In the year of the Metal Monkey in the reign of the Hongzhi Emperor, in a drafty workshop in a remote mountain village in Jingdezhen, southern China, I was brought forth from porcelain by the gentle hands of a potter. After weeks drying in cool spring winds, I was then fired in a kiln stoked with pinewood from the surrounding forests.
Once cool again, an old man with a spindly white beard painted on me in Persian cobalt a picture of a pierced rock entwined in a splay of chrysanthemums. I was then covered in white powder and fired once more. In China at that time, the rock with tortuous shape symbolized durability while the chrysanthemum represented longevity. Durability and longevity, as you will see, have been the defining characteristics of my very existence.
Packed in straw in a wooden crate with many other blue and white ceramic pieces, we were loaded onto a junk and travelled east for weeks along the great Yangtze River until we eventually reached the coast at Shanghai. We sat on the bustling quay for a long time before we were loaded into the hold of an ocean-going junk. For many weeks we sailed down the coast of China, across the South China Sea till we finally docked at Kalam Bar at the tip of the Malay Peninsula. In those days, Kalam Bar was the port where Indian and Arab seafarers met with Chinese merchants to trade. We were unloaded there and spent a long time in a warehouse.
One day my crate was opened and an Arab merchant inspected me and some other pieces. He must have liked us for soon after we were loaded onto his large dhow and set sail across the vast expanse of the Andaman Sea. What a voyage that was, the sea so rough and the ship creaking and groaning so much that I thought we would all surely end up on the ocean floor. But somehow we stayed afloat and after more than a month at sea reached the port of Cochin on the Malibar Coast of India. I would happily have stayed there, but it was not to be. A few days later, we set sail again, this time across the Arabian Sea.
Finally, we reached a port on the coast of Oman called Qalhat, a crowded city with fine buildings and bustling streets. We were unloaded and unpacked from our crate and spread out for sale in the busy bazaar overlooking the harbour. Eventually a man bought me. I thought I was destined for one of the grand houses in Qalhat, perhaps to serve as a fruit dish for some noble Arab lady, but instead I was wrapped in animal skin and packed, along with some other plates and bowls, into the backpack of a camel.
For ten days we lurched and bumped along until we came to a city called Nizwa, where I was again put on sale in the bazaar. Maybe my price was too high or people did not like my design, for I remained unsold for a long while. But then one day a man came along and spotted me, picked me up and smiled at me and said, “I know just the place for you.” At last, after such a long journey I was to have a home. But what would I be? A soup-dish? An ornament?
Again I was wrapped in skins and this time put in the saddlebag of a donkey. But the journey was less than a day and when we reached the man’s house in a narrow street of a town called Al-Bilad, he gently unwrapped me and placed me in an alcove along with some other dishes. I stayed in that alcove for some time and every single day the man came and took us out, one by one, rubbed us gently with a soft cloth and smiled lovingly at us.
One day he took me out of the alcove and brought me to a nearby mosque. There was a beautifully carved prayer niche in the mosque and in the centre was a round space, just the right size for me. The man gently placed me in the space and fixed me there with gypsum.
And here I have remained for the past five hundred and thirteen years, watching generation after generation of boys grow to maturity and then into old man as they prayed in this mosque five times every day. Then about forty years ago, the numbers grew fewer till there was nobody coming at all. Only the occasional visitor came in and looked up at me with curiosity. Twenty years ago, the mosque was renovated and once again people began to come and pray, though not in the same numbers as before.
Last year a funny thing happened. A fat man with spectacles came with some steps and climbed right up close to me with this funny black box in his hand that had a round glass window at the front. Next thing I knew, he was lying on his back on the floor of the mosque, groaning, and the steps were on top of him! Lucky for him there was carpet. I’ve seen some strange types in my long life, but that nincompoop surely beats all!”