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Our Audio description tours are written with details that may seem unnecessary to some sighted listeners, but they are useful for persons with Vision Impairment. For instance, we may compare the height of an object to something that is found in one’s home to allow the listener to imagine its size.
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Learn about the Tang Shipwreck Gallery.
Clip 1: Introduction
(welcoming music plays)
Welcome to an Audio Tour of ACM's Tang Shipwreck Collection. This sonic experience is created with elements of a radio play, and will feature descriptions of two specially picked objects in this gallery.
The Tang Shipwreck was acquired through the generous donation of the Estate of Khoo Teck Puat in honour of the late Mr Khoo Teck Puat.
This tour is ten and a half minutes long, and you may choose objects you would like to know more about, for your listening pleasure. Each audio clip will begin with the number and name of the object, such as Clip 3 - The Octagonal gold Cup.
(sounds of slow waves creep in)
You are now on level one of the Asian Civilisations Museum. You are about to travel back to a time when Asia was dominated by two great powers. China was under Tang dynasty rule, and the Abbasid Caliphate reigned in West Asia. Here in maritime Southeast Asia, the seas were controlled by the kingdom of Srivijaya, based in southern Sumatra.
As you enter the gallery, you will encounter a model of a small wooden ship with two white sails and a white painted bottom. It is about 1 metre long and suspended above a sea of light brown ceramic bowls carefully arranged to resemble cresting waves. Each bowl’s interior was hand-painted, more than 1,100 years ago, with a fish, or a bird, or a sea monster, or one of several other decorative patterns.
(rousing cresting music, followed by cross fade into sounds of lapping waves)
You are entering the heart of a global trading network, which carried objects that attest to the exchange of goods and ideas between faraway lands and cultures.
(sounds of lapping waves grow in intensity and then cross fades into muted chattering of local dialect and water splashing)
The story begins with a group of Indonesian fishermen diving for sea cucumber three kilometres off Belitung Island in the Java Sea, about 600 kilometres south of Singapore.
Listen to the story of the discovery of the shipwreck.
Clip 2: Discovery of the ship
(sounds of a thunderstorm and sailors crying out, then fade off to gentle underwater sound)
The year of discovery was 1998. At the bottom of the sea,– with silver fish swimming in the dark blue waters, light yellow silt floating above dark green mounds on the seabed – the hidden remains of a small ship was waiting to be found.
This 9th-century ship, about 18 metres from stem to stern, is one of the earliest vessels of Arab origin ever found.
(sounds of shipbuilding)
Specialists examining the wreck saw that the dark brown wooden planks of the ship had been stitched together with thick ropes made from fibre, a technique used in the Arab world, and one that still survives in Oman today. To assure that the ship was watertight, each plank had to be perfectly fitted to the next, and wadding material was packed between the joints. Remarkably, the ship was put together without a single nail.
(glorious tune and fanfare to evoke a ship setting sail)
This little ship with two white sails carried an astonishing cargo of more than 60,000 ceramics, luxurious gold and silver objects, and bronze mirrors, all created in Tang dynasty China.
On its long journey from the Chinese port of Guangzhou, or maybe Yangzhou, to the Abbasid Empire, which is today's Iraq and Iran, the ship navigated through the narrow straits of Southeast Asia – maybe to drop off some of its cargo – and that was when it met its demise.
(ominous music trails off)
China, around 830s. Gold.
Learn about a rare find from the Tang Shipwreck.
Clip 3: The Octogonal Cup
(underwater sounds and sudden splashing sounds of something fished out of water)
More than thirty gold and silver objects were found in the wreck. These objects are among the most important Tang-dynasty gold and silver objects ever found.
From this group of beautifully ornamented boxes, dishes, bottles, and bowls, an octagonal gold cup stands out. In it's own glass case, it is located in a small room to your left when you enter the Tang Shipwreck gallery from the entrance corridor off the main lobby.
The eight sides of the cup are decorated with eight figures: seven musicians and one dancer. Each figure was cast separately, then attached to the sides of the cup. Skillfully made in China around the 830s, the rim features a repeating X-shaped design, which might represent flowers.
The cup tapers gently from the rim, and sits atop a circular foot carved with lotus petal designs. The outer edge of the foot is decorated with a border of small carved circles. As mentioned earlier, the Octagonal Cup consists of eight gold panels decorated with the figures of seven musicians and one dancers. Lines of circles form borders around each of the eight sides of the cup, framing the figures.
(sounds of music and revelry)
Each of the three-dimensional figures on the sides of the cup has long curly hair, and is dressed in loosely draped clothing with billowing sleeves. When this cup was made, this clothing style – along with long curly hair – was associated with people from Central Asia.
(sounds of Central Asian musical instruments)
The musicians hold Central Asian music instruments, such as the three-stringed lute, with a long neck and oblong body, which is a cousin of the guitar and the pipa; the flute; and percussion instruments, such as the frame drum and tambourine. One musician also appears to be playing a castanet-like percussion piece.
Moving along to the music, the dancer clasps her hands together above her head, with an expression of ecstasy on her face.
The cup, largest of its type known, is 9.2 centimetres tall, and 13 centimetres wide at the top, including the handle. That's about the size of a large coffee mug these days. The handle is a circle of gold, like slipping your finger into a ring. The top of the handle, where you would place your thumb, is carved with the heads of two bearded men, back to back.
This exceptional gold cup, weighing at 619.1g, roughly the weight of six apples bagged together, would be perfect for an entertaining evening of wine drinking, with music and dance, as the theme of the decoration is clearly revelry. It's unclear why this cup and the few other gold and silver objects were onboard a ship mostly filled with ceramics for everyday use. Perhaps they were gifts of tribute for foreign rulers, or specially ordered objects for rich foreign buyers.
(sounds of revelry, clinking of cups and laughter cross fades into crashing waves)
China, probably Gongxian kilns (Henan province), around 830s. Stoneware.
Learn about this tall ewer, then about the dragon-head stopper that might be a part of it.
Clip 4: The Green and White Splash Ewer
(a drum beat plays and slowly fades into the background)
The tall, green and white splash ceramic ewer is located near the back of the Tang Shipwreck gallery, in a stand-alone glass case.
Perhaps the most spectacular single object from the wreck, this ewer is close to what we know today as a pitcher or water jug. It was probably made at the Gongxian kilns, in the Henan province, northern China, around the 830s. Its off-white clay surface has a stone-like appearance, with splashes of copper green glaze.
Just over a metre tall, 104 centimetres, to be exact, this tall and slim object would reach the waist of an average male adult when placed on the floor. It a long neck, bulbous central body, and a pedestal foot that flares out at the bottom. Its handle is long and curving, and much too thin for actually holding the ewer.
(sounds of ceramic work processes, a fire crackles in the kiln)
The ewer’s neck is slim enough such that most people should be able to wrap a hand around the neck, with the thumb overlapping the fingers. The neck of the ewer is also etched with tear-drop shaped leaves.
The wide, bulbous midsection features diamond-shaped motifs with leafy designs at each corner. Incised lines divide the diamond into four sections, each with a floral motif inside. These floral "lozenge" motifs, as they are called in the art world, were a popular design in Iran at the time. Interestingly, this motif appears on many other objects from the wreck, which is a reason scholars think the ship was heading to the Middle East. The pedestal base of the ewer flares out at the bottom, it is patterned with arrowhead-shaped overlapping leaves, resembling fish scales. A thin handle with a snake head connects the mouth of the ewer to its round midsection, where liquid would be stored.
(the awakened dragon stirs and roars)
On the platform beside the ewer is a green glazed stopper shaped like the head of a dragon. The intricate details include horns, sharp eyes, mouth open wide with bared fangs, scales, and a curled mane. The dragon stopper fits awkwardly on the narrow mouth of this ewer.
Curators at the museum think the stopper was probably not an original part of the vessel. When fitted onto the mouth of the ewer, it blocks the view of the snake’s head on the handle.
The overall form of the ewer is based on similar objects produced in metal, as evident from the rim surrounding the base and the thinness of the handle. This ceramic ewer would be difficult to hold by its handle – especially if full of liquid – which suggests it was probably meant as a decorative piece.
This grand ewer is a combination of Abbasid and Chinese design, and a magnificent example of a hybrid work of art travelling between two cultures, a long time ago...
(sounds of a ship sailing off, sounds of waves swelling and crashing before fading off)
China, Jingdezhen, early 17th century. Porcelain.
Learn about the influence of Persian art on this dish.
Clip 1: Dish Decorated with Persian Figures
(traders conversing in Chinese and Malay languages at a bazaar)
We enter the Maritime Trade Gallery, which is located on level one, after you walk from the lobby through the Supermama gift shop. This audio tour is 16 and a half minutes long.
This large gallery displays objects traded between Asia and the rest of the world from the 14th through the 19th century.
(soft classical European music)
The arrival of Europeans, who set up trading “companies” in many Asian port cities, spurred production and trade in artworks.
In a vault room on the left after you enter the Trade Gallery, you will encounter a large, blue-and-white porcelain dish decorated with two people sitting in a garden at its centre.
(sounds of the guzheng fades in)
With a diameter of about 48 centimetres, this large dish is about as wide as the woks used in hawker stalls, but not as deep. The flat rim is divided into sections, each filled with complex figural or floral decoration in shades of blue glaze. This division into sections made it easier for potters to standardise designs for faster production. It is a distinguishing feature of a type of Chinese export porcelain called "kraak", named for the Portuguese ships that first carried large cargoes of these wares.
(sounds of a garden, birds calling and leaves rustling)
The circular image in the centre shows two figures in an outdoor landscape, indicated by a few flowers, a rock, and the edge of a stream or pond in front of them. They face each other, seated cross-legged on the ground. A bold stroke of blue glaze rises from each forehead, perhaps to indicate a feather attached to their headcovering. They lean forward, one hand raised, as if deep in conversation. One holds a cup, the other a pipe, perhaps. Seated figures in conversation is a common motif seen in manuscript paintings, ceramics, and textiles from the Islamic world.
Two narrow bands of decoration surround the central image – curling vines and dots, then upturned, heart-shaped crests and flowers separated by broad leaves that resemble wings.
(birds chirp as the wind gently blows)
The wide flat rim of the dish features eight panels of decoration, each separated by vertical bands of flowers, fruits, and vines. Four sections contain flowering plants drawn in blue glaze; these alternate with scenes of everyday life in China. A Chinese scholar reads in a hut with a sloping straw roof beside a body of water. A small tree, with just-budding branches, grows near the hut. Reeds grow in the foreground. Rolling clouds mark the sky.
In another scene, a clean-shaven young man with his hair in a bun and his pants rolled up to his knees poles a boat across calm waters. In the distance, you can see a wooded area, a small hill with trees, and buildings resembling single-storey houses with sloping roofs at left and right.
(a labourer's light panting fades off, replaced by countryside sounds)
A moustachioed farmer, pants cut off at his knees, walks barefoot in another scene. He wears a wide conical hat, and balances a long pole on his shoulders. Suspended from the pole are eight geese hung by their feet, and bundled stalks of grain at each end. Behind him is the similar backdrop of a hill sandwiched by leafy trees,with a building on each side.
In the final scene, a barefoot farmer with a conical hat walks away. He too balances a long pole on his shoulders. A basket hangs on one side, what looks like a snake or eel wraps around the other side of the pole.
(sound of flute plays softly)
In the sections between these Chinese scenes there are flower motifs – cup-shaped blooms, petals in full display, bulbous fruits, and curling vines. Blooming flowers like these are a traditional Persian motif, used since the 13th century to decorate ceramics.
A thick band of blue glaze runs along the slightly wavy edge of the dish. Small chips and breaks in the glaze reveal the porcelain body – and the fact that this dish was well-used in the past, perhaps to hold food at communal dinners.
(Persian music plays)
Many objects like this were made for Western consumers, but royal courts in China, India, the Middle East, and Southeast Asia were also important patrons and buyers.
Some rulers formed collections that included works from different cultures.
(Persian music fades off)
China, around 1785. Porcelain.
Learn about the lively Canton trading scene as captured on this punch bowl.
Clip 2: Hong Bowl
(lively sounds of a thriving port)
A large, vibrantly coloured punch bowl can be found in a showcase just before the back wall in the Maritime Trade Gallery. Dating to around 1785, this nearly 235 year old porcelain bowl, made in China, is 15.5 centimetres tall, about the length of your mobile phone. With a diameter of 36 centimetres, it is twice the width of a regular noodle bowl – certainly not suited for daily dining. This is a party bowl!
Bowls like this were produced by Chinese artists for foreign merchants to take back home as souvenirs of their stay in China. This one shows detailed scenes of the lively waterfront of Canton, now modern-day Guangzhou, which was the busiest Chinese port at the end of the 18th century.
(shophouse bustling sounds, wooden windows creaking)
Rows of blue and white-fronted shophouses with sloping gray roofs mix with large, white Western-style buildings around the exterior of this bowl. Orange-coloured, cobbled pavements lead from the buildings to the waterfront, where many boats are docked.
(sounds of lapping waters)
The water is coloured purple, strangely, and that colour is matched in the purple and green treetops seen beyond the buildings. Brownish-red paint strokes in the background indicate rolling hills far away. The bowl sits on a circular base, mostly white, but lined with an orange zigzag pattern called “Greek key” or “meander” in the West, but seen on Chinese bronzes of much earlier date. Small trefoil finials rise from the pattern ring. Trefoil is a graphic form composed of the outline of three overlapping rings used in architecture. A finial is like a pinnacle or a spire, with a vertical, pointed element surrounded by four out-curving leaves or scrolls.
(sounds of waves cross fade into lively sounds of a thriving port)
The buildings here are the "hongs" – offices, warehouses, and residences for Western trading companies. Many figures can be seen walking the pavement, as well as on balconies and in windows of the buildings. Western traders discuss business with Chinese merchants; labourers walk the streets carrying goods balanced on poles over their shoulders. Chinese artisans sell their wares in the open courtyards.
Figures are brightly dressed in Chinese robes of reds, yellows, blues, pinks, and greens. They sport Qing dynasty hairstyles – shaved heads and queues, which is a male hairstyle with the front of the head shaved, and the remainder of the hair braided into a long braid. Some wear black conical hats. Western traders wear frock coats, knee-length breeches, and boots. Children run and play, one climbs a flag pole.
(sounds of children laughing over splashing waters)
The harbourfront is crowded with sampans, small brown boats with a semi-circular shelter over part of the deck. There are also small sailboats, each with a white sail and a different European flag flying.
(a medley of the Dutch, British, Swedish national anthems plays softly in succession)
The imposing, two-storey, white-washed Western trader buildings have railings supporting terraces and balconies. European flags are mounted on flagpoles in front of these buildings, identifying which country owns each hong. The flags fly just under the rim of the bowl, atop tall black poles hewn from trees.
The Dutch flag has been rendered incorrectly – horizontal stripes of blue, red, and white from top down. It really should be red, white, blue.
In front of the next building to the left is the iconic Union Jack – the British flag. A white X, overlaid with a red cross, like an addition sign, on a dark blue field.
Continuing around to the left, we see a group of three flags close together: they belong to Sweden, a flag with a yellow cross over a blue field, Imperial – or Holy Roman Empire (the Austrian trading companies) and a white flag.
The Imperial flag has a fearsome crowned double-headed black eagle with wings spread, red beaks, and claws gripping swords, against a yellow background with horizontal stripes.
(cries of an eagle over)
The third flag is white.This represents France, since they used a white flag before adopting their current tricolour flag as we know it in 1794; Moving further left, there's one more flag – the white cross on the red background of the Danish.
The American flag is seen on other hong bowls, but since it’s missing here, we can date this bowl to before the American company arrived in 1788.
(sounds of a Western soiree)
The interior of the bowl has sparse decoration. In the centre is an orange vase holding flowers, with a purple ribbon wrapped around its base. The vase is framed within a double green circle, with fruits and flowers outside the perimeter. The rim is lined with an orange band with floral elements in green, dark brown, and purple glaze.
With its carefully painted and vividly detailed view of the foreign trading houses, this Hong Bowl conveys the bustling, international trading scene between China and the West during the 18th and 19th centuries.
(sounds of the soiree cross-fades into a boat moving through water)
India, Gujarat, 16th century. Teakwood, mother-of-pearl, metal
Learn about the craftsmanship behind this casket.
Clip 3: Mother-of-pearl Casket
(classical Indian instrumental music plays)
At the end of the Maritime Trade Gallery, you can turn right into the Court and Company Gallery. This is a separate room to your right where you will encounter an exquisite mother-of-pearl casket.
This rectangular box is about 16 centimetres tall by 24 centimeters wide, and about 13 centimeters deep. It is about the size of a loaf of sliced bread.
The top gently curves, like the top of a casket; which is what these boxes are often called. A richly decorated box like this may have been used to store valuable jewellery, or as a reliquary – a container for holy relics.
(music fades to background)
Made in the Gujarat region, in northwestern India, during the 16th or 17th century, this more than 200 to 300 year old box is made of wood entirely covered with small pieces of dominantly cream-coloured mother-of-pearl held in place by gilded, pin-sized silver nails.
(gentle sound of hammer on nail)
Mother-of-pearl is obtained from the interior of seashells, and great skill and specialised techniques are required to cut and polish the small pieces used here.
Each piece is roughly the size of an adult's thumbprint, and they have been cut in several different shapes, forming patterns on the surface. Together, they somewhat resemble scales on a fish.
They fit together like a puzzle, and reflect in iridescent blues, pinks, and golden yellows, depending on how light hits the surface. The box rests on four gilded silver ball feet, each incised with leaf motifs. Gilded metal mounts protect each corner of the box. These are hinge-like pieces, engraved with floral designs, and oval openings that reveal the mother-of-pearl below. The latch and lock are also gilded metal, with similar floral patterns.
(spiritual, fusion Indian music plays)
An object like this, made with rare and expensive material, reflects the desire for beauty and fascination with exotic materials that drove international trade in these precious commodities. Europeans at that time were dazzled by mother-of-pearl objects made in India. Encounters between cultures have shaped our world and affect the way objects look.
(music trails off)
China, 1996. Ink on rice paper.
Admire the multicultural influences behind each beautiful brush stroke that created this soaring bird.
Clip 1: Bird calligram
(welcoming music with thumping beat plays)
The Islamic Art Gallery is located on level two, through a door off the Ancient Religions Gallery, near the central staircase.
The audio tour for this gallery consists of one clip, and is five minutes long.
The gallery showcases a variety of ritual, secular, courtly, and scientific objects that reflect Islamic values and sensibilities, inviting visitors to explore the rich variety and beauty of Islamic art.
These exquisite works of art also show how global notions of Islamic art were adapted across Asia to create unique visual forms that reflect cross-cultural influences.
One such example is a Bird Calligram, an ink painting that is framed in portrait format and mounted on a wall in the middle of the Islamic Art Gallery. It is approximately 90.1 centimetres in height and 47.7 centimetres in width.
It would come up to around the height of local train gantries here in Singapore.
A calligram is an image made up of words or phrases – in this case the Arabic letters of the basmala, rendered in the shape of a bird.
(basmala being recited by individual male)
The basmala is an Islamic invocation to God, which reads "In the name of God, most gracious, most compassionate." Muslims recite the basmala before carrying out any action as a way of asking for God’s blessings. It is also invoked at the beginning of every chapter in the Quran.
Every part of the bird is formed from Arabic letters, including its wings and its feet. The eye and beak, for example, are formed from a single Arabic letter.
(sounds of bird calling)
The bird is seen in side profile, leaning forward with wings spread,
as if it is about to take flight.
The artist has drawn in thick strokes of black ink on a piece of rice paper,
now faded a bit to brown.
With its slim long neck and legs, it resembles a crane, or perhaps a stork.
Its head is held erect, and two tufts of feathers on the head form a V-shape. The top of the head, back of the neck, and left wing are formed by a singular brushstroke.
The underside of the neck and abdomen are connected by another broad stroke.
Three short diagonal strokes fan out from the lower body of the bird,
forming its tail. The bird's legs are painted as two long, parallel lines, which curve in at the feet, shaped like two long Js.
(sounds of bird chirping intensify and transition into sounds of flapping wings)
To the left of the bird’s feet, we see the artist's signature
in Arabic script (يوسوف ) above a red, square Chinese seal.
(sounds of a guzheng play)
The traditional characters in the seal spell the artist’s name – Chen Jinhui (陳進惠). Chen, or Yusuf, his Muslim name, was born in 1938 and died in 2008. He is one of the most famous Chinese Muslim calligraphers. His innovative mixing of the Arabic phrases and Chinese calligraphic technique shows his artistic skill and work to create his uniquely personal calligraphic style.
(hand-drummed thumping beats play)
This artwork is a donation by the artist around 1996. By fusing Chinese brush painting techniques and symbolism
with Arabic calligraphy, this Bird Calligram masterfully captures
how the interaction of cultures across Asia has influenced the region’s art,
creating interesting cross-cultural artworks that reflect our diverse and hybrid culture today.
(music fades out)
China, Jingdezhen, Ming dynasty (Zhenghe period, 1506-21). Porcelain
Learn about this Ming dynasty brush rest and its role in a scholar's life.
Clip 1: Brush rest
(classical Chinese music plays)
We enter the level two Scholars Gallery, a space dedicated to exploring the scholar-officials who for centuries represented an ideal in Chinese culture. The audio tour for this gallery consists of one clip, and is four and a half minutes long.
(sounds of mountain winds)
A blue and white porcelain brush rest can be found towards the right hand side of the gallery as you enter. Made in Jingdezhen, China, during the Zhengde period (1506 - 1521) of the Ming dynasty, it can be found in a showcase on one wall of the gallery. Measuring 11 by 22 centimetres, this object is about the size of a typical envelope you might receive in the mail.
The brush rest is modelled as a mountain with a row of five jagged peaks.
The middle peak is the highest, and the others lower in steps down each side. It could also refer to the famous Five Sacred Mountains (wuyue 五岳) in China, representing the five cardinal points.
(sounds of mountain winds followed by bird calling)
In Chinese culture, mountains are revered for their mystical associations,
and as home to the immortals. Therefore, this brush rest, atop a scholar's desk, would inspire contemplation on the freedom and tranquillity of mountain landscapes. More practically, it would have been used to hold brushes when the scholar was writing or painting. The scholar’s brush would rest in one of the four “valleys” between the five mountains when not in use.
The brush rest is decorated with a pattern of lingzhi fungus and vines drawn in underglaze blue on a white ground surface. In the centre of each side, under the largest peak, there is a line-drawn square inside a diamond. Inside each square there are Persian words written in Arabic script. One side says khamah, which means "pen"; the other side reads dan, which means "holder" – quite appropriate for this object, right?
The white base is sparsely decorated with thin blue lines, with simple clouds in the middle and at both corners on each side. Chinese characters on the underside of the brush rest read: "Made in the Zhengde reign of the Ming dynasty." 大明正徳年制.
(a Chinese mandolin plays and gently fades into the background)
The Zhengde emperor was greatly interested in foreign cultures.
An object like this may have been made for his personal use, or for one of the Muslim administrators known to have served at his court.
Chinese scholar-officials, and other men and women interested in culture, were expected to engage in artistic activities, namely the Four Pursuits 琴棋书画 (qinqi shuhua) – playing the zither, playing weiqi (also called "go"), a type of board game, calligraphy, and painting. These activities were thought to improve one’s mind and character, and were hence sought after by such individuals at the time.
(sounds of a male individual reciting the Confucian teachings play before swiftly fading out)
Japan, 17th century. Gilded copper alloy, lacquer.
Discover interesting details about this Japanese reliquary crucifix.
Clip 1: Crucifix Reliquary
(pensive ambient music plays)
Traders brought their Christian faith from the Middle East through Central Asia, China, and India as early as the 7th century. Objects on display in the museum’s Christian Art Gallery bridge many cultures and traditions. Some may have even been collected and admired in the past by non-Christians who took an interest in the ideas and art of Christianity – perhaps because of shared spiritual values.
This gallery is located on level two of the museum, through a door from the Ancient Religions Gallery or from the Scholars Gallery.
In a case, in a corner of the gallery, you will find a reliquary crucifix. A "crucifix" is a Christian cross that shows Christ nailed onto it.
The audio tour for this gallery consists of one clip, and is six minutes long.
This black and gold crucifix is also a reliquary, a container to store holy relics, such as pieces of clothing or objects associated with saints and other religious figures. A knob at the bottom unscrews, and then you can open both sides to reveal small compartments.
Made in Japan during the 17th century, it might have belonged to a Japanese Christian, or to a Western missionary working there.
(sounds of metalwork, a fire burning in a forge)
Measuring 15 by 11 centimetres, and 2.5 centimetres thick, the length of this cross-shaped container is similar to that of an adult’s hand. It could be easily cradled in your hand! One side shows Christ on the Cross, and the other shows the Virgin Mary looking towards heaven with her hands clasped in prayer.
These figures and the rest of the decoration on the object are in raised relief – that is, they are three-dimensional. You would feel them as you held this reliquary. This tactile quality surely enhanced the appeal of the object.
The gold relief elements stand out against the black lacquer surface.
This effect was created with a technique called shakudō, which involves a combination of copper, gold and arsenic alloy for decoration on metalwork to create stunning contrasts of black and gold.
(sounds of wind chimes play)
A knob at the top of the crucifix has a ring attached, with which it could have been hung, either on a wall or, with a chain attached, around someone's neck. The other three branches have identical knobs, without a ring.
On the side with the figure of Christ, there is a plaque above the cross with the letters "I-N-R-I". This stands for a Latin phrase meaning “Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews”. This phrase, used by the Romans who crucified him to mock Christ, commonly appears on crucifixes.
Other traditional elements of Crucifixion images seen here are the halo behind Christ's head, and the skull and crossbones beneath his feet.
Here his halo is shown as three triangular spikes radiating from his head along the lines of the cross. The skull and crossbones represent Adam, the first human created. According to Christian legend, Christ is thought to have been crucified on the spot where Adam was buried.
The eyes of the long-haired, bearded Christ are closed, and his head slumps down to his right shoulder. His crown of thorns is partially worn away, as is much of the gilding on the figures, from frequent handling. His face bears a peaceful expression. His arms are nailed to the ends of the crossbar, and his feet are crossed and nailed below. He is naked except for a loincloth around his waist.
(a Latin hymn sung by a choir fades into the background)
On the other side, the Virgin Mary is shown between two winged angels, seen in profile, resting on clouds, with stars around them.
Above her head is a bird with wings spread, symbolising the Holy Spirit.
At her feet is another angel, facing front, with only its head and wings visible amidst swirling clouds.
(tension-filled sounds of the shakuhachi, a Japanese flute, plays subtly)
Below the angel, there is a plant with two large blooms and a bud rising above.
The blooms appear to be chrysanthemums, a flower popular in Japanese decorative arts.
The Jesuits brought Christianity to Japan in 1549, and used art to instruct, delight, and move audiences. Many were against the religion and it was banned in 1614 for nearly 300 years. Some "Hidden Christians", as they came to be known, continued to worship in secret, creating their own unique brand of Christianity over time.
(music slowly fades off)
China, mid-19th century. Silk (satin weave, embroidered with silk floss, gold-wrapped threads).
Collection of Chris Hall.
Learn about the late Qing dynasty fashion in China through an exploration of the designs on this chaopao robe.
Clip 1: Chaopao with Dragons
(atmospheric music plays)
Located on level three of the museum, the Fashion and Textiles Gallery features a stunning display of over 30 Chinese robes and modern dress ensembles on loan from the renowned Chris Hall Collection of Chinese textiles. The audio tour for this gallery consists of two clips, and is eight and a half minutes long.
The pieces displayed in this gallery were made from the late Qing dynasty to the end of the Cultural Revolution in China – that's the mid-1800s to 1976. Seen together, they present Chinese dress as diverse and evolving, reflecting a century of drastic political, economic, and socio-cultural changes in the country.
(festive Chinese music grows in volume and then fades into the background)
Some of the most striking pieces on display are the elaborate robes of the Qing dynasty, like this court robe called a chaopao 朝袍, probably made to be worn by a high-ranking male official during the most formal occasions and audiences with the emperor. The robe is mounted on a T-bar stand inside a glass showcase. It is a one-piece garment, with a bodice that flares from the waist like a skirt. Outstretched long sleeves, measuring two metres in wingspan, end in “horse-hoof” shaped cuffs. The garment conveys a sense of authority, grandeur, and power.
(a classical guzheng tune plays and fades into the background)
The robe is made of blue-black silk – a colour commonly associated with nobles and higher-ranking officials during the Qing dynasty. There are three buttons at the round Mandarin collar, and two under its right arm, which secure this wrap-around garment.
The front is embroidered with silk floss and gold-wrapped threads. A magnificent golden dragon dominates its centre. The dragon faces us directly, eyes locked in a penetrating gaze above its gaping, four-fanged mouth. Its sinuous body forms a reversed letter “C”, as if twisting in mid-air, around a flaming pearl. Each of its four limbs brandishes five fearsome claws. Two more dragons swim stretched out above the wave patterns at the waist, and there's one atop each shoulder. And a dragon also decorates the end of each sleeve. These dragons are all set amidst a pattern of swirling turquoise clouds and auspicious Chinese symbols.
The lower part of the robe features even more dragons. They are embroidered within circular discs, called "roundels," against a backdrop of turquoise clouds. Below the roundels, running the full width of the skirt, is a band of embroidery with two long dragons in profile facing each other, breathing fire. They fly between clouds and swirls and stripes of colour that represent waves and mountains.
(sounds of dragons flying in the sky)
(sounds of horses galloping and neighing; clashing of swords and battle cries rise into a crescendo before cross-fading into a tentative drum beat)
The robe also shows design elements added by the Qing emperors of Manchu background. The Manchurians were a nomadic tribe from the northeast who took control of China in 1644. They incorporated elements from their traditional dress adapted for their hunting and warrior lifestyle to Ming-dynasty style dress worn by the ethnic Han majority. These include the flared lower portion of the robe (to accommodate horseback riding), and the "horse-hoof" shaped cuffs at the end of the sleeves, which were much narrower and more functional than those on older Chinese garments. This may also explain the non-functional square patch near the right hip – perhaps originally a flap to cover a slot that held a sword.
(reverberating sound of a ceremonial gong)
Qing dynasty clothing signified rank and status, and strict regulations governed what materials and designs officials could wear. But with the many changes in China brought about by internal rebellion and external invasion in the 19th century, it became difficult to strictly enforce these dress codes. This robe reflects the changes in Chinese court dress at the time. While its blue-black colour was meant for nobles and court officials, the inclusion of the five-clawed dragons is a departure from earlier court robes, where these would have been reserved only for the emperor.
(evocative soundscape indicating change plays, then fades off)
New and exciting fashions were also emerging as people were exposed to more knowledge of the wider world. Listen to the next clip to learn more about the evolution of Chinese fashion.
Blouse: Cotton (voile, with machine embroidery)
Skirt: Silk (satin embroidery), silk floss, gold-wrapped threads
Discover how fashion evolved during the 1920s in Republican China.
Clip 2: Blouse and Skirt
(1920s jazz plays)
After the fall of the Qing dynasty and with the establishment of the Republic of China in 1911, fashion evolved, reflecting Chinese aspirations to appear to be part of the modern world. Early Republican fashion featured changes in silhouette, design, and materials. Styles worn by educated, urban women in the 1920s were called “New Civilised Dress.”
This blouse-and-skirt ensemble in another showcase in the gallery is a classic example of this style. The blouse is in a gorgeous shade of turquoise. The fabric is cotton voile – soft to the touch, and quite sheer.
Because this material is so thin, it would have been worn with a white camisole underneath.
(traditional Chinese music plays)
Black piping defines the collar and the traditional fold high across the chest (like on the older-style robes), as well as the hems of the sleeves. Instead of the long sleeves of the Qing dynasty, this blouse has three-quarter, flared sleeves and a rounded hem – both are design innovations that emerged in the early Republican period. The machine embroidered decoration on the surface includes gold and orange threads depicting flowers with vines arching in between them.
The blouse is paired with a black silk skirt that slightly flares at the bottom. There are echoes of Qing traditions here. Like skirts of earlier periods worn by the majority Han Chinese, the front rectangular panel that begins at the waist and ends at the hem displays a large, auspicious, embroidered floral design. Three big, pinkish-gold flowers with long yellow stamens bloom from a blue, leafy stalk.
(reflective soundscape plays and fades into the background)
Because of the modern cut – and the sheer fabric of the blouse – a woman wearing this outfit in Republican-era China would have been admired by some people for being liberated. But traditionalists may not have approved.
(crowd applause interspersed with a Mandarin jazz song playing)
As women grew more active and visible in society, this “New Civilised Dress” style became associated with the embrace of democratic notions, women’s equality, and individual freedom. Eventually it was seen as representing enlightenment in a new era in the country.
(cheering rises into a climax before fading into stern marches)
China, Jingdezhen, Qing dynasty (Yongzheng period, 1723-35). Porcelain
Learn about the significance of chrysanthemums in Chinese art through this dish.
Clip 1: Chrysanthemum dish
(welcoming music plays)
We are now entering the Ceramics Gallery, located on Level 3 of the museum. The audio tour for this gallery consists of two clips and is four minutes long. The gallery displays a remarkable collection of Chinese ceramic pieces dating from the Neolithic period through the Qing dynasty. In a space with clean white walls and large windows on two opposite walls, the natural daylight seeping into the gallery perfectly complements the ceramics on display, accentuating their natural colours, shapes, and textures.
(graceful, classical Chinese music plays)
One of the star pieces in the gallery is this Chrysanthemum Dish, an exquisitely painted piece of porcelain that dates from the Yongzheng reign of the Qing dynasty (1723–1735). This dish was a gift to the museum from Mr Saiman Ernawan.
At 49.5 centimetres in diameter and 9 centimetres in depth, some people might even call this a bowl. It's so big that you'd probably have trouble setting it flat down into your kitchen sink. The dish is made of white porcelain, and painted with chrysanthemum flowers in soft shades of yellow, blush pink, crimson, and white. The flowers are attached to graceful stalks with leaves in pale emerald and turquoise.
There are two different types of leaves – the lobed leaves of the chrysanthemums themselves, and thin, sharp leaves with browned tips of another plant behind the chrysanthemums. Above the white-coloured chrysanthemums on the right side of the dish, the artist has painted a light-brown butterfly hovering over the blooms. Three smaller white butterflies flutter nearby.
(classical Chinese tune is gradually layered with sounds of nature)
The chrysanthemum is a favourite subject in traditional Chinese art. Together with the plum blossom, orchid, and bamboo, it is regarded as one of the Four Gentlemen 四君子. These plants are said to possess the qualities of a virtuous Chinese scholar-official. As the chrysanthemum blooms during the cold autumn season and does not easily succumb to winter frosts, it symbolises strength and vitality. It is also regarded as a symbol of longevity.
The colours used on this dish are described in Chinese as fencai 粉彩 – “soft colours”. Painting porcelain in these colours – in this "palette", as we sometimes say in the art world – became popular during the reign of the Yongzheng emperor. The well-executed reign mark on the back of the dish reinforces the dating based on style. Not all ceramics have them, but when they appear, reign marks on porcelain record the name of the emperor who ruled during the time the object was made, and comprise four or six Chinese characters. This one reads “da qing yong zheng nian zhi 大清雍正年製 (made in the Qing dynasty during the reign of the Yongzheng emperor).
(sounds of potters at work rise and fade)
At that time, Chinese potters were experimenting with new ingredients and colours, and learning from European glass and metal decorating techniques. New colours were developed, enabling potters to make more realistic looking images of flowers and butterflies, and other decorations on porcelain objects. You can learn about many other artistic exchanges like this throughout ACM.
(sounds gradually fade away)
China, Jingdezhen, Ming dynasty (Yongle period, 1403-24). Porcelain
Find out why the Yongle Emperor favoured white porcelain wares during his reign in the Ming dynasty.
Clip 2: Monk's cap ewer
(sounds of water being poured into a cup)
As its name suggests, part of this white porcelain pitcher resembles a cap. The rim (right at the top) is kind of shaped like headgear worn by some Tibetan Buddhist monks. The association with monks extends to its function; it may have been used for pouring liquids during Buddhist purification rituals.
(light, classical Chinese music plays)
At almost 21 centimetres tall, the ewer is about the height of a standard 500ml bottle of water. "Ewer" is a fancy name for a pitcher. This one dates from the Yongle period of the Ming dynasty (1403–1424). We know this because of the four roundels encircling the neck of the ewer, which are inscribed with seal script-style Chinese characters 永樂年製 (Yong le nian zhi), which translates to "made during Yongle’s reign". Of course, you can't always believe what's written on art objects – but because of the style and look of this piece, and by comparing with other pieces, it seems to be correct in this case.
The overall shape of this ewer is quite elegant. It has a wide neck which gently tapers down to a bulbous lower section. An elongated spout protrudes along one side of the neck, while on the opposite side, a curved handle connects the rim to the middle of the lower section.
It is made of white porcelain, fired in the imperial kilns at Jingdezhen, a city which produced many fine porcelain wares for the Chinese emperor's court. Although it was made 600 years ago, the ewer looks polished and pristine, as though it was fired in the kilns only yesterday!
Underneath the glaze, if you look closely, you might be able to spot subtle, elegant decoration. Called anhua 暗花 – "hidden decoration" in English – these designs were lightly carved into the surface of the clay. Patterns include lotus scrolls, as well as the Eight Buddhist Emblems: a parasol, a conch shell, treasure vase, victory banner, lotus flower, endless knot, pair of golden fish, and the Wheel of Buddhist Law. This anhua technique was only used on objects for the emperor's court.
(sounds of singing bowls reverberating)
A devout Buddhist, the Yongle emperor maintained strong diplomatic relations with Tibet during his reign. He employed Tibetan monks to conduct religious ceremonies at court.
The use of pure white porcelain for this vessel is symbolic. In China, white is a colour traditionally associated with mourning and filial piety. The Yongle emperor rose to power by usurping the throne from his nephew. Religious ceremonies and use of these symbolic porcelain wares thus served to demonstrate the Yongle emperor’s piety and assert his legitimacy to the throne.
(music fades off)
Gandhara, 3rd or 4th century. Schist
Discover exquisite details on this stone sculpture of the Buddha teaching.
Clip 1: Buddha teaching
Welcome to the Ancient Religions Gallery, located on Level 2 of the museum. The gallery has two sections, and this audio tour consists of two clips, discussing one object from each section. The audio tour is five minutes long.
(sounds of classical Indian music fades into the background)
This gallery focuses on art inspired by the spread of ancient religions out of India, focusing mostly on Hinduism and Buddhism. As these religions merged with existing local customs and belief systems in other places – including worship of nature spirits and ancestors – new artistic forms were created. The objects on display show the many ways in which deities and other spiritual concepts of these religions have been portrayed across Asia.
(reverberating tones of singing bowls)
A sculpture of the Buddha Teaching sits on a plinth against one wall of the first room of the gallery. Approximately 80 centimetres high, this sculpture was made in the 3rd or 4th century AD, in the ancient Gandhara region (what is now northern Pakistan and north-eastern Afghanistan).
(sounds of donkeys and horses carrying goods)
Gandhara was an important crossroads area along trade routes, so the art made there was influenced by foreign cultures, including ancient Greece and Rome. Some of the earliest figures of the Buddha were made in Gandhara in the 1st century AD.
(sounds of stonework by craftsmen)
Carved from a rock called schist, this sculpture is silvery dark grey, with orange splotches where the surface has been worn, allowing rust-coloured areas to form. The orange is seen on the halo behind the Buddha’s head, and other areas all over the figure. When new, it would have been polished smoothly, and all dark grey in colour.
(contemplative music plays)
The Buddha is seated on a thin cushion atop a small pedestal or throne decorated with lotus blossoms. He sits cross-legged, with his toes touching the opposite thighs, and bottoms of his feet facing upwards. His head is erect, but his eyes are cast downwards, as if in meditation. His face wears a peaceful expression.
He has his hands held together in front of him, close to his chest. They are positioned as if turning a small object. The gesture is called dharmachakra mudra. Mudras are symbolic hand gestures seen in both Buddhist and Hindu art. This one symbolises his "turning the wheel of Buddhist law". Dharma refers to the teachings of Buddhism. Chakra means "wheel", so dharmachakra symbolises the Buddha setting Buddhism in motion, which he did by preaching his First Sermon after he attained enlightenment.
The Buddha wears a robe that drapes over his left shoulder and wraps under his right arm. It covers his legs to the ankles, down his left arm to the wrist, and hangs over the cushion below his left leg. Thick long folds are carved in the stone to indicate the draping of the robe. The folds curve gently to accentuate the contours of his body.
(music transitions to a more subdued and peaceful night-time soundscape)
Behind his head is a rough, orange circular disc of stone, slightly wider in diameter than his shoulders. This halo reminds viewers of his divine status. A broken extension at the top of the halo might have once been part of a canopy or umbrella over him.
The use of pure white porcelain for this vessel is symbolic. In China, white is a colour traditionally associated with mourning and filial piety. The Yongle emperor rose to power by usurping the throne from his nephew. Religious ceremonies and use of these symbolic porcelain wares thus served to demonstrate the Yongle emperor’s piety and assert his legitimacy to the throne.
The drapery of the robes, and the chiselled, angular features of the Buddha’s face – including a high-bridged, straight nose – reveal influences from classical Greek and Roman sculptures. But his topknot (called an "ushnisha"), the dot on his forehead (called "urna" in Sanskrit), and his long earlobes are all "marks of the Buddha", used so viewers will be certain who this sculpture represents. This Buddha is a classic example of the unique Gandharan style of early Buddhist art.
(classical Indian music plays and fades off)
India, Central or eastern Madhya Pradesh, 10th century. Sandstone
Purchased with funds from Singapore Reinsurance Corporation Ltd and India International Insurance Pte Ltd
Admire the fine craftsmanship of this Dancing Ganesha sculpture from India.
Clip 2: Dancing Ganesha
Continuing our journey through the Ancient Religions Gallery, as you walk through to the second room of the gallery, you will find a sculpture of the elephant-headed Hindu god Ganesha.
(instrumental music with soft drum plays)
The sculpture is placed on a raised platform in the middle of the gallery. This reddish-brown sandstone sculpture was made in India, in central or eastern Madhya Pradesh province, during the first half of the 10th century. It is about 55 centimetres tall by 40 centimetres wide, so its height would come up to a little taller than the length of your forearm from elbow to fingertips.
(music increases in volume and beat)
The child of the gods Shiva and Parvati, Ganesha is one of the most popular Hindu gods. Known as the remover of obstacles, he is usually worshipped by devotees before they embark on any new venture. In this sculpture, he is standing with his weight leaning on his left leg, with knee slightly bent. His right leg is relaxed and stretched out to the side, also with knee slightly bent. It might just indicate that he's dancing.
In this sculpture, Ganesha has six arms, although all but two are broken off. The arms would have held weapons and his usual attributes (which are objects he traditionally holds that relate to stories about him). The lower two arms are the most well-preserved, and hang relaxed by his torso. He wears multiple bejewelled necklaces, and beaded bangles on his upper arms and forearms. Across his forehead is a jewel-studded headband, and around his belly is wrapped a snake belt. His soft, bulging belly shows that he enjoys many sweet treats, in particular, laddus, which is a round sweet made from chickpea flour!
(lively Indian music plays)
Ganesha has a fun-loving and playful personality. In this sculpture, he shows off his passion for dance through his slightly off-balance pose, which indicates a swaying body. Probably swaying to the sound of music. Two attendants seated at his sides play bongo drums and cymbals. These two attendants are called "ganas". The tops of their heads are roughly at his waist level. A mouse, his vahana, sits between his feet. All Hindu gods have vahanas, which are "vehicles" that help them travel through the heavens.
This Dancing Ganesha sculpture was purchased with funds from Singapore Reinsurance Corporation Ltd, and India International Insurance Pte Ltd. Delicately and intricately carved, it represents a lighter and more humorous aspect of Ganesha’s nature and personality.
(music fades off)
Uzbekistan, Bukhara, 19th century. Gilded silver, turquoise, coral, agate.
Marvel at this strikingly large necklace from Uzbekistan, and learn how amulets are stored inside it.
Clip 1: Amulet necklace
(instrumental string music plays)
You have now arrived at the Jewellery Gallery at ACM. This gallery is supported by Mr Edmond Chin, in honour of his parents, Mary and Philbert Chin. Located on Level 3, it is one of the few permanent museum galleries in the world to showcase island Southeast Asian jewellery. The audio tour for this gallery consists of two clips, and this clip is five minutes long.
(energetic drum beat plays)
One of the oldest art forms, adornments are part of the human experience. From life to death, jewellery is present at every stage, and shares a special relationship with its wearer. Wearing jewellery can enhance beauty, or signal rank and status. Sometimes it is even believed to be protective, and able to ward off evil or disease. The use of precious metals and rare objects from nature make the finest jewellery especially dazzling and highly valued.
Let's look at a striking necklace displayed in a showcase in the right-hand corner of the Jewellery Gallery. It's on the wall at the back of its glass case, and can be viewed in its full glory. Measuring well over a metre – 130 centimetres – and nearly one-third that in width, it is far too large to have been worn by a person! Rather, it would have been draped around the neck of a horse during a wedding procession, or perhaps hung on the wall of an aristocrat’s house.
(Central Asian folk music plays)
Crafted in Uzbekistan during the 19th century, this large necklace is made from twisted silver wire and decorated plates of gilded silver, which are studded with precious gemstones – turquoise, coral, and agate. It has a large, central pendant that is shaped like a wavy-edged oval and topped by a crown-like decoration. Oval red agate stones are attached to the surface in the middle, and at the centre of the crown. They are each bordered by a row of tiny, round inset turquoise stones.
The edges of the oval pendant are complex. Each side resembles a cluster of crested birds huddled close together, seen in profile. Three heads emerge from the oval shape facing left, three face to the right. Small, inset orange-red gemstones form each bird's visible eye.
The pendant itself is an amulet case. There is a hinge at the top of the oval portion of the pendant which opens to reveal a large, shallow compartment where amulets would have been placed. Amulets are objects believed to protect the owner from evil, danger, illnesses, and other unseen forces. Examples of amulets include bits of natural substances, objects blessed by religious figures, or written inscriptions – for instance, verses from sacred texts. In the case of this necklace, an amulet might have been placed to protect the horse and its rider from harm.
Eleven decorative chains are attached to the bottom of the pendant amulet box. They hang down dramatically, as long again as the height of the pendant, adding to the overall splendour of this enormous necklace.
(twinkling sound effect plays)
The main pendant itself is suspended from two chains, each with four large links. The links are rectangular in shape, their surfaces decorated with filigree, inlay, and granulation, and with bird heads at the corners. Imagine a horse sporting this necklace and trotting towards you!
While jewellery is often seen as a form of wealth and outward adornment, this necklace reminds us that it can also have more profound meanings. In this case, the amulet necklace expresses the basic human desire for protection, security, and blessing.
Borneo, Kutai, 1920s. Gold.
Gift of Mr Edmond Chin
Take a trip back in time to Borneo to admire the intricacies of this golden headdress.
Clip 2: Headdress
(sounds of a raging river transits into gold miners digging and rinsing for gold)
Take a trip back to Borneo in the 1920s – an island in Southeast Asia’s Malay Archipelago, rich in metal and mineral resources, with rivers and mines flushed with gold deposits, and populations with vibrant cultures. The luxury of gold and other raw materials in the region allowed local metalsmiths to produce jewellery of the highest quality. A prime example is this gold headdress, made in the Kutai region of eastern Borneo (which is now part of Indonesia) in the 1920s.
(celebratory music plays)
Located in the leftmost corner of the Jewellery Gallery, this approximately 71-centimetre-long headdress was donated to ACM by Mr Edmond Chin, and is made entirely of gold. The central element is a crown in the shape of Garuda, a bird-like creature from Hindu-Buddhist traditions. Garuda is a protector and king of birds. In Hinduism, he is the vehicle of the god Vishnu. Sometimes also called a "mount" (or "vahana" in Sanskrit), a vehicle carries a god or goddess from place to place, and acts as a loyal companion.
The use of Garuda as a design in this headdress shows that elements of older Hindu-Buddhist artistic influences were retained in the Islamic sultanate of Kutai.
(sounds of metalwork, tools clanging)
Garuda's long neck protrudes forward. Its upright head is topped by a crown, and a small leaf-shaped plate of gold dangles from his open mouth, perhaps representing his tongue. Overlapping feathers cover the neck – but the rippled gold surface looks more like fish or snake scales than feathers.
Garuda's wings majestically rise from the base of his neck, spreading out to the left and right, the tips curling gracefully upwards and inward. The cone-shaped tail feathers spread out between the wings – a sort of mini-peacock tail. The wings and tail are shaped with long, narrow strips containing small, repeating patterns. These strips of gold represent individual feathers. Each strip (or feather) is decorated with a pattern of small teardrop-shaped designs. These rich details help bring Garuda to life, and create a shimmering effect in the gold.
(shimmering sound effect plays)
Gold plates shaped like dragons or naga serpents make up the sides of the crown. They are decorated with dense, slightly raised decoration, like on the wings and tail.
Long, S-shaped, gold ear ornaments hang at the sides. To complete the headdress, a triangular hair ornament with scalloped sides attaches at the back of the head. Five decorative chains hang from this ornament. These chains would jingle as the wearer moved.
(sound of chains lightly jingling)
Such an exquisite headdress would have been worn only for important ceremonies or coming of age rituals. It certainly would have drawn attention for the woman lucky enough to wear it, just as it does in its showcase here in the Jewellery Gallery.
Malay Peninsula, Pattani, 18th or 19th century. Jackfruit tree wood, zinc, brass and copper plates
Acquired with the funds from Friends of ACM through Gala Dinner 2003
Discover more about this majestic makara carving from Southeast Asia.
Clip 1: Makara palanquin ornament
[welcoming music plays]
Welcome to the Ancestors and Rituals Gallery, located on Level 2 of the museum. The objects on display here tell of the beliefs and customs of traditional societies across Southeast Asia. The audio tour of this gallery consists of three clips, and this one is four minutes long.
Diverse in its geography, cultures, and languages, Southeast Asia is home to many vibrant communities – from rice growing farmers, to seafaring traders. Many of these societies have a deep respect for their ancestors, and rituals are performed to boost fertility – of animals and people – for the abundance of crops, and to ward off evils and diseases.
[sounds of a flowing river]
One object here that catches our attention – as it was surely created to do – is a towering wooden carving, displayed in a showcase at the centre of the gallery. It stands at around 1.5 metres high, and around 72 centimetres wide, about half its height. It was acquired with funds raised by the Friends of ACM through a Gala Dinner held in 2003.
Made from the wood of a jackfruit tree, the carving depicts the head of a makara. The makara is a mythical sea creature with origins within Hindu-Buddhist traditions, which serves as the vehicle for the Hindu river goddess Ganga. As a vehicle, it helps Ganga on her activities and journeys.
When made by craftsmen or artists, the mythical makara is made up of parts from several different real animals. It is usually described as having the trunk of an elephant, horns of a goat, scales of a fish, and mouth of a crocodile. The example here was created by craftsmen from the Kelantan-Pattani region of the Malay Peninsula. The craftsmen have depicted the makara with a curled elephant’s trunk, while its lower jaw forms a long snout, like a crocodile’s, with sharp metal teeth. Two long brown horns, similar to those of a goat, jut out upwards from the top of its head in a V-shape formation. The makara’s eyes are big and round, and seem to stare straight ahead, as if rearing up to go forward.
Over and around its head are striking ornamental carvings of red, yellow, and green leaves and flowers. These carved decorations also flow down like a horse’s mane at the back of its head. Below its jaw, the carvings resemble a goat’s beard. The lively decorative elements really convey a sense of energy and movement.
[sounds of nature transit into a lively percussive beat]
This makara was used to decorate the front of a palanquin, which is a ceremonial parade float. The head would have been attached to a temporary “body” of wood, bamboo, rattan, and cloth. In the 19th and early 20th centuries, such a palanquin would have been used to carry the sons of village notables to their circumcision ceremony, a rite of passage among males in some Southeast Asian cultures, especially the Muslim communities of the region.
Long, S-shaped, gold ear ornaments hang at the sides. To complete the headdress, a triangular hair ornament with scalloped sides attaches at the back of the head. Five decorative chains hang from this ornament. These chains would jingle as the wearer moved.
[soft piano music plays]
Why was a makara used to adorn a palanquin for this ceremony? The communities of the Kelantan-Pattani region – especially the fishermen and sailors of these communities – have long thought of the makara as a protective symbol. And so they often made makara motifs and imagery to decorate their boats, the doors and windowsills of their houses, and on processional vehicles like the palanquin that this majestic makara head once adorned.
Indonesia, Nias Island, 19th century. Wood, cotton, pigment
Learn about the importance of ancestor figures to Nias Island communities.
Clip 2: Ancestor figure
[lively music plays]
As you make your way further into the Ancestors and Rituals Gallery, you will spot a carved wooden figure of a seated man. This dark brown sculpture is almost 60 centimetres tall.
This is an ancestor figure most likely from northern Nias Island. It is called siraha salawa in the languages of the Nias peoples. This sculpture was made back in the 19th century. Nias lies off the north-western coast of Sumatra, almost directly due west of us here in Singapore. The sculpture probably represents an important village founder, or the most ancient ancestor of a noble family.
[contemplative piano and string instrumental piece plays]
Like all siraha salawa figures, this one sits unclothed on a small stool, resting his elbows on his knees. He holds a cup or small bowl in his hands. Offerings such as betel nuts, which have symbolic and ritual significance in many Southeast Asian communities, might have been placed in the bowl during important ceremonies. His beard is trimmed into a neat rectangle, and his lips are pursed, with his mouth slightly open, and his expression serene. A thin strip of wood below his nose represents a moustache.
Befitting his important social status, the siraha salawa figure is wearing elaborate adornments that would only be worn by male nobility. These include a snug fitting necklace, made in one piece. Although carved in wood here, it looks like some of the beaten-metal necklaces on display in our Jewellery Gallery. He is also wearing a single earring, hanging from a hole in the right earlobe, which is stretched from the weight, allowing the earring to touch his shoulder. These male figures usually wear only one earring, together with a single bracelet on the right arm. Female ancestors are shown wearing earrings in both ears, and bracelets on both the left and right arms.
In addition to the jewellery, a magnificent headdress sits atop his head. It is nearly a third the size of the figure himself. This headdress has a circular base lined with round disks, each with a smooth cone protruding from its centre. A large, triangular element with notched edges, six on each side, projects forward at a 45-degree angle. It resembles the prow of a ship. Faded red ribbons of loosely woven cloth are wound and knotted haphazardly around the notches. The ends hang loose, a few reach the base of the crown. This headdress is modelled on real ones worn by leaders of Nias communities.
[sounds of craftsmen carving wood]
Ancestors played a central role in the artmaking and religion of Nias Island. Craftsmen created a variety of ancestor images which housed the spirits of ancestors and allowed for communication between the human and supernatural worlds. Although a typical Nias village house might have many smaller ancestor figures tied to its walls, siraha salawa were seen only in the households of the most wealthy in the community. The family would make offerings to it to secure protection for the home. The cloth ribbons on this one may have been added as offerings or as additional adornments. These ancestor figures would be set on a post in the largest room of the house, where they played a part in protecting the generations of residents residing there.
Myanmar, Shan State, 1908. Silver
Marvel at the intricate craftsmanship on this silver bowl.
Clip 3: Bowl with zodiac animals
[soft piano music plays]
One section of the Ancestors and Rituals Gallery features showcases of fascinating silver and lacquer objects. In one of them, there stands a richly decorated silver bowl. Thinly beaten and surprisingly light, this bowl is a splendid example of Shan State craftsmanship. Shan State is in the eastern part of present-day Myanmar.
An inscription on the bottom gives the date, 1908, and reads: "U Kyan Lay's silver bowl". This man may have been a monk, because the shape, wide at the rim and tapering to a smaller round base, is similar to a monk’s alms bowl. The alms bowl is an important object in the daily lives of Buddhist monks, as it is used to collect alms (either in the form of food or money) from supporters in the community. Alms bowls come in many sizes, but such a fancy silver one would be reserved for ceremonial offerings, or for serving food at important celebrations.
The bowl is around 25 centimetres high, with a diameter of 23 centimetres at the rim, which makes it larger and deeper than your average serving bowl. It is closer in size to an average rice cooker or soup pot. What makes it remarkable are the detailed carvings that cover the exterior of the bowl, except for the plain narrow rims at its top and base. These low-relief carvings are done in such a way that the decorative designs on the bowl project slightly out from its background surface. The decoration is separated into equally sized, overlapping fish-scale shaped sections. There is a different animal in each section amidst a backdrop of tiny, curling leaf forms, perhaps to suggest a forest.
[medley of animal sounds, from deer running to the flapping of birds’ wings]
The animals are drawn from various traditional sources, including the eight animals of the Burmese Zodiac. These include an elephant, lion, tiger, rat, and a serpent-like dragon. On the bowl, there are also deer leaping at full stretch, running with heads and antlers held high. Many different birds can also be seen – roosters in full strut, other birds flying, swooping, and coming to land with their wings held over their back. There's even a squirrel, and what looks like a camel sitting on the ground.
[sounds of craftsmen in a silver workshop]
The bowl is made of silver, a popular material used extensively throughout Southeast Asia. In fact, the art of making silver wares was practised in Burma for centuries. Scenes from the Ramayana and the Jataka Tales (which are stories of the Buddha’s previous lives) were popular for decorative designs. In Buddhist cultures, silver was often used to make special objects, such as items for donations to temples, gifts for guests, or to commemorate important events. This bowl is a fine example of one of these objects.
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