Terracotta tales along the Asharikandi travel trail

The many prides that the state of Assam takes might be most prominent in its serving of the perfect cup of tea and the unique visage of the one- horned rhinoceros and of course the unmissable goldenness of its exquisite silk. But silently- and at the same time soundingly as well, the appeal of this place known still for its vibrancy in culture and vibe as well as the unmissability of its natural beauty and rich biodiversity encompasses also as substantial a spot on account of the history and heritage. And within this compendium of heritage history emerges a niche identity in which many a villages and towns and cities of this remarkable land proudly claim their position of all uniqueness.

Wholesome in such traditional representation that stems from centuries back a realisation of skill and artisty would be the small village of Asharikandi. The allure of this rural hamlet as being one of the largest clusters of terracotta and pottery in India is indeed significant. But what hypes greatly this distinctive identity also is the fact that the roots of this distinguishing feature goes way back to a time still resonant in the ancient civilisation of Harappa. Seated deep in the precincts of a culture from which birthed the entire Indian identity, the Asharikandi claim to fame assumes a character of importance in and beyond its terracotta trade.

And yet, even in hoarding such tremendous importance in its very basis and being, it indeed is its impeccability in crafting art out of terracotta that had rendered Asharikandi its wide popularity. So much so that even within the contours of this definite dimension there exists still even more specific a facet of recognition that has evolved in its own stature while emerging from this distinction itself. The famed Hatima Putul that stands out in its innovative depiction by master artisan Late Sarala Bala Devi is one of the most unique sculptures. No wonder then that this embodier of artistic perfection dawned upon Devi the national award on terracotta in 1982. And since then the legacy has been as ably maintained by the entire Asharikandi village including also the worthy son and grandson of late Devi.

Needless to say, in carrying forward the terracotta tradition from the ancientry of what served as the cradle for the greater Indian nation to follow, this particular village of Assam has never adhered then to the nondescript character. In fact what has emerged over the years is a certain excellence necessarily occurring in the Asharikandi expression, deriving from centuries and millennia old knowledge of a craft perfected through its continuing practice.

To account for its geographical identity, this present day village of Assam occurs in the Dhubri district near Gauripur town. Historically this place would be some 2,500 kms east of what used to be at one time the city of Harappa but consider the current context of its national as well as international fame all accrued out of the terracotta craft and Asharikandi is today indeed a place of an excitingly unique tourism potential.

For all its essence embedded in far-flung history though, terracotta crafting really came to be a prominent practice in this Assamese region during the 19th century. A cluster of families belonging to the Paul community of East Bengal would be bearing then this distinction of crafting this distinctive identity for Asharikandi. Today the majority of the population of the village are engaged in this artistic dealing with ‘baked earth’, in their own trademark way of crafting with exclusively regional and therefore unique raw materials.

The identity of Asharikandi terracotta craft comes to be out of its use of the special Hiramati soil. What however is unique again a feature of this specificness is the difference that still prevails in the quality of this base material, depending upon everything from weather and climatic conditions to even a small change in topography. And thus from within the considerable ‘concise’ span of this Dhubrian location emerges a great variety of Asharikandi terracotta crafts, particularly toys and dolls as well as idols and sculptures of Gods and Goddesses of generally artistic rather than utilitarian value. But it would be indeed in such aesthetic aspects of presenting thus the craftmanship and flair with which the Asharikandi folks continue to further their pride that makes this toil with the terracotta an worthy encounter to account for as unexpected reveals along one’s travel trails.

Unexpected would be also the fate that awaits the telling of this tradition in an ironic manner of sorts. The special demand for the Hiramati soil that holds greater potential for the terracotta art to shine through in its capacities of being more elastic and retaining more water has meant that for ever artisans have been depending on this raw material for their skill to assume life, even when they have had to specifically bring it from Silaipar, an area around the banks of the Silai tributary of the Brahmaputra flowing through Dhubri. But the region is today under illegal occupation which has made procurement of the soil and therefore crafting figurines out of it a rarer and rarer reality.

Of course, this specialness of the soil would still come to nothing despite its availability if not for the additional elements upon which Asharikandi terracotta unfurls its quality. Water, catechu, red-soil, firewood, sandpaper, straw, kabish etc are as integral to the process that depends on all traditional tools and equipment like Kodal, Pitna, knives and Kathi. And from such amalgamation of specific processes calling for an intricate attention to every aspect of the crafting with precise raw materials stems a whole world of wonder that which graces the diversely distinctive identity of Assam with yet another reputation of all uniqueness.

So much said and done about the heritage status of this craft of all elegance and deftness and we still have not touched upon the essence of the Ashakandi identity. Which is to say is defining indeed of the very reason that the village exists today that has been so evocatively portrayed in the considerate choosing of its name. Terracotta here in this part of the country wouldn’t be anything less than an emotion that imbues the lives of the people and something that they have made all effort to stand up to. The very name Asharkandi is said to be a combination of Ashar, the third month of the Assamese calendar and Kandi, the local term for crying. The reasoning in such a profound name might strike as somewhat irrelevant in the art and craft universe but underlying this identity is a specific trait of what conjures the entire visage of the village as one of the greatest hubs for the terracotta mavericks to flourish.

Why this colloquial depiction in shedding tears during the month of Ashar holds significance is intertwined with the very strand through which the craft unfurls. Coinciding with the rainy season is this period that sees floods ravaging the low lying area that Asharikandi is, during which no craft can be practiced and no tradition maintained in all pride of its standing. The figurative calling upon crying brings out very vividly the state of mind that the potters dwell in at that time of the year. Asharikandi then is an identity unique in every element of what it finds expression through, whether that be the soberness of its name or the surreality of its character manifested in all its moulding of the figurines.

Everything about Asharikandi then is as true a prospect in the artistic as could be, going beyond the aesthetic nature of such expression to assume also a character of integrity. In this village then of a small dimensional span, beauty is a way of life whether that be in the physicality or the emotion of what it bears. Beautiful indeed also is the landscape that identifies thus, asserting as a picturesque village indeed in consonance with the greater gorgeousness of the scenic Assamese reputation, so much so that a detour to Asharikandi would be quite a travel treat irrespective of a scouting of the terracotta tradition. That it only enhances and enriches the quality of such sightliness makes indeed for a bonus reason to definitely have this pretty place somewhere in your wanderlusting list.

Lush in its green prevailing and quaint of course in its characteristic charm of the serene village life, Assam’s terracotta zone is worth exploring even merely in the aura of what it affords. The thrust on its tourism potential though invariably occurs along the heritage route, being part of the Government of India’s Rural Tourism Project. Exhibiting the art and culture of the place with glimpses indeed of rural life with the foremost aim of benefiting the local community has made Asharikandi emerge as a special destination for offbeat travelers and art enthusiasts alike. Whether one aspires to delve deep into the rich history and legacy of the terracotta tradition defining this place or simply wishes to avail for themselves a unique slice of experience in this remote hamlet of ravishing beauty, the terracotta village in Assam is indeed the place to be at least once upon your travel timeline.