THE HUMBLE CLAY POTS OF OUR MOTHERLAND
BY ARMAND RODRIGUES
Clay emerges from mother earth, and the pot is likened to a child that comes from the womb of a woman. For millennia, women made clay pots, by hand. Then the wheel got invented and it gave birth to the potter’s-wheel, and the role of pot-making shifted to men. Women would collect and prepare the clay, and embellish pots with designs, after men had shaped them. In archaeological digs, shards of pottery become historical treasure troves. Ancient civilizations were adept at working with clay. It is believed that man’s introduction to the art of making clay pots was a huge fire that destroyed everything in its path, except for a piece of burnt clay. This piece was as hard as stone and did not absorb water. It led early man to making pots and jars of clay, drying them in the sun and then firing them in a crude kiln. Hey Presto! Vessels capable of holding liquids securely, a pot to cook in, a dish, bowl or container, were born.
But first, a potter had to find suitable clay, then dampen it and knead it like flour, roll and flatten it with his knuckles. He then had to mould and shape a glob of clay into a symmetrical utensil. A water pot is pretty thin but has a strong curled lip to take the noose of a rope and haul the full pot up from a well. Other pots are a little thicker and have to be able to withstand high temperatures. Bowls for feeding pigs or dogs, are really thick and heavy. Curry-pots were akin to the Chinese woks, but without a handle. They were wide, had rounded bottoms and thick rims for grasping. These round-bottomed pots sat firmly on fireplaces that consisted of three laterite blocks, and could be stirred safely with a coconut-shell ladle. Pots that had a nice patina when fired, turned black when used as curry-pots or for cooking. So also, did heavy pots in which rice was cooked.
As any Goan worth his salt knows, food cooked in an earthenware pot has a flavour all its own. Goan potters(kumbars) turned out pots for cooking rice and canjee (burkolo/podgo), curry, meat, fish, vegetables (khundem). Large pots like amphorae were used to store water, grains or salted meats. They also made platters, bowls (matul) to drink from, pots (bindool) for drawing water from a well, heavy bowl-shaped pots(khodem) to feed pigs and dogs, water decanters (gurgulet), flowerpots (jarin), Roman roofing tiles (nolle). With no ovens in the past, three large curry-pots were piled on top of each other, with coconut-shell coal in the top and bottom ones, and bebinca in the middle one. Bowls for smoking pipes were also made by the potter, and a hollow bamboo stem attached to it. Our ancestors enjoyed their tobacco (dungti) in these clay pipes. No village fair was complete, without the fruits of a potter’s handiwork offered for sale. And, rich folks may have had fancy crockery in their dining rooms, but behind the scenes, rich and poor alike found identical pottery utensils indispensable.
Many moons ago, Anjuna had a famous restaurant called the Haystack. It had a live band and folkloric plays in Konkanim and Portuguese. But the real draw was the unique hot buffet actually served in large curry-pots set in a row, from which people served themselves with a ladle. Police presence was required to control the crowds drawn in by the enticing aromas wafting from the “potted” banquet.
If for a moment you thought that clay pots had little value, think again. My doctor uncle got paid in pots when he treated a kumbar or his family!
And when its purpose has been served, a crumbling or broken pot reverts to where it came from. In biblical parlance, it was pre-destined: “Dust thou art and unto dust thou shall return”.