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Thozhukkal potters keep their date with Attukal Pongala |

Thozhukkal potters keep their date with Attukal Pongala

Ambika Sreekandan is a woman of the soil who earns her living at the potter’s wheel. One of the many traditional potters at Thozhukkal, near Neyyattinkara, 22 km from the capital city, she, like many others in the place, increases production during this time of the year by making and selling pots on a large scale to devotees who stick to the tradition of cooking and offering pongala in earthen pots only. Preparations begin a few weeks before the mammoth Attukal Pongala and many of the women are hard at work, making, baking and painting the pots that will eventually find their way to the city.

Thozhukkal has been a centre of clay pottery for long and Krishna Pottery, where Ambika is an employee, employs 14 women. “Although our production has fallen when compared to units in Tamil Nadu, we have regular wholesale and retail buyers,” says Sudheeshna Kumar, who has been running Krishna Pottery for 16 years now.

With an order for 1,200 earthen pots and various other pottery products, preparations start with procurement of sand and clay. “We make pots of various dimensions to cook different quantities of rice, right from 100 gm to one kg rice. We also mould extremely small pots to cook a handful of rice,” says Sudha Sunil, another employee at Krishna Pottery.

Homemade, handmade

Locally-made pots are of better quality than those brought from Tamil Nadu, claims Sasikalakumari, a wholesale vendor of pots manufactured at Thozhukkal. “Our pots are stronger and won’t leak or crack easily,” says this homemaker whose family has been into pottery-making for many decades. “That was a time when we didn’t have the pug mill to mix the clay and sand or electrified motors to run the potters’ wheel. People used to purchase pots from us and sell in the city. But we didn’t make the pots in large quantities because Attukal Pongala itself wasn’t such a big affair then,” she recalls.

Now, every year she sells the pots near RMS office, Thampanoor. “My customers are train passengers, especially those who come to the city for Pongala. Even though some people have started using steel utensils, majority of the devotees prefer the traditional pots to offer the pongala,” she adds.

Until a few years ago, Gandhi Smaraka Nidhi’s pottery centre at Thozhukkal, set up in 1982, was more into making flower pots, jugs, cookware, glasses, decorative items and the like. But now the centre also produces pots for the Pongala season. “It all started when a few of our women labourers wanted to make pots for their family members. So now they make the pots, earn their wages and they themselves sell these pots during the festival in the city,” says Harikumaran Nair, manager of Gandhi Smaraka Nidhi.

Sarojam, a labourer, tells us that they make 250 to 300 pots and sell them at East Fort two days prior to the festival.

Units in Tamil Nadu, especially those in Chunkankada, Thalakulam, Manamadurai, Thalakudi, Marthandam and the like, are major manufacturers and suppliers of the pots. Truck loads of pots are brought to the city from these places several days prior to the beginning of the festival.

From across the border

“That is done to secure space on the roadside in advance. The sale picks up once the festival officially begins,” says Manoharan from Chunkankada, a vendor at East Fort. “There are over 100 households at Chunkankada alone who make a living out of making pottery. They don’t come here for sale, instead, there are dealers who purchase these pots in bulk,” he says.

However, there are vendors like Suresh, also from Chunkankada, and his 75-year-old mother, Leela, who travel all the way to the city to sell the pots they make at home.

“We don’t depend on machines to make the pots,” he stresses.

The pottery industry as such is going through a crisis for want of clay, river sand and experienced hands. In Thozhukkal alone, where at least 60 per cent of households made a living through pottery, only a few are still using the potter’s wheel. Nevertheless, as long as Attukal Pongala is celebrated and people cutting across religious barriers turn up to offer the pongala, the industry can heave a sigh of relief.

And yes, along with scores of other women, Ambika and Sasikalakumari will also be participating in the pongala, cooking it in the pots they have made for themselves.

In the making

It takes four days for a pot to be readied from clay to the stove. The sand, sifted to remove the impurities, and the clay are mixed well. Water is added to the mixture and the potter uses his/her feet to mix it thoroughly, a process that can go on for one to three hours. Then it is put into a pug mill where it gets a smooth consistency. Balls of soft clay then go to the potters’ wheel where they are shaped into hollow pots of different sizes.

They are left to dry for one or two days. Next, the hollow pots are beaten with a wooden spatula to fill up the bottom of the pot and smoothen the surface. While the pot is beaten with a spatula, the labourer presses a granite stone from inside the pot so as to shape the pot and make it firm.

These pots are left to dry for a day. After that they are given a coating of red polish. It takes a day to dry these pots. Then they go to the kiln, where they are baked for 24 hours.

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