Clay is regarded as sacred, holding within it the power to create and destroy. It is a symbol of impermanence and change, of regeneration and renewal, created using the three elements: earth, fire and water. Traditionally, in India, clay objects are used and then broken, to be replaced constantly by newer objects.
There are said to be over one million potters in India, producing a profusion of clay objects – using traditional techniques, and shaping and decorating the objects according to the social, religious and utilitarian needs of the region(s) and consumer(s).
In most regions, men create the clay objects and do the firing while the women are responsible for preparing the clay and for decorating the pots. The most notable exception to this is Manipur, in north-east India, where women potters outnumber the male potters.
Every region has its own folklore and beliefs centred around the use of earth to create objects. The essence, however, remains the same – a potter’s livelihood and tools and techniques are gifts from the God and ancestors. It was – and still is – the potter who is the repository of the oral tradition surrounding the trade. The myths have been passed on from one generation to the next, through stories narrated by the elders of the family. Some myths have been lost, several songs and stories forgotten. However, here we endeavour to recount a small portion of what remains.
Legend has it that in the beginning of time when the epic churning of the ocean took place and the gods procured amrit or the divine nectar, they needed a vessel to keep it. So Visvakarma, the celestial artisan, crafted a pot.
Indian potters – throughout the length and breadth of the country – believe that they are the descendants of Visvakarma; potters in some regions still carry his name: Prajapati, the Lord of Creativity. The methods he practised, the techniques he used in utilising the wheel for coiling and adding clay, for beating and extending surfaces, for enhancing the form by decoration and for purifying it with fire have been passed down from generation to generation. Potters, in deference to their tradition, light a small oil lamp as a mark of respect to their creator before they start work every morning; till today, they lay down, and clean and worship their tools on Visvakarma puja.
Another legend states that Lord Shiva, while getting ready for his marriage with Parvati, found that he had no kumbha (water pot), a necessity for the marriage ritual. So he fashioned a man from a bead and asked him to make a pot. The potter agreed to do so on the condition that Shiva gave him the circular stone on which he sat to serve as a wheel, the trident to keep the wheel moving, and a string from Shiva’s sacred thread to remove the pot from the wheel. Using these tools, the kumbha was created and its maker became known as the kumbhar (potter).
It is believed that a potter’s equipment is symbolic of the cosmic forces of creation. The wheel represents Vishnu’s chakra (the wheel of the Eternal Law of Life) and symbolises the cycle of birth and death, rest and regeneration. The rod for turning the wheel is Indra’s vajra (the thunderbolt), the flat cone of clay is symbolic of Shiva’s linga (the phallic form) and the water container is Brahma’s kumbha (water pot), a symbol of the mendicant ascetic.
Jaya Jaitley in her book, The Craft Traditions of India, writes about the origin of the word kumbhar. ‘When elephants by the riverside poured muddy water onto their foreheads, the clay dried in the hollow part, leaving a cup shaped object which man used as a storage vessel. The head of the elephant is called kumbha, so the subsequent maker of such clay vessels came to be known as the kumbhar.’
The kumbha or common water pot represents fertility and prosperity. A water pot filled with water has, from time immemorial, been a symbol of good omen and is indispensable in any ritual. In a ceremony, for purposes of worship, if no image of a deity is available, a water pitcher suffices: it is, therefore, called mangalghat, the sacred vessel. A pot filled with holy water and crowned with leaves symbolises the sacred cosmos and is used outside homes and temples to welcome visitors.
Common clay is used for making clay objects. The colour and plasticity of the clay vary from region to region and the pottery of a region has often evolved in response to the local materials. Clay is usually tempered with substances to create an even texture and counteract excessive shrinking, warping or cracking during drying and firing. Often, animal dung is added to the clay when making idols, tiles or bricks, but never when making utensils.
The low heat produced in traditional Indian kilns results in a porous and brittle product – terracotta. Although this porosity is ideal for cooking and storing food, the vessel becomes contaminated through constant use. Indian terracotta vessels are, therefore, broken and replaced at regular intervals.
Votive earthenware is much more varied and much more local. Each village practically has its own form of the gram devata or village deity, who protects the village and the villagers from disease, aggression and famine, and brings to them good luck and good fortune. Votive offerings are made in a variety of forms and on various occasions: sometimes in fulfilment of a vow; sometimes in gratitude to the Gods for warding off some disease or misfortune.
On festivals, fresh votive idols are made and worshipped, as the old ones are believed to have lost their propitiatory qualities. The old idols are left in some quiet spot to crumble, and fuse back into Mother Earth again, or else are often immersed in water.
Utilitarian pottery comes in bewildering profusion. A variety of earthen objects are made: lamps, dolls and toys, earthen drums, flower vases, pots, musical instruments. The commonest clay object is the kulhar, which is used for holding water, tea, dahi, or practically anything.