The streets of Bhaktapur were always busy with people and vehicles passing by. However, with the COVID-19 pandemic hitting hard across the country, Bhaktapur now carries a deserted look, which has not only affected the tourist business of the place but also the sales of locally made ceramics.
Traditionally, it is said that the ‘Prajapati’ clan of the Newar community are renowned for pottery and such handicraft skills have been passed from previous generations.
Tayaram Prajapati, who has been making and selling ceramics for almost 17 years, learnt to make potteries from his father who learnt it from his forefathers.
But sadly, while the production has been going strong for making the ceramics, the sales have declined.
“I make khutrukes (Piggy banks), and tukki battis (oil lamps). And even during the lockdown, everyone here at the pottery square has been working. But the sad part is the decline in the sales with no tourists in sight and no export demand,” explains Prajapati.
Potters from Bhaktapur export their goods to many different places in the country. However, transactions have not been possible ever since the lockdown was imposed.
Pottery requires a big input of time, energy and skills.
After giving the shape to the clay, it is left outside to sunbathe for a few days, and then it is coloured and fired at 1,200 degrees Celsius. Prajapati says “We have a place built where we burn wood to fire the clay pots for 12 hours. Then we leave it there for a day.”
Swova Laxmi Prajapati learned to make terracotta pots and lamps from her husband and his family.
Swova says, “It has been over 20 years that I have been doing this. But things have changed over the years. While we learned from our family, the younger generation has no interest in making pots and selling them. My son also does not like working as a potter which makes me wonder about the future of traditional pottery making.”
As the learning is passed from generation to generation, there is likely to be fewer traditional potters in the times to come. And many potters from Bhaktapur have already expressed their views on the topic.
Satya Laxmi Prajapati, 75-year-old potter, has been making pots for as long as she can remember. She says she makes around 200 small pots in a day by herself. “I have a son but he does not like doing pottery,” says Satya.
But it is not the only problem that potters have been facing.
Che Bahadur Prajapati, who runs a family shop and makes terracotta, says, “We always had access to clay here at Bhaktapur. But as urbanisation is growing, the potters are facing a scarcity of good quality clay.”
Tayaram says, “At present, we have to buy clay from Thali, but that does not guarantee high quality. When the quality is not good then most of the ceramics break while drying them or firing them.”
The decline in the sale of pottery and shortage of good quality clay put the future of Bhaktapur’s potters in uncertainty. The pandemic makes it 10 times worse.