Sung Valley – Home of Black Clay Pottery
Sung Valley cradles between West Jaintia Hills and East Khasi Hills districts of the state of Meghalaya. It is famous for its black clay pottery and for the many types of rice that grow there. In fact, the Sung valley is called the rice bowl of Meghalaya.
Meghalaya, a state in the Northeast of India, with its pristine lands and hilly terrain, is home to a variety of naturally grown herbs, spices, and medicinal plants.
Zizira is a food products initiative that operates from Shillong, the capital of Meghalaya. We are working to open markets for the valuable produce of this region and unleash the unrealized agricultural and horticultural potential of our state and help farmers improve their livelihood.
As part of our work we go to remote villages to meet with farmers. On one such trip we took time to meet the black pottery makers of the Sung valley. We bring you their story.
It takes a couple of hours to drive from Shillong, the capital of Meghalaya, to the #SungValley - ancient, pristine, and mystical place that leaves you with memories for a lifetime.
Sung valley is so fertile, that whatever you sow flourishes. In fact, the valley is also known as the “Rice Bowl” of Meghalaya. But, for the locals, it holds so much more – customs, traditions, and stories passed on for generations, and a way of life they’ll not trade for anything in this world.
Imagine a beautiful valley, with rivers that run for miles, and endless rice paddies. And that is what the Sung Valley exactly looks like. You'll notice every variety of rice being grown here, white rice, black rice, red rice, sticky rice.
This rice bowl of Meghalaya feeds families all over the Jaintia Hills. And not just rice. The locals say that you can grow almost anything in the valley, vegetables, fruits, and beautiful. Yes, the hazelnut trees too! That's because the soil here is very fertile. Just like the Garden of Eden, you'd say.
People of Sung Valley: Warm, Cheerful and Hardworking
The real beauty of the Sung Valley is in the people that inhabit the place. Always happy and with a warm smile, the locals make you feel at home instantly. Almost everyone is a farmer, with a piece of land in their backyard. For generations, these families have depended on natural farming as a means of livelihood.
Humble and hard-working women add a charm to this place, like no other. They have a simple lifestyle, and despite the economic hardships, the people have a strong sense of community. No one walks alone in the #Sungvalley and you’ll always find help.
In my last visit to the place, a few months ago, I was lucky to meet a few families who invited me to spend a day together. The ladies of Sung Valley have always loved farming and spending time out in nature.
On most days, the women work at their farms, they'll pack their lunch, go to their farms, work on their crops, sit by the riverside, listen to the sound of rivers, and enjoy the view. Often, you can also meet families that have moved to the Sung valley to live and experience a simple way of living. Both the wives and their husbands, in such families, take up agriculture and fishing for livelihood.
Owing to the strong sense of community among the locals, almost everyone you talk to in the valley frowns at any suggestion of moving elsewhere. The community is their glue and holds them together.
Women Continue the Traditional Art of Pottery
The local community has also kept alive, for generations, the tradition of terracotta pottery. People of the Sung valley are masterful potters, who export their handmade products to many cities in India and to countries like Japan, Korea and others.
Pottery in the Sung Valley is different. The women don’t use pottery wheels, but rely on their bare hands and wooden tools to cut, glaze and shape their products.
Over the years, these people have rejected tools that’d make their work faster and increase their earnings. Instead, pottery for the sung women is a way to preserve their past. Nothing, women here believe, has to be machined, perfected and within specifications. There’s quality in being hand-made, imperfect and odd.
I remember a lady, who gave me a tour of the pottery work in the Sung Valley, telling me, “With bare hands, we leave on each product, the footprint of our soul!”
The Ingredient That Gives it Strength
It’s not just the extraordinary love and labor that makes the sung valley pottery a pure work of art. The locals here use a unique ingredient, called the green serpentine stone, found only in the sung valley.
The stone is crushed and sieved to fine powder form; mixed and beaten together with the clay on a leather sheet to make the pottery stronger and resistant to thermal shock. The locals will tell you, that the food cooked in clay pottery is tastier and healthier at the same time. It’s certain, though, that when you cook in pottery, the food has a different flavor and after-taste.
Unique Process of Making Black Clay Pottery
After thoroughly mixing clay with powdered green stone, the clay is moulded by hand into various shapes. No chemicals and no machines are used. After moulding, they are dried in the shade. Once these pots dried up, they are polished and shoved in the fire. They use firewood to bake the clay pottery using open air firing process. This process makes the clay strong and firm without any breakage.
The next process makes these black potteries unique. Unlike the general process of blackening the terracotta inside a kiln, the women of these villages used the bark of a tree, locally known as ‘Sohlia’ tree, scientifically called as Myrica nagi tree.
The bark of this tree is crushed and mixed with cold water to form a milky solution. This solution works as a natural dye for the pottery. The hot sintered clay pottery is dipped into this milky solution which instantaneously turns it to permanently black color!
This process of dyeing the pottery is unique in the world and is called as the miracle cold process of dyeing the clay pottery.
What Kinds of Pottery do These Women Make? What Are They Used For?
These women makes earthenware of different shapes and sizes – cups, plates, bowls, pots, water jars and many more. They are mainly used for household purposes.
‘Khiew Ranei’ (in Khasi) or ‘Kchu Lyrnai’ (in Jaintia), the black terracotta pottery is used for cooking ‘Pu-maloi’ and ‘Pu-tharo’ which are two traditional snacks made from rice, very popular among the Khasi and Jaintia people.
These black potteries are also used traditionally for religious purposes.
Over my past few visits to the place, I’ve realized the #Sungvalley is a special place, not just for its beauty and the good-natured people. But, for the simple, community-led way of life that I had almost forgotten about - the art of living, at its finest. More power to the Sung folks!
It was already evening and we wanted them to continue their work. It was time for us to bid our farewell. And we headed back to Shillong.
Do you know any traditional art and culture of your region that you're inspired with?
Share with us in the comments, we would love to hear from you.