There is no sign marking the entrance to Twante Pottery Village in Myanmar, but when you cross the village boundary it’s clear you’ve arrived. Brick kilns begin to emerge from the bamboo-thatched huts and hundreds of pots, jars, and vases line the road, drying in the sun. Women sit on the tangerine-colored dirt in positions that seem impossibly uncomfortable to any Western observer, busily applying glaze to pottery. This resilient village, where George Orwell once served as a British imperial police officer, provides a glimpse of Myanmar’s fading tradition of handmade ceramics.
Tucked away in the web of the Irrawaddy Delta, Twante appears stuck in time. Although it’s only two hours away from Yangon, it feels infinitely distant from that modern industrial world. But the town’s quiet and inconspicuous nature belies its historically significant role in global trade.
Sandwiched between two economic giants, India and China, Myanmar’s evolution was greatly influenced by its interaction with global traders. By the mid 14th century, Arabian, Asian, Persian, and European trading ships crowded the waters of the Bay of Bengal, looking to resupply. One of the greatest challenges for the captains was finding a way to store water, food, and spices for their long east-west journey. For this, they turned to the famous Martaban jars (well, famous among archeologists anyway).
Twante is thought to be one of the primary producers of these wide, four-foot-tall jars. Remnants of these beautiful ceramics have been found in China, India, Japan, Lisbon, the Middle East, and even as far away as Canada, indicating their ubiquity among international merchants. As stated in a report by the Rietberg Museum in Zurich, Switzerland, “though primarily made as utilitarian ware, the jar is striking not only for its craftsmanship but also for its aesthetic quality, both of which deserve our esteem . . . The qualities of jars of this kind were equally astonishing.”
News of the jars’ global superiority quickly spread, and ships sailed from far and wide into the Port of Martaban. The potters of Twante, aware of their importance to global merchants, kept their process a secret, entrusting it only to family members. In the 17th century, Dutch trader Joris van Coulster reported that “the material with which the aforementioned pots were glazed, and the way in which this is done, the people would not disclose to us, fearing a loss of their craft and thus of their livelihood. But their fear is probably groundless, since jars as large as these could not be made in any other country or from any other clay.”
Indeed, it was this high-quality clay that distinguished Twante’s pottery as unique. This rare clay, which is still gathered and used by contemporary potters, forms when mud from rice paddy fields washes into the surrounding rivers, churning in the turbulent water and mixing with the river mud. The result is a clay that cannot be reproduced anywhere else in the world.
The rest of Twante’s pottery manufacturing process has barely diverted from the methodology of their ancestors. It is still all done by hand, in the absence of electricity.
First, imported mountain clay from northern Myanmar is crushed and sifted into a fine powder, which is then mashed into the river mud with barefoot stomping, reminiscent of a Greek winery. The clay then goes to a simple manual spinning wheel. It takes two people to complete this step, with one person shaping the clay and the other spinning the wheel, alternating between his hands and feet either out of exhaustion or boredom. The larger jars are molded in two phases. The potter first constructs a standard pot, then finishes it by coiling up, layer after layer in increasingly tight circles.
Today, the demand for large storage jars has all but disappeared, and the craftsmen tend to focus on smaller pots, cups, and vases. A potter can make 1500 small cups each day, which they sell for about 1 cent each.
After being shaped, the soft terra-cotta pots are carried out to dry in the sun. Once dried, the craftsmen apply a glaze made from rice water and a material found in the lead mines of the Shan State of Myanmar.
They use wood-burning kilns, capable of firing about 500 small pieces of pottery at a time. It takes nearly a full day to get the kiln to its intended temperature—about 1832°F (1000°C). But the real challenge is keeping the heat accurate and stable in the absence of any way to measure temperature aside from intuition and touch. Any aberration from the intended temperature can not only destroy everything in the kiln, but also waste the relatively expensive firewood.
It’s not an easy living. There is almost no demand for Twante’s signature large jars and an increasing number of factories have flooded the market with cheap ceramics. Adjusting to this new world is difficult, if not impossible, for many of Twante’s workshops. Many of these families are more inclined to send their children to school in search of a more prosperous life, rather than keep them in the dying family trade. As the modern world reaches Twante, the profitability of handmade pottery withers.
Twante’s pottery production almost came to an abrupt end when Cyclone Nargis tore through the Bay of Bengal in 2008. The cyclone claimed over 100,000 lives in the Irrawaddy Delta and bulldozed everything in its path, including the brick kilns of Twante. Without the money to rebuild, nearly 75% of Twante’s pottery families never returned. The United Nations International Children’s Emergency Fund (UNICEF) and the non-governmental organization Thirst-Aid tried to help Twante’s recovery in the wake of Nargis by contracting potters to manufacture clean water filters. This has been a difficult transition, and it is unclear whether it will be enough to save the fading craft.
Today, there are only ten families carrying on this ancient tradition, a far cry from Twante’s former glory, when several hundred kilns blazed on a daily basis. Armed with centuries of generational knowledge, today’s craftsmen and women still create exceptionally beautiful ceramic pieces. The future of the village is uncertain, but for now there is still a small contingent of artists enduring hardship and carrying on the culture of the Twante pottery village.
the author Michael Stein is a writer and photographer based in New Orleans, Louisiana. To learn more, visit www.MichaelisaacStein.com.