Essay by Chae Haejeong
Ewers with this distinctive form, with a bent spout on one side and a long neck with a disc-shaped protrusion in the middle, are known as “kundika,” from their Sanskrit name. In Korean, such bottles are called “jeongbyeong” (淨甁). Designated as National Treasure 92, this bronze ewer is considered the representative example of a kundika from the Goryeo period.
One of the most striking aspects of this kundika is its unusual green color, which arouses great curiosity. People often wonder if green was the original color of the bottle, and some even mistakenly think that the bottle might be made from Goryeo celadon. In fact, the green color is a “patina,” a thin film that forms as bronze oxidizes over long periods of time. Unlike most forms of corrosion, however, the patina only enhances the beauty of this kundika.
Both the front and back of the ewer are decorated with an elaborate landscape of swaying willows and islands of reeds in a pond. Among the swimming waterfowl, a few people are quietly crossing the water, while other birds soar overhead.
Amazingly, this delicate waterscape, which resembles a painting, was rendered by carving thin lines (just 0.5 mm wide) into the bronze and then filling the channels with silver. Although the silver wire has now darkened due to tarnish, we can easily imagine how it must have originally sparkled and shined against the bronze background, bringing the design to life. With its remarkable form and delicate design, this kundika is revered as one of the finest metal crafts of the Goryeo period.
Kundika: essential vessel for Buddhist monks
Appearing first in India, kundika bottles were used by Buddhist monks who were traveling from the temple to practice asceticism. As compared to extant Indian kundika bottles, Korean versions typically have a longer tube-like mouth above the disc-shaped protuberance, which functions as the spout.
Goryeo kundika bottles generally match the shape described in records written by Yijing, a monk of the Tang Dynasty. During the Tang Dynasty (618–907), when Buddhism was flourishing, many monks from different parts of Asia went to India on pilgrimage, where they often acquired Buddhist texts. Yijing stayed in India and Southeast Asia for twenty-five years, and wrote about the Buddhist and monastic doctrines of the region in A Record of Inner Dharma Sent Back from the Southern Seas (南海寄歸內法傳). In the sixth chapter of this book, Yijing classifies various types of water as either “clean” or “dirty,” and explains when and how each type should be used. In addition, he describes how to make a bottle for carrying water, and the description matches the shape of a kundika. Bottles with this shape may have been introduced in China as early as the third century C.E., when Chinese Buddhist monks began to visit India.
In The Brahmajala Sutra (梵網經), translated into Chinese by Kumarajiva, there is a list of eighteen items that ascetic monks must possess, including a bottle, bowl, monk’s staff (錫杖), incense burner, and water filter (漉水囊). For example, the text explains that drinking water must be filtered through tightly woven silk or cotton in order to prevent inadvertently killing any insects that might be in the water. To properly collect water, monks were instructed to cover the spout with the filter, tie it securely, and then place the bottle in a stream, well, or body of water. Being used in this way to collect clean water, kundika bottles were a daily necessity for Buddhist monks.
Jeongbyeong and subyeong
In June 1123, diplomats sent by Emperor Huizong of the Song Dynasty arrived at the Goryeo capital of Gaegyeong to express condolences for King Yejong and to deliver the emperor’s edict to King Injong. The Song envoy who was in charge of diplomatic gifts was Xu Jing, who actively studied Goryeo’s architecture, clothing, and customs, and wrote about his findings in Illustrated Record of the Chinese Embassy to the Goryeo Court in the Xuanhe Era (宣和奉使高麗圖經). Although the illustrations have been lost, the text still provides a fascinating account of how the Goryeo people lived in the early twelfth century. For instance, the book meticulously describes various types of vessels, listing their name, shape, and function. According to the text, two different types of bottles were used to store water: jeongbyeong (淨甁) and subyeong (水甁).
Notably, Xu Jing’s description of the jeongbyeong seems to match the shape of this kundika bottle. The record states that a jeongbyeong has a long neck with a disc-shaped protrusion in the middle, and a short spout with a narrow midsection on one side. Thus, it is estimated that these types of water bottles were called “jeongbyeong” by the Goryeo people of the time. In many cases, the names “jeongbyeong” and “subyeong” have been used interchangeably, since both types of bottle were used to store water. But in the world of crafts, objects are often characterized by their shape. Since we know that this particular type of water bottle was called a “jeongbyeong,” it should be differentiated from a “subyeong.”
Kundika of Korea
The vast majority of extant Korean kundika bottles were produced in the Goryeo period. Based on Memorabilia of the Three Kingdoms (三國遺事) , it is estimated that this type of kundika was introduced to Korea by the late seventh century (at the latest). The oldest extant kundika bottle (which is located in Seokguram Grotto; not pictured here) was produced around the mid-eighth century.
Most metal kundika bottles have undecorated surfaces; among those that are decorated, the most common motif is the waterside landscape design, inlaid with various types of metal wire. Waterside landscape designs (such as the one on the main bottle under discussion) appear not only on metal kundika bottles and incense burners, but also on celadon kundika bottles and bowls. Judging by extant artifacts, the waterside landscape design was a very popular decorative motif during the Goryeo period.
As compared to metal kundika bottles, celadon kundika bottles were adorned with a wider range of designs and decorative techniques. In addition to waterside landscapes, celadon kundika bottles were also decorated with designs of lotuses, chrysanthemums, peonies, and scrolls. Adding to the diversity, the designs were rendered with different techniques, including inlay, incision, and embossing.
The celadon kundika bottle (Treasure 344) features an enlarged detail of a waterside landscape design, wherein the geese and mandarin ducks are depicted larger than the reeds and willow. As this bottle demonstrates, the designs on ceramic bottles became more schematic over time, a trend that did not occur with metal bottles.
According to Illustrated Record of the Chinese Embassy to the Goryeo Court in the Xuanhe Era (mentioned earlier), Goryeo aristocrats and government officials used kundika bottles to store water. It is also known that such bottles were also used in Buddhist and Taoist temples and in the homes of ordinary people. It is quite interesting that a Buddhist ritual implement apparently became a popular household item, although it is not known whether average people used the bottle to filter water in the same way as Buddhist monks. This phenomenon seems to reflect the deep influence of Buddhism on daily life during the Goryeo period.
Read this essay and learn more on the National Museum of Korea website.