Our story begins at Gobekli Tepe in Eurasian Turkey. For archaeologists, Gobekli Tepe is a goldmine of information on Late Stone Age life, 12,000 years back in time, when world’s climate was at stake with the return of short Ice Age, known as the Younger Dryas. At this critical juncture of climate change, with its mountains catching the rain and calcareous, porous bedrock creating lots of springs, creeks and rivers, the upper reaches of the Euphrates and Tigris had evolved as a refuge for Late Stone Age communities. Difficult for survival situation could have led these people to develop a common cult practice, which eventually gave birth to organized religions.
A major find from Gobekli Tepe is the depiction of animals engraved in high and medium reliefs on the walls of T-shaped mortuary memorial stones. These animals give no indication of organized violence but represented a cosmological map which would have related the local community to the surrounding landscape and cosmos. Through these animal figures, the settled Stone Age hunter-gathers of Eurasia had perhaps developed a new meaning of life’s existence in the natural world.
Source – Internet
Following the Gobekli Tepe’s footsteps, the human-animal relationship became profound in most of the old world civilizations. For example, the religion of Ancient Egypt was not based on a set of theological principles, but rather the gods were connected to nature and the elements (water, earth, sky) or to animals. Animals were given important status throughout Ancient Egyptian life and afterlife. Worship of animals was an integral part of Egyptian tradition.
In Indian Subcontinent, archaeologists have discovered a plethora of animal figures made out of terracotta in the Indus Valley city of Harappa. At Navdatoli, a 4,000-year-old Chalcolithic village in Central India, a large handmade pot has moulding of a lizard surrounded by two women figures which also suggest the existence of primitive religion or belief system centred on animal cults. The South Indian Neolithic culture traced back to 4,000 years had the prominence of bull cult signifying male fertility. Bulls of various forms and shapes have been discovered by archaeologists in the form of petroglyphs across Neolithic sites of Deccan. Bulls associated with agriculture as ploughing animals have been a common practice across India throughout history.
Terracotta Animals from Harappa – Source – Internet
The same goes for Odia civilisation, where animals have been integral to Odia culture from the time of Prehistory. There is a wide range of realistic and mythological animals depicted in temples and monasteries of Odisha from Early Medieval time. But in folk and tribal life, Odisha’s link with the animal world has a close association with daily life’s problems, prospects, aspirations and thanksgiving.
Black crow or damra kau, for instance, is closely associated with Odia folk life from time immemorial. In villages of Odisha, the women folk talk to her in every morning and offer rice to feed. It is believed that when crows sitting on roofs cawing they give us tidings of guests arrival. In Hinduism, crows are supposed to be the incarnations of our ancestors. Among the most intelligent of birds, crows never eat alone. They call their friends to eat with them. They make and use tools, protect their children, live in a social environment, and mourn the death of their loved ones like humans. During shradha, the period of mourning when Hindus recall their dead relatives, crows are fed.
Frog is in the next line of animal that is closely associated with the folklife of Odisha. Frogs remain silent during the dry seasons, but they suddenly appear before the onset of rain. Soon, the male frogs begin their croaking. The first one here, echoed by another there, then a resounding chorus, followed by a cacophony of sound. Soon after, the rain begins to fall. Frogs, therefore, are treated as bringers of rain and then nourishment in Odia culture.
The monkey is a symbol of fun, activity, charm and full of positive energy. Monkey is loyal, witty, playful and intelligent. There are other animals too, such as tiger for protection, the cat for bad omen and tia (parrot) for love and blessings.
In the past, the tribal communities of Western Odisha used the terracotta representation of these animals on the roof of their houses to ward off evil spirit and bring prosperity to their homes. Barpali in Western Odisha and its surrounding villages were the centres of terracotta roof tile craft depicting these animals. But as time moved with the influence of market forces and crony capitalism, the tradition declined and now confined to only one house at Barpali, the house of Manbodha Rana, a national award winner terracotta potter.
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Barpali is a small town in Bargarh District of Western Odisha at a distance of 335 km from Bhubaneswar and 226 km from Raipur (both have airports). The nearest cities are however Bargarh (the district headquarter, 20 km away) and Sambalpur, the largest city in Western Odisha, 73 km away.
Apart from terracotta, Barpali and its surrounding villages are also known for well known Sambalpuri Ikat fabric. You will be warmly greeted by a number of national awardee weavers and their looms here. Bidayabati Meher, a young entrepreneur can guide you to explore the weavers’ homes and their workshops with prior appointments (Her number +91 9937779519).
For terracotta craft, meet the national awardee potter Shri Manabodha Rana at his home cum workshop with a prior appointment (+91 7381284727).
Barpali has very few staying options near the Railway Station. However one can find decent options at nearby Bargarh, 30 min away in a cab. While at Bargarh try the local delicacies hendua khata and baunsa karida bhaja (made from bamboo shoots).
I was first introduced to the tile craft at Kala Bhoomi, Bhubaneswar’s latest world-class museum in making. The entire roof of the museum complex is made of tiles supplied from the workshop of Manbodha ji. Perhaps these are the first ones within Odisha for public understanding of Barpali’s terracotta tile craft. I was very impressed with the little animals that were glued to the tiles above but did not know who their creator was.
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The Sprawling Kala Bhoomi – Terracotta Roof Tiles
Then while surfing the Internet I came to know about Manbodha Ji and managed to get his number. I called up him and requested for a meeting in a day or 2. Upon getting his confirmation I straight away headed to Barpali in Bhubaneswar – Bolangir Intercity Express.
As said before, Manbodha Ji is among few left potters of tile craft, locally known as khappar kaam. He has also introduced several new ideas to meet the contemporary taste, which he has explained in the film below.
The work is undoubtedly high class but has dwindled due to lack of local patronage and absence of market driven branding.
In addition to roof tiles, Manbodha Ji also makes terracotta toys, vessels, bulls and idols of Adi Mata.
Western Odisha is an agrarian region, where cultivation of rice is given utmost importance. Agriculture lands are worshipped after harvest. Bulls play an important role in ploughing. They are also worshipped on the occasion. In earlier time it was a common practice among local farmers to offer terracotta images of Adimata guarded by two males and bulls to the land. As he says in the film below, the tradition has now become almost obsolete.
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Manbodha Ji has also introduced the craft to other family members living in a village called Kuibahal, about 30 km from Barpali in Subarnapur District. Trained by Manbodha Ji, his nephew Mukunda Rana and his son Debanada Rana also create eye catchy objects in terracotta. I was fortunate to visit them in the company of Manbodha Ji.
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The tiled objects are made in wheel. Here is the link that shows the process. However, moulding of animals, such as fixing arms, ears and eyes are created in hands.
Today, no one is there to tell you how this idea evolved and institutionalised in Barpali region. But when I look at historical accounts of Pre-Independent India, what I find is the epidemic that killed thousands of people every year. Perhaps it was a major cause people started believing in supernatural power and sought help through the age-old belief in the animal world. However, it is my intuition and needs to be established with further research.
I left Barpali with full of cherishing experiences, but at the same time disappointed looking at the total decline of folk culture, heritage and aesthetic taste among local communities. The scene is the same everywhere in India and the causes are many, the prominent being the sudden rise of cheap Chinese goods with attractive colours and material at affordable prices. The penetration of Chinese goods is almost unstoppable now, but as long potters like Manbodha ji are there, the hope is still alive. But there is a responsibility lying in each of us – we need to consciously promote our rural economy by considerably reducing the use of imported items.
Author – Jitu Mishra
He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org