In Malaysia, only two states are truly renowned for pottery. Sarawak is, famous
for its ethnic pottery that captures the beauty and the intricacies of
traditional designs, which has become a must-have souvenir item. The other comes
from the state of Perak and is called labu sayong. These water calabashes
have been around for more than a century and have enjoyed a cherished albeit
Although the utilitarian purpose of the calabash was to
keep water fresh and chilled, local folklore claims that water stored in these
containers is infused with magical properties. It is said that the water stored
in a labu sayong has the healing power to cure minor illnesses such as
fevers and coughs. In the past, the calabash was used in rituals performed at
healing ceremonies where water kept in it was blessed with incantations.
This magical aspect of calabashes is attributed to the clay that is used to
make them. Labu sayong is almost exclusively made from a type of clay
known to the locals as tanah busut, which translates as 'anthill earth'.
This clay is found only around the riverbanks and paddy fields in Sayong and
nowhere else. Although there are a few other areas in Perak involved in making
these calabashes, the clay from these areas are considered inferior and do not
match the quality of clay that comes from Sayong. In fact, the word sayong was
affixed to these calabashes much later to distinguish the earthernware that
originates from Sayong compared to other areas.
Amongst the many types of labu sayong, the black calabash is the most
popular and easily identifiable. It has a smooth, black surface that is glossy
and embellished with motifs of traditional flowers, spices and leaves around its
top, neck and body.
It is generally believed that this famous craftsmanship was brought in from
Minangkabau, Indonesia. Today, the art of making labu has been passed on from
generation to generation. Safaradin Mat Noh and his wife, Maznah Sulaiman, who
are known as Pak and Mak in the village, both learnt the art from their
forefathers and have been involved in it since their schooldays. Pak and his
fellow craftsmen source the clay from various parts of Sayong. Next, the dried
clay is pounded into a fine powder using a traditional wood pounder, not
dissimilar to ones used in pounding rice. To further remove impurities, the
powdered clay is sieved. Water is then added and the clay is kneaded to remove
any air. The 'dough' is then left alone for a day or two to dry out before it is
ready to be shaped.
The moulding of the labu is done in stages beginning from the base,
the body, the neck and the mouth. The process then follows the usual practice of
pottery using a potter's wheel. Once the entire calabash has been shaped, the
semi-dry calabash surface is polished using a smooth pebble.
The motifs are next stamped onto the calabash using stampers that have been
carved out of wood. The potter carefully makes the imprint of the design on each
calabash, normally allowing his own flight of fancy to dictate size, shape and
design on each piece. Once complete, the calabash is left to dry for a few days,
before being fired in a pit for about 12 hours.
When the yellowish brown calabash turns red from the heat, it is taken out
and immediately tossed into a mixture of dried rice husks and earth that,
amazingly, produces a black sheen within seconds on the calabash's surface.
Like Pak and Mak, there are many craftsmen in Sayong who are involved in the
craft, trying very hard to keep it alive.