A Home on the Hill

Jaya Menon

In the middle of the plain between the Yamuna and the Ganges rivers is a village called Indor Khera that sits atop what looks like a small hill. This hill is not natural but is built up of deposits that are over three thousand years old. Roughly two thousand years ago, this hill was much lower and had a small town perched on it. About five years ago, parts of this town were excavated showing that a small and vibrant potters’ community lived on its extreme northwestern edge. Among the numerous objects found in the excavation were several misshapen tiny bowls. Below is a possible day in the life of that community based on the evidence that was recovered from the houses of those potters. What would it have been like to be a woman in a potters’ household two thousand years ago in Indor Khera?

Waking up on an early winter’s day, there is a clear view at this height, despite the wispy mist, of the Chhoiya rivulet across the fields of just planted wheat. On its bank is a little clearing in the fields where the temple sits. Today there is no time to go to the temple as the day’s work looms ahead; a large consignment of vessels have to be prepared and taken to the market in a nearby town. Before anything else, I have to first get water from the river. For this, I take the path down to the base and wonder for the nth time why we have to live on top of this mound. There are no natural hills in this region, so what is this hill on which our village is located? The old men in the town say that there was an ancient place here much earlier, and then an earthquake came and turned everything upside down. All I know is that the children keep digging up beads, bangles, and sometimes coins. I don’t understand these, as we don’t use such coins now but then it is metal and we can melt them down to make jewelry.

Coming back up to the house, I stop a bit at Shanti’s door to chat with her. Shanti also lives in a potter’s house and has much the same work as I do. Two days ago, we had gone together to the nearby pond to collect the clay from its banks. I see her husband is already at work, and so I tear myself away since I have to get a large batch of clay prepared. The clay heap is in a corner of the courtyard and I take a portion of it. Beating the clay nodules into a fine powder with a wooden bat is hard work but without that the clay cannot be worked. I usually have my husband’s sister helping me with this, but today she had to go to our ancestral village so I do it alone. While beating, I continuously sort the clay till it is evenly fine. Then I make a well in the heap and mix water into it and knead it into a lump. After making several lumps I let them rest under a damp cloth to prevent them from drying.

Once this is done, I can go to the chulah in the other corner of the courtyard. It is cold and has to be lit for me to make rotis for the morning meal. I know the children are going to be hungry when they wake up. More kneading, this time wheat flour, and soon there is a pile of hot rotis. Other household tasks await me after which I set about getting the courtyard cleaned before my husband puts the wheel in place.

I sit back leaning against the courtyard wall to take a few minutes to watch him at work, arranging the pot with clayey water next to him, draping the thread with which vessels will be cut from the wheel over the rim of the pot, setting the wheel in motion with the long stick. And I am glad that I don’t have to sit in front of the wheel like this for many hours. I can get up and move vessels around, pound some more clay, even get in some small tasks like grinding chillies for the chutney. I can chat with my friends who come in for little breaks between work. One of them needs a large water pot so I go to the store and root out a good pot for her, tapping it to make sure it’s not broken.

My husband forms the pots on the wheel but only their upper halves. He takes each off with no base and very thick walls, and these sit for some time in the courtyard to dry a little. I take the first one and place it in a basin that has been dusted with sand. With an anvil, I then tap on the thick walls of the half-pot to thin them and stretch them enough to make a rounded base to close the hole. I then lift the pot and bring it down in the basin with a gentle whump and this evens the base into a round shape. One after the other, all the pots have to be shaped like this. In between, I have to get up and put a clay lump on the wheel for him to form the next batch of pots.

I remember when I first came to live here. I knew how to work with clay, having come from a family of potters. But we worked it differently. Much more of the vessel was formed on the wheel by my father and brothers. Then we girls would put the unfinished pot in a basin, and shave off the clay using a sharp blade tool. Here, I had to learn again, how to make pots this way. My mother-in-law was my teacher and she was strict! She did everything but rap me on the knuckles, practically every day, till I got it right. I remember once bringing down the vessel in the basin with too much force and the whole thing collapsed. I have to say, shaving off clay is far easier! Still, all is well. I have been in charge of the household since she died and I know I do a pretty good job.

It sounds like the children are awake. I call out to them to wash up before they eat. They know they have to help me with bringing the vessels out for firing; we had talked about it last night. Today we will fire the open bowls that we eat out of. The town will need a large number of these for the big feast that is coming up soon. These have to go tomorrow to the local market. These open bowls are easy for the children to bring to the firing area. The two boys have got a basket and have filled it up with the bowls and are now staggering with the basket between them to the part of the courtyard where the kiln will be lit. They like to think they are helping, and they are; bringing the completed vessels to the firing area takes time, especially when there’s so much else to do. I see that two of Shanti’s boys have trooped in to help too and several trips later, there are quite a few baskets filled with bowls. It is my task to arrange the vessels in the pit kiln for firing. This is not an easy thing to do. I remember the first time my mother-in-law left me to arrange the vessels by myself and most of the pots came out cracked. What a disaster it was. I ran away to the temple and hid there till sun down when my husband found me and cajoled me to come home. It was a long time before I was allowed near the kiln again. But it is not yet time to fill the kiln; I have other things to do first.

The children have wandered off to play in the lane outside the house. The older ones are playing a game by making a hole in pieces of pottery and tying them to sticks, so they can roll them like wheels. When the little ones come in crying and complaining that they are not being allowed to play with the wheels, I give them small bits of clay to play with. The two of them sit next to me on the ground while I work vessels in the basin with the anvil. After I have completed about fifteen vessels and kept them to dry around me in the shade, I start on the next step. I take the first vessel I had rounded off and put it on my lap to begin impressing designs on the outer surface, using one of my carved pottery stamps. This has to be done evenly all around the shoulder of the vessel. In the gaps, I press a stamp with another design. This entire band is framed in between two grooves, which I make by twirling the pot on an inverted broken potsherd and by holding a pointed tool against the surface. This leaves an incised groove on top of the stamped designs. I shift the tool to below the stamped forms and incise a second groove. There! In the market a pot is only as useful as it is pretty, I always tell Shanti.

When I spare the time to look around at the kids, I find that one has rolled the piece of clay on the ground with his fingers. I ask him what it is, to which he replies, “nothing, just a snake”. I see him cut off a bit of the snake and pinch the ends to make a rolling pin. He carefully rolls up the remainder of his snake to make little balls. He looks very happy with his little pile of laddus. His sister has patted the clay into a flat circular shape and has now put a little finger into it to curve it into a bowl. She ceremoniously shows me her first bowl which I pretend to assess with great care. It is clearly misshapen; its walls are not even, and when made to stand on the ground, it keels over. But she made it and she is proud of it.

The little kids are clearly having such fun that the older ones also join in. Shanti’s boys have a little more experience working with clay; they have learnt to make diyas on the wheel. But right now, it’s all fun and they are making miniature copies of what they see around them. I can see an elaborate weighing scale being made with small flat plates tied with string to a small piece of bamboo. I can also see a small square container being carefully shaped by one of the older boys. He indulges his little brother who is trying to put his laddus in this box. I can see the little ones are encouraged by their older siblings, but they don’t want to be shown down. The little bowl maker is hiding her bowls from her older brother, fearing he will take them over and try to improve them.

It is time to arrange the bowls and diyas in the pit kiln for firing. So I get into the shallow pit with a basket and start arranging the bowls in a fan-shape so that they nest inside each other. I work from the center outwards pulling the next basket of vessels from the outside. After completing the first layer, I start on the next. The next basket I pull over has an addition. I see the small bowls made by my child secreted among the larger bowls. Without a word, I arrange them too but inside one of the bowls. Soon the entire pit is filled with three layers of vessels. Meanwhile, the children have been bringing piles of cowdung cakes to the edge of the kiln and this is the next thick layer to be put on top of the vessels. Finally, I fill up the gaps with bits of straw and pieces of cowdung before setting the whole pile on fire. We watch the fire burning for some time. We have to be careful that we do not disturb the neighbours on that side and make sure that the fire does not spread out of its confined area. My husband, exhausted from the day’s work, has washed up and is standing next to the children watching my careful work. This last part is as much a test of his skill as mine.

The sun is hanging low. It is time to prepare the evening meal, eat together and listen to the children tell stories from the day. When we go to bed, I send up a quick prayer that there are not too many broken vessels when the cooled kiln is opened the next day.

My prayers are answered. There are only about ten bowls that broke in the firing. Vijay, my brother-in-law, has pulled the bullock cart up to the door. Baskets of fired bowls have to be loaded onto it. One of the older boys sits inside arranging the vessels, while the others go back and forth carrying baskets of finished vessels. I am at the kiln filling the baskets. While lifting the vessels, I find one into which I had popped the little bowls made by my daughter. They are black because they were completely covered by a bigger bowl and had no access to air. I hold them in my palm and call out to my daughter to take them.

Vijay will take the vessels to the market, accompanied by my eldest son. Today, we will not work since my husband has to go to the neighbouring village. I can relax a little today; perhaps get back to stitching my quilt cover that I have not had the time for in a while. I look out again over the fields and the temple catches my eye. I change my mind and decide to go and offer thanks properly for a successful firing. I clasp the hands of my smallest children on either side and walk down the path to the base of the hill on which I live. Somehow the hill seems less of a problem today.

Jaya Menon is an archaeologist interested in peopling the past. Her work in excavating Indor Khera is providing her with ample opportunity to do so.

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