The endangered art of Lamangdong's stone bowls and the Toupokpi sculptor

Phanjoubam Chingkheinganba *

Stone Bowl: An antique blackened stone jar no longer available
Stone Bowl: An antique blackened stone jar no longer available

Flipping through the pages of history books or amidst a casual conversation, interested lot might have heard about the hand-made black potteries of Longpi and redware counterpart available and considered as the heritage of the ancient villages of Andro and Chairel.

However, rarely have one heard about a unique craftsmanship deeply embedded with the historically important place of modern day Bishenpur, formerly Lamangdong, the place where the first known brick temple, dated 15th century, of the Indian state of Manipur, was built.

Half-an-hour drive from Imphal, minutes before reaching Nambol market, along the Tiddim line, dozens of families used to engage in making stone bowls, candle stands, Shiva Linga and crockery. Today, one person in Lamangdong struggles to maintain an almost extinct art of this traditional ethnic Meetei craftsmanship of making stone crockery particularly stone bowls.

A time-consuming process in the past which requires tremendous physical labour, few simple tools are all that is required to make various sizes of smoothly polished stone bowls. Despite the meagre economic benefits one gets from venturing into this stone crockery endeavour, Yanglem Sushil Kumar, pursues the craft for his deceased father had instructed him that the art should be kept alive, no matter what.

Though Sushil has focussed onto other businesses, due to financial necessity, the 41-year-old now makes such stone bowls, candle stand and others including the Shiva Linga, as per the orders he gets from customers.

He said, in the ancient past, craftsman would procure raw materials from nearby Heibirok, Lukhrabi Yumpham at Ningthoukhong and from the vicinity of Loumeilok River, which presently comes under Senapati district. He says the stone boulders cut out and available near Loumeilok stream is of better quality for making rock crockery items as stones available at other places are sometimes liable to develop cracks, have lumps or break down in the middle of making stone bowls.

In early times, chunks of stone were brought in bullock-cart to the work-shed where the gruelling task of transforming formless rock chunks into a refined polished product of art are carried out. The stone boulders are firstly cut into the somewhat desired shape with the simple tool "Nungkhai" literal meaning of which is stone cutter, an iron tool similar to that of a chisel.

For determining the sizes of a desired bowl, a primitive geometrical compass like V-shaped tool referred to as "Kati" is employed to measure the diameter so as to mark it before the task of chiselling and drilling is initiated. Precise focus and attention is of utmost necessity while making stone bowls as the craftsman has to ensure the edges of the bowl are in proportion with the faint marking made by Kati.

Having cut and chiselled the stones are then kept immersed in water for a few hours to make it more convenient during the polishing process before it is glued into an indigenous cylindrical-shaped wooden tool "Phundrei". Prior to polishing and scrubbing, the cut out pieces of stone chunks are attached to the "Phundrei" with a paste made out of oil and local incense like product known as Menkruk.

Y Sushil drilling a stone with a modern day motor rather than the traditional Phundrei
Y Sushil drilling a stone with a modern day motor rather than the traditional Phundrei

The paste is used for attaching the stone chunks to the wooden-tool "Phundrei". The purpose of attaching is to detach a finished stone bowls from the Phundrei with two/ three strikes with a chisel and a hammer. This, however, have been replaced with a modern tool.

Coming back, once attached, the long hard road of curling and polishing begins. One person would continuously rotate the wooden tool with a rope or chain, while another would use a sharpened iron-edged tool to scratch the stone mass till the desired form is achieved, said Sushil.

But with the advent of the electric powered rotating motor, the traditional "Phundrei" used for drilling holes and curling the stone chunks are no longer in usage. Unfortunately, the usage of modern machinery, however led to the disappearance of the blackened stone crockery which was more preferable and represents the uniqueness of this art form.

He explains that in ancient past black stone crockery were more in demand than the present grey coloured avatars. Explaining the reason behind the blacked stone bowls of the past, he continued that fire were used to detach the attached stone chunks from the "phundrei" after the task of scrubbing was completed resulting in the blackening of the stone chunks.

But for worse, the advent of metal utensils and modern motor system has rendered this craft unnecessary. With the art of making stone bowls of Lamangdong almost on the verge of extinction, the option available is to preserve it by establishing a museum/ training centre for Lamangdong's blackened stone bowls, remarked Sushil who says if he stops making such rock bowls, the art of making stone bowls in Lamangdong will forever go unnoticed in the annals of history.

The Loupokpi stone sculptor

Few minutes from Lamangdong, is the Loupokpi locality, where an elderly, dark skinned has been making stone-sculptures from the early eighties of the last century.

State Awardee Oinam Mangi Singh, established his own stone carving centre, at Toupokpi. Now, 67, the slim man, have in his credit over 100 stone-carved sculptures of various figures that include Hindu deities, traditional representation of Manipuri sports, lifestyle, the Buddha and others.

Toupokpi Sculptor: Oinam Mangi gives final touch to a stone figure
Toupokpi Sculptor: Oinam Mangi gives final touch to a stone figure

Though not financially sound, the sculptor has accomplished some remarkable feats. He is currently working on a life-sized statue of a woman in Manipuri costume which is supposed to be installed in Manipur Bhavan Delhi.

Purchasing the stone chunks at the rate of Rs 3000 from the landowners at Laimaton (Leikha), located some 35 km from his place, Mangi has to pocket out another Rs 15, 000 to pay the truck driver for their services of bringing in the stone masses.

Under his supervision, some 50 sculptures/ labourers are learning the art form which he says requires lot of physical labour, creativity but hardly any financial gains.

Mangi has in his possession, dozens of stone figures, finished as well as unfinished, lying and scattered around his work shed. Having learnt the art from his father, the hardly unrecognized sculptor claims that the longest period he had undertaken for making a sculpture is one year. He said many Buddha statues and Hindu deities have been purchased by the Myanmarese and Myanmarese Meeteis respectively.

* Phanjoubam Chingkheinganba wrote this article for
The writer is a Correspondent for Assam-based newspaper Asomiya Pratidin and journalist a Press Trust of India PTI Imphal) and can be contacted at phanjching(AT)gmail(DOT)com
This article was posted on March 18, 2017.

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