The Kumbhara community migrated from Andhra Pradesh over two hundred years ago, searching for an ideal location to practice their age-old skill: pottery. They found it on the banks of the River Nila in Palakkad, Kerala and settled there, seamlessly weaving their existence into that of the tributaries. Every year the monsoon rains would swell the river, flushing nutrients into the adjacent paddy fields and depositing mud and clay onto its banks. The potters would gather this clay and use it to make their wares – rich terra cotta utensils they then traded with the other river communities.
The lives of the river communities are connected with the monsoon in other ways, too. The Malayalam calendar divides the year up into Njattuvelas - 4-week agricultural cycles, each designed for a specific agricultural activity and intimately related to the monsoons. Njattuvelas are determined by astrologers from the movement of the celestial planets, and dictate sowing times, harvesting times, times for resting and taking traditional medicines to rejuvenate your body for the arduous months ahead. As such, the agricultural practices of the communities rely heavily on a consistent and predictable monsoon, and are sensitive to even the slightest departure from their age-old pattern.
A rich tapestry of rituals also enfolds the yearly harvest: praying to the Goddess on the banks of the river for a good monsoon, thanking her afterwards for the harvest. Each of the river communities has a defined role in these rituals: costumes, music, folktales and dances to give worship to the Goddess so that next year she will not forsake them; that she will send a good monsoon. But the monsoon is changing, and the communities with it.
“Thirty years ago, more than fifty-five families lived here in the Kumbhara community,” says Gopalan, a traditional potter. He speaks a local dialect particular to the river communities: a mixture of Telugu and Malayalam.
“We lived off the river, but we knew we were just its custodians. We gathered clay from the banks, but we always knew the banks belonged to God.”
As his hands conjure oil lamps from mud and smooth out gleaming plates on his potters’ wheel, he recollects how the introduction of plastics to the community seeded its decline.
“People began to purchase plastic water containers and utensils instead of the terracotta ones, and the potters’ occupation became unprofitable. People began to migrate to the cities in search of a living, and now there are only thirty-three families left in the community.
“I myself also left – I worked first in Delhi, and later in Dubai, where I was earning up to Rs. 250 per day. But what I couldn’t find there was satisfaction in my life, and so I came back to the river and my heritage.”
“These are not simple crafts, these are their occupations,” explains Vinod Nambiar, founder of the Vayali Folklore Group, which aims to preserve the traditions of the river communities. “The skills are brought by their ancestors. Back when we had no plastic or aluminum products, the local community was using clay items for everything. This is very simple example of how we can live in harmony with the nature: terracottas are eco friendly and cause no harm to nature. No big factories are required to make them, and there is not much pollution. We should be adapting these systems, not forsaking them. But it is an uphill struggle.”
Gopalan’s wife expands on the virtues of the traditional materials: “Storing drinking water in mud patram [pot] keeps us healthy and provides immunity from infections,” she says. “We’ve been using the same mud patram to store water for the last eight years, and it is just as good. The reason: it has been made from the best quality mud, obtained from the banks of River Nila.”
The decrease in rainfall over the last three years has further harmed the community, as the deposits of clay on the riverbanks have reduced dramatically.
“The monsoon would bring clay to the banks in a systematic process: every year the process used to bring new fresh raw material for their lives,” says Nambiar. “Recent developments in the tourism sector and other related technologies have also resulted in people competing with each other to buy lands near to the river to construct resorts or source bricks from the clay. This has created lots of problems in terms of the availability of cheap raw materials – people are having to pay to get what little clay there is, whereas previously it was a common resource, and free. The occupation is no longer profitable and people are abandoning it. This rich legacy is being lost.
“As age old people say, culture nourishes itself from nature. Without nature a culture can’t exist, without a culture a society cannot.”