Life in Terracotta – Tile Craft of Barpali

Our story begins at Gobekli Tepe in Eurasian Turkey. For archaeologists, Gobekli Tepe is a goldmine of information on Late Stone Age life, 12,000 years back in time, when world’s climate was at stake with the return of short Ice Age, known as the Younger Dryas. At this critical juncture of climate change, with its mountains catching the rain and calcareous, porous bedrock creating lots of springs, creeks and rivers, the upper reaches of the Euphrates and Tigris had evolved as a refuge for Late Stone Age communities. Difficult for survival situation could have led these people to develop a common cult practice, which eventually gave birth to organized religions.

A major find from Gobekli Tepe is the depiction of animals engraved in high and medium reliefs on the walls of T-shaped mortuary memorial stones. These animals give no indication of organized violence, but represented a cosmological map which would have related the local community to the surrounding landscape and cosmos. Through these animal figures, the settled Stone Age hunter gathers of Eurasia had perhaps developed new meaning of life’s existence in the natural world.

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Source – Internet

Following the Gobekli Tepe’s footsteps the human-animal relationship became profound in most of old world civilizations. For example, the religion of Ancient Egypt was not based on a set of theological principles, but rather the gods were connected to nature and the elements (water, earth, sky) or to animals. Animals were given important status throughout the Ancient Egyptian life and afterlife. Worship of animals was an integral part of Egyptian tradition.

In Indian Subcontinent, archaeologists have discovered a plethora of animal figures made out of terracotta in the Indus Valley city of Harappa. At Navdatoli, a 4,000 year old Chalcolithic village in Central India, a large handmade pot has moulding of a lizard surrounded by two women figures which also suggest the existence of primitive religion or belief system centred on animal cults. The South Indian Neolithic culture traced back to 4,000 years had the prominence of bull cult signifying male fertility. Bulls of various forms and shapes have been discovered by archaeologists in form of petro glyphs across Neolithic sites of Deccan. Bulls associated with agriculture as ploughing animals have been a common practice across India throughout history.

Terracotta Animals from Harappa – Source – Internet

The same goes for Odia civilisation, where animals have been integral to Odia culture from the time of Prehistory. There are wide range of realistic and mythological animals depicted in temples and monasteries of Odisha from Early Medieval time. But in folk and tribal life, Odisha’s link with the animal world has a close association with daily life’s problems, prospects, aspirations and thanks giving.

Black crow or damra kau for instance is closely associated with Odia folk life from time immemorial. In villages of Odisha the women folk talk to her in every morning and offer rice to feed. It is believed that when crows sitting on roofs cawing they give us tidings of guests arrival.  In Hinduism, crows are supposed to be the incarnations of our ancestors. Among the most intelligent of birds, crows never eat alone. They call their friends to eat with them. They make and use tools, protect their children, live in a social environment, and mourn the death of their loved ones like humans. During shradha, the period of mourning when Hindus recall their dead relatives, cows are fed.

Frog is in the next line of animal that is closely associated with the folk life of Odisha. Frogs remain silence during the dry seasons, but they suddenly appear before the onset of rain. Soon, the male frogs begin their croaking. First one here, echoed by another there, then a resounding chorus, followed by a cacophony of sound. Soon after, the rain begins to fall. Frogs therefore are treated as bringers of rain and then nourishment in Odia culture.

The monkey is a symbol of fun, activity, charm and full of positive energy. Monkey is loyal, witty, playful and intelligent. There are other animals too, such as tiger for protection, cat for bad omen and tia (parrot) for love and blessings.

In the past the tribal communities of Western Odisha used the terracotta representation of these animals on the roof of their houses to ward off evil spirit and bring prosperity to their homes. Barpali in Western Odisha and its surrounding villages was the centre of terracotta roof tile craft depicting these animals.  But as time moved with the influence of market forces and crony capitalism, the tradition declined and now confined to only one house at Barpali, the house of Manbodha Rana, a national award winner terracotta potter.

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I was first introduced to the tile craft at Kala Bhoomi, Bhubaneswar’s latest world class museum in making. The entire roof of the museum complex is made of tiles supplied from the workshop of Manbodha ji. Perhaps these are the first ones within Odisha for public understanding of Barpali’s terracotta tile craft. I was very impressed with the little animals that were glued to the tiles above, but did not know who their creator was.

The Sprawling Kala Bhoomi – Terracotta Roof Tiles

Then while surfing Internet I came to know about Manbodha Ji and managed to get his number. I called up him and requested for a meeting in a day or 2. Upon getting his confirmation I straight away headed to Barpali in Bhubaneswar – Bolangir Intercity Express.

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As said before, Manbodha Ji is the only left potter of tile craft, locally known as khappar kaam. He has also introduced several new ideas to meet the contemporary taste, which he has explained in the film below.

The work is undoubtedly high class but has dwindled due to lack of local patronage and absence of market driven branding.

In addition to roof tiles, Manbodha Ji also makes terracotta toys, vessels, bulls and idols of Adi Mata.

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Western Odisha is an agrarian region, where cultivation of rice is given utmost importance. Agriculture lands are worshipped after harvest. Bulls play an important role in ploughing. They are also worshipped on the occasion. In earlier time it was a common practice among local farmers to offer terracotta images of Adimata guarded by two males and bulls to the land. As he says in the film below, the tradition has now become almost obsolete.

Manbodha Ji has also introduced the craft to other family members living in a village called Kuibahal, about 30 km from Barpali in Subarnapur District. Trained by Manbodha Ji, his nephew Mukunda Rana and his son Debanada Rana also create eye catchy objects in terracotta. I was fortunate to visit them in the company of Manbodha Ji.

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The tiled objects are made in wheel. Here is the link that shows the process. However, moulding of animals, such as fixing arms, ears and eyes are created in hands.

Today, no one is there to tell you how this idea evolved and institutionalised in Barpali region. But when I look at historical accounts of Pre-Independent India, what I find is the epidemic that killed thousands of people every year. Perhaps it was a major cause people started beliving in super natural power and sought help through the age-old belief in the animal world. However, it is my intuition and needs to be established with further research.

I left Barpali with full of cherishing experiences, but at the same time disappointed looking at the total decline of folk culture, heritage and aesthetic taste among local communities. The scene is same everywhere in India and the causes are many, the prominent being the sudden rise of cheap Chinese goods with attractive colours and material at affordable prices. The penetration of Chinese goods is almost unstoppable now, but as long potters like Manbodha ji are there, the hope is still alive. But there is a responsibility lying in each of us – we need to consciously promote our rural economy by considerably reducing the use of imported items. 

Author – Jitu Mishra

He can be contacted at jitumisra@gmail.com

4 Comments Add yours

  1. arv! says:

    This is interesting. Thanks for the share

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Beautifully presented, informative and inspiring.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Suntosh Dharpawar says:

    Interesting & Amazing clay roof ..

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Paresh Choudhury says:

    Manbodha ji is a gifted artist. There is no doubt about it. Thankfully you discovered him and brought him into limelight. His art of tile-making is not categorised just as terracotta or not mere tiles. His artistic creation is beyond the tradition by adding value with lives in terms of association of real life elements which is unique and impressive visualisation skill. I do appreciate Virasat’s endeavour to throw light on unconventional creative crafts of rural india in particular. These types of crafts need to have branding and promotional supports as you have rightly mentioned, to encourage the artisans in Odisha for their limited edition of hand crafted deliverables.
    Paresh Choudhury, Designer
    Former Professor
    At National Institute of Design .

    Liked by 1 person

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