17 April 2010

The Art of Clay Pots

Our student group recently returned from our fourth unit, where we looked at dams and their effects on both the environment and surrounding population. We visited a total of three communities, first, half of us stayed with families in a village in Rasi Sali, while the other half of our group slept in a village in Huana. I was one of 15 students who stayed with families in Goh village, a small village in Huana. For three nights another student, Steph, and I lived with an older couple, Meh Taeng and Pa Taung, and their two grandchildren.

Goh Village is one of many villages in Thailand that is rich in local culture. Ancestors of most of the villagers traveled to Huana from Khorat hundreds of years ago, and with them they brought the intricate skill of making clay pots, which are mainly used for steaming rice and hot pots. To this day, after being passed down from generation to generation, many of the villagers still create and sell clay pots as their main source of income. “This village and my ancestors have been making pots for hundreds of years now,” my Meh told me.

Another reason why making clay pots is so engrained in the villager’s culture is because on a daily basis they all work together and help each other as a community, from making the clay, to selling the final product. Before staying in Huana I would see the same exact clay pots on sale at markets or downtown for thirty baht (about 1 dollar), but I never thought about the amount of work that people put into creating these pots.

In Goh Village, villagers go through many steps to create a finish product they can sell. One day, my Pa and Meh walked me through every intricate detail. First, “I get our clay from a neighbor’s far away wetland,” said my Pa. The process of mixing the clay is called, kruang, when the clay is completely mixed they fill large covered containers with the clay to use when needed.

After collecting the clay, woman of the village spend their days forming and shaping the clay. “Only women do the pottery, while men make the clay,” said Meh Dim, who lives across the street from my family. While working with the pottery the women use two main instruments, a mai lai, a beating stick and a hindu, a tool that resembles a mushroom. The mai lai is used to create a smooth surface and the right thickness, while a hindu is used to round out any edges or straight areas on the pot. On an average day each woman makes about 30 pots, which are then left out in the sun to dry.

After drying the pots, they are put into a group, covered with hay and lit on fire, which acts as a homemade kiln. Permission to use their wetlands to retrieve the clay is not the only aspect of this process where my Pa and Meh’s neighbors lend them a helping hand. “We use to burn the pots on our land, but now we rely on our neighbor to use their land because they have a bigger area to burn all the pots,” said my Pa. They are kept in the fire for around an hour, where the pots turn a beautiful vibrant orange color. After all the pots turn this bright color they are taken out of the fire and put into a pile where they are put into the back of a neighbor’s pickup truck to be taken and sold at a market in downtown Rasi Sali.

Unfortunately after learning all about the process the community members go through to create these detailed pots, I found out that the nearby dam, which was built a decade ago but has not been activated yet, threatens all aspects of Goh Village’s rich local culture. The villagers have not experienced any effects of the dam because the gates of the dam have never been closed, but the government does plan to close the gates in the future which will have a major impact on each and every villager’s way of life.

April Morris
University of Colorado at Boulder


kaylanolan said...

Nice post April. Pottery making is one of the oldest art forms out there. In the United States, pottery had a significant cultural and historical value to Native Americans living in what is now Arizona and New Mexico. There, pottery was used not only as an art form but a way to record information and literature. The tradition of pottery making was handed down from generation to generation for practical and artistic uses. Today the practice of pottery making remains but definitely not in the way that it used to. In the case of Native American tribes in Southwest America, the deterioration of this tradition was due to displacement and the influence of colonizers. In North East Thailand, a change in the flow of the river threatens the tradition of pottery making. One form of development is now overcoming the previous form of development. Through pottery these communities were better able to define themselves, innovate ways to be sustain themselves on the resources they had access to and continue to develop as a society. As the dam comes into construction, we must ask ourselves what we are sacrificing in order to “develop” in a western way and what methods of development have been in place for centuries that are now being dissolved.

Ben Hudgens said...

One thing that I remember finding striking was that the nearby villages did not have a similar culture around building pots. During the long protest other villagers expressed a disinterest because it was a dirty activity. It is always tempting to see cultures as regional, ethnic or otherwise, but the fact that this is such an amazingly local culture I thought was very interesting. Rachel noted on another post that Americans tend to see culture as a foreign thing, believing that we don’t have “local wisdom,” but seeing the localness of the pot culture in Goh really made me start to think hard about what secret tidbits are unique to my hometown.