Thursday, June 10, 2010

Thai ceramics: an ancient, yet living tradition

Living under the shadow of a greater neighbor such as China has its disadvantages as recounted in my previous post relating the Haw Wars.  It also has many advantages. One boon was the boosting of a prosperous international trade in ceramics in the 13-14th century Sukhothai.

King Mengrai of Chiang Mai, King Ramkamhaeng of Sukhothai, and the Kingdom of Lopburi all sent several diplomatic missions to Chinese courts. Some Chinese potters were probably brought back to Thailand during 13th century as a result of these friendly and profitable visits.  Later around late 14th century, the ban on exports of early Ming Dynasty most likely encouraged frustrated Chinese potters to relocate to several pottery cities around Southeast Asia.

The famous Sangkhalok ceramics of Si Satchanalai flowered around the 14th century. These beautiful green glazed celandon and fish painted stoneware ruled the seas for some 300 years before blue and white porcelain from China took over international Eastern maritime markets. Recent discoveries of numerous shipwrecks, such as the Turiang shipwreck discovered by Sten Sjostrand in the South China Sea, have provided more detailed information about Sukhothai ceramic production than historical records could have provided.

Hundreds of ancient kilns have also been archeologically excavated in several locations all over Thailand.  Most of them were centered around Si Satchanalai, Sukhothai, Suphanburi, and Tak. The Chao Praya  River system obviously had been a key artery of distribution.  Eventually it seemed that the deterioration of river access to Si Satchanalai could have been a major cause for the decline of ceramic trade from Si Satchanalai and subsequent geopolitics shifted the center of power from Sukhothai to Ayudhya, where other products of trade gradually gained more importance over ceramics.

Southeast Asia has an old tradition of pottery that dates back even before the times of Sukhothai.  There were ancient Mon, Kmer, and Vietnamese 8-11th century traditions.  Pots have been excavated from burials dating 6,00BC to 4,000BC. Buried red earthenware were so abundant in Ban Chiang that thousands of years later, a teenager kicks up its shards leading to the discovery of an extensive Bronze Age pottery production.  

Looking around present day common life in Thailand, you'll find evidence abound that such pottery traditions continue to be an important element of Thai culture. From fine high cultured, five-coloured  Benjarong porcelain and imitations of antiqued ceramics sold to tourists and collectors, to commercial modern dining wares for exports and day to day items of household use such as, Ratchaburi dragon water jars, ubiquitous red-tiled roofs and sculptured terra cotta motifs in temples.  

For those who have such as a pottery craze as I do, a tour of just pottery sites in Thailand alone can easily fill up any touring plans.  A day trip out of Bangkok to Ratchaburi is as good a place to start as a river trip down the Chao Praya river to Ko Kret.

There are 42 factories of dragon jar makers in Ratchaburi, all of them descended from early 20th century Chinese pot makers who were brought in to make to pots during the World War when imports of these important jars were not allowed.  You can find a description of how these dragon jars are made in this page of Sea East Asia Pottery.

One can also visit production villages that had evolved out of old pottery communities. Dan Kwian, in Nakorn Rajasima (Korat), about  three hours out of Bangkok is a good detour on a trip to the Pimai Kmer style archeological site.

If you plan a trip up North towards Chiang Mai, drop by to support the Muang Kung Pottery Village.

However, if you have to save your plans of travel for sometime in the future, don't despair. You can just visit online this exquisitely produced Shaw collection website, where you will be able find descriptions of dated ceramic traditions, as well as rare pictures of ancient kilns that dot the geography of Thailand.  You can use the map provided to mark out places you must try to visit when you eventually make it to Thailand.

Admiring the variety and genius of ceramic traditions around the world, old and new, never fails to touch me with the ebb and flow, the persistence of humanity's creative spirit to shape, out of so humble a material such as earth, to produce such venerable objects as these enduring pots and jars... that, even after several hundreds of years buried under sea salt... can still shine their lustrous beauty.

Don't miss checking out the extensively, resourceful Maritime Asia website for detailed information about Sukhothai and Si Satchanalai pottery.