In the quaint village of Gangzur in Lhuentse, Bhutan, the ancient craft of pottery, locally known as Dza-zo, thrives as a testament to the rich cultural heritage of the region. This traditional art form, shrouded in the mists of time, is a source of pride for the people of Gangzur, where only three master artisans continue to uphold and pass down their exceptional skills through three generations.
At the heart of this artistic legacy is Aum Zangmo, a 52-year-old artisan and the descendant of the late master potter Kuenzang Wangmo. Working diligently in her workshop, located about 5km from Lhuentse town, Aum Zangmo, along with her friend Tshewang Choden, perpetuates a tradition that has been handed down from grandmother to mother and now to them.
The process of creating these distinctive pots is a labor-intensive one. Aum Zangmo, following in the footsteps of her ancestors, meticulously crafts each pot, ranging from small teacups for burning incense to large vessels used for brewing the local liquor, ara. The pots she creates are not only functional but also carry a unique identity compared to those produced in other regions of the country.
Historically, these earthen pots were an integral part of daily life in Gangzur, serving various purposes from cooking rice and curry to brewing ara. Aum Zangmo learned the craft by closely observing her mother, and over the years, she has mastered the art of shaping the clay into different designs.
The popularity of Gangzur’s pottery extends beyond the village, attracting buyers from other parts of the country and even foreigners. Organizations like the Tarayana Foundation regularly purchase these handcrafted pots, further supporting the artisans and ensuring the continuation of this time-honored tradition.
Reflecting on the evolution of her craft, Aum Zangmo reminisces about a time when she sold five pots of any size for just Nu 1. Today, thanks to the guidance of dzongkhag officials, the prices have increased to Nu 300 for a medium pot and Nu 500 for a large one. This adjustment has significantly improved the livelihoods of the artisans, with monthly earnings ranging between Nu 30,000 and Nu 40,000.
The pottery-making process involves more than just skill; it requires a deep connection with the surrounding environment. During the winter or when agricultural work is slow, the artisans manually extract red and yellow sandy clay from the earth near their homes. The clay is then shaped on a thatched wooden plank, left to dry, and finally fired until it achieves the desired durability and color.
However, obtaining the necessary firewood for the firing process is not without challenges. Aum Zangmo highlights the time-consuming process of obtaining permits from forest offices and expresses gratitude for the cooperation of forest officials in allowing them to cut trees from the community forest.
The people of Gangzur may not have a precise timeline for the origins of their pottery tradition, but it is believed to have thrived during the era of Thangtong Gyalpo. The craft is thought to have found its roots in Gangzur, as well as in other regions such as Ringpung in Paro, Wangbama in Thimphu, and Shar Goenkha in Wangdue Phodrang.
As the wheel of time continues to turn, the artisans of Gangzur remain steadfast in their commitment to preserving this centuries-old craft. In their hands, the tradition of Dza-zo lives on, a living testament to the resilience of Bhutan’s cultural heritage.