Creating magic with their hands, it seems these potters convey the message of their hearts through their hands and conjure up amazing masterpieces. It certainly is an enchanting sight; potters deftly shaping objects of various shapes and sizes in a few minutes, before our eyes. This is a tradition that has been passed down from generation to generation ensuring that the skill is not lost on them. Amazingly, they still abide by the rules and stick to methods centuries old. Though a few have adapted, most people involved in this profession have refrained from incorporating modern technology. They spin the wheel with a stick and get down to work on the wet clay just as their forefathers had done ages ago.
The existence of pottery dates back to the beginning of civilization. An invention of mankind to fulfil his necessities, they are perhaps one of man’s first creations. The history of pottery in Nepal goes back many centuries and it was with earthenware that they began creating various objects for their personal use.
Some pieces displayed at Akka Chhen, – The Cultural Museum at Thimi, Chapacho according to Ganesh Ram Lacchi, the founder of the museum, is centuries old. Unrefined in shape and structure as it was in the initial stages, it reveals how people did not possess much knowledge and skill about pottery. In those early days, vessels were used for keeping valuable goods as well. They were even worshipped during Laxmi puja.
THE POTTERS OF BHAKTAPUR
Bhaktapur is well-known for giving continuity to this age old profession. It has survived modernization and augments Bhaktapur’s unique identity in preserving our heritage. Since there is no special season for using such vessels, the business of making pots keeps the local potters occupied through the year, except during planting season when they are totally occupied in the fields. Pottery is a way of life for these people, and they have become so habituated to it that they have no fixed hours for sitting at the wheel, creating new pots. When in the mood they can work tirelessly, oblivious of the scorching mid day heat or the impending darkness in the late hours.
The clay needed for pottery is provided to the potters and they in turn give goods to Taleju and Navadurga temple and also during special occasions like Bisket Jatra. In Bolachhen or Talakwa which is popularly known as Potters’ Square, the inhabitants proudly boast of it as the traditional place for making pottery. True to its name, this square is never free of pots drying in the sun. Khutruke or the piggy bank is the most popular item produced here and plays a very crucial role in their business. Shiva Prasad Prajapati, one of the potters says “If it were not for these khutrukes, our livelihoods would completely die out. Around 100 of these are produced in a day. But depending on the situation, sometimes almost half of them get destroyed while making them and there are other times when all hundred turn out excellent”. This is a problem they have to face at all times and with any vessel they make. The breakage is usually caused by insufficient sunlight. Especially during the monsoons, the rainy season here, the weather condition is a huge hindrance. If the pots have not received enough sunlight they tend to crack up and break easily when fired in the kiln. One may think the potters are disheartened when they see the final result. But through years of experience, drawbacks like this do not really bother them, as they have learnt to expect a certain percentage of breakage. They are quite aware of the high probability of these delicate objects breaking. What to us seems like a huge loss of time and effort, for them is an accepted fact of everyday life.
Suryamadhi a few minutes walk from the Dattatreya is another area famous for pottery. However, the products found here are quite different from the ones available at Potters’ Square. Here, the potters are predominatly occupied
in making such pottery as Sanli or vessels for drinking alcohol and Dhau bhega or curd containers. On the other hand, the people of Thimi are famous for making huge utensils.
With changing times, the shapes and designs of their products have also been modified. Merging new ideas to the traditional, these contemporary styles are much in demand. The traditional products include pots and huge vessels which are especially made for household purposes like cooking, washing laundry, preparing and keeping alcohol, etc. The smaller ones comprise of vessels like Khutruke, water container, bowls to drink alcohol besides candle-stands. With the advent of plastic utensils, the use of earthenware is on a decline, which has an immediate impact on the pottery market. Realizing that pottery also has a potential market among tourists as well as expatriates, these potters produce small decorative pieces. But foreigners are discouraged from taking these home with them. The general complaint being that though they find pottery an intriguing art form and wish to buy such valuable hand made earthenware, due to their delicate nature they are easily broken in transit.
Pottery also plays a significant role during religious ceremonies. The festival of lights known as Tihar, celebrated in Nepal is a lively time with every household lighted up by diyos or oil wick lamps made of clay. For the locals it still has an important utility in everyday life. Ramesh Raya, who owns a curd shop near the durbar gate purchases around 4000 to 5000 vessels at a time, which is sufficient for three to four months. It is indispensable for them as earthenware gives a distinct flavor to the curd which people are so accustomed to. If it were not used, one would immediatley feel that the authentic taste of curd is missing. These vessels once used for such purposes have to be destroyed. Reusing them is not an option and it is regarded as a compulsory practice.
As we strolled down the streets, DB dai, our photographer was hard-pressed for some shots of Newar people carrying their goods in kharpans as none were to be found. Whereas in the past, people came to Bhaktapur from different parts of the country carrying pottery in their kharpans, there seems to be few people using them today. Their use seems to be fading with time. Previously people came into town and stayed the night and headed back loaded with earthenware.
75 year old Jagat Bahadur Prajapati reminisces, “I walked all the way to Tistung, Palung and other such places all alone, carrying these goods in a kharpan on my shoulder and a ‘laltin’ lamp in my hands. Though difficult, it was a joyous walk which usually lasted for three days.” He further states “Unlike today, it was very peaceful back then. One never had to worry about being attacked by a Maoist. In fact people would welcome me to stay at their homes and offer lunch and dinner.”
TYPES OF POTTERY
An interesting story is told regarding the different types of pottery. In the old days, the people who were engaged in the pottery-making trade were generally divided into two categories. The ones from Suryamadhi or Thane made red pottery and were considered to be of a higher rank than the ones who produced black colored pottery residing in Talakwa or Kone. Marriage practices among these two were prohibited. Defying the social rules a man from Talakwa once married a girl of Suryamadhi but was threatened by the girl’s family. But at that time the people in Talakwa were close to the Ranas, so they in turn threatened if anything should go wrong, the people who took any action against their marriage would be put in jail. And so they lived happily ever after initiating a new custom. Since then, disparities have been removed among these people.
The varieties in clay products are gradually increasing, and if you are in search of something different one person who is sure to fulfill your wishes is Ratna Prjapati who has a shop on a street in Thimi. His collection consists of miniature houses, temples and many other unusual products. Some of his creations can be found in Om Everest Ceramics in Kamalpokhari, Kathmandu as well. Ratna’s goods are displayed along with numerous of their own products.
If Bhaktapur seems too far and you have no wish to travel all the way, try Bhedasingh in Kathmandu near Indra Chowk. The entire courtyard is filled with pottery brought from Bhakatpur. As the goods are sprawled around, you may look around and select what you want. But strange as it may sound, you may have to go looking for the shopkeeper too. The laid back attitude they have is a complete contrast to the the usual hectic market scene only meters away.
The latest development in the world of pottery is ceramics. Local ceramic products will surely entice you as a wide range is available in finely glazed finish. Though both ceramics and ordinary unglazed vessels are made from the same type of clay, ceramics are made from especially filtered clay. The two processes are similar but ceramics are made using modern devices rather than the traditional methods.
After a sizeable number of products have been completed, they are dried and then heated in a machine at around 800 °C for 7 to 8 hours. The glaze which is a combination of various chemicals is applied and the product heated again at about 1140 °C for 10 to 15 hours. When they eventually emerge from the machine, they look marvelous with that polished look. One may have doubts about the quality of ceramics, but Laxmi Kumar Prajapati, proprietor of Thimi Ceramics confirms that the chemicals they use are non – toxic and hence not harmful in anyway. So, you can contentedly sip your tea from one of their cups.
With the domination of modern conveniences in their daily lives, people are giving priority to objects made from other materials rather than use pottery. And due to Town Planning, clay is not easily available, as more land is being taken up by housing development. The number of people involved in the pottery trade has decreased by almost fifty percent. This certainly is not a profitable profession anymore as the income generated is just enough to sustain one’s livelihood. It is most unfortunate that an art that has been bequeathed from past generations, giving continuity to an antique tradition is gradually fading away.
A friend was visiting Kathmandu after many, many years, and we decided to take a tour of Bhaktapur. I myself...