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Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - Pottery skills from Stone Age are dying out

Pottery skills from Stone Age are dying out

Moeun Chhean Nariddh delves into ancient traditions in Kompong Chhnang.

The people of the province are famous nationwide for being the producers of Khmer pottery. But the traditional lifestyle and art-forms, which have been handed down from generation to generation for thousands of years, are threatened with extinction, according to experts.

Professor Chuch Phoeurn, Dean of the Faculty of Archeology at the University of Fine Arts in Phnom Penh, said from excavatory findings that Khmer pottery making began in the Polished Stone Age at least as far back as 3,500 BC.

"The pots were used then by farmers to keep water and preserve food and fruit from being eaten by insects," he said.

The professor said according to his research team's studies the methods used by Khmer people today to shape their clay pots, the "paddle and anvil" and "turning on wheel" techniques, were the same two methods used in the ancient days and have been taught and handed down through families since the Stone Age.

But this traditional way of life may soon be a thing of the past, according to Nou Savy, deputy head of Kompong Chhnang Culture and Fine Arts Center.

"This Khmer art may disappear one day [if we don't have a plan to rescue it]. Only the poor are still making their living from pottery making," Savy said.

He said pottery making had decreased by 80 percent in the province in the last few decades and now only 10 percent of the population of 300,000 where involved in the industry.

Savy attributed the problem to the long grueling hours spent making the pots, the low salaries earned from the career, and consumers turning to modern metalware or plastic instead of the pots for the cooking and storage of food.

Local pottery maker Chea Mi said during the period before the war [1970s] a lot of foreign tourists and Cambodians would come to her village to buy pottery and watch it being made in the traditional way which they found to be uniquely eye-catching and spectacular. But she said now she had hardly any customers at all.

Mi, 57, from Andong Russei village, said she could locally sell a medium sized pot to middlemen for 400 riel, of which she would make 200 riel profit.

She said due to her age she could only make five or six pots in a whole day, but she added that strong young people could make between 15 to 20 in a day.

Mi said the pots she makes would eventually be sold in the Phnom Penh markets for 1,000 riel, and the middlemen and final sellers earned much higher profits than the producers.

Many pottery makers carry their products in ox carts from Kompong Chhnang to Phnom Penh where they sell them directly to the market vendors to overcome the problem of middlemen taking all the profits.

One such person is Ouk Chorn who was interviewed by Post reporters on Route 5 while making the trip to the capital on Sept 14.

As Chorn approached this reporter the golden color of the solar rays reflecting from the earthenware caused a brief moment of nostalgia for me as I imagined back to the period of the Khmer Empire when the ox carts had been carrying gold items from a subject country to offer in tribute to the Khmer King at the royal city.

Chorn, traveling alone with four carts filled with pottery each pulled by two cows, said the 96 km journey takes five days, and he spends about seven days in Phnom Penh until all the pots are sold before making the return journey.

Chorn said he carried his own food which he cooked-up along the way, and he stopped to sleep on the side of the road whenever night fell. He said he usually made three such trips, sometimes to other provinces, each autumn when the rice planting was completed and the farmers were waiting for the harvest.

Chorn, born in 1932, said his family and his neighbors had partially or completely lived off the traditional pottery making business all their lives.

"I don't know how old the art is or how long the family has been in the business, but I inherited it from my parents as they did from theirs," he said.

Chorn said his only two sons were in the military and there was little hope they would come back to inherit the business because they would rather work for a decent salary.

But he added that virtually all the children in some villages in Kompong Chhnang would inherit the career along with rice farming from their parents.

The four villages purely known as the pot making communities of the province are Kdei Thnoth, Andong Russei, Santouch and Trea. The people in these villages depend on the Krang Dei Meas [the Golden Earth Mountain] behind their homes as the main source of free clay which is collected by the local men.

But hardly any men are found making the pots because they say they prefer to leave it to the women who have more patient and tender hands to do the work.

People say the sight of a young lady shaping a pot can arouse passionate emotions in men. Indeed the late famous singer Sin Sisamuth revealed in a popular sentimental Khmer melody his love for a girl while watching her sculpt at the foot of the Krang Dei Meas mountain.

"Forgetting everything, I am unconsciously looking at you hiding yourself here to make a pot," Sisamuth sang in: "The Hidden Lady".

Writers, artists, photographers, film makers, video viewers, tourists and singers have spent pots of ink and paint, piles of roles of film and a lot of books to describe and tell their audience about the beauty of the pottery making tradition in Kompong Chhnang.

Khmer artists also say when they do portraits of women they often portray them carrying an earthenware pot to increase the beauty of the painting.

A peculiar tradition in many pottery villages is that they do not make entire pots: if one village makes the pots, another will make the lids.

This long existing tradition explains the good solidarity and friendship among the people of the villages who manage to live in harmony with each other, according to local residents.

The pottery making communities speak their unique industry jargon. They use terms such as "Chap mouy", "Chap pee" or "Chap bei" to describe the sizes of the pot lids they require their partner villages to make.

The terms literally mean "Picking up one", "Picking up two", or "Picking up three". The "Picking up one" pot is the biggest with a person only being able to pick up one such pot at a time.

But local villagers report a lack of interest both by consumers and producers themselves in using or making the ancient Khmer art.

They say city people now only use the pots to boil traditional medicinal herbs, because it is believed to be more effective than cooking them in a metal pot.

But in rural areas, during the hot season, people say they still prefer to use a clay pot to store drinking water, because when the sweet-smelling breeze from the ripe rice fields hits the pot it helps make the water naturally cold and incredibly delicious.

Savy said the Fine Arts Center was investigating ways to find more consumers to buy the pots to keep the industry alive.

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