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The Resurgence of Earthenware: A Sustainable Fusion of Tradition, Ecology, and Economy

Earthware is one of the oldest man made articles that been carried up to the modern age. These continue to be manufactured in spite of more commercially viable products made of plastic and other semisynthetic or synthetic substances. Spanning the entire range from ornaments to utensils and decors to constructions, the earth has transformed itself in the hands of humans into many objects.

Among the many objects that are still popular are the Diyas, Lamps, Pots, Kalash, Kulhar or Kulhad, matir bhar sometimes called a shikora, various types of kitchenware, bowls, plates, flower pots, toys among others. These can be produced in any part of the world that has bright sunshine days and suitable soil. There is no dependency on forests or even synthetic raw materials which reduces the costs for the producers.

Since leaves are needed to fight Green House Gas (GHG) emissions, earthenware helps to avoid use of leaves to some extent so that the leaves can enrich the soil when they fall after decomposition. 

The range and variety of earthenware products helps keep the economy running through various seasons of the year. These are used in various festivals in homes, temples, etc., spread out during the year and also during social gatherings and events. For example, Diyas and lamps are used during Diwali, Kalash during marriage season, as toys for children in fairs like Baliyatra, pots during Manabasa Osha, etc. Thus, the pottery industry is sustainable at the local level.

Origins and usages

Kulhar or kulhad cup (traditional handle-less clay cup) from North India filled with hot Indian tea
Kulhar or kulhad cup (traditional handle-less clay cup) from North India filled with hot Indian tea

The use of earthenware is ancient and a precise date may be difficult to ascertain. Unfired Kulhar has been seen at manufacturing sites in rural India for centuries. Kulhars may have been in use in the region for the past 5,000 years, since the Indus Valley civilization. Many temples use single-use pottery products traditionally from small earthen lamps (diyas) to huge pots for their rituals and cooking.

Traditional Indian cuisine relies heavily on clay pots and vessels for imparting an earthy aroma to the food. Ancient recipes for Biryani and other meat dishes state earthenware as an integral part of the cooking process. These are deemed essential and help to bring out the flavors of the ingredients. 

These traditional Kulhads not only provide a rich earthiness to the food but are also an eco-friendly and hygienic alternative to reusable plastic or glass  (which in their final stages lead to environmental pollution) With environmental consciousness making a major comeback in India there is greater focus on these kinds of earthenware and their usage in daily life. Clay pots and containers are still the preferred means to store anything from drinking water in summer, curds, dried tamarind, pickles, grains and other commodities in rural areas being cheap and affordable. 

Kulhad is a traditional handleless pottery cup from South Asia that is typically undecorated and unglazed and is meant to be disposable. Kulhars are rarely reused. Bazaars and food stalls in the Indian subcontinent traditionally serve hot beverages, such as tea. These suffused the beverage with an “earthy aroma” that is often considered appealing. Yoghurt, hot milk with sugar as well as some regional desserts, such as kulfi (traditional ice cream), are also served in Kulhars. 

Kulhars have gradually been replaced by polystyrene and coated paper cups, because the latter are lighter to carry in bulk and cheaper and easy to store and transport. Bowls made of mud are also used to serve local delicacies like rabdi and kheer in restaurants lining the highways in many areas of northern India.

Also read: Benefits of Drinking White Tea

Implications for the Environment and Economy

These humble earthen utensils from the Indian traditional crockery are completely degradable and do not pose a threat to the environment when disposed off. These are meant for single use only and thus do not spread germs. These do not contain any harmful chemicals or artificial colors, which may mix into the food or drinks they are used to serve.

Therefore, these can be classified as the safest utensils to drink or eat out from after leaf based containers at roadside stalls and restaurants. These clay containers are produced under high-temperature conditions in a firing kiln, which essentially sterilizes the containers making them completely hygienic for use. Clay containers unlike plastic containers offer a livelihood to the local potters of rural India who rely on selling earthenware for a living. 

Among all the Indian traditional crockery, Kulhads have remained the most popular over the ages, and are keeping the flame of the cottage industry of pottery alive in the country. By opting for a Kulhad instead of a glass made out of other materials, one supports the rural employment and economy and prevents the tradition of pottery from dying out.

With the increased awareness about Eco-friendly practices in the country, and the adoption of a plastic-free lifestyle by a large number of citizens, the demand for Kulhads and other traditional crockery has risen drastically over the past few years.

More and more consumers are making a switch to clay vessels for cooking as well as for the storage of water and spices. Many restaurants have replaced their plastic-ware with Kulhads and clay crockery to give their cuisines a more authentic look. However, while the country is rediscovering the joys of clay crockery, the farmstays of India had never forgotten about these traditional utensils in the first place. 

At a farmstay, one can enjoy food cooked on a traditional Chula along with hot tea served in a Kulhad. These rustic destinations are the best places to experience the forgotten rural lifestyle and to immerse in the authentic culture of the villages of India. These earthenware can in principle be manufactured in any locality unlike the leaf-based containers with rely on specific tree species or vines for their raw material. However, precautions need to be taken not to deplete the top fertile soil while manufacturing these containers and to source the clay from areas that are not cultivated.

Effects on taste

Most single-use pottery is unglazed. A hot drink such as tea partially soaks into the interior wall of the Kulhar in which it being served. This has an enhancing effect on the beverage’s taste and fragrance, which is sometimes described as “earthy” (sondhi khushboo). The temples of Odisha use earthen pots (Matti Handi) for preparation of the offerings and these two impart a special flavor. Similarly, sweets like Mishti doi, rabdi served in clay bowls have their own unique taste. Though these have been losing ground to synthetic cups due to cost and efficiency reasons, higher-end restaurants often serve Kulhar-waali chai (tea in kulhars) to their customers and Brands like Ganguram still carry the sweetened curd in mud bowls. These are usually alkaline in nature and thus may help in preventing acidity when food is served in these.

Revival efforts by Indian Railways and criticism

Kulhars have been the most prominent among all earthenware, owing to their link with the popular drink, tea that is ubiquitous throughout India. In 2004, the Indian Railways (then under the leadership of minister, Shri. Laloo Prasad Yadav) attempted to revive the use of kulhars for tea and other beverages sold at railway stations and aboard trains.

It was argued that this was more hygienic than plastic, and also more environmentally friendly because kulhars are made exclusively from clay. It was also believed that, since Kulhars are manufactured by small operations, this would assist in boosting rural employment. Critics countered that the railways would need to dispense about 1.8 billion Kulhars a year, which would mean heavy fuel consumption in the kilns with associated pollution. 

Kulhars were claimed to take up to a decade to degrade, however, the discovery of thousands of years old shards from Indus Valley ruins was used as evidence to challenge that assertion and that they are environmentally superior. Fears were also expressed that a kulhar revival might result in topsoil depletion at the rate of 100 acres (0.40 km2) per state per day and that the economic gains to rural artisans would be minimal. 

Although alternatives to topsoil are available and kulhars can be made at lower temperatures to save fuel and make them more rapidly degradable, by 2008, the effort to revive kulhar use on the railways was being considered a failure with the continuing widespread use of plastic and coated-paper cups. 

The primary reasons were the weight of kulhars and the higher per-unit cost. One estimate claimed procurement costs to be 140 paisa per Kulhar and 7-10 paisa for coated-paper cups. There were also some vendor complaints that, because kulhars absorb liquids to some extent, buyers have to be given more tea per serving in a kulhar than in a disposable plastic cup. 

Since decades, clay pots have been an inevitable part of the Indian culinary world; from cooking traditional chicken and mutton curries and biryanis to using them as crockery. This clay cup has traditionally been used for various delicacies like Malaiyyo or Nimish, Masala Chai, Mishti Doi (curd), hot Malai Doodh with mawa or kulfi. It is known to give an earthy essence, flavor and fragrance to the respective delicacy. These clay cups are mostly seen during winters when most chaiwallahs serve hot tea in them. 

Clay pots are generally considered a better option than plastic cups or glass containers for various reasons. Kulhads are terracotta cups popularly used across the Subcontinent and Pakistan. It should ideally be unglazed and should not have colours on it. 

Benefits that make earthenware a preferred option 

  • These are degradable and over time become a part of the environment and non-hazardous like plastic or glass.
  • It provides gainful livelihood opportunities to the rural poor, especially youth and women artisans. It can be produced and sold in rural and urban areas. 
  • Reasonable costs not pinching the end users/customers.
  • Traditional and aesthetic looks.
  • They are cheaper and locally manufactured unlike plastic or glass containers which are often imported or manufactured by industries.
  • They provide an earthy aroma to the foods, which no other material can provide.
  • They cannot be re-used, so transmission of germs is minimized from person to person.
  • Earthenware is inherently hygienic, considering they are made by firing a kiln, a type of oven having a certain temperature that is used to harden or dry clay objects ensuring sterility.
  • These help to nurture a community of potters and hence ensure a means of assuring rural livelihood. Many times women are also involved in collection of clay and its processing.
  • Possibility of supporting and upscaling rural entrepreneurship by the Government and other developmental actors as Startups for rural youth and women entrepreneurs especially from poor backgrounds.  If the demand for these products is increased, more people can take up to using these single-use containers leading to viable enterprises in the rural areas.

Precautions in the usage of earthenware

  • Most of the chai wallahs and other vendors sell beverages and desserts in Kulhads. In order to save a few bucks, some re-use the Kulhads by washing them and making them look new. Such practices should be discouraged. Once you are done using a single-use earthenware ensure you break them into pieces or make it unusable. 
  • Broken pieces of this earthenware can cause injury or damage and have to be disposed off properly.
  • Sourcing of the raw material (clay) should be from regions where the top soil is not affected. 
  • The proper method of storage and transport of this earthenware has to be ensured to minimize breakage and loss of the material.
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