Ao Women: Guardians of an Unbroken Tradition

Pottery is one example of a surviving craft, a famed yet obscure one, among the Ao tribes of Nagaland. It is a craft that is traditionally considered to belong solely to the domain of the womenfolk by tribal customary laws, and men are still excluded from this activity.

It would not be inaccurate to state that pottery, a distinctive sort of craft, has played a significant role in every Naga household. Unlike other parts of India, pottery in Nagaland does not involve using a wheel as an essential implement, but as a craft which is solely hand-moulded with the help of crude wooden implements. The pottery produced in Nagaland is simple, with no embellishments, and not much intricate detailing and design, except for the imprint of the paddle, with a functional value.

Situated in the Mokokchung district of Nagaland, pottery is practised by the women of Changki village. This skill is transferred to daughters and granddaughters through observation and practice, thus forming an unbroken motif of a female tradition. Women as custodians of this unbroken cultural practice provide an interesting insight into the pivotal roles they played in brokering a smooth transition process between the traditional period and the modern.

Mrs Tekarepla, a practitioner of pottery with the implements used for the craft handed down by her mother. Photo: Naro, Changki.

Changki villagers were said to be from potters’ backgrounds, travelling from the east, and finally settling at the present place which we now call ‘Changki’. The unique positioning of Changki village among other Ao villages can be broadly ascribed to two things: Firstly, they were the only ones who had a monopoly on the production and supply of clay pots to the entire Ao-inhabited areas. Secondly, in a society which was predominantly patriarchal in its nature and governed by customary laws, the women of Changki enjoyed the privilege of being sole practitioners of this craft.

Since the days of headhunting, Changki women were known for their proficiency in the art of pottery amongst the Ao Naga tribe. Almost all the Ao villages depended on clay pots from Changki for cooking and storing food. They were so famous among the Aos for their pots that the saying ‘the indigenous pottery making is a unique gift given by God to Changki women’ was accepted by all without dispute.

It was said that no Ao village would invade Changki since an invasion of Changki meant that there would be no earthen utensils for the rest of the Ao tribe. This gives an insight into the primary role played by women in fostering peaceful ties with neighbouring villages, an exceptional achievement in days when one’s status in society depended on the number of heads taken. The simple clay pots fashioned by the women were a necessary instrument of statecraft which prevented wars and their resultant suffering.

Also read: In Photos | God’s Wife, Every Man’s Woman: The Lives of ‘Joginis’ in South India

As such, Changki remains in Ao’s memory as an exemplary prosperous village because of its strategic production and supply of household items. Due to its geographical proximity to the relatively ‘civilised’ plains of Assam, Changki enjoyed an advantageous position when the winds of change swept over the Naga Hills. Even after the flag and the cross ensured that the old ways were wiped out, the earthen pot retained its value as a positive symbol in the newly Christianised tribal socio-economic affairs. It served not only as an important and viable economic factor for women and their families to earn small incomes, but was also incorporated as a symbol by the church and village council to foster friendship and alliances.

Photo: Jeru Jamir.

Now, as it was in the past, the clay for moulding the earthen pots is to be found only in specific places as ordinary clay is not suitable for the craft. Women have to go deep into the forest in search of this special clay. A great amount of skill and patience is needed for the painstaking task involved in bringing the clay home. It is also an exertion dependent upon the weather, and expert potters prefer to make their pots during the dry seasons when there is no moisture in the air. The collected clay is mixed with water before it is pounded, thereby rendering it more suitable for moulding.

Performed as a collective activity even today, the women beat/pound the clay on a flat wooden surface/mortar (Alitsuba achum) with the help of bamboo poles/pestles (Mithum) for mixing the clay, moving to a rhythm and taking turns to beat the clay into a malleable pulp. A mushroom-shaped tool (Potsuro) carved out of stone is used to mould the shape of the pot inside and then struck repeatedly with an arrowhead-shaped wooden stick/spatula (Limusoba Achok).

Photo: Luntsu, Mokokchung.

A tool (Poyakro) for making different designs on the pots is also used as a template if desired. Posukro is yet another wooden club used to beat the moulded pot into the desired size. The finished pots are then dried near the fireplace and then taken out. After arranging them in a pile, they would be covered with dried leaves and baked until iron-hard. A final and popular method to temper the clay pots is by using rice starch and then the pot is ready to be used for cooking rice, meat or vegetables.

To this day, the earthen pot is a representation of a people’s cultural identity. More than that, the long-standing tradition of pottery making, which is still practised today, reflects the essence of humanity because pottery represents the harmony of all the factors that contribute to creation and life. The clay pot and its makers have managed to find relevance during a time when the values of tradition were increasingly challenged by newer values. It is an indigenous craft form that sustained the existence of Changki as a peaceful and prosperous village with active contributions by its womenfolk.

The women’s department of the Village Development Board (VDB) is taking great care to conserve this priceless pottery tradition by setting up extensive training programmes for the youth. The Government of India, Ministry of Textile, in association with the Country Craft Development Society, Dimapur in Nagaland is now taking additional steps to preserve the craft and give it a bigger platform.

Photo: Jeru Jamir.

Changki craftswomen are now poised to take on the task of moving further forward to meet the worldwide market from such humble beginnings by fusing old pottery processes with modern ceramics and patterns. These earthen pots are marketed from Rs 10 to Rs 50, however it remains a modest enterprise today where the final objective is not translated into economic gains but expresses a people’s desire to keep a vital link with the past alive.

Photo: Dr Tianla & Dr Arenla.

The knowledge and skills relating to the skill of pottery making in Changki Village are passed down through traditional methods and informal education, where daughters are still encouraged to learn this art. It continues to survive in its essential feminine form as a woman’s profession within a mix of an inherently patriarchal tribal system and the inherited ethos of modern patriarchal social systems.

Dr M Tianla teaches English Literature at Maitreyi College, Delhi University, India.

Dr Arenla is an independent researcher based in New Delhi, India.

Featured image: The miniature pots are used as decorative pieces in most households. Photo: Luntsu, Mokokchung.