by Karen Loh
A kendi is a drinking or pouring vessel with two distinctive openings and a handle-less form. The two openings are the wider mouth on top of the vessel, where liquid can be poured in, and a spout to pour out from. It may or may not have a neck or lid. Liquid cools very quickly in the kendi. To drink from a kendi, the neck of the vessel is held and the liquid is poured without touching the lips. The vessel’s shape makes it easily transportable either on foot or by boat.
Whilst it is unknown when the kendi first appeared, etymological evidence suggests that such vessels were first used in Asia. This is evidenced from the various names used in Indonesia, such as ‘kandi’ in Toba and ‘kondi’ in Acheh, Sumatra, as well as ‘gendi’ in Java and ‘gandi’ in Macassar, Sulawesi. In South India, kendi was known as ‘gindi’ and ‘kindi’ in Kerala. Buddhist ceremonies in Sri Lanka utilized an earthen or metal ‘kendiya’ or ‘kotala’ (kotayala). The Sanskrit name for the container is ‘kundi’, which means a pot without a spout, and this is probably where the vessel’s name originated. It is also referred to as a ‘kundi-ka’; ‘ka’ meaning small in Sanskrit. The smaller kundika usually serves as a sprinkler. In addition, it is called “kamandalu” in Hindi, which means water jug or container used by Buddhist monks and priests.
Kendis have been produced and traded widely in South East Asia since early times. Thailand, Indonesia, the Philippines and Vietnam became major sources, although kendi were also produced in China from the Tang Dynasty (618-906CE), primarily for export. The discovery of ceramic ware, such as celadon and brown-glazed ware, fine paste bottles and kendi was made from artefacts recovered from the Intan Wreck (930 CE), Cirebon Wreck (11th century), Java Sea Wreck (c1275 CE), and Bakau Wreck (15th century). Such discoveries underline the demand and use of the kendi. By the 17th century, kendis were made in Japan, the Netherlands and Germany, and Dutch blue-and-white delftware kendis depicted pictures of nature and everyday scenes.
The kendi is functional and utilitarian, being used for everyday storage, cooking as well as in spiritual ceremonies. Besides water, kendis were also used to decant wine, administer medicine, and as alterware for rituals, such as pouring or sprinkling ‘holy water’ during religious ceremonies. The practice of sprinkling holy water from kendis was widely used in Hindu and Buddhist ceremonies from the 7th to the 15th centuries. The kendi is one of the eighteen sacred items carried by Buddhist pilgrims, and Buddhist statues of Avalokitesvara and Maitreya (the future Buddha) are depicted holding such jugs. Similarly, Hindu statues and images of deities such as Brahma and Shiva are also depicted with kendis. The kendi is made of metal in Pakistan and is named the lota, and is still used by Muslims for ablutions before praying. The pots were also used to ward off evil and given as wedding gifts. In traditional Indonesian and Philippine societies, kendis were offered as funerary items and used in ritual ceremonies for pouring libations of holy water collected from sacred rivers. Archipelago rulers cleansed themselves with holy water poured from a kendi as a symbol of purification during their installation ceremony. Europeans also made use of kendis and even manufactured them, which they referred to as a ‘goglet’, from the Portuguese word ‘gorgoleta’, (with ‘gorja’ meaning throat).
Kendis can be either plain or patterned. The form can be either male or female: a male form taking an angular shape with square shoulders, while the female form is round. There was no tradition that dictated which form should be used for any specific purpose, although in remote Sumatran agrarian villages, men drink from a female kendi while women drink from a male kendi, to symbolize the importance of procreation and fertility. Another type of kendi which is a symbol of fertility is the kendi susu (milk kendi), which has a squat body and a spout in the form of a female breast.
Plain kendis usually have a flat base and take the shape of either a pumpkin or an onion, having either a mammiform or an elongated body with a tall neck, while others have short, straight necks. Kendis normally have a lipped mouth at the end of the neck and a spout on the shoulder. Bulbous kendis are the most common shape, usually made from unglazed fired clay or earthenware. Patterned kendis are often more elaborately shaped, taking the form of a creature such as a dragon, crocodile, frog, elephant, or goose, and can be scored with floral patterns or geometrical strokes. Some kendis have stylized leaf, floral or botanic scrolls, still life motifs or Buddhist emblems. Such ornate pieces are usually made either of precious metals such as gold, silver or bronze, or of fine porcelain or celadon. The kendi maling or thieves’ kendi is an interesting and unusual variety that originates from Indonesia. Also known as valalu kotalaya (secret jug) in Sri Lanka, this type has no upper aperture, and is filled by means of a funnel in the base when the inverted vessel is submerged.