Ritual and Revelry: The Art of Drinking in Asia

An exhibition looking at the diverse and rich traditions associated with water, alcohol and tea across Asia.

With three quarters of the worlds surface covered with water, major cities worldwide built on rivers, coasts and lakes, water holds a significant place in our lives.  It’s power over us, with its ability to vitalise is delicately balanced against its ability to kill or pollute.

In room 91 the British Museum displays the acts of pouring, drinking and offering in different cultural contexts.

Kicking off in India, where Hindu’s have a profound connection with water.  In Hindu tradition water is sacred and dictates the rhythm of life.  Rivers are revered as personifications of the divine, such as the Goddess Ganga.  A painting showing King Harischandra and his family bathing in the sacred waters of the holy city of Varnasi, while the river creatures parade underneath them.  There are also spouted Lota’s, a vessel with a globular body and spout made from bronze and silver.

In a similar vein are the Kendi, a Malay term, from the sanskrit Kundi, a pot with a spout.  It’s shape removes the need for the drinkers lips to touch the spout of the vessel, making the form an embodiment of hygeine and purity.
A Yay Khwet Gyi, in bamboo and lacquer, is displayed, the large red bowl decorated with red, yellow, green and black designs.
Originating in South Asia, Kundika slightly differ from Kendi by the addition of a lidded opening on it’s side.  Water is poured into the body by this opening and poured out of the tall spout.  These were used to sprinkle sacred water in Buddhist rituals and were one of the few permitted possessions of a monk.

Perhaps the most striking item in the exhibition is the Kapala or skull-cup.  No points for guessing what this is.  Made during the 18th and 19th centuries and consisting or part of a human skull mounted on a richly ornamented brass base, inlaid with precious stones. the Kapala would have been used during drinking rituals where a Lama would have drunk beer or another kind of alcohol from it.

But enough about ritual, what about the revelry?

“Become not like Shou the King of Yin, who went quite astray and became abandoned to drunkeness” Duke of Zhou, quotation from the Shangshu C1100BC.

Firstly you should know your Jue from your Jiu.
A Jue vessel, used to warm alcohol over a fire, has tripod legs and is jug shaped, while a Jiu is a large vase like cup used to drink alcohol.

India’s first Mughal emperor, Babur (1526 – 30) used intoxicants such as alcohol and opium to encourage camaraderie amongst his men.  A number of Toddy tapper jugs are on display.  Toddy was a mildly alcoholic drink extracted from the coconut or palm tree flower.
Meanwhile in China during the Song dynasty (960 – 1279), the state encouraged the combination of alcohol related intoxication and prostitution to collect higher tax incomes.
The 8 immortals of the wine cup were a group of Tang Dynasty (618 – 907) who produced their poems while drunk.  A brush washer depicts the poet Lin Bai (701 – 762) smiling and leaning on an empty alcohol container, in porcelain and enamel.

Finally comes the Sake, made from fermented rice.  Sake was distributed widely thanks mostly to the development of large entertainment districts with large tea houses, restaurants and brothels, in places such as Edo (Tokyo).  Three Netsuke, miniature sculptures used as kimono toggles, show men displaying the 3 effects of Sake – Sadness, Euphoria and Fatigue.

Possibly coming somewhere between ritual and revelry, Tea became the national drink in China during the Tang dynasty (618 – 907) while it was introduced to Japan by Buddhist monks in the 800’s.  It was associated with tea gathering, a distinct philosophy with great emphasis on simplicity, humility and austerity.  The display includes tea bowls, caddies, netsuke and teapots of various materials as well as paintings.  Also shown is a Tibetan tea brick.  In Tibet a persons daily consumption of tea often exceeds 40 cups.  Butter tea is a churning tea from bricks made of fermented black leaves with yak butter and salt.

The exhibition, although only one room, covers ritual and revelry in Asia in a surprising level of detail with a good mixture of objects that leave you gasping for a cuppa, or a tipple when you’ve finished, just remember to heed the warning of the Duke of Zhou.

The exhibition is on until January the 6th, details here

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2 thoughts on “Ritual and Revelry: The Art of Drinking in Asia

  1. um yeah sorry about that, I was a bit late getting to it and then even later still posting..cheers for reblogging though, your blog is really cool.

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