Tyrchang and Lyrnai are two small villages in Thadlaskein Block of Jaintia Hills, Meghalaya. They would have remained two nondescript villages if not for their black clay pottery which made news and put them on the indigenous clay pottery map of the country.
The residents of these two villages have perfected their craft through hundreds of years of tradition. The two villages have a combined population of 1987 persons only. Remarkably the females outnumber the males (971 males and 1016 females) according to the 2011 census. Another remarkable thing is that the pottery is made solely by their womenfolk, the expertise being handed over by mother to daughters. Every handiwork is hand-melded, shaped without mechanical aids. This way, the potters say, they keep the tradition and maintain the quality.
The clay they use is mineral- rich, one of a kind from the famed 26 km2 Sung (pronounced Soong) valley that creates unique and beautiful smoky black coloured end products.
How Ancient Is Clay Pottery, and Why Should Anyone Want to Use It Now and What For?
Not very long ago a team of American archaeologists unearthed fragments of pottery in southern China that dated back to some 20,000 years. People hadn’t learned to grow crops then; they were still hunter-gatherers. The pottery had soot on the underside, a sign that they were used for cooking.
That was probably how long ago pottery started to be used by humans.
Clay pottery is made from a mixture of clay, which is a composite material of natural fine earth, decomposed rocks from the earth’s crust for millennia. The agents of denudation, wind and water, break down the rocks, depositing them in river valleys.
Clay is great for making pottery. Because of its plasticity, it can be melded into any conceivable shape desired. It has excellent binding and water retention properties too. As cookware clay pottery is porous because it is not fired to vitrification, unlike stoneware. It heats up gradually making way for slow evaporation of the steam from the pores. The diffusion of heat is gentle and even, and that keeps the food hot and moist for longer periods. The food cooks slowly, making it more flavourful and tastier. The porous quality of clay precludes the need for excess liquids and fats or oils when cooking and that makes food healthier as well.
Clay pottery has many plus points. It is:
- Easy on the eco-system
- They are easy to make – no hi-tech machinery, no energy-guzzling or effluent-spewing processing of raw materials
In general, you can use clay pottery for a variety of domestic purposes:
- Storing of water, grains, pulses and other foodstuffs
- Storing of pickles, milk and curds – keeps them for a long time, retaining the flavours
- Using in Micro ovens.
Very often in the preparation of Ayurvedic and other traditional medicines, only clay pots are used. There is clay distillation apparatus too, used for distilling spirits.
Compared to modern utensils clay pottery gives you the advantage of cooking slow and wholesome (and tastier) food. Because cooking in clay is slow and, with the lid in place, the steam generated stays locked in, continuously circulating inside, retaining the juices and flavours.
But they have disadvantages. They are bulky, fragile, brittle and not so sleek. They might be a little expensive too.
Black Clay Pottery of Jaintia Hills
The Pnar people of the Jaintia Hills are renowned for their culinary creations. The black clay pottery (or khiew ranei as they are called in Khasi language) has good demand. They are used, for example, for baking Pu-tharo (flatbread made of powdered rice) or for steaming Pu-maloi or Kpu langdong (steamed cakes made of rice powder).
These pottery items are always used in the local religious ceremonies as well. No other pottery can substitute on those occasions.
The clay used is the red clay found in abundance in the alluvial regions of the Sung valley of West Jaintia Hills. Clay is mixed with other rock materials (for more strength and shock-endurance) and beaten with mallets into a pliable substance of the right consistency. The women artisans then begin shaping the mix into the artefacts they want, all by hand. There are no potter’s wheels to speed up the process. The freshly melded pots and pans are then placed over an open kiln kindled with plenty of firewood and fired. The temperatures are maintained between 900°C to 1100°C for 9-10 hours. This is the only expense on energy which is necessary for the product to come out good and durable.
At the end of the firing period, the still white-hot but hardened artefacts are lifted with tongs onto a basin filled with water mixed with an extract from the bark of a certain tree. This gives the particular black colour to the pottery. After this cold bath the product is then dried and given a finishing polish.
Types of Black Clay Pottery of the Jaintias
The varieties of black clay pottery used by the Jaintias are many. The artisans can make any type of pot or pan as desired. Some common items are as follows:
- Kchu khyndaw heh – big earthen pot – to cook rice and store water
- Kchu khyndaw heh – big earthen pot but with an aperture to let out steam – to steam the Pu-maloi or Kpu langdong
- Kchu khyndaw khian – small earthen pot with lid– to store items like salt, fat or fermented flatfish
- Wien sdieh kpu – frying pan – to make the Pu-tharo or Kpu sien
- Tipot khyndaw – Teapots – they can be big or small for making tea or serving tea
- Ketli khyndaw – Earthen kettles
- Maloi & Mok Um – containers and tumblers
The Future of Black Clay Pottery of Jaintia Hills
A specialist in Ayurveda said that cooking in a clay pot has many health benefits. Cooking is slower but food doesn’t get burnt, nutrients are retained and the cooked food has a better aroma. This is because of clay’s porous nature which insulates the heat and moisture so it only circulates inside the pot.
Clay’s alkaline nature cuts the acid in the food. Moreover, like other clays, Sung valley clay is a mix of minerals such as iron, calcium, magnesium, manganese and many others that are health-friendly.
These intrepid potters of Tyrchang and Lyrnai are the fortunate holders of the beneficial legacy of an ancient craft, one that is so sustainable and economically viable. But they are not making use of their expertise to the full potential. This is because they have limited means they cannot access the markets in the right way.
They need the support of both the Government and other patrons. At the same time, they need to come out with innovative ways to meet the demands of a little-explored market, uplift their own lives and enrich the lives of others. A few concerned societies are already doing their bit to help them. We at Zizira are also trying to do ours.