In Assam the craft of making pottery can be traced back many centuries. The two traditional potter communities in Assam are the Kumar and the Hira.
Kumar is a Hindu caste name indicating that the profession followed by the majority of that particular group of people is pottery. The process followed by these people has not changed much since ancient times. They dig clay which they then beat and knead with the hands, feet or mallets of stone or wood and use a chaak (potter’s wheel) to fashion different utensils which are then fired in a panja (kiln). They then paint the finished articles.
In particular, pottery is made in Majuli, a large river island in the Brahmaputra River and cultural capital and cradle of Assamese civilisation, from beaten clay and burnt in driftwood fired kilns exactly as it was during the ancient Harrappan civilisation over 4,000 years ago.
The most commonly made pottery products are household articles such as pots, pitchers, plates, incense-stick holders, and earthern lamps as well as some more modern design ornaments.
The Hira potter population totals over 32,000 in Assam (of which 3½% are scheduled caste) and is distributed in the Soalpara, Kamrup and Barpeta districts of the lower Brahmaputra valley of Assam. The majority of the Hira live in rural or town fringe areas. They have Assamese as their mother tongue and regularly visit the naamghar and sattra.
According to folk belief the mythological origin of Hira the potter dates back to 500-600 BC. The story tells that the head of a family died while performing a pilgrimage forcing his wife, Hira, to care for her two young sons alone. While she walked with them along the banks of the Brahmaputra searching for food she saw some bright clay, from which she made some small earthern pots to sell to nearby villages. Since that day her pottery craft is known as Hira potter and the unique type of clay is called Hiramati.
Only the Hira women make pots and the art is passed down from mother to daughter. The men perform the hard labour - they collect the clay, collect fuel for the fire, build bhati (ovens) and transport the finished articles to the bazaars.
The Hira women who follow this centuries-old tradition do not use a wheel but mould clay shapes with their hands. After letting them dry in the sun they then use a wooden paddle-like instrument called a pitani to help assemble and beat them into the final objects before firing them in the bhati and colouring them.
Both the Kumar and Hira are also known for their toys made from pottery.