By Jim Danisch.
Lightning strikes dirt, blindingly fusing it into nature’s terra cotta, changing its color to red, brown, orange, white, gray or black, sometimes leaving behind strange fused bits of metal that are sought as amulets. Potters have simulated and controlled this process since before memory. The names for the parts of a pot — lip, mouth, neck, shoulder, belly, underbelly, foot — are imbedded in the beginnings of language. Although we have lost its everyday presence in our electronic culture, the archetypal water jar is deeply integrated our collective unconscious, and is remarkably similar around the world, whether it is uncovered in an archaeological excavation in Peru or in the street market in Kathmandu. Its nature is round or ovoid, shell like, formed to meet hip or head, stretched as thin as the clay permits the maker, fitted with a neck and mouth that leads to a dark womb interior, and of a size that women can carry comfortably. It is always unique to the neighborhood where it is made – easily recognizable by its form and the way it resonates sound. When it is gone from a culture, it means the extinction of yet another simple function that brought people together in the closely woven social net typical of the pre-industrial world.
Symbolically, the potters’ wheel as great god Vishnu’s discus spins out the Hindu creation myth. As the universe was set in motion, so is the soft clay first spun to the center of the wheel, the primordial still point, where it naturally assumes the shape of a linga — the male principle. Next the potter opens a yoni — the female principle — which is shaped like a womb and will become pregnant with the potter’s creative energy. After this marriage, he can birth any form. When held to the ear, water jars tell the story of human endeavor on earth: the sound is like surf, complete with echoes of gossip at the well, satisfied chatter in the kitchen, warfare and suffering, great music and overheard intrigues. In Southeast Asia, every village household still keeps a water jar — the water stays cool without refrigeration, is freshened by some mysterious alchemical effect of the clay, and remains one of the few ritualized connections to the past. The element water along with its container have a major role in most religions.
I’ve been involved with Asian potters since 1979; as a potter myself, I’ve learned to listen to the song of the water jar from these unassuming people, who live in villages that resonate every morning to the sound of hundreds of pots being beaten into form by craftspeople who know precisely when the pot is finished by the sound it produces. In particular, I work closely with Tharu (“Tah-roo”) people, a large and very old ethnic group in the lowlands of southern Nepal. Nobody knows their origins. When the government of Nepal eradicated malaria in the 1950’s, freeing up thousands of square miles for agricultural use (and inevitable deforestation), most of the Tharus, who had no system of land ownership, were disenfranchised when “their” land was distributed as political favors. These northerners cut down the jungle, worshipped different gods, and claimed land that the Tharus, in their innocence, never knew could be owned. The area is called Deokhuri, and is ruled benevolently by a feudal Lord who lives in a rambling stucco palace with at least 70 extended family members and retainers. It is the same scale as the palace in which the Buddha was raised, just two days’ walk from here (and about four hours by car, if the roads were ever in good condition).
snow peaks shine —
horizon mounted mirages
far from the valley footpaths of gravel and clay
Bare feet treading Himalayan debris
spewed by monsoon torrent
charging to the Ganga
“We can walk to India in one day
and we know about camels in Rajasthan”
Over 600 potters live in this wide valley, in long, thatched houses that appear to be rooted in the ground — their roofs come down so low — semicircular door openings breaking the edge. Men must stoop down to enter the cave-like dark of the interior. At the end of the rainy season, the houses are camouflaged by rampant squash vines, which supply both shade and nourishment, and are safely out of hungry animals’ reach. So much are they of the earth, villages create only a small textural anomaly on the vast expanse of flood plain, complex in its drainages and forests and fields.
Nobody in the valley can remember when they were not potters. They continue to provide the necessary ceramic containers for this old culture that spreads over Southwestern Nepal and into northern India. These people call themselves Tharu, and lived for centuries as a nondestructive part of the lowlands ecology, their population held in balance by climate and disease. Each Tharu house has a special alcove for the gods. There are clay horses and there is the first clay man.
The landscape appears simple and flat when seen from a distance — its horizon articulated by surrounding low hills and distant hints of snow peaks. But walking through it is indirect, diverted by unforeseen complexities of waterways, rice plantation and bamboo groves, which curve the road around all the places a man cannot walk. Dirt tracks, dug with simple hand tools and maintained by village volunteers as a form of direct taxation, are smoothed by the feet of humans and animals, and in recent years, a couple of motorized vehicles a day. Large herds of bullocks are sent out every morning to graze and produce dung — a valuable multi-purposed substance used for fertilizer, architecture and fuel. Fresh cow dung contains albumin — an excellent glue and binder — and fiber, both of which contribute to the strength and water resistance of mud applied to the woven reed mats that define house walls. At “cow time” every evening, the herd returns with its cloud of dust.
Sometimes dust and sometimes mud.
Wattle and daub, clay and cow dung
shape the architecture
in fluid, hand-smoothed planes
Earth and water determine the swelling
shape of the pots
as they provide
the medium for crops
Clay lies in the stream crossings
thick and clinging
hot sun, steamy fields
outlined by earthen dikes
Squash on thatch
Entering a Tharu long house requires bending low, but once inside, there is a feeling of spaciousness, reaching up to the darkness under the peak of the roof. The space is divided sculpturally into bedrooms, kitchen and storage, by monumental clay and cow dung grain containers that grow from the floor up to head height. In the dark interior, they have the presence of guardians. Above these, bunches of hanging objects punctuate the dark — baskets, dry corn, implements that in their unfamiliarity stimulate imagined purposes.
Inside it is dark
the rafters are hung heavy with
mysterious dark packages
all at different
ascending into the deepest dark
which gathers under the thatched crown
What is it?
“Oh — we keep things in it.”
“You know – our own things…”
Varying amounts of food, work, rest, water, ritual and alcohol are the main features of everyday life. Whether Tharus live or die depends on the grace and power of their gods, who, like Nepal itself, are stressed by the increasing number of evil spirits and foreign devils that are entering their world. Darkness is kept at bay just outside the village boundary, where the guardians’ shrine stands outside a mango grove. It is activated by the frequent cycles of ceremony that are necessary to keep the universe in balance. Earth, water, fire, air and space — the makings of a water jar and a universe.
Strong-backed women balancing jars on their heads gather at the well with its four corner posts, carved as deities, gossiping while they wait their turn to run the bucket down on its rope. Gods control both water and gossip; perhaps water jars carry the gossip home to whisper it from their seats in the earthen floor to the cooking fire in its clay tripod. Squatting, the women feed the fire and stir the terra cotta cooking pots. These pots are only made by women; they form them without a wheel, in ritual unison, at the same time of year, and fire them in their back yards. At meal time, the rice tastes of smoke and talk.
As sharecroppers forced to give half the crop to their Lord, men must earn more rice by making pottery as much as possible, using enormous wheels shaded by small huts. This is how to make a potters’ wheel: Start by crossing two timbers of sal wood, hard and heavy and four feet long. Wrap split bamboo around this cross to make a circle. Then mix clay, straw, rice hulls, cow dung, goat hair and molasses to form the great disc.
If you wait a year or two, one of the fast-talking traders who has been with the wild men in the mountains will pass by, bringing rare and wonderful things. They know a place in the high valleys, where Vishnu has caused round black stones to be found in the river bed. As the mountains come sliding and crashing down each rainy season, the irresistible monsoon-swollen river carries, crushes and sorts whatever it swallows — mountain fragments, rocks, Vishnu’s discus, ancient and recent dust — and tumbling black saligram stones. When cracked open, they reveal Vishnu’s spiral, as the positive and negative of a fossilized snail shell, resurrected from its incalculably old seabed, shoved up by Indian as it plows under China.
Potters’ wheels are manifestations of Vishnu, the union of yoni and linga, the turning circle, the center and the circumference, bound into unity by cow dung. This is a heavy load of symbolism to turn around, and the wheel properly has one of these saligrams as the pivot stone.
Make a stake of ironwood, broad at the base to bury in the earth, and pointed at the top to spin the saligram. Set in place and turned with a stick placed in a depression on the circumference, this giant top is ready to defy gravity for long minutes. The potter has magic in his stick, whipping the wheel off the ground — Vishnu’s discus that spins his lump of mud into the world of hollow singing forms.
The seasonal pulse of agriculture coalesces energies. When fields are dry, men dig clay and make pots to trade for rice, which is eaten or preferably, made into beer for breakfast. If there is enough, the beer is distilled into rakshi to blur hard reality a bit more. When the fields are wet and pots won’t dry, men wait for the rice to grow. Women work all the time. When a stranger comes, they hide inside the house with their babies.
“Our life is like this:
Hard when we plow the ground
hard to persuade the seeds to grow
hard when we have no money,
on the road, trading clay
pots for rice
peddling empty water jars
for full belly
in the monsoon waters we live on an island
sailing on brown floods
rolling boulders shake our houses
the river eats our land
Rice greens the full flooded paddies
but our plates are empty
gets sick and dies
The doctor went to Kathmandu
he doesn’t like the monsoon
We have nowhere to go.
When the crops come in
full stomach, maybe
We sit in the winter sun
sit in the dusty courtyard
Play with the children
Today there’s rice to make beer
to drink in the afternoon
A man can touch the gods
just enough to persist in
being a man”
Sun dissolves the chilly dense fog of early morning, with its cloaked figures walking barefoot on their morning errands. Drumming begins outside the pottery-making houses, as yesterday’s half-formed pots are expanded into their final globular resonant shapes with wooden paddle and terra cotta anvil, some of them fully as big as the men who drum their forms, expanding the clay until it is stretched as thin as the shell of an ostrich egg. Water jars are never empty: when they are not holding water, they contain sound; each standard shape having its own resonant frequency, as if the potters scattered throughout the village tune their jars to each other. After years of use, the mushroom-shaped clay anvils that hold the curve against the wooden paddle are as shiny as mirrors. In the Hindu creation myths, sound was the first manifestation of the sentient world.
Sun dries the clay. A group of pots is beaten in several stages during a day, as the form slowly stiffens into finality.
Drying pots are moved in and out of the sun for several days: into the thatched pottery hut at night to protect them from dew, and back out each morning, until there are enough to make a firing — usually several hundred pieces ranging from small water or rakshi pots about seven inches in diameter, up to the big storage pots that may reach two feet or more. Although the function, size and proportions of each pot are standard from village to village, decoration identifies the pot’s origins. Some villages impress designs with the end sections of reeds, others make simple stippled bands; the most elaborate are finger painted by the women.
On the day of the firing, the pieces are coated with a shiny, thin clay slip known as “gabij”, which adds beauty to the surface and can be used for finger painting. This is the same technology that was used all over the world before glazes were developed. We are most familiar with it from Greek and Roman pottery. The process of transforming clay back into stone is alchemical; firing is a time of excitement and tension for potters in any country or historical period. Even with modern state-of-the-art technology, there is still mystery around what happens inside the kiln; too hot to feel, too bright to see. The fire is managed, but not trustworthy. There is always the potential of the fire getting out of our control and destroying days of work. The fire master’s job is a crucial one, and he works with a combination of experience, magic, guesswork and good hunches, tuning his intuition to the sound and subtle cues of escaping moisture and quality of smoke.
The floor of the communal firing house is layered with these great brittle shells of clay, systematically stacked in an oval heap that may be twenty or thirty feet in diameter and three to four feet high, packed in the interstices with firewood. Miraculously, men can walk on the load, as they cover it over with a mixture of clay and straw. The result is a shiny, wet low mound which occupies most of the firing house, waiting for the fire to dry it into a hard, cracked crust at the end of the firing.
As with all transformative events, a ritual offering is made to the fire gods, and the officiating potter walks around the huge stack, drawing a line in the clay circumference with his four fingers — this is to prevent the entry of malevolent spirits that can and frequently do destroy pots. The fire is started from one side, and by periodically opening vent holes with a pole, is guided inside what looks like the world’s biggest pie crust. A large firing may take two days. The fire master dozes on a string bed by the firing, waking every few hours to make more vent holes. The heap smokes; now and again the crust breaks, revealing the red glow of embers and seemingly transparent glowing walls of pots. These gaps are covered by large floppy discs of clay and straw to conserve the heat. The process is slow and deliberate, in keeping with all time in the Tharu culture. Eventually, the fire has moved across the heap and used up all its fuel. The pots cool for half a day.
“No need to rush
at its own rate
and decides the fate
of our pots and our bellies
both empty waiting to be filled”
At the time of unloading, everybody comes to see if the fire gods were cooperative. It is usual to lose up to half of the products in firing, depending on the vagaries of drying, wind, firewood, and whatever stray or malignant spirits came wandering by. Call the shaman to cure the problem; he knows the science of cause and effect.
“He will talk with the spirits
and ask them
to maintain the wind in our pots
…we are poor people…
without the wind
there would be no song in our hearts”
In the open spaces in the village, stacks of identical water jars identify potters’ houses. Identical until you go to choose one. The curves differ by millimeters; surfaces have been colored by the fire’s tongue; but even in the dark there is one pot that will stand out, perhaps because of its special resonance. Pots in the market are tapped to make sure of their resonance: a cracked pot sounds dead. But this is not the resonance I am getting at. It is not a quality you can measure with an instrument: call it magic, or devotion — the product of a moment of synchronicity in the potter’s life when all his skills, the weather, the mood of the day, and the five elements came together in a small epiphany.
As summer approaches, the heat builds for weeks, each day’s tension forming clouds, which fail to bring relief, except for occasional disastrous winds that carry only enough rain to frustrate hope and destroy firings. Finally, the sky swells with water from the South and dumps it in great floods on the barren fields. Gratefully, the people plant rice, which greens the valley floor, thriving on monsoon fecundity.
“World of muck and green
struck by the sun bursting
through dark sheets of hard-hitting rain
boiling black sky”
The deluge persists during three months of skyburst when virtually no work can be done. The roads are impassable, disease strikes, and the people subsist on one bowl of rice gruel per day while the water swells the next crop. At last the time of feasting comes, followed by clay gathering and a renewal of the rhythm of pot making.
In the time that started before memory, the Rapti River has meandered over the Deokhuri Valley in unpredictable ways — every one hundred thousand years there is a cataclysmic flood that takes everything with it down to India; perhaps every ten thousand years it deposits an exceptionally well-ground layer of fine, plastic brown clay. Every year, there comes silt and gravel. In recent years, clay is found about ten feet underground in the flood plain, in a layer that ranges from 1 to 3 feet deep. In the annual cycles of renewal, the river regularly takes a village and its farmland, forcing the people to squat in new areas, which are becoming very scarce.
Every year, the potters must dig through the monsoon’s mud and silt deposits to this layer, and carry it to their villages — a walk of 1 to 3 hours, using a pole over the shoulders with two baskets hanging from the ends. The clay is soaked with water, kneaded by foot, and made into a mound half as tall as a man. The mound is covered with sand, which is wet down with water, and sits like a large, living presence in the dark shade of the workshop. It takes six days to prepare a ton of clay. This is the season of Dasain or Durga Puja, which requires the biggest feast cycle of the year, and the entire village, from grandparents to grandchildren, is busy making pots and loading them in the communal firing house. New water jars and small clay horses — household deities — are a necessary part of the celebrations: they must be renewed each year and installed ritually.
When there are enough pots, half the village goes on the road. There is limited local demand, so the potters walk long distances. To walk from Deokhuri over the hills north to Dang takes two days. It is where hill people come to trade, and among other purchases they carry pots up the mountain. The potters could go by bus, but either they do not have the necessary few rupees, or they claim that breakage is high, or they simply never do things that way. Instead, you can see groups of them, carrying as much as possible. Men with their carrying poles, women with stacks on their heads. If you calculate the costs, they do not earn their own labor. But they need the small amount of cash they can earn to buy salt and oil, and they come back with bags of rice. It may be that the hard work and fun of going to the bazaar together is reward enough for people on the edge between hard survival and simple joy. It is an opportunity for the young men and women to sneak off into the forest.
(Camped for the night on the roadside, men and women squat around their separate fires, heaps of pots illuminated by the flames.)
Where are you going?
“South to the big country.”
What will you do?
“Our life is like this:
Walk to eateat to walk
And a little rakshi in the evening
to warm us
And in the dark, to catch a silent girl
in the wild moonlit jungle”
There are times for drinking and dancing. During the Holi festival, brown skins turn day glow red and rainbow violet, as powder paint is thrown at all passers by. The center of evening celebrations is a veiled, silk-flashed dancer — a female impersonator, who can dance freely where the women cannot. Everybody watches, pouring beer and rakshi into open mouths from wonderfully functional, phallus-spouted pots — the spouts crowned by a spiral bird’s head. Later, men and women do the old circle dances, after everybody is drunk enough to lose their shyness.
In February-March, all people who are able to walk a day come to the festival of Shiva, held in the Lord of Deokhuri’s mango grove. The mood and structure are reminiscent of an American county fair, with rows of bamboo booths roughly thatched with leafy branches, where you can buy bangles and baubles, deep-fried sweets, tattoos, rice and beans, have your fortune told, get your broken kerosene lantern fixed, take your chances at ring-toss or the Wheel of Fortune. The biggest attraction is a video show, which arrives hanging from a procession of twenty coolies — monitor, tape deck, speakers, table, cash box, petrol and a generator that sputters its way through a Hindi film. Three times.
After that, there is a stage show, with its cloth proscenium hung from the trees and a car battery-powered sound system. After several false starts, five seductive singers, dressed in iridescent saris, swing their hips onto the stage. Their falsetto voices give them away, but their energetic rendition and pranks keep the act interesting. They are female impersonators by caste, a lineage that goes back more generations than they can remember. Vaudeville is alive and healthy in Deokhuri. The funky band goes on until dawn, with a rapt audience of about one thousand people huddled close together in their shawls, on the ground. The crowd is well behaved, probably because the Lord and his sons carry big sticks and manage the crowd easily — with threats alone. Drunks are carried off and stuffed into empty oil drums for the night. After several days of feasting, potters return to work.
I witnessed a major cultural transformation one year. After thousands of years of round bottoms, the Tharus have started to slightly flatten the base of their water pots. This occurred because cement floors have become popular and you can no longer set your water jars directly in a hollow in the earth. I witnessed another major change a few years later, when the price of a water jar jumped from 25 to 40 Rupees — 35 to 60 cents. This is a big difference to people who make 70 Rupees a day. Firewood used to be collected freely by the potters’ wives, who go into the nearby jungle every morning with hatchets balanced on their heads, and return in the afternoon with huge loads of firewood in their place. This year the government set up guards at all the forest entrances. Their job is to collect ten rupees tax on each load of wood. The only other option is itinerant labor in Rajasthan, where many of the potters already go to harvest crops seasonally. The effect may well be to permanently destroy a way of life.
“We don’t have any wood to burn
There is a government now, we are told
There is a government come to squeeze us
The forest officers squeeze us
Obese and oily, they make us squat at their doorsteps
They all know how to squeeze us
How thin can we get?”
In Deokhuri, potters’ wheels are made
from the same materials as houses
Bamboo, clay and cow dung
Vishnu’s spiral saligram stone
spinning on a sharpened stake
turns a linga
then he turns a yoni
form comes of this union…
You can hear the joy of it if you listen closely
The wheel turns slower and slower
leans down to ground
“Just move slow…
We are not of your world.
We have animal eyes
trust comes slow
In every earth home
we keep the first clay man
and alert clay horses
in the shrine
in the corner.”
(You can’t have any idea
the modern devils are slipping in.
to eat up your first man
and the clay horses
and the magic hand prints on the mud wall)
(No one tells you
Coca Cola in the village store
made of sugar and status
will take all
your cash keep you in debt
to the Lord of Deokhuri
who may be benevolent
but gets his dues)
Revolution or not
Slavery persists even in dem-o-crassy
by a certain sense of dignity in inequity
the long house where the men
and beat out the curve of their world
the resonant contour of great pots
empty songs waiting for the wind
to sound them
Jim Danisch is an American studio potter and teacher. He spent nine years in Thimi, Nepal, developing appropriate technology for producing glazed earthenware. He trained Nepal potters and helped establish about 24 independent workshops. Danisch now lives and works in California. He also conducts annual ecotours to South Asia, some of them pottery-oriented.