For centuries, the Rohingya people have dug and mixed the clay of Arakan, spinning and moulding, baking and firing the rich deltaic earth into bright red or black vessels for daily domestic use, rituals, play and decoration.
Through its forms, technologies, nomenclature and social traditions, Rohingya kuwarkam (pottery) can be linked back to pottery traditions across the Indian subcontinent — which first emerged in the durable toys, decorative objects, and pots, vessels and other artefacts of the Indus Valley civilizations of Harrapa and Mohenjendaro (3300–1300 BCE; mature period 2600–1900 BCE).
Kuwaija, or potter in Rohingya language, derives from Kumar, the Hindu potter caste, an occupation sitting on the lower rungs of the caste hierarchy. Among the Rohingya communities of Arakan today, the work still holds much of its old stigma: Potters live in segregated communities called kuwar fara (potter villages), and traditionally do not mix socially or intermarry with Rohingya of higher status. The profession is hereditary, with sons and daughters absorbing the tradecraft at a young age through helping their elders. While the Rohingya as a whole are overwhelmingly Muslim, the majority (though not all) of Rohingya kuwaija communities are Hindu. In Rakhine State, the Muslim kuwaija live in a village called Allyong, about four miles south of Buthidaung, while most Hindu kuwaija live in Reyazoddin Fara in North Maungdaw or Monibil in Buthidaung.
Kuwarkam employs ancient pottery technologies. First, the dug clay is treaded, beaten, mixed and tempered with water using hands, feet or simple tools. Kuwaija work in teams of at two or three, with women doing much of the pre-production work to prepare the clay into a smooth mix for shaping or moulding. Two kinds of clay are used: a sticky black clay called moina meddi and a sandy white clay called doraisshya meddi. To make strong vessels, the two clays are mixed in a ratio of 2:1. However, when both are not available, just one clay is used.
Vessels can be built by hand, cast in a mould, or cast on a simple potter’s wheel called a gora banade sark. For globular vessels such as gora (water vessels), fathila (cooking pots), foin (steamers), the neck and shoulders are made by Rohingya men using the sark, while the lower body of the pot is fashioned by Rohingya women by hand. The female kuwaija prepares a thick 7.5 to 12 inch round clay base called a chora, which she beats into the desired shape and thinness with a wooden mallet called a firana. A thick, squat, hollowed wooden bowl called an aach is used to mould the base of the vessel. Aach of varying sizes are used, in accordance on the desired size of the vessel. Other tools to shape the upper and lower part of the vessel include the bamboo and cement chita, doola, saitta doolam and achari haim. The female kuwaija then connects the two of halves to make a unified whole. Rohingya see this gendered division of kuwarkam roles (also found throughout pottery communities of Bengal) as ancient and incontrovertible.
In the words of one 80-year-old female Rohingya potter living in the Cox’s Bazar camps,
“The top half of the pitcher is made by the men and the bottom part is made by women. Women are needed to connect the neck of the pot to the bottom. Men cannot do that. Men cannot make the bottom part and women cannot make the top — it has always been this way. This is women’s work, and this is men’s work.”
The finished clay items are dried in the sun for three to five days before firing. The kiln, usually located in the central courtyard of the pottery village, is called a gora furadhede sula.
One of the largest Rohingya markets is Taungbazzar, 12 miles north of Buthidaung, and another market is Bolibazar in Maungdaw Township. Some kuwaija sell their wares door-to-door, or travel by boats to village communities along the sea where they set up seasonal winter markets along the shore. In the days before modern plastics and metals became cheap and ubiquitous, every Rohingya household ate, drank, stored water and cooked in clay vessels such as motka (water vessel), seyo (storage vessel), bussi (plate), foin (steamer), gora (water vessel), goloish (glass), jok (pitcher) etc.
Today, demand for many of these traditional items has waned, or are only used mainly by the very poor. Some remain important through ceremonial usage: for example, meddir finis (clay plates) are used to serve guests at ritual feasts such as weddings, waz mafil (sermons) held at madrasas (religious schools), challisha (reception held after 40-day mourning period). Others — such as the foin and hodda (steamers and moulds used to make traditional Rohingya rice cakes), or doior anree (one-time use clay pots for setting yogurt) — are culturally specific in usage, and have not been replaced with modern instruments. Still, some older Rohingya say that they miss the taste of water stored and poured from clay vessels, or food cooked in clay pots.
They are nostalgic for the days when communities kept large earthenware mokta brimful of drinking water, with a single communal cup, in front of homes and shops for passersby to satisfy their thirst on hot dusty afternoons — a Burmese communal tradition rooted in Buddhist notions of good karma gained from meritorious deeds.
Clay pots, plates, pans and glasses are viewed today as children toys — not convenient for daily use, but with a certain charm and nostalgic value. One sphere where the traditional has not been displaced by the modern are religious spaces: in mosques and madrasas, earthenware mokta and seyo are still used to cool and store water.
The clay items in this collection were made by two families of artisans engaged by the CMC: one Muslim family and one Hindu (from the Rohingya Hindu community of Hindu-para in Kutupalong). The male and female kuwaija worked as teams, husband and wife moving in harmony within their traditional, culturally determined roles. The Hindu kuwaija family produced an imaginative variety of clay animals, for decorative or play purposes, and also a water pipe and a tobacco/hookah bowl, while the Muslim kuwaija family avoided producing living forms and other objects that might be deemed taboo in Islam. We learned, however, that one of our Hindu potters played a vital role in Muslim community functions in his village as a respected elder. Together, these objects speak to the practices, ideas and cultural values defining traditional Rohingya life for generations.
Kuwarkam represents the unity of the Rohingya community. Each person has a role, defined by centuries of practice, passed down from parents to children in a long chain. The roles are separate, but of equal necessity; each requires the other to form a coherent whole.
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Beech, Hannah. (2019, October 10). “Clay Pots Everywhere Quenched Myanmar’s Thirst, Until They Vanished”. New York Times, p. A6.
Danny Coyle, Marie Sophie Sandberg-Petterson, and Mohammed Abdullah Jainul (2020). “Honour in Transition: changing gender norms among the Rohingya.” Bangladesh: IOM & UN Women.
Faroqi, Gofran (2014, August 18). “Kumar”. Banglapedia: National Encyclopedia of Bangladesh.
Glassie, Henry (2003). "Pottery, Bangladesh". In Mills, Margaret A.; Claus, Peter J.; Diamond, Sarah (eds.). South Asian Folklore: An Encyclopedia: Afghanistan, Bangladesh, India, Nepal, Pakistan, Sri Lanka. Routledge. pp. 483–485.
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Written by Shahirah Majumdar, editor of the Rohingya Cultural Memory Centre.