We took a few (rainy) days to relax and acclimatise in Leh and soon heard of a locally famous pottery village named Likir. Undoubtedly as soon as the rains passed we packed our bags and hitched a ride to Likir.
The old village lies nine km’s off the main highway and most transport drops you at this turn off. The dusty village road trails up along the Indus into Likir: famed for pottery and its Gompa.
There, under the snow capped mountains sits the Klud-kyil (water spirits) Gompa / Likir Monastery and it’s golden Maitreya Buddha. The monastery is almost 1000 years old. It houses a small museum with ancient ceremonial artefacts including earthenware from the bygone potters of Likir.
And nestled sweetly 100 meters below the Gompa is a windowed little “palace” called the Old Likir Guesthouse. Stanzin’s family homestay, with a stunning view of the Karakoram mountain range, had been recommended to us passionately and we were not disappointed. Stanzin is a genuine and warm-hearted man and also coincidently the potter’s neighbour: we were in luck.
Stanzin enthusiastically took us to meet the traditional potters, Lamchung Tsepel and his son. We arrived at the studio late and Lamchung had already begun work on his orders. He was sitting comfortably on the floor with a light blanket over his legs listening to local music on an old radio. The “studio” was a small 3-walled open air space, atop his traditional Ladakhi mud brick home, sealed with tarp for additional protection in case of that rare chance of rain. It was a very simple set up.
Stanzin dutifully introduced us and translated our conversation. From Lamchung we learnt that there are only 3 potters who continue to produce pottery according to an ancient technique. The local government has finally taken interest in aiding to preserve this traditional technique of pottery by organising workshops (especially for the local women) where Lamchung teaches.
He then very graciously invited us to observe the way in which he makes the few traditional and popular forms of Ladakhi pottery. The tools of the trade are a paddle, an anvil, various sizes of oval stones and a hand turned wheel: a banding wheel of sorts.
The work is essentially hand-built. A smooth oval shaped stone of a desired size is placed in the centre of the wheel. A ball of clay is paddled downward over the stone as the wheel is turned producing the base of the vessel. The form is then set aside to harden. When the base is leather hard, it is flipped right side up and the top of the vessel is created by paddling coils. The decoration is always the same and often embellished with small pieces of red stones and clay flowers.
The vessels are mainly decorative pieces, incense burners or large simple vessels for grain storage and offerings. They also make a traditional Ladakhi teapot called tibril. The spout of the teapot is decorated with a dragon (druk) design, which was taught to Lamchung by his teacher during his apprenticeship. Lamchung regularly has large orders placed for these traditional items from hotels and other establishments from around Ladakh.
The clay is locally collected from a mountain across the valley: a mountain that is beautifully streaked with the clay deposits (rdza sa): pottery soil. The red striations that can be seen are the famed red pottery soil of Likir. But Likir is famous for 2 different types of clay, the second being a shiny grey blackish soil (thab sa) traditionally used to build kitchen stoves. Both these different clays are mixed with fine pottery sand before further use. The clay pits of Likir contain not only the two different bodies of clay but also fine sand making them rather special.
Finally they bisque fire their ware in a cow dung igloo: the fuel and the kiln being one and the same. It takes Lamchung several hours (2.5 hrs) to meticulously create the igloo like structure, which is then lit in the evening. The fire burns overnight and by morning the firing is complete. The cow dung cakes are a fantastic fuel source and unlike wood, they maintain their form after burning: ensuring the pots remain in place and don’t collapse on each other. There are roughly 200 earthenware pieces fired at any given time.
It was fascinating to experience such a simple way of life in such a beautiful yet harsh environment: to quietly observe these ancient techniques and be transported back to a different time. Ladakh you have enriched us, thank you.
To view our videos of the traditional making and firing of their wares, please see our FB page.