Pottery square that would be full of pala for Tihar looks almost deserted, traditional clay pot makers say they have no business this timeEven before Covid-19, the pottery profession was already falling out of favour, particularly among the youngsters.
With the Tihar festival round the corner, the atmosphere inside Bhaktapur’s pottery square is uncharacteristically calm.
Unlike previous years, the courtyard is not filled with pala (traditional earthen lamps) used to illuminate homes during the festival.
The coronavirus pandemic has severely reduced the demand for traditional lamps this year, says Ganesh Bhakta Prajapati, a 76-year-old veteran potter.
“This Tihar we had to cut down our pala production by more than a half of what we used to make during previous years,” he said. “Supplying palas won’t be easy this year and many people won’t buy them because of the virus scare. Plus, people these days prefer electric lights over traditional clay lamps. ”
Prajapati comes from the long line of clay artisans who specialise in making earthenwares. There is a whole community of potters at Bhaktapur’s pottery square, whose livelihood has been hit hard by the pandemic.
Roshan Prajapati has been into pottery business since his boyhood. He used to sell around 400,000 palas in the run-up to the Tihar festival.
“This year it is hard to sell even 100,000,” the 46-year-old said.
Even before Covid-19, the pottery profession was already falling out of favour, particularly among the youngsters.
At the pottery square, there are 226 Prajapati households, whose family profession is pottery. These days there are hardly 60 households involved in the profession, according to the Ward-4 office of Bhaktapur Municipality.
Roshan Prajapati frets that his family profession will die with him. He says his college going son and a daughter have no interest in the profession.
The traditional pottery profession in Bhaktapur is not just being supplanted by the modern-day jobs and careers, it also faces an existential threat.
Black clay, an essential ingredient 0f pottery making, is no longer in abundance.
Kumar Chawal, the ward chairman of Bhaktapur Municipality-4, says the breakneck urbanisation and proliferation of brick kilns inside Kathmandu Valley have made black clay a scarce resource.
“There’s a mine at Harisiddhi in Lalitpur from where the potters of Bhaktapur have been getting their black clay these days. Pottery wares made out of a mixture of other clay and soil aren’t durable,” he said.
According to Gautam Lasiwa, head of the tourist service centre at Bhaktapur Durbar Square, the pottery business was also hit by the lack of tourism.
“Pottery square used to be one of the tourist attractions of Bhaktapur. Foreign visitors used to buy pottery wares or pay the potters for showing or teaching them to make something out of a potter’s wheel,” Lasiwa said.
“With the pandemic, lockdown and travel restrictions, there are no tourists visiting the pottery square these days.”
Before the Covid-19 pandemic and nationwide lockdown, Bhaktapur Municipality would receive around 700 tourists daily and many of them used to visit the pottery square, Lasiwa said.
“Hardly 100 tourists have visited Bhaktapur Durbar Square in the past eight months. There has been no revenue from tourism.”
Currently, Kathmandu Valley is in the grip of the coronavirus, with the highest infection rate in the country. And it will be sometime before the country’s tourism picks up.
What will happen of the Bhaktapur’s traditional potters remains uncertain, because their trouble is not just limited to Covid-19, although the pandemic has made their situation worse.
Ganesh Bhakta, another potter at the pottery square, says he likes to maintain a positive outlook.
“This is our ancestor’s profession and it has to be preserved. There are some youngsters who are showing interest in this profession, which is a very encouraging sign,” Bhakta said. “But most of all, we need help and support from the government.”