From the beginning of human civilisation, our ancestors had mostly preferred river banks to settle. Rivers are dual in nature. On the one hand, their fertile plains are extensively exploited for farming and their courses are used for mobility and trade. On the other hand, rivers periodically bring catastrophes through floods damaging livelihood in no time.
It was through river-based trade India witnessed the second urbanisation around the middle of 1st millennium BCE in the region of the Ganges in North India. Buddhism was also spread through merchants and traders along the major river basins. Through river trade Srenis or Sresthis (trade guilds) had carried out the business of trade commodities, the major item being ceramics or pottery.
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There were different kinds of luxury and everyday use of pottery traded in Ancient India. Among the luxurious pottery, Northern Black Polished Wares (dish and bowl) were in high demand. It had reached to a large part of the Subcontinent through river trade. These were used among emerging aristocrats and elites as symbols of status in Ancient India.
Two millennia have passed. It is difficult to visualize with 100% accuracy the mechanism of Early Historic Pottery trade – how were the ceramics made, who made them, how were they bartered or sold through river trade, what kinds of watercraft were used and so on.
Majuli is world’s second largest river island located in the newly created Majuli District in Upper Assam on the banks of Brahmaputra. To reach Majuli one has to take ferry service from Koklimukh Ghat at a distance of 15 km from Jorhat Town, which is connected by both rail, bus and air services. It takes about 1 hour 30 minutes to reach Majuli. Salmora Village is about 25 km from Gormur, the heart of Majuli Island. While at Majuli visit various Namghars, a Vaishnava institution established by 16th century Saint Sankardev. Bicycles are the best options to commute within Majuli in one’s own pace. Hummingbird School is located in remote Kulamuha Village. Pathorichuk is yet another Mishing Village which can be reached after crossing three wooden bridges over a river. You can also have a boat ride in beels and rivers at your own pace. While at Majuli visit Samagri Satra for the masks. Made of bamboo and dried cow dungs these masks depict special characters and used in various religious dramas called Bawna. For a gastronomic experience try patta dia mas (fish backed in banana leaf), chicken kharika (chicken roasted in sticks) and fish curry (Oo Tenga Mas Jul) along with fresh vegetables.
Salmora village in the southeast corner of Majuli Island on the bank of mighty Brahmaputra has somehow kept the historic tradition alive. Close to Dakshinpath Satra, the Kumar potters of Salmora make handmade pottery and supply them to various villages inhabited by Mising community apart from Assamese villages through river trade. They also make watercraft for sailing in the Brahmaputra and its tributaries. Size and shape of boats vary depending upon its usage in various kinds of water bodies including ponds and swamps. The business of pottery is partly through the barter system and partly through direct selling.
Misings use them to make and store apong (rice beer) and in return provide black grams and other food items to Kumar Potters.
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The craft has survived among 600 families inhabiting the south-eastern fringe of Majuli in the villages of Salmora, Barboka and Besamara. Though there are no historical records of their origin, however many historians agree that the craft was introduced during the reign of Ahom kings.
According to a legend, the Kumar potters came to Assam from Burma during 7th century BCE. According to yet another legend, during the 13th century CE, when Chalung Sukapha came to Assam crossing the River Irrawaddy he brought with him about 11 Bor (large) Kumar families from Hong Kong in China.
The Kumars settled first in Sadiya on the bank of River Brahmaputra in Upper Assam and then migrated to Majuli in search of suitable clay required for making pottery. It was during 13th to 16th centuries migrations to Salmora took place in phases.
Apart from making pottery, the Kumars also make boats. A legend goes: in the earlier time, the Kumars used to arrange their pots on the banks of rivers and would wait for customers to buy. These banks would be regularly visited by merchants and sailors of large ships during the heydays of Ahoms. Many of these merchants would be attracted to the beautiful pots displayed for sale by the Kumars. In the course of time, these sailors started influencing Kumars to make boats so that it would be easier for them to commute long distances through river courses. The Ahom King Joyadhaj Singha had brought a family from amongst the Kumars to Salmora Village. The family members were well-versed in the art of boat making. Through the members of this family, the art of boat making was established in Majuli.
There are about 26 varieties of earthen pots produced by the Kumar potters of Salmora. Some of these are locally called mola, madia, choru, pati kalah, becha ikalah and chaki. The making of pots is primarily done by the womenfolk.
During the monsoon season, the earth is dug with shallow pits spread wide to store clay during floods. In this season, fresh alluvium is deposited in abundance on river banks, which is used for making pottery. The glutinous clay is extracted from 60-70 feet deep pits on the river banks. After extraction, the clay is then transported back to their homes where it is further mixed with water and left to stand for a day.
After the monsoon is over, the women potters prepare the puddle with clay, silt sandy mix for primary lump. Then they give shape by hands. Following this, they dry the pots under the sun and finally take them to a furnace. The furnace is prepared by men potters with bamboo, banana leaves and dry wood. Tools used by potters are made from locally available timber and bamboo.
Today, the eroding Brahmaputra is threatening to the extinction of this ancient craft. In the last couple of years, the river island has shrunk from 1250 square kilometre to 400 square kilometres. Flooding in Brahmaputra force people to shift their villages from one area to another within Majuli from time to time. Ironically, Salmora is also not spared. On top of this, according to experts of the Brahmaputra Board, the government organization which has been involved in anti-erosion projects on the island since 2004, the digging of pits for clay soil makes the river bank vulnerable to erosion by the river. Potters of Salmora blame the district administration for restricting them from digging on the banks since the last couple of years. This is affecting their livelihood and also the craft that has the link of India’s five thousand years of civilisation.
Author – Jitu Mishra
He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org