Carving history

Manjulika Pramod
Saturday, 22 June 2019

The royal burials in Bahrain and the age-old pottery of A’ali Village give you a detailed insight into the ancient culture

Bahrain is an archipelago of 33 islands sitting happily in the heart of Gulf. It is so small that there may have been times when you may miss it in the crowd of its glamorous neighbours. But it is quite relevant to historians for its unique identity. 

This island nation has been around since the Sumerians of ancient Mesopotamia — the ones who etched into clay tablets and discovered the art of writing. According to the legends, King Gilgamesh, who sought the secret to eternal life, actually came around Bahrain, then Dilmun, to look for a mixture of sweet water, and found it too. 

Also, the largest prehistoric cemetery in the world can be seen in Bahrain. Trust me, these huge mounds of burials, in the middle of populated areas, are truly mysterious. And now that I have mentioned about the ancient burial mounds, it becomes imperative to talk about one of the most interesting archaeological evidences and one of the oldest professions of Bahrain: Pottery. We visited A’ali village to get an insight on the traditional craft, its long history and its association with the burial mounds. 

There are some places which may not be touristy but they hold great meaning for curious travellers — there are many stories hidden in their belly. I thought A’ali village in Bahrain is one such place. I had no clue I will be headed there until I stumbled upon some amazing handcrafted work in the famous Manama Suq. When I inquired, I learnt about the pottery workshops happening in one of the villages close to the capital. I have seen many pottery designs in different countries but there was something very attractive about these. Their composition and colours. 

On the following day, I kept to my itinerary and visited the National Museum. This is where I got the real nudge. The state-of-the-art museum is not only the best in the Middle East but it is extremely intriguing. Inside the building, it was like turning absolutely new chapters of history, which talked about unique types of burial mounds, Dilmun civilisation and how pottery played a major role in these unique burials. The information about these graves not only testified the use of pottery vessels for centuries but proved that Bahrainis were accomplished in making potteries for thousands of years. By the time I left the museum, Bahraini pottery had really caught my fascination and I was sure to alter my plan and visit A’ali village the first thing, next day.

If I would say that one must visit the village only for the beautifully handcrafted pottery, it would not be right. The visit is incomplete without seeing the area’s famous 4,000-year-old royal burials. The bodies from Dilmun dynasty were buried in here, accompanied by some of their special items. Pottery vessels were one of them. 

One can say that pottery, one of the oldest professions of Bahrain, almost like 2300 BC, has flourished amid these burials and thus many of the designs on the arteacts are also inspired by them. 

As I walked inside two big workshops, Al Shugul and Delmon Pottery, it was hard not to fall in love with the most authentic souvenirs of the Kingdom. There were hundreds of handcrafted lanterns, planters, hanging lamps, decorative plates, dishes and a variety of piggy banks in many lacy patterns. I immediately wanted to pick some for my folks back home but not before learning about the whole production process and interacting with the artisans from India, Pakistan and Bahrain. 

The old-fashioned foot operated wheels, ancient mud brick kilns and the attractive peachy colour of the raw clay had already got me deeply interested. 

A’ali used to be a pottery district. Almost, 70 per cent of the population used to practise pottery and there were many traditional family-run workshops. Today, it is left with only six such workshops. 

One of the owners said, “The younger generation has migrated for further studies or is not interested to continue this profession and thus inheritance has automatically moved on to the Asians and other people who came here as workers. But there are some of us who cannot survive without it. The skills have been passed on to me from my father and grandfather and I want my son to take it ahead.” 

Looking at my enthusiasm and urge to know more, my guide Zara, a local from Bahrain, filled me with more useful information which also explains that Bahraini pottery is indeed unique. Though the patterns are many and the clay is kneaded, pounded and moulded in many shapes, the source of clay has always been the same. It is procured from a water source (a pond made by the rains) in the neighbouring village of Riffa. When it rains, a special type of clay is created. It has been identified to be less sandy and rocky, apt for making the clay. The government allocates vehicles four times a year to bring that clay and provides them to these workshops in A’ali. 

The factory owners further put this clay in areas behind their workshops to make it more mild. The workers knead them with their foot to make it more usable. After 20 days, the clay is ready to be used. There are special ovens in these workshops. What has changed over the years is that these ovens operate on gas. Earlier, it was all about wood but it was replaced because it created a lot of smoke. Bahraini pottery is fired only once, unlike at many other places. 

After taking in all that information, it was obvious that the trip was more than worthwhile. I loved investing my time there and further learnt how to paint these pottery. It is all hand-painted and simple water colours are used to bring those interesting patterns, calligraphy and verses from the Quran alive. I was inspired to see how a handful of people were trying to keep the legacy on of the age-old pottery culture of Bahrain. 

You must visit A’ali to support these artisans, and to buy some of the most gorgeously handcrafted earth-ware from the treasure trove of Bahrain.

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