Majuli artisans keep ancient handmade pottery and centuries-old barter trade system alive
World famous Majuli river-island in the heart of the Brahmaputra river in Assam and known for centuries old and vibrant Sattriya culture has kept persevered the oldest craft on the earth- handmade pottery. The Kumars of Salmora area in the upper region of the river island have kept this ancient craft alive along the bank of the mighty river. The artisans’ families have also kept alive the ancient barter trade system.
The tradition of handmade pottery has been kept preserved only in three villages of Majuli – Barboka, Kamjan Elengi and Besamora of Salmora. These three villages covering 760.25 hectares of area have 639 families with total population of 2836 persons. Origin of Handmade pottery can be traced back to the reigns of the Ahom Kings during which different forms of art and crafts flourished in Assam under royal patronage. However, no historical data is available on the exact period in which handmade pottery flourished in Salmora.
Different type of tools that are used traditionally for handmade pottery in Salmora are:
1. Pat : a piece of that wooden sheet used for kneading the clay.
2. Aphori : a flat board used to shape the clay with hand.
3. Gorha kapor : a piece of cloth used to give shape to the pot.
4. Bolia : A stone tool of about 6inch to 12 inch in length used to beat the inner surface of pot to give it the required shape.
5. Pitun : A wooden bamboo beaten of about 10 inch by 4 inch used for beating and shaping the outer surface of the pot.
6. Suchoni : A small string or bamboo slice used for detaching the finished pots from the hard mold.
Traditional Pottery has two methods– handmade and the potter’s wheel. Artisans of Salmora still practice handmade pottery. They give shape to different household earthen wares using their fingers and palms. The artisans make the base structure by kneading a lump of clay on the Pat and giving it a shape with the help of Aphori. Then the outer contour is shaped by taking the mold in Balia and beating it with the Pitun. Then the artisans give a shape to the outer structure with the help of Majani. The women artisans use their fingers and palm with a unique skill, which is passed on by one generation to the next, to give the required shape. The Suchoni is used to polish the earthen ware and then either it is kept for drying under the Sun or for engraving designs on it.
The shaped soft earthenwares are fired in tradtional round kiln called Poghali. Different shelves of a Poghali are known as Uparmota, Talmota, Sekoni, Karhar, Lharok and Mukh Bondha.
Soft earhern wares of different sizes and shapes are kept inside the Poghali in layers. As the kiln is round in shape bamboo and wooden pieces are inserted in the Uparmota section. The gaps are plugged with pieces of old broken earthen wares. Then the entire Poghali is covered with thatch and clay. Small holes are bored for firing the kiln. The kiln is heated first for eight hours and then for four hours. After the kiln is cooled the ready to sale pots are taken out of it.
Clay, the raw material required for handmade pottery in Salmora, locally called as Kumar mati or Lodha mati is collected by male folk from near the river bank. Usually clay is collected during winter when the water level of the Brahmaputra is less. At least three persons are required to dig out clay for pottery from the layer of Kumar mati about 30 to 40 feet below the surface. They dig out a well and take turns to collect such soft and cold clay. A lamp is also used to light up the well as it is dark deep inside. Usually women carry the clay so collected to their houses. However, men are also seen to lend a helping hand. Preparing the clay for pottery is the most important part of this traditional craft which is exclusive domain of the Womenfolk.
Dried and hardened clay is kneaded with the Pat to make it soft. Then sand and water is added and then the clay lump is treaded to make it softer. Soften clay is shaped into different molds using the Ghuloni.
The artisans of Salmora have now adopted to cope with the changing market situation. They exchange the earthenwares for some other commodities which is locally called as Solua Khep (barter system) or sell them which locally called as Besa khep or Bikroy. The barter system has two modes- Ahu khep and Shali khep. The Mising tribe of Majuli use large earthen pot to make their tradtional rice beer known as apong. The Misings procure such pots from artisans of Salmora in change of paddy they produce and the prices are fixed based on the market price of paddy. During monsoon, Ahu paddy is exchanged for such hence the name Ahu khep. Similarly, during summer Sali paddy is exchanged with the earthen pots and therefore this mode of exchange is known as Sali khep. Besa khep, on the other hand, involves purchase of earthenware with moeny. Usually the buyers procure these at wholesale price during September-October.
Sir Edward Gait’s has mentioned about various earthen pots that include (1) Mala (2) Nadia (3) Charu (4) Pati Kalah (5) Becha Kalah (6) Tekali (7) Bor Tekali (8) Dunori (9) Udhan(10) Chaki (11) Bhuruka (12) Mathiya (13) Dhup Dani(14) Balti (15) Sarai (16) Mala Charu (17) Gamla (18) Dhuna Dani (19) Gilas (20) Flower pots (21) Phuldani (22) Silim (23) Gocha (24) Akathia (25) Chaki (26) Daba (27) Nagara (28) Mridanga.
Despite various challenges this ancient craft is still considered as an important income generating cottage industry of the river island. Over 600 families are dependent on this nature-friendly craft tradition. The earthen pots are bio-degradable and therefore do not pollute and environment. Emission from the kilns is also not at alarming level and there is no sound pollution.
However, a perception prevails among a section of people that erosion gripping Salmora area could be due to collection of clay from the river bank by the artisans. Each of the 639 families dig an estimated 600 cubic feet of clay in a year from near the river bank. Thus, Samora’s potter families dig about 4,08,000 cubic feet of clay in a year. This has been goining on for ages ever since handmade pottery flourished in Salmora area. Such soft soil also forms the part of the boundary of river island shaped by the Brahamputra. Detail study needs to be carried out to allay any such apprehension and any such problem can always be scientifically addressed by adopting correct measures. This traditional craft can be made vibrant with government patronage and by way of curbing use of goods made of non-biodegradable materials in Majuli.
1. Baruah Arindom : Majuli Sub-Divisional information and public Relation-2005.
2. Dhamijia Jusleen : Indian Folk Arts and Crafts published by the Director, National Book Trust, India -1970.
3. Dutta A.K : Indian Artifacts.
4. Mahanta P.K.: Majuli, Published in 2001. New Era Media Service, Jorhat.
5. Saliha Pradip : Purani Asomor Silpa, Ram Dhenu 4th Edition. 1979.
6. Kalita Kanak Chandra : Majuli Edited Published by Directorate of information and public Relation, Assam.
Dr. Brojen Ch. Neog
( A columnist and author Dr Brojen Ch. Neog is the Head of the Department of Economics, Majuli College)