A Cham village creates a wide range of ceramic items without the aid of a potter's wheel.
A statue depicts a Cham girl performing a traditional Apsara dance. The statue is situated in a large vase shell and serves as a decorative fountain. Photo: Huu Dat
I climbed onto my motorbike on a recent sunny Sunday morning in downtown Phan Rang in the south-central province of Ninh Thuan in search of an ancient Cham tradition.
After a 10km ride down asphalt roads, I was welcomed by a gate that reads: “Bau Truc Pottery Village.” I knew I'd arrived when I found clay pots and jars lined up outside every house, inviting visitors to take a look inside.
I stepped into a large gallery filled with Cham kings and dancing girls, Cham temple models, and sets of linga and yoni -- symbols of Lord Shiva in Hinduism.
Behind the showroom, artisans shaped fresh clay into vases and statues.
“We don’t use potter’s wheels like other places. All the products here, no matter how large, are ‘làm bằng tay, xoay bằng mông’ (made by hands and spun by bottoms),” said Dong Thi Sua, who works at the Dang Xem Pottery Workshop.
The shop's namesake owner Dang Xem said, “Everything is completely made by hands. That makes Bau Truc pottery unique. In addition, baking is done over an open-air fire, fueled by rice hulls and dry tree branches, not in a kiln.”
Artisan Dang Xem, 56, arranges sets of linga and yoni -- symbols of Lord Shiva in Hinduism at his gallery in Bau Truc Pottery Village, Ninh Thuan Province. Photo: Huu Dat
The name “Bau Truc” is derived from the Cham phrase “Paley HamuTrok," which means “làng trũng” (roughly: a riverside village).
Legend has it that a man named Po Klong Chanh developed a technique in the 12th century that has been preserved by the village ever since.
For generations, Bau Truc people make household wares such as water jars, washing basins, and cooking pots both for personal use and sale at local markets.
The advent of cheap plastic and aluminum substitutes at the end of the 20th century pushed their craft to the verge of extinction.
In 2000, Dang Xem, then-42 , rolled up his sleeves to work with clay – traditionally considered as women’s task – and began creating vases and statues of Cham girls performing traditional Apsara dance in hopes that they might bring him prosperity.
“The first customers to buy my work were students from the Ho Chi Minh City University of Fine Arts, who visited Bau Truc Village, and my house, in 2000,” Xem said. “They introduced my products to a group of people that placed a VND3 million (US$142) order several months later.”
“During the 2001 Kate Festival I displayed a variety of decorative items that tourists bought up,” he said. “That's when I knew that this was going to be a good way for us to survive.”
Kate, the biggest festival in the Hindu Cham Balamon community serves to honor their deities within the first three days of the seventh month of the Cham calendar.
The event is usually celebrated in October.
Xem said he decided to open a decorative pottery shop in his house in 2002 after he started getting scores of orders.
“As the economy improved, resorts began going up all over the country and they wanted to buy ornaments, including pottery. So demand rose,” said Xem.
Xem’s success has prompted other villagers in Bau Truc, both men and women, to resume the craft.
To date, 15 out of 400 families in the village make and trade pottery used for interior and exterior decorations. Around 30 other families make pottery for household use in their free time – mostly between rice harvests – to earn extra money.
A complex process
Xem said pottery-making requires equal parts patience and passion.
First, craftsmen must collect the flexible, durable clay near the banks of the Quao River, which flows through Bau Truc.
The clay is then dried under the sun for one or two days before being soaked for 12 hours. Next, clay is mixed with sand, taken from Lu River, at a ratio of 7:3.
The mixture is kneaded until it stops sticking to the potters’ feet.
Potters then split a huge amount of mixture into a series of pumpkin-sized lumps. They put each lump on an upturned pot (when they fit) and walk backwards around its perimeter shaping their outer walls.
They finish each work off with a damp cloth.
Dong Thi Sua, a potter at the Dang Xem workshop, walks backwards around the base of a decorative item using a wet cloth to make the surface smooth. Photo: Huu Dat
After shaping is finished in the morning, they leave their items in the shade.
Decorations are made in the afternoon of the same day with bamboo sticks, shells and sometimes hands and nails. Flowers, mountains, trees, waves, and Cham kings and dancers gradually appear on the pots.
Once decorated, the items are left in the shade for two more days before being dried under the sun for five days--or until they achieve “the ideal hardness” necessary for baking they can be baked, Xem said.
Later, all the items are piled up in a large square in the village, covered with dry tree branches and rice hulls and burned for six hours. Rice husks are then tossed into the fire so that smoke will leave the products half-red, half-black.
Finally, they're sprayed with a liquid made out of cashew nut husks, to paint the final product some shade of black, red or pink.