A Ceramist's Eye View of
The Thimi, Nepal Potters Community
by Reid Harvey - 1 March 2003

Newari Ceramist Hari Govinda Prajapati in front of his Madhyapur Clay Crafts Studio

The members of the Newari ethnic group, potters' community of Thimi, Nepal, all have the same last name:  Prajapati.  In the Newari language this means 'potter.'  So in the English translation my collaborator and good friend, Hari (shown above), would be, 'Hari Potter.'  Among the gifted in the community at combined artistic and technical aspects of ceramics, this Hari works his own special magic in the art and wares he creates.  Thimi has been a hive of potters' activity for hundreds of years, the traditions handed down from one generation to the next, and Hari's family has been among the prominent.  This is a story of the Newari Potters Community, also focusing on Hari Govinda, a member who is typical of those who have had the good fortune of more education.

By far the largest of Nepal's potter communities, Thimi consists of several thousand potter families, with about 8,000 individual members involved in some aspect of pottery.  Wares of many types are produced in 

the community, various pottery items that are in use in every day life throughout the Kathmandu Valley, and in the hills beyond.  Among items that are specific to the traditions of Nepal are:  Buddhist and Hindu religious statuary, architectural terra cotta, roof tiles, pottery space heaters (for the chilly December/  January cold season) and innumerable specialty items.  The list goes on and on.  Many other of the more common pottery wares are typical of those produced and used throughout the southerly countries:  pottery containers for water storage and for cooking,  flower pots of all sizes, and many kinds of decorated, functional ware. 

Pottery doesn't sit in the streets of Thimi for long, in high demand around the Valley and surrounding Himalaya foothills.

With the foothills of the Himalayas peeking through in the background, Thimi's streets are lined with the various items of pottery.  Many of the items shown here are essential to everyday use and will find markets around the Kathmandu Valley, far and wide.
 

While streets everywhere are lined with the potters' wares, being  stored awaiting pickup, it is in Thimi's sprawling courtyards, off the streets, that the real work is done.  The courtyards are the key meeting place of the community, behind the buildings that line the streets.  This is true all over urban Nepal.  If streets define blocks, each of these has a courtyard behind the buildings.  And while streets are for getting from point A to point B, the  courtyard is where family and neighbors get together for their various activities.  In Thimi there are scores of these courtyards that are devoted to the production of pottery, be it clay processing, forming the ware, finishing, drying or firing, or any of the related activities. 

Ash kilns like this one are unique to the Newari tradition.  In this courtyard these women take a break from one of their traditional, pottery tasks:  decorating and finishing.   A firing just having started, wisps of smoke rise up at center.

The kilns for firing the pottery are totally unlike those used by the potters' counterparts in the west, not a single firebrick to be found in the construction, moreover the kiln is built for one firing only.  Rather than brick for insulation while firing, Newari pottery is encased in ash. 

Typically the pottery of several months production is contained within the ash kiln.  After placing the wares on the ground, fuel comprised of agricultural waste is interspersed between the pieces.  This agricultural waste fuel consists of rice and wheat straw, rice husks, or any type of agricultural waste from the farms 

surrounding the community.  Layer upon layer of green pieces are stacked, cushioned by the straw, then the top and sides of Newari kilns are covered with a blanket of ash.  This ash is a byproduct of countless, previous firings, a 15 cm. (6 inch) thickness used as the outer insulation for the wares contained within. 

After covering with the ash, and prior to lighting the fire, stoking holes are made around the base of the kiln and holes are placed at the top to allow the smoke given off to seep through.  Then the fuel is lit all around the base.  As the firing progresses the fuel burns away, allowing the wares to settle at their own pace.  The spaces between the pieces are then filled with ash which falls from above.

The ash of Newari kilns is valuable and is re-used time and again, so this is stored between firings.  The pots shown here in the doorway help to contain the ash.

As the firing progresses, over about four days the pottery reaches the 600 to 700oC needed for it to 

become properly fired and durable.  The height of the kiln diminishes as the fuel burns away, while the wares shrink and settle together.  Overall loss of height is about 10% of an initial 1.5 meters.

When kilns are opened in the west, the U.S. and Europe, the contents emptied, the ash from the fuel used in firing is most frequently discarded, a waste product.  This is not so in the Newari pottery tradition.  Note- worthy is the environmentally responsible use of agricultural waste as fuel, greatly preferable to the use of wood.  As elsewhere in the world, deforestation is a real problem in Nepal. 

Pottery Workers of the Thimi Community extrude clay for their neighbors.

Nowadays in Thimi, industrialised means and methods are creeping in.  At each step of pottery production there is evidence of the means of increased efficiency, Nepali made machinery being used side-by-side with traditional, hand  techniques.  So for example,  some potteries now have periodic kilns akin to western ones, built of locally made brick.   These kilns are what may be considered desireable in a modern pottery, tightly enclosed, and built with heat resistant brick, so they are better able to reach higher temperatures.

Similar to the new approach of these periodic kilns is the recent introduction of mechanised, clay processing equipment.  Whereas potters through the generations prepared their clay by 'foot wedging,' some of the 

Thimi potters now wish to be more efficient, so they are depending on Nepali built extruders.  As would be expected, these give a homogeneous water clay mix in a much shorter time than is the case with foot wedging.  Extruders are among the more widely used machines, at about 50% of the communty's total output.  So the only products still made from foot wedged clay are flower pots, for the simple reason that quality control is not so much at issue.

A second hand, truck tire serves quite 
well for a potters wheel.  The one at right 
is filled with concrete, enabling a lot of momentum after an initial spin.

Another of the relatively newer devices is the electric wheel, for throwing the ware.  The traditional potters wheel is low to the ground, big in diameter and weighted, as shown here.  This design allows a lot of momentum following an initial spin, so that a number of 'wheel thrown' pieces can be produced without a second spin.  These traditional wheels have served the potters well for many years, but some potters have chosen to go with the electric wheel, finding

increased efficiency to be desireable.  Thus many electric wheels are made in the same basic design as the traditional ones, though the motor propelling the wheel is not readily visible.  Still, traditional wheels are considered to offer much better control than the new electric ones, and can be used for throwing large pieces.  So with the electric wheels there is a trade off, greater efficiency at the expense of less control.  For this reason only about 10% of Newari potters have opted to use the electric wheel. 

Interestingly, there are large pieces of pottery that are made from electric wheels, but only small portions of these take their form from the wheel, and remaining portions are hand built.  The large containers shown below are unlike other containers in that these have openings both up and down, small at one end and a larger mouth at the other.  These are a specialty item, part of a 'still' that is used for making the local wine. 

These distillation containers are thrown in the form of a sort of blank, like the one shown in a wooden mold, in front of the potter.

These blanks are thrown with very thick bottoms, so that there is enough clay to pound the containers thin. In this way the wine making containers are expanded to the large size.  Pounding starts in the wooden mold shown, using a wooden mallet.  This is completed on the sides, one hand on the inside, the other striking with the mallet on the outside.  Hand built in this way, the blanks used for these wine containers are previously thrown on electric wheels.  Since electric wheels don't have the variable speed necessary for making large containers, these are best suited to these kinds of smaller blanks.

For the large 'stills' shown upside down at bottom right and back left, only the mouths of these were wheel thrown, the rest beaten thin with wooden mallets.

Containers and pottery are not the only kinds of ceramics made in the Thimi community.  Within the 

last twenty years glazed ware has been introduced. Some of the first glazed tiles to be produced were  used as an educational device, at the outer entrance of Thimi's public toilets.  The tiles seen below carry messages exhorting those who enter to follow hygienic practices.  These were commissioned to Hari Govinda Prajapati, and have been placed at the sites of several other public toilets, part of a campaign of community based hygiene education and sanitation.

Beyond this, Hari Govinda's experience with water and sanitation goes back ten years, to the time he began producing 'Penguin Filters.'  In all of Nepal, Hari's Madhyapur Clay Crafts is the only manufacturer of water filters.  These white firing candle filters are comprised of a white clay (that is imported from India), rice husk ash as combustible, and a trace of talc. Penguin filters are half the price of imported candles, even though these have been found to perform as well as any of the imports.  Because of their low cost these filters should be well suited for adaptation to the needs of the poor of the Kathmandu Valley, the potential system priced at no more than around 300 Nepal Rupees (US$3.00 or $4.00).

40,000 children die every year in Nepal due to diarrheal illnesses 
that are caused by drinking pathogen contaminated water.

Adding to Hari Govinda's product line is the introduction of  'pottery purification media.'  Production of this new type of low cost purifier media has the great advantage that it can be undertaken wherever common pottery clay is available, so the model is well suited for poor communities in rural Nepal.  Imports such as the white clay would be far more expensive in rural potteries.  Because of the use of common clays, households all over the country should have access to water that is free of the pathogens that cause diarrheal illnesses. 

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"Always wash your child's face" reads the 
Nepali, this glazed plaque and the one at right made by ceramist Hari Govinda Prajapati, 1993

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"Clean water containers frequently," reads 
this tile, commissioned by a water NGO in
a campaign for hygiene and sanitation.

The Thimi Pottery Community received a boost in the early 1980's, when the German Development Agency, GTZ, helped put in place the Ceramic Promotion Project, Nepal.  This effort originated from concern by the German government that the products of traditional potters were being supplanted by those made of plastic and metal.  For the more widely used products, like water containers, this was immediately apparent.  In the large market for pottery water containers inroads were being made by plastic buckets.  This had a direct effect on reducing the number of pottery containers the Thimi community could sell.  So there was concern that the potters community may begin a decline. 

GTZ helped build capacity for production in other markets, areas into which the potters could diversify, 

thus income lost to plastics and metals could be compensated with new opportunities.  An important part of what GTZ accomplished for Nepal ceramists in general was to help make glaze technology viable, allowing low fired, earthenware glazes.  To overcome the difficult technical problems involved, GTZ introduced 'fritting technology'  The outcome is that Nepali ceramists of whatever ethnic group, uniquely in the South Asia region can offer glazed earthenware items, and an art style of unique cultural attributes has arisen out of this.  So the more style conscious shops of the Kathmandu Valley can offer their customers distinctly Nepali, glazed tableware.

Hari Govinda Prajapati, at his wheel, is one of those who produces glazed ware.

As with thirty other potteries doing glazed ware, Hari's work is testimony to what can be accomp- lished by a concerted, cooperative effort.  Having taken advantage of the market opportunities for glazed earthenware, this diversification has had great importance for the Thimi community as a whole.


 
The Thimi Potters Community and Beyond - Part 2

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