The Terracotta village of Assam
Experimenting with nature and its elements was a pivotal aspect of early human societies. It unveiled a range of creative expressions resulting in distinct craft traditions. A genuine reflection of the nature-culture relationship is found in the village of Asharikandi that nurtures the age-old terracotta craft tradition. Located in the Dhubri district of Assam, Asharikandi is home to around one hundred and fifty families. The sight of men, women, and children together making terracotta artefacts is enthralling. This village has already received national and international recognition for its aesthetic craftsmanship. The name 'Asharikandi' is a combination of two words - Ashar and Kandi. Ashar is the third month in the Assamese calendar. During the rainy season of Ashar, parts of the village were submerged due to heavy floods, and the artisans shed tears (Kandi) as they were unable to continue with their work. The rainy season of Ashar and the shedding of tears (Kandi), were co-joined to form the name 'Asharikandi'.
The Asharikandi village is surrounded by the River Godadhar, a tributary of the mighty Brahmaputra. The riverine path is used for distributing and marketing the terracotta products. The primary raw material required for this craft is Hiramati (clay soil), which is available in the areas near the village. The artisans procure the clay from the riverbanks with a spade or kodal. The clay is soaked overnight, and its impurities are removed with a khota. A khota is a thin tool made of bamboo. The next stage is the kneading of the composition with hands and feet under the sun to attain elasticity. The clay is then mixed with water, sand, and caustic soda. This mixture ensures that there are no cracks in the finished products. Once the fresh clay has been put through all these mandatory steps, a variety of products are then made using different techniques. The artisans use two instruments - Boila and Pitna to give the required shape to the clay. They also use knives to carve designs on the products. Once the products are ready, they are sundried for two days, and then a powder prepared from the red clay (Kabish) is applied to them. Finally, the products are baked in a traditional kiln.
The terracotta artefacts of Asharikandi contain a wide range of products that can be used for different purposes. These include kitchen utensils, ritual utensils, pitchers, toys, decorative items, idols of gods and goddesses, statues of eminent personalities, etc. These products are unique as the engravings depict familiar scenes and the local culture. The artisans make toys that feature animals, carts, bicycles, motorbikes, etc., for domestic purposes. The ‘Hatima doll’ or the ‘Mother and Child doll' is said to be the most popular artefact of Asharikandi. The word Hatima describes the mother with elephant-like ears carrying her child on the lap. In 1982, the late Sarala Bala Devi was conferred with the President’s Award for her traditional terracotta craft of the Hatima doll.
The Royal family of Gauripur patronized and promoted this craft in the past. The depiction of elephants in the artefacts of Asharikandi historically reflects the elephant-centric culture once nurtured by the royal family. In response to the new-age interests of people, the artisans make objects that are popular and in demand during the fairs and festivals. The village of Asharikandi continues to create wonders out of clay, and this rich tradition is kept alive, as generations after generations pursue this art passionately.