Massive Ceremonial Betel Box (
Mindanao, the Philippines, mid-19th century
length: 53.0cm (72cm including handle supports), height: 28.5cm; width: 26.0cm
This exceptional silver-inlaid brass box is among the largest and possibly the largest such
betel containers known. The silverwork and engraving is unusually fine and detailed for a box of this size. Known as a
, it is from the Islamic Maranao people on Mindanao island, the Philippines. Beneath the hinged lid sits inside a separate, removable tray. The tray itself is inlaid with silver and has four hinged lids over three compartments intended for the nut, leaf and lime – the main ingredients of the betel quid.
The exterior panels are inlaid with stylised
bird motifs amid foliage arabesques and with scrolling
(stylised rope) borders. The repetitive foliage motifs are typical of Islamic representations of the infinite and the sacred. The handles are in the stylised shape of
tail feathers. They too are inlaid with silver. Designs such as these are drawn from a local design repertoire that has origins in wood carving.
Almost certainly the box has noble provenance or belonged to a village headman. It was
designed for someone who routinely had a large number of concurrent visitors; its monumental size ensures that it has the capacity for many betel quids.
represents a fine and large example of Islamic metalwork from the most eastern outreach of Islamic art and civilisation: Mindanao island being significantly further east than even China.
Several such boxes have been illustrated, but they are smaller and have lesser quality silverwork than the one here. One of 21cm in length is illustrated in Rooney, D.F.,
Betel Chewing Traditions in South-East Asia
, Oxford University Press, 1993, page 54. Another of 18cm length and 8cm wide is illustrated in Fraser-Lu, S.,
Silverware of South-East Asia
, Oxford University Press, 1989, p. 109. Another, 51.5cm long, is shown in Brownrigg, H.,
Betel Cutters from the Samuel Eilenberg Collection
, Thames & Hudson, 1992, p. 40. Another, 20 cm long, is in the Doris Duke Collection (Hawaii).
Inventory no.: 332