Discovering one of the oldest pottery villages in Southeast Asia

December 30, 2018 - 09:00

The Bàu Trúc Pottery Village in Ninh Phước District of Ninh Thuận Province is famous for ceramics made from clay from the Quao River.

Safe hands: Trưởng Thị Gạch, 82, a Cham artisan, has been making pottery for 70 years in Bàu Trúc Village in Ninh Thuận Province. VNA/VNS Photo Văn Châu
Viet Nam News

by Văn Châu

Trưởng Thị Gạch, 82, of the Chăm ethnic group, is from a very long line of ceramic artisans.  

Her great-great grandmother made pottery, and now, her own great-grandaughter works in one of the oldest pottery villages in Southeast Asia, located 10km from the central coastal city of Phan Rang in Ninh Thuận Province.

“I learned how to make pottery from my mother and my grandmother when I was 10 years old,” Gạch said. “I taught my daughters and granddaughters since our Chăm culture only allows women to make pottery.”

Located on National Highway 1A, the Bàu Trúc Pottery Village in Ninh Phước District is famous for ceramics made from clay from the Quao River.

“Villagers take the soft clay and mix it with sand to create a base material,” Gạch said. “These techniques have been passed down from generation to generation."

Chăm pots are shaped by hand and are not made on a rotating electric wheel. The pots are dried under the sun for four to six hours before being fired outdoors over straw or wood.

The entire process, from beginning to end, is done by hand: from drying and soaking the materials in water to mixing sand and kneading the clay, to decorating the pots before firing.

“That’s what makes our products unique," Gạch said. “We place the product on a chair or table and walk around it to shape it.”

Ancient craft: Cham craftspeople make pottery in Bàu Trúc Village, one of the oldest pottery villages in Southeast Asia, which dates back to the 1100s when it was part of the Cham kingdom. VNA/VNS Photo Văn Châu

Simple tools like anvils, moulds and wet cloths are also used.

The patterns on the pots, which are freely decorated, often depict tree branches or shells, made with traditional techniques that colour the pottery in old, mysterious styles, according to Gạch.

Images of snails or paintings featuring the daily life of Bàu Trúc Village’s people are often used for decoration as well.

Because the potters do not use kilns, their handmade jars are especially good for keeping water cool.

Pots from the village have natural colours: varying from reddish-brown, pink-red and dark gray with brown streaks, which are all characteristic of Chăm culture.

Upon entering the village gate, visitors can see pottery lining the streets and in front of houses, and can stop to learn techniques at workshops and take home their handmade items.

The village’s most popular items are reliefs featuring Chăm women, kings or dancers, and products for spiritual worship or everyday household utensils.

Jars, decorative lamps, reliefs, and statuettes of Apsara (female dancers) and Shiva, one of the three main gods in Hinduism, are also sold at the village.

Future prospects

The village, which has existed since the reign of Chăm King Po Klong Garai (1151-1205), holds a ceremony every year to honour Po Klong Chan, the founder of the village.  

Craftsmanship: The most popular products in the village are reliefs featuring Cham women, kings or dancers, and everyday functional items. VNA/VNS Photo Văn Châu

Today, however, Bàu Trúc potters are trying desperately to survive.

Some 85 per cent of the total 400 households in the village earn their living from making pottery.

However, the villagers fear they will have to stop working as potters because of the unstable output, low income, and lack of interest from traders.

Though the village has a variety of works in different sizes and colours, as well as fine art works and souvenirs, they have to compete with other craft villages with a long storied history, according to Phú Hựu Minh Thuần, director of the Bàu Trúc Pottery Village Co-operative.

Many products have simple designs that cannot match the variety and modern style of ceramics made by the famous Bát Tràng Pottery and Bình Dương Pottery villages.

“Our monthly production is about 1,000 items, a small number compared with Bát Tràng or Bình Dương,” Thuần said.

The artisans’ income is only around VNĐ2.5 million (US$110) per month.

“That’s why many households no longer make pottery, even though they still love the traditional work. They have to look for other jobs with better earnings,” Thuần said.

To save the village’s craft, Thuần has recommended several solutions to provincial authorities, including financial support to register an official village trademark, and more trade promotions at seminars and conferences.

Ninh Thuận authorities are also planning to compile a dossier on Chăm pottery in a bid to earn UNESCO cultural heritage recognition.

However, the provincial authorities urgently need support from government agencies, especially the Ministry of Culture, Sports and Tourism and the Việt Nam National Institute of Culture and Arts Studies in HCM City, according to Thuần.

Last year, the pottery made in Bàu Trúc Village in Ninh Thuận was recognised as a national intangible cultural heritage by the Ministry of Culture, Sports and Tourism. VNS