The diversity of the historical pottery made in and around Ayutthaya, Thailand, reflects its former status as a major trading city with a diverse population.
Ayutthaya, pronounced A-yu-ti-YAA, is located in modern day Thailand and was the capital city of the Kingdom of Ayutthaya, which flourished from 1351 to 1767 CE. Located on a confluence of rivers 49 miles (80 km) from the ocean, it was a city built on commerce, naturally protected from pirates, and a major center on oceanic trade routes that were analogous in importance and scope to the overland Silk Road trade route. It quickly grew into one of the wealthiest cities at the time. With a multi-ethnic population consisting of over 40 ethnic groups, including Chinese, Japanese, Portuguese, and Dutch, it is one of the best examples of the advantages of social diversity in the ancient world. Both local and foreign ceramics were major trade goods that helped these economic routes flourish.
There were two major ceramic production zones located near Ayutthaya: Sukhothai and Sawankhalok. Sawankhalok, the bigger of the two was said to have over 1000 kilns during its peak in production capacity. It also produced several styles of pottery, including celadon ware that has a grayer tone and opaqueness, partially due to the non-porcelain clay body, compared to Chinese celadons. Like their Chinese counterparts, Sawankhalok potters used carving and incising as the main methods of surface decorations. In addition to celadon, the town produced black underglazed ware, brown glazed ware, and opaque white glazed ware.
The other major ceramic production zone was Sukhothai, which only produced one style of ceramics: black underglazed ware coated with a transparent glaze. The main difference between the Sukhothai and Sawankhalok black underglaze styles is the clay body. Because the Sukhothai clay body was grainy and rough, it was dipped in a white slip before the black underglaze decoration was brushed on. Sukhothai and Sawankhalok ceramic ware were produced for domestic and foreign markets, and have been excavated at archeological sites throughout Southeast Asia, including Indonesia and the Philippines.
Linking Ceramics and Trade
On the other side of this medieval trade economy was Ayutthaya’s Japanese Village. Inhabited by a sizable group of Japanese Christian merchants, their economic activities are the reason that Siamese potpourri was a common part of the Japanese tea ceremony, or that Awamori, the Okinawan alcohol, was once so prevalent in Ayutthaya. Of course, the transport and consumption of potpourri and alcohol both require ceramic ware.
The variety of the ceramics collection of the Chao Sam Phraya National Museum in Thailand is a testament to Ayutthaya’s trading center credentials; usually ceramic production zones are restricted by the availability of local materials and therefore only produce one style. Only major trading centers such as Jingdezhen, China, and the Ryukyu Kindgom in Okinawa have such a diversity of styles.
Exploring the Stylistic Diversity
Looking at the large pots in the Chao Sam Phraya National Museum collection, I was struck by the precision of form; although not as visually light as Chinese fine bone blue and white ware, they lack the looseness and roughness that Korean moon jars and Japanese tea wares gravitate towards. In addition, some of the large pots are decorated with gold paint. More so than ceramics, gold was the focal point of Thai craft. In fact, the museum has multiple vaults devoted to the ornate gold items the Ayutthayan Kings would use in ceremonies and everyday life, so it is not surprising to see pots decorated with it. What is surprising, however, is that unlike the fine and ornate overglaze imagery in Chinese and Japanese ceramics that we are used to seeing gold enameling accompany, the examples in the museum have gold painted onto very modestly and plainly glazed jars. It’s fascinating to wonder how common these jugs were and whether they served a different purpose compared to those without gold trim.
Two other forms in the museum caught my eye. The first is the kendi, which is a spouted teapot form that was central to Thai religious ceremonies and rituals. Although spouted vessels in and of themselves are nothing unusual in ceramics, it’s the bulbousness of the spouts that strikes my fancy, almost mimicking the shape of a papaya, star fruit, or other fruit abundant throughout Thailand. In this small gesture, it seems to me Thai ceramics subtly created its own language of cultural cues, tying it to the people and the land.
The Thai Bencharong wares intrigue me for similar reasons. Bencharong literally means five colors and although it was produced after the fall of Ayutthaya, it also contains small signals that differentiate it from the Chinese five-color glaze style. Interestingly enough, although these wares were designed by Thai potters, the majority of them were produced in China for export. As well as the painted motifs of images common to Theraveda Buddhism, the flourishes on these lidded wares that most provoke the feeling of Thai style to me are the tiered knobs, which are reminiscent of the ubiquitous stupas that highlight the Thai landscape.
Contemporary Ceramics in Thailand
Unfortunately, the production of traditional Thai ceramics fell with the Ayutthaya Kingdom. However, all is not completely gone. The Bang Sai Arts and Crafts Centre is under royal patronage. The Centre has training buildings for all Thai traditional crafts and the goal is to teach farmers from the surrounding regions the required skills in traditional techniques to make wares that can supplement their incomes during the farming off-season. The training buildings are open so visitors can glimpse pottery at all stages of production. In a similar vein, when visiting the Tung Bua Chom Floating Market, there are several sweet shops selling Thai puddings that are baked directly into small terra-cotta bowls, and the bowls are sold to the customers along with the puddings. Although the Ayutthayan Kingdom has come and gone, the craft of pottery is surviving and finding new pathways to stay economically viable.
Additional research was supplemented with Roxanna M. Brown’s book Ming Gap and Shipwreck Ceramics in Southeast Asia: Towards a Chronology of Thai Trade Ware published by River Books Press Dist. A C, in Bangkok, Thailand, 2009.
the author Maggie Connolly received her MFA from Tsinghua University School of Fine Arts in Beijing, China, and her PhD from Tokyo University of the Fine Arts. Currently, she works as an Independent Specialized Researcher at Tokyo University of the Fine Arts in Tokyo, Japan.