“Our entire village makes earthenware products, that’s the skill our ancestors have passed on to us. We learn from a young age, from our parents to take pride in our handicraft. There are about 100 households and we are all involved in the process. Our main clients are the hotels around Inle but we take orders as far as from Nyaung Poh.
The clay that we work with varies but it’s all here from around the lake. Gathering high quality clay can be very dangerous work. The person collecting will dig and then burrow metres deep into a well of wet mud where there is very little oxygen. We do have specific areas where we source the mud. In rainy season, we have to be careful to ensure that hole doesn’t collapse in on the person. It’s tough and exhausting. This particular clay I’m working with today isn’t very good quality; it’s full of sand so I just made rough little ornaments with these. We save the high quality clay for pots and ornaments that we sell to the hotels.
For the fine handicraft and skill that goes into shaping the clay, the rest of the work is very hard. Baking the clay into ceramic is hot work and on a hot day like today, no one wants to go into the ovens. In winter, we scramble to get near them so we can enjoy the warmth!
The ovens are built into the ground right here in our village. They can vary in size and length. Some are just a couple of metres into the ground, but we can also build larger ones that span up to 10 metres wide.
It is an exact science but we don’t measure it that way, we just know from practice what will work. We have to make a seal in the oven to allow just enough oxygen in and we have to lay the firewood so that it’s hot enough to bake the clay. If it’s too hot, the clay will crack. If it’s not hot enough, the clay won’t turn into ceramic.
Our young folk are not as interested in continuing our traditions. They are more interested in education or playing games on their phones. It’s not a bad thing that they want to read or study but we do want to impart the value of our traditions. When I was younger I didn’t have many options but our children have more choices. Our craft is hard work that is often unrewarding in terms of cost. It would be a shame to lose our skills though.
It is noticeable that times are changing even in the design of our craftwork. Here is a pot that my mother made when she was in her twenties. She is now 83 and still creating. She’s very strict about who touches her artwork. Actually she can be really difficult sometimes and won’t share her clay with anyone else. This particular design was popular when she was younger but it’s rare that we would make this pattern or shape for a pot anymore. It’s just not popular and wouldn’t sell as well. Times are different.
Ma Tin Hla, 40 and her mother
Daw Yone, 82
Kyauk Taing village