Clay Culture: Potters of Mauritius

Artisans at three small potteries making production ware in Mauritius share their experiences working to make high volumes of functional pots to serve the community’s religious and ceremonial needs.

The Republic of Mauritius is situated 1200 miles off the southeast coast of Africa, 700 miles east of Madagascar. The population is a cosmopolitan mix of cultures from African (Madagascar), Indian, Dutch, French, and English origins. Most people speak English, French, and Creole (Kreol Mauricien), the official languages of the island.

The island is of volcanic origins, with mountainous terrain and rich fertile plains that are perfect for growing the island’s main cash crop, sugarcane.

Almost 50% of Mauritians follow the faith of Hinduism, and many colorful and ornately carved Hindu temples can be found across this beautiful country.

1 Biswajeet Ramlochund (Ram) with large pots in the National Pottery showroom.

2 Jeebin throwing off the hump.

Three Small Potteries

Arsenal is a small village in the Pamplemousses District—better known for its botanical gardens—and is the location for three small potteries that supply the island’s population with prayer goods, such as Diwali oil lamps, incense jars, and bowls for offerings. These vessels are used at traditional Hindu weddings and at the frequent Hindu festivals like Diwali, the festival of lights, and the biggest festival, Maha Shivaratri, a 3-day event of some 200,000–300,00 devotees walking in pilgrimage to Ganga Talao (Grand Bassin), a sacred crater lake in the south of the island.

My French-speaking taxi driver and translator, Ram, was able to help find these elusive potteries, of which only two were previously known to me from online research: the Arsenal Pottery Co. Ltd. on Mahatma Gandhi Lane (established over 100 years ago) and the National Pottery (established in 1982). The third pottery, called Sasan & Son, is an offshoot of The National Pottery and, as shown in the photographs, was very busy at the time of my visit. With the help of Ram, who did a marvelous job of translating my questions, I was able to establish all the facts for this article, but also to gain the potters’ trust.

3 The National Pottery showroom exterior.

The Clay

Each pottery must source their own raw materials. The terra-cotta clay is made from the red volcanic earth found on this part of the island—dug from open flood-plain fields in the Balaclava District of the west coast, close to the ruins of the island’s original colonial military arsenal, and from construction sites for new buildings where foundations are being dug. The best clay is found 3 ft. 3 in. (1 m) below the surface and when the building work stops, these supplies become rare. Pottery owners work with construction companies and pay for clay supplies when they become available to collect. Grog in the form of basalt, a volcanic mineral common to the island, comes from local building material companies. The potters mix their clay by hand and with the aid of simple machinery.

The Studio/Workshops

All three of the potteries were constructed of rusted corrugated-iron sheeting. Lighting was basic, consisting of strip-lighting and unshaded light bulbs. Working conditions for the potters were haphazard and cluttered, almost dangerous for the unwary visitor. Some rooms, like the clay preparation room, were positively a no-go area for visitors. The overall impression is one of basic functionality, and not surprisingly with such large quantities of pots to make—10,000 items per month per pottery on average. Photographs of the Sasan & Son Pottery show how the wheel-throwing areas are equipped.

The wood-fired kilns are primarily of brick construction, although The National Pottery had one made of steel.

4 Rawmawtee and Sunil Meetah, owners of Arsenal Pottery.

5 The electric wheel and working environment at Arsenal Pottery.

Manufacture and Marketing

I was impressed with the commercial output these businesses were generating for the religious needs of the island’s population. During festival times, the potteries make single-use terra-cotta items such as the Diwali oil lamps by the 100,000 in order to cope with demand. These products are exclusively of terra-cotta earthenware and always unglazed. The pieces are quickly wheel thrown off the hump, and the production and final forms favor simplicity and utility over finesse.

Some items, like the Diwali oil lamps, are left at the shrines, while others like the small joss stick jars are often used before idols over longer periods of time. Larger bowls are used at larger gatherings like weddings for herb and spice offerings. Most of the bulk pottery products go to puja shops (prayer shops) common across the island, and we visited some of these to buy samples.

Each pottery sells to the casual buyer and will make larger items like planters to order for home owners and hoteliers. Visitors to each of these potteries are made welcome when they call in, and photographs of these groups can be found on their Facebook pages.

6 Arsenal Pottery’s steel-constructed wood-fired kiln.

7 Diwali lamps being packed for the puja shops to collect.

8 A typical Diwali lamp arrangement before use.

Status

The potters’ collective works bear no signature, no accolade for their individuality, and they work for wages as unsung functionaries within Mauritian society. In many cultures, tribute is paid to crafts and the workers who perform their skillful arts either through patronage or simply by allowing their works and efforts to reach customers who buy because of the cultural worth of their products. You won’t find mention or inclusion of these three potteries in any guidebooks, on tourist-oriented websites, or even on the island’s official website. Only rarely have some outsiders included mention of these potters. It is my personal hope that this article will go some way to redress this situation.

There are commercial craft outlets for the tourist market that sell selections of all kinds of craft products, including terra-cotta items from Arsenal, but always under the generic title of “Made in Mauritius.” The pottery wares from Arsenal are very heavy due to their iron content and thus unpopular gift items.

9 The Sasan & Son Pottery entrance.

Post Script

This is the story at Arsenal, The National Pottery, and Sasan & Son Pottery, but there is another side to this island’s ceramics production that came to my attention only after my visit. In stark contrast to the uncompromisingly single-use, unglamorous, and unglazed terra-cotta wares of these potteries, there are other much smaller and more intimate potteries across the island who serve the more discerning buyer and supply fine, hand-thrown and glazed earthenware ceramic products to hotels and private buyers.

My experience of this small island is one full of surprises. To find a story of two halves to the pottery industry here demands that I make a further visit to Mauritius as soon as international travel is permitted.

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10, 11 Mike and Frederick working at Sasan & Son Pottery.

The current international emergency of COVID-19 has affected our entire planet in these recent months since my return from Mauritius in the middle of January 2020. Like so many island communities across the globe, and since March, Mauritius has been on lockdown until very recently

In late August, the coronavirus causing the pandemic was eliminated in Mauritius, and the government wants to ensure this remains the case. A new visitor center is being built at the airport ready to screen incoming tourists. Not until then—and once airlines are up and running again—will I be able to complete this story.

As if COVID-19 wasn’t enough to deal with on such a small island, the worst ecological disaster in the Indian Ocean’s history—a shipwreck spilling thousands of tons of oil into pristine reefs off the South Coast piles on the agony of this community. My thoughts are with them in these troubled and unsettling times.

These resilient communities are fighting back, and international help is working hard to remedy the situation. And the potteries, well, they are back at work and the religious life of the island continues.

12 Salil, owner of Sasan & Son Pottery.

13 Drying racks at Sasan & Son Pottery.

For more information on Arsenal Pottery Co. Ltd., visit www.facebook.com/Arsenal-PotteryCO-LTD-626051190787155.

For more information on The National Pottery, visit https://mysweetmauritius.blogspot.com/2019/06/national-pottery-arsenal.html.

This article would not have been possible without the help of my driver and interpreter Biswajeet Ramlochund (Ram) of Accuil, Flacq, Mauritius. I thank him for his generosity and patience.

Each pottery owner expressed unequivocal support for having their businesses featured within this article.

For technical support, I thank my brother, Richard Daniels of the Creigiau Mawr Pottery, for his expertise as a life-long professional potter.

the author John Daniels is a photographer, writer, artist, and frequent traveler living in London, UK.

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