out of Portingall [Portugal], therefore they use these pots to keep oil, wine and water and it is a good thing for a traveller.” He describes their use for the storage and transport of ‘Nype’ (Nipa arrack, a liquor distilled from the palm Nipa fruticans)

They find mention in the chronicles of French gem merchant and traveller Jean-Baptiste Tavernier (1605-1689) and navigator François Pyrard de Laval (1578-1623) as well. British merchant sailor Thomas Bowrey (d. 1719) in his diary wryly documents a bhang-intoxicated man running his head “into a great Mortavan jarre.”

Even before them, Duarte Barbosa (c. 1480- 1521) escrivão (scribe) at the Estado da Índia feitoria at Cannanore and brother-in-law of Ferdinand Magellan and like him quite the intrepid explorer, wrote: “In this town [Martaban] are made very large and beautiful porcelain vases, and some of glazed earthenwares of a black colour, which are highly valued among the Moors, and they export them as merchandise.”

And before them, medieval Moroccan traveller and scholar Ibn Batuta (1304-1369) described the use of ‘Martabans’ probably as far away as Tonkin, for holding preserved ginger, pepper, lemons and mangoes.

Going further back, a Sanskrit inscription (Kathāsaritsagara) from around the 11th century AD makes a reference to Kalasapura (“city of jars”), a coastal town of Suvarnadvipa, whose geographic location would roughly match that of Mottama. Archaeological findings from the Dvaravati period in Myanmar and the Bay of Bengal corroborate this.

In the literature, one also finds description of pots of different sizes. Among them one finds the ‘tumbay’, “a small rounded pot with a comparatively narrow neck.” It fits the description of our ‘tambyo’ perfectly. Could the Konkani word have come from here as well?

A range of kilns have been excavated around the Bay of Martaban. The potters seemed to have been Mon (ethnic group within Myanmar), and the jars were produced mainly in the dry season, using clay and sand (clay:sand ratio of 2:1) from the riverbanks and the coast and thrown on a potter’s wheel. They were left to dry in the shade for a couple of days, and then beaten into the desired shape using a mallet against a mold inside the vessel, and ornamented using figured and carved mallets before being set aside to be thoroughly dried. They were then fired in kilns and glazed. Glazing materials included a mixture of galena (the natural mineral form of lead sulphide) and rice water.

The colours can range from black or almost black, to brown, golden brown and olive-green. Often placed around the shoulder of the jars are loop handles or pierced masks through which a rope could be passed, to keep a lid or cover in place and seal it tight. They could also have been used to secure an outer protective covering of vegetable fibre such as coconut coir, which might have made them easier to lift and carry. The Linschoten engraving depicting a market scene in the city of Goa would seem to suggest this. Many heritage enthusiasts will be familiar with it; a print was exhibited at the recent Serendipity Arts festival at the Secretariat as well. At the extreme left of the illustration, two porters seem to be carrying just such a jar, in a protective coir casing, suspended from a pole balanced on their shoulders.

jan-huyghen-van-linschoten-goa-16th-c-architecture

Were the magnificent dragons and chimera monsters on the sides of the Martaban jars merely ornamental, or did they represent a ‘trade mark’ of a particular kiln? Or could users get them custom-made with designs of their choice?

The next time you come across one of these gorgeous vessels, take the time to really admire them. Use your imagination to speculate what it once carried, and how many ports it visited, and the sights, smells, sounds, and languages it has been mute witness to. And if one is languishing in your kitchen, to borrow the lines of an Alfred Rose and Rita Rose song (he was referring to the Concanim language, but it applies here as well), “tika saalan hadunk maan diunk zai.”

(An edited version of this article was published on 04 June 2017 in my weekend column ‘On the Upbeat’ in the Panorama section of the Navhind Times Goa India)

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