TODAY -

Ithai Barrage: Root to Vanishing pottery craft and Diminishing Livelihood in Chairen Village of Manipur

Mamta Lukram *

Chairen is a village in Bishnupur district, 65 km due southwest of Imphal
Chairen is a village in Bishnupur district, 65 km due southwest of Imphal



The Manipur Handloom & Handicrafts Development Corporation Ltd, Paona Bazar, Imphal West, recently organised a 5-Day Workshop-Cum-Exhibition of Pottery Crafts, from 8th to 12th September, 2017, at Nupi Lal Complex, Imphal, sponsored by Directorate of Handlooms & Textiles, Government of Manipur. It was a grand step for encouraging and exploring the talented pottery resource of this State.

Participants from three villages took part in the exhibition, the Nungbi Pottery, the Thongjao Pottery and the Andro Pottery. One who have little knowledge about the pottery crafts of Manipur will wonder how could Chairen be missing in such important event where they should be occupying centrality. However, Chairen Pottery was nowhere to be found. Bewildered by the absence, when interacting, a man who introduced himself as a part of the organising committee admitted that Chairen pottery failed to participate the event, spontaneously raising numerous questions.

Chairen is a village in Bishnupur district, 65 km due southwest of Imphal with 182 resident families. The extension of the village as per the villagers' update falls within the adjoining part of the Kakching and the Bishnupur districts. As per the Population Census 2011, Chairen has a total population of 785, 398 males and 387 females.

Myths and Beliefs

Myths and legends interweave the socio-cultural fabrics laying the foundation of social beliefs. Chairen, a downstream village of the Ithai Barrage on the Manipur River have its rooted myths too. Their myth wrapped over the belief that Chairen's local ancestral deity, the supernatural jurisprudent, does not reside at the village.

According to the villagers, the goddess 'Panthoibi,' was so distracted with the echoed clanking sound of striking clay in shape moulding, the whole day and yearlong that she left the village seeking peace and refuge in a neighbouring village. She stayed at Ahallup Turel Wangma, for good, overlooking the welfare of the village from the opposite side of the river.

During the times of Pleasing the Gods or Lai Haraoba Ceremony, villagers would plead the Goddess to enshrine her original village, and believe that it is only during those days that their local deity would visit the village. This myth reveals how pottery has been the domain occupation of Chairen villagers since time immemorial.

Chairen's pottery as a vital ritual item decodes the socio-cultural significance of this craft. According to potters, the first life cycle of a Meitei begins with the umbilical cord put into a Chairen pot and its burial. They can't assure the historical and chronological evidences of how and when such tradition initiated, yet they do believe this as the reason why they made particular small pots. Thongjao pottery has replaced this significance and the overall present generation has degraded the belief too.

Meitei cosmology believes in the sky-water syncretisation, and according to elders, during the Lai Haraoba, the Amaibi or the shaman priestess used the 'ihaiphu' or the 'ikouphu' as the symbolic earthen containers of lais (gods). And 'ihaiphus' are mainly the Chairen pots, whatever degenerations may have taken place.

Finally, the most significant socio-economic structure imbibed with the Chairen's pottery is the specialisation of this occupational guild as women oriented. Men's involvement is minimal, only in exceptions with those activities which demands heavy manual labour, like collecting clay, its transportation and transportation of the finished products, etc.

Ithai Barrage, the Curse for Chairen's Pottery

In Chairen if one wishes to know about the pottery occupation, its better for one to begin by interacting with a woman from middle-age to the aged. They usually possess in-depth knowledge about the profession. In the village which once fascinated the God to leave the irritating sound, one could today hardly hear any more such clanking sounds. They are in complete and continuous off-season, brought about by numerous adversities.

The natural abundance of pottery ingredients, skills, talents and enhanced by the favourable environment has been the prime reason for the flourishing pottery in Chairen in the past centuries. Every community owns an allotted plot for clay acquisition through traditional methods at times of need. For kilning villagers used hay (dried rice stalks), which they collected and stored in the post-harvest season of the vast agricultural field surrounding the village. Additional essential items for the crafts were acquired through traditional boats, the cheap and efficient means of transport of the products for generations.

However, after the construction of the Ithai Barrage, adversities juxtapose the favourability. Frequent flooding and inundation spell curse over this traditional occupation. Villagers have to collect clay during lean seasons and kept it stored, before those spots are inundated for months. Hay, for the kiln purposes got decayed and destroyed during frequent floods, compounding the woes. Inaccessibility to hay with frequent floods devastating crops with no harvest multiplies the unfavorability. With the disappearance of proper collection of materials and storage facilities, villagers have to give up the profession.

Transportation of finished products through the traditional boats to the far-flung villages was put to a complete halt by the barrage. Villager elders shared how frequently they travelled to Thanga and other periphery villages of the Loktak Wetlands, during their childhood on traditional dugout canoes to transport and trade the pottery products, with less fare, easy transport and good profit, which no longer is possible due to the installation of the iron walls.

The present-day transportation charges, where potters have to pay per sacks, overburden the expenses; in a cost benefit analysis. Mechanisation of harvesting, which pulverises and scatters, makes the hay unfit to collect and store for future use. Above all, artificial flooding and hay scarcity due to frequent floods plundered this occupational guild. Ithai Barrage heralds a dramatic occupational shift transforming pottery into a mere seasonal occupation in Chairen, pauperising the already economically marginalised community. These rising concerns are the causative factors for the prolonged hibernation of Chairen's pottery into a dying culture.

The Riddle to Unfold

According to 2011 Census Report, Chairen village has a lower literacy compared to Manipur, 63.62% as compared to 76.94%, out of which the literacy ratio of the female is 56.83% as compared to 70.15% of male. Out of the total 93 marginal workers in Chairen today, 88 are female as per the 2011 census.

The report accounting 88 females out of the 93-marginal worker is the intricate riddle to be unfolded with the dying pottery culture of Chairen and the unrecognised adversities imposed by the Ithai Barrage on the lives of the women, occupation and culture. The knowledge gap of increasing numbers of women marginalised workers with alienation from means of livelihood needs subjection to in-depth introspection for analysing the prime generating factors.

Thingnam Sanahanbi, W/O Th. Shyamkanhai, exclusively narrated how they were exposed to pottery environment during their childhood, spontaneously evolving to impart and inherit pottery skills. However, a transitional phase has obstructed, collapsing the guild. She was of the view that not more than 10 women profess pottery today. Attempts to meet potters Laishram Landhoni, 58 years, Moirangthem Jandhabi, 68 years, went in vain, since they along with other women who assist pottery has gone fishing seeking alternative livelihood. Few names of Chairen's women potters worth mentioning are:

1. Laishram Landhoni, 58yrs, W/O L. Thamjoy
2. Moirangthem Jandhabi, 68yrs, W/O M. Sindur Singh
3. Aruna Devi
4. Laishram Ibecha Devi, W/O L Mikoi Singh
5. Sorokhaibam Meipakpi Devi
6. Elangbam Ibechaobi, 54yrs, W/O Elangbam Bhorot Singh
7. Laishram Manglembi, 54 yrs, W/O L. Iboton Singh
8. Laishram Shama Devi, 57yrs, W/O L. Achoubi Singh

Elangbam Ibechaobi is one of the most popular potters in Chairen, who now owns and run a small tea stall, catering people as an alternative livelihood. The whole of the Chairen village knows her for her excellent talents in pottery and the ability of keeping the tradition intact. She participated in state level and national level workshops and exhibitions of pottery crafts. The current "off-season" of pottery craft in the village by unfavourable circumstances inhibited her enthusiasm to participate in the state level pottery craft exhibition. She shared her concerns over the younger generation's diminishing opportunities as well as aspirations to inherit the craft.

Women in general expressed the apprehension of the pottery craft's unavoidable natural death in the village once the elder generation passes away. Villagers stressed over the urgent need of timely interventions and incentives from the state's side to preserve the fading craft withered unseen, unlamented.

Elangbam Ibechaobi, Chairen's most popular potter sharing her experiences during the informal interaction
Elangbam Ibechaobi, Chairen's most popular potter sharing her experiences during the informal interaction



Pouring out discontentment, Elangbam Ibechaobi, narrated how she misplaced all her Certificates of Participation, which she forgets to treasure in her dire life with safety concerns during flash floods;

"Kanagi Certificate? (whose certificate?)...when the seeming water level recedes within hours, concerns were life safety first. The livestock and poultry were next. Our piggery with the sow and her piglets, the cows in the cowshed screaming... I sometimes thought I was going insane to handle the situation. Flood waters rose and drowned many valuable belongings. My mini-sized wooden almirah (cupboard) fell and floated in the room. Nothing was safe, we hurriedly pack whatever we can and pull it upstairs. Kids, elders and everyone else have to be upstairs. Everything was all in mess, disarray, disorganised. Visit me someday after months and I will put my endeavour to relocate it. But what's the use of all those certificates?? So far, many come, interviewed me, promised me, but none turn up to actually help."

When the public cry for the demand of Ithai Barrage Decommissioning got shriller; Chairen stood idle, beckoning for attention and incentives from the State, now obsessed with the success story of Nungbi Pottery as a role model.


* Mamta Lukram wrote this article for e-pao.net
The writer can be contacted at mamtalukram(AT)yahoo(DOT)com
This article was posted on October 02, 2017.


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