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Vigan jars find new home
in Ayala Alabang gardens
Text and Photos
By Cynthia O. Valdes

VIGAN jars--those somber, brooding stoneware vessels of sturdy make, fired in the kilns of the pinagburnayan in the Ilocos--have come to acquire a new function in the gardens of Ayala Alabang.

Jars as garden décor are being manufactured now in many places all over the Philippines, but those made in Vigan come from a long way back. They are the only ones in the country today made in wood-burning kilns that have been around for more than a hundred years.

Vigan's jars have traditionally been called burnay in the Ilocos region and the jar-making operations pinagburnayan. Burnay jars are strong, thickly potted and impervious to liquids. Unglazed and devoid of any manner of decoration, they are clearly unpretentious vessels made to serve a purpose.

It is in these jars that anchovy or small fishes are fermented in salt to make bagoong which the Ilocanos use in their favorite dishes of pinakbet and dinengdeng. The burnay is also used in vinegar and winemaking. To keep the contents clean and undisturbed during the fermentation process, the mouth of the jar is covered with dried and stretched pig's bladder or with securely fastened banana leaves.

Piddig, a small town in Ilocos Norte, specializes in a homemade wine called basi which is made from crushed sugar cane juice mixed with barks and berries from local trees. This backyard brew is a mellow, pale red drink prized for its tonic and restorative qualities. They are fermented and stored in jars kept under the house until ready to use. Connoisseurs claim that the best basi is achieved only after three years of aging.

In Ilocano, the term burnay also refers to a tree (antidesma bunius) which is small to medium in size (10 meters tall). The same tree is called bignay in the Tagalog-speaking region. Its flowers turn into berries which grow in clusters on a spike. Red, fleshy, acidic and edible when ripe, they are said to make an excellent jam or wine. Although they grow all over the country, they are more abundant in certain areas. It has been an old practice in the Philippines to name after plants or fruits places where these are commonly found.

'Pinagburnayan' potters

A visit to the historic 16th-century Spanish colonial town of Vigan is not complete without a side-trip to the pinagburnayan. It easily complements the row upon row of 100-year-old bahay na bato, which line the streets, adding yet another touch of local color. Located just outside of the town square, the enclave of pottery-making factories can be found within a few meters of one another.

Being a coastal town in Ilocos Sur, Vigan must have attracted ancient traders arriving by sea or by river, Indians and Chinese among them. Undoubtedly many of them came to settle or at least stayed until the next change of the monsoon. A Chinese quarter called pariancillo most likely antedated the ''mestizo quarter'' established during the Spanish occupation.

The oral history of the potters is yet to be properly documented. Aware that they are part of the town's history, the potters of the pinagburnayan cheerfully relate to tourists and the merely curious, the tale of how their enterprise came about. However, as most oral accounts go, a few inconsistencies invariably crop up in the telling and retelling.

The foregoing is a result of my own cursory investigation of the pottery operations culled from visits to Vigan in 1994 and 1996:

Ruby factory, owned and operated by Fidel Go, inherited the ''business'' from his father Go Kay Tiat. From five wives, Fidel sired a total of 12 children, most of whom are involved in one way or another in the operations. Some of them sell the jars going as far as Nueva Ecija, Tarlac and Zambales. Others, like son James (in his 20s) man the day-to-day operations.

The RG factory just behind Ruby's occupies a bigger area. RG are initials of Ramon Go, the original owner of the factory. It is not clear whether the first owner was actually related to the founder of the Ruby factory. Teresita Chan Alcid who currently manages RG says she is a great granddaughter of the original owner and therefore the fourth generation from the founder.

At some distance away, Nicolas Pedro Amistad (NPA) who appears to be in his 40s runs a smaller factory. His products are similar although lesser in numbers than those produced by the other two places. He believes his ancestors together with those of the other potters, arrived more or less at the same time to establish the kilns in the area. Vigan's potters are believed to have come from Fujian where they claim to still have existing relatives.

Jarmaking process

The clay used to make the jars are gathered from fields not too far away. After they are cleaned by removing pebbles and other impurities, black and red clay are further mixed with sand to bring it to the right consistency. James Go showed us how his carabao stomps on the clay to break it down. It is further mixed with water, kneaded and wedged by hand to make it more manageable.

This mixture sits in clay pits covered with a damp cloth until it is ready to be used. A potter demonstrates the forming process (''throwing on the wheel'') first making the base as he controls the wheel with his foot. The vessel sits on a slab placed on top of an ''invisible'' axle. The potter's dexterous hands forms the emerging vessel, splashing it with water from time to time to keep the clay soft and malleable.

The body of a large jar would be made in two parts and joined together. These joints when smoothed by hand, a process done in less than five minutes by the expert potter, are hardly visible in the finished jar.

The jars are stored some two weeks in an airy section of the galvanized iron-roofed factory for ''drying.'' They then undergo a three-day ''smoking'' period which could be the reason for their dark appearance (other than a ''reducing'' atmosphere in the kiln during firing). The kiln is filled through doors at either side. The inner structure itself is made of bricks and covered with earth. The largest of the kilns, according to Teresita Alcid, can accommodate as much as 500 jars (in graduated sizes) in one firing.

The doors are sealed with bricks and clay when firing is about to begin. Huge stacks of wood are lighted at the mouth of the kiln. Stoking holes are located at regular intervals on the sides of the mound. These kilns reach a firing temperature of 1,200o Celsius and the firing takes from 24 to 48 hours, depending on its load.

They wait for as long as three days for the kiln to cool down and the sealed doors to be broken open. A successful firing will see most of the jars in good condition. But if for some reason some jars collapse, these too manage to be sold as interesting decorative items. Even cracked pieces, further broken down into slabs, can be used to line salt beds.

Chinese dragon kilns

In China, similar kilns are called dragon kilns (longyao). This is a type of ''climbing'' kiln, so called because it is built on a hillside or at least on a natural incline. The average kiln would be around 30 meters long and 1.5 to 3 meters in width. But a large kiln could go as long as 100 meters. They are said to resemble a recumbent dragon with fire spewing from its nostrils. This type of traditional kiln has had a long history of use in China, perhaps from the beginning of its ceramic history.

Ceramic production along the southeastern coast of China reached a high point starting from the Northern Song period (960-1126) with the discovery of a maritime route and the corresponding acceleration of overseas trade. Kilns were built clustered around ''kiln complexes.'' There were hundreds of them in one county alone. With several counties in each province and these kilns producing 40,000 bowls in a single firing, one can imagine the enormity of the ceramic industry in China.

Over a period of some 3,000 years, China's ceramic history has ebbed and flowed with the fortunes of the imperial court. The problematic last years of the Manchu rule as well as the turbulent early years of the republic sent many Chinese artisans looking for new opportunities in the Nanyang (Southern Ocean) countries where many of their clansmen had settled in previous centuries. Other than political turmoil, the industry suffered from feudalistic and oppressive practices from within itself which kept the industry backward. Abroad, they faced stiff competition from Japanese ceramics.

Descendants of Chinese immigrant potters now operate ceramic industries in Kota Kinabalu in Sabah; Kuching, Miri and Sibu in Sarawak; and Singkawang in West Kalimantan. They simply continue to supply from a local source, a commodity already familiar to the native population and who had been using them for a long time.

Storage vessels

Jars as standard container of the day originally left China to hold provisions for a long sea journey as well as to contain a variety of goods traded. However, tribal people in Southeast Asia still steeped in animist rituals, converted these everyday storage vessels to ritual use.

Jars were used to contain the ceremonial rice wine during weddings and festivals. They were used in burial to contain the body of the dead or inter his bones. With this ritual function, jars were transformed from practical objects into ornate and colorful vessels, and often embellished with superstitious symbols.

Together with tribal beads and porcelain wares, jars have become treasured possessions, heirlooms handed down from father to son. Used as bride price or fines to settle debts or disputes, a man's wealth and prestige were often measured in terms of the number of jars he possessed, along with his animals and rice fields.

Kilns in Borneo

In a study tour of Sabah, Sarawak, and Singkawang in West Kalimantan, I had an opportunity to examine these pottery operations.

The kilns in Borneo although basically the same type of dragon kiln that also exist in Vigan, produce a much wider variety and generally better quality of ceramics. Raw materials of good quality clay and abundant wood supplies to fire their kilns existed in the area, and there was a demand for their products among the native population. Moreover, the potters who came to Borneo were probably better equipped to build a proper kiln and control firing to produce quality glazed ceramics.

Present-day potters in Borneo count among their local clientele, not only resorts, hotels and the tourist trade but also natives still pursuing traditional practices. With growing expertise, Bornean potters have succeeded in replicating old jars that ''not even the Dayaks can tell the difference.'' These reproductions are exported to Singapore, the Philippines, Australia, United Kingdom and the United States.

Although the most common of ash glazes can be achieved from ordinary materials such as straw and grasses, the potters of Vigan never developed glazing. There was probably absolutely no good reason to further glaze their jars. Thick, heavy and sufficiently vitrified, they were nonporous anyway. As such, they were good enough to be used as water containers where a jar or two sits today in the bathroom or batalan (country kitchen) of a Vigan house.

Because glazed ceramics in plentiful quantities were easily available through established coastal trade networks in northern Luzon, it was infinitely cheaper and more practical to trade for them rather than to manufacture them. For centuries, the Igorots of the Cordillera had been bartering gold and copper for jars with Chinese, Japanese and Bornean merchants along the Ilocos, Pangasinan and Zambales coasts.

Into the next century

The products of Vigan's pinagburnayan were made for purposes which they adequately serve today. As the town of Vigan continues to resist change, the visitor is bound to encounter still, those water-laden jars filled to the brim and thoughtfully laid in store for his necessary ablutions.

Moreover, the plush gardens of Ayala Alabang have lately discovered the charm of Vigan's jars as rustic accents to happily break the monotony of shrubs and bushes.

And so have our humble native jars arrived into modern times acquiring yet another dimension to their usefulness. Elegant and dignified in their own simple and functional way, the jars of Vigan, like the town itself, are relics of a centuries-old tradition coming to Philippine shores from a land beyond the sea. Hopefully, in their versatility, they will carry on to the next century yet another facet of our history.