A pair of Peengan dolls, bought at an auction in Kolkata

The festival of Navaratri just got over and that had me pondering over the provenance of some the kolu dolls. Many households put out their clay treasures – some of the dolls weigh quite a bit, are over a century old, and reflect the era in which they were made. At home, I paused over a pair in porcelain – a man and woman dressed in the height of 18th century English fashion though I am sure they are of later origin and have probably never travelled west, not beyond Anna Nagar anyway! The reason I bring them up today is to reflect over the Tamil word for porcelainware – peengan. And so, let us see some colonial history (and beyond) related to Porcelain, Pottery and Peengan.

Peengan in old Tamil Dictionaries

The word is clearly alien to us. Unlike fired terracotta items, which have clear nomenclature in Tamil, glazed ware is invariably qualified as peengan. The old Tamil dictionaries identify the word as of foreign origin. JP Fabricius defines it as porcelain, chinaware and a plate. Miron Winslow in his dictionary includes earthenware too in his definition. Both these lexicographers incidentally toiled over their works in our city, the former in the 18th century at what he referred to as ‘Wepery’ and the latter almost a century after, at Chintadripet. The University of Madras lexicon adds that Pinkan is of Persian origin. 

Persian, Arabic and Turkic versions

Peengan however seems to have wandered far and wide. It is undoubtedly of Persian origin where Pengan means cup. The Turks made it fincan and the Arabs finjan. And the Malays changed it to pinggan which means plate. We seem to have come along sometime, and taken the word peengan to mean anything made of ceramic. And boy, did we go about collecting peengan with a vengeance. 

Peengan dolls from England, Burma and China

I am sure there are some aristocratic households in the city that possessed and still possess dolls made by Royal Doulton, Spode and Wedgwood and good for them, but the bulk of Madras and by that I mean city and Presidency, looked east for this kind of ware – cups, plates, jars and dolls arrived from Burma and Malaysia. The Nagarathar, inveterate collectors,  must have brought quite a bit. That was from the 19thcentury onwards but a good hundred years earlier the Chinese had entered the trade. Entire dinner sets for the colonials in Madras were arriving from China.

The jury is still out on why NSC Bose Road was once called China Bazaar but the name has been around from at least the 18th century. And when you consider that it was near other areas named after commodities – Ratan, Mat and Flower, it makes you wonder. 

Peengan Martaban and Jadis

In today’s Chennai peengan may have faded somewhat but there was a time when it was a word in regular use. The compounders with doctors prepared powders in peengan, homes had peengan pickle jars and a variety of smaller containers for other condiments.

These latter were always in two colours – brown and white. There were large ceramic containers in a dark glaze that came from Martaban (now Mottama) in Burma (now Myanmar) and even now in North India, jars are known as martaban. We know of it here as jaadi – the word is clearly of foreign origin, and I am not sure whether like Peengan it has anything to do with the Arabic jarra which also means an earthenware container. Of course over time we began to have these made locally, the Parryware of yore coming immediately to mind. 

And so, it is time to put away my European couple away in storage, until the next Navaratri. But just picking them up you get the whiff of foreign lands. 

This article appeared in The Hindu dated October 25, 2023 and can be read here

A brief episode on this can be seen at https://youtube.com/shorts/6xTmDwXTsks?si=Uiu5BPfShSZPBQBL

My book, Chennai, A Biography can be ordered here