Khaung Daing Village, Main Centre Of Pottery

By Markus Burman | Submitted On June 17, 2015Frances Osborne Austin Tx

This small village located at the western shore of the Inlay Lake, Shan State, Burma, and its inhabitants - scarcely 100 Shan families who live in beautiful, traditional Shan huts and houses comprising wood and bamboo frames, matting, bamboo and wood floors and thatch roofs - are renowned for the production of high quality pottery/earthenware, which here as everywhere in the country is both an industry and an art. After having visited this main pottery centre of the Shan State, seen the potters at work and bathed in this village's atmosphere you will certainly look at pottery through different eyes.

A noteworthy fact is that the ancestors of Khaung Daing's potters would no doubt not recognise that decades, centuries even millennia have passed since they passed away and would certainly be able to immediately join into the process of making pottery at any time and any of its stages from the very beginning to the very end as nothing has changed in the traditional methods since they themselves once did this work.

The basic materials used, their sources, the methods of their preparation, the tools, the techniques of forming the pottery and its burning, the designs, the sizes, the different kinds of pottery, the kinds of kilns used, etc., everything - absolutely everything - has remained the same. With respect to pottery, time has obviously stood still and will most probably continue to do so. Pottery is usually a family business and the knowledge and skills needed to perform this craft are handed down from generation to generation; and today's potters' descendents are not likely to change anything. But that is the future and we will now concern ourselves with the present and Khaung Daing's present-day pottery workshops.

Now as ever pottery or earthenware plays a central role in Burma's households as pottery is put to innumerable uses: plates, bowls, cups, beakers, vases, pots of any size to cook, preserve and serve food and beverages, to make rice wine, to plant flowers and plants into them, as depository for money, jewellery, gold, etc. (still usual in rural areas), statues, figurines, children toys, burial urns, and so on and so forth; all pottery. Accordingly, all these different kinds of pottery articles are produced in Khaung Daing Village.

The main material used is potting clay. Either damped and kneaded clay powder (terracotta) or previously soaked in water for a longer time and then after the water is poured away stamped until smooth and pliable. Occasionally, these two different kinds of clay are blended. The clay is made of earth and silt from the lake. The method used to make smaller pottery such as tableware is the 'wheel throwing' technique. Let us now watch a potter using this technique at work.

To make e.g. a bowl on the potter's wheel (set in a shallow mould and turned either by foot or hand by the potter himself or an assistant) a lump of clay is placed in the centre that is then pulled and pushed by the potter into a cylindrical shape. He then presses his thumb onto the top of the cylinder, creating a hole that he expands while pulling up the sides. Afterwards he begins to form the lip using one hand on either side of the edge of the article. After completion the potter runs a thin wire under the bottom or foot of the piece and removes it from the wheel. The earthenware is produced in one uninterrupted and smooth process out of one lump of clay.

For large pots and jars the 'coiling technique' is applied. Big jars - such as those called 'hundred-container' because they have a holding capacity of hundred 'Viss' ( 157 kilogram) - are 4 feet/1.2 metres high, have an opening of 18 inches/43 centimetres, a bulbous body and a narrow bottom. Storage pots have a holding capacity of up to 60 gallons.

The process to make and form such a huge pottery article consists of four stages, the first of which is that the bottom or base of the jar is formed and semi-dried. In the second stage of manufacture the potter forms out of a long string of clay the wall of the lower half of the jar. The string is formed into a loop or ring and the jar is built up by superimposing the rings, which are scraped smooth at the outside as the article builds up, 'glued' to the bottom by wetting the edges and put to dry. The third stage is to form the upper half with the lip the same way in which the lower part was made. Depending on the use the jar is intended for, further elements such as loops near the opening/mouth are added. The fourth stage consists of putting the 'half-jars' together and letting the whole thing dry in the sun.

After being dried pottery articles are fired (also called baked or burned). This is usually done in kilns but when lower burning temperatures and shorter burning periods suffice - as is the case with ordinary terracotta pots - it is done by what is called 'open fire'. The potters simply cover the sun-dried earthenware that is piled in stacks on the ground with a thick layer of straw, which is then set on fire. This fire reaches a temperature of about 1.202 to 1.382 degrees F (650 to 750 degrees C).

For glazed pottery a paste is made of powdered cinder or lava from the Shan mountains, a small portion of clay and 'thamin-yay' (rice water that is poured out of the pot when the rice is ready cooked and serves as the glue or binding agent) and slapped on the dried pottery prior to the burning process. The baking of glazed earthenware that is sometimes called 'middle-fire ware' needs high temperatures of 1.650 to 2.192 degrees F/900 to 1.200 degrees C.

Other methods of decorating pottery are painting or the stamping and/or incising of designs. Pottery can be painted before or after the burning.

As for kilns there are basically two different kinds: those built above ground and those built under ground. Both of these are so-called 'intermittent kilns' because they need to be extinguished before being unloaded and recharged. By contrast, 'continuous kilns' can be loaded and recharged while the fire is burning. In Khaung Daing the underground type is used. An underground kiln is a pit with steps to enter and leave it on one side and a screened smoke hole on the other side. The above-ground kilns are made of bricks with an entrance on one side and screened smoke holes. Once the pottery is thoroughly stacked in the kiln and the spaces between the bigger articles are filled with smaller pottery such as children toys (play pots, figurines, etc.) the kiln is filled with firewood, which is set alight before the entrance is properly closed with bricks, clay and earth/soil. After several days of baking - the lengths of the period is chosen according to the size and number of pieces of pottery - the kiln is allowed to gradually cool down for a number of days before it is opened to unload the pottery.

To watch all the stages of the whole pottery-making process performed in old traditions by the Shan people of Kyaung Daing not only is an educating but also a very entertaining event that makes you develop a feel for earthenware and as stated previously you will from now on look at e.g. the plate you are eating from, the cup you are drinking out and the bowls in which your food is served with different eyes.

I am now leaving this beautiful village to return to Nyaung Shwe, where I have started my tour. I will spend the rest of the day and the night in Nyaung Shwe. Tomorrow morning I will continue my journey on land to Pindaya. I hope you have enjoyed the visit to Kyaung Daing. I did and hope we will see again.

I am German by birth but am living since 25 years in Burma/Myanmar and know the country, its people, its culture and its history very well. This has made me an authority on Burma. After retiring in 2012 I turned writer and am writing books on Burma the country I am privileged to call home. Please do also see my Professional Photos and my profile.

For more information please go to my website and my YouTube channel

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