Ritual and revelry:
the art of drinking in Asia

27 September 2012 – 6 January 2013
Room 91

This unique exhibition will explore the various contexts in which water, alcohol and tea have been used in Asian cultures throughout history, displaying objects used in and relating to the diverse and rich traditions of liquid consumption. The exhibition contains striking vessels, some of which have never been on display, as well as beautiful paintings and images. This is a rare opportunity to see objects from across Asia in one display, concerned with both religious and non-religious practices.

As of March of 2012, according to the United Nations, nine out of ten people in the world have access to clean water. This is a stark reminder of the dual power of water; although able to sustain life, it simultaneously has the potential to kill. Water lies at the heart of all the liquids covered in this exhibition, be they alcohol-based beverages or the various kinds of teas consumed across Asia. In order to address the many different practices of consumption, the exhibition has been divided into two main sections: Ritual and Revelry, with a third section dedicated to tea, which bridges both of these spheres.

Although both ritual and revelry can be intimately intertwined, the exhibition begins with the profound significance of water. In Hinduism, for example, it is intimately connected with purity of mind and body. It is believed to have spiritual cleansing powers and is therefore associated with major rites of passage in a person’s lifetime. Often personified as goddesses, in the Hindu tradition, rivers are themselves frequently subject to worship and pilgrimage. The exhibition will display objects to demonstrate this sacred relationship in Hinduism Buddhism, and Islam as well.

In addition to water, beer, blood or its substitutes were sometimes used in ritual contexts. They were contained in striking vessels, such as the Tibetan skull-cap known as a kapala shown in the exhibition. Made in the eighteenth or nineteenth century, it consists of sections of a human skull that is mounted in a richly ornamented brass base. As spiritual enlightenment is the ultimate goal of the devout Buddhist, the use of the skull-cup was essential in order to help transcend the material body and mind towards an ultimately liberated spiritual state.

The importance of tea will be illustrated through many exceptional objects within the exhibition, including an exquisite silver tea set from Bhuj in Western India, where the handles have been shaped into bamboo stems; or a Japanese brazier shaped like a demon’s face, pronouncing judgment on those around it. Tea became popular among Buddhist monks in the mountainous areas of southern China where conditions were good for cultivation. From the monasteries tea drinking then spread to the educated elite and on to the rest of society. Before the advent of steeped tea (leaves brewed in hot water) in the fifteenth century, large bowls such the black-glazed wares from the Jian kilns in northern Fujian were used, and can be seen in the exhibition. The powdered tea would be infused with water and whisked in the bowls which were placed on stands; these were often made from lacquered wood so that the hot bowl was not touched.

Another example in which the boundaries of ritual and revelry are blurred comes in the form of sake, which features in the second section of the exhibition, Revelry. A Japanese alcoholic drink made from fermented rice, sake was, like tea, initially produced in Buddhist temples before the advent of the industrial scale production that occurred from at least the fifteenth century. The controlled consumption of alcohol during religious rituals was common at this time, but as the production of sake increased, so did its popularity as the celebratory drink of choice. Objects that illustrate the multiple roles that sake played in society can be seen in the lacquered wooden sake bottle that was used as an altar piece, and in a wonderful diminutive netsuke (an accessory to garments) which shows the three effects of sake: sadness, euphoria and fatigue.

Stoneware kendi

Stoneware kendi painted with four-clawed dragon. Vietnam, c. 1440–1480


For further information or images please contact the Press Office on +44 (0)20 7323 8394 / 8583 or communications@britishmuseum.org

Notes to editors

Opening hours 10.00-17.30 Saturday to Thursday, 10.00-20.30 Fridays. The exhibition runs between 27 September 2012 – 6 January 2013

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