The Artistry Lost in Time

An hour’s drive from Leh is located the magnificent golden statue of Buddha in the beautiful village of Likir situated at 3,651 m altitude. This village is also home to the last potter of Ladakh- Lamchung Tsepail, who is carrying forward the 1000-year-old legacy of clay pottery.

This hand-built art began in this region after the king of Ladakh asked the people of Village Likir, Nimmo Ronjuk, and Ney to design earthenware from Clay. These became a part of their daily lives as essential items and were used from teapots to storage vessels for grain. Designing earthenware was a shared responsibility where people would get together to prepare clay, shape pots, and used a traditional Kiln to bake them into shape. The art that existed in the region for at least 1000 years in three villages is now practiced by only Tsepail and his family.

Ayan Biswas, who has been staying in Likir for the past few months, brings us the story of Tsepail with a visual journey of his pottery-making skills captured from his lens. Let his photos take you there and tell the story of this ancient art that’s lost in time!

About Lamchung Tsepail

Tsepail is now over 60 and started pottery at an age of 15 after his father passed as he had to sustain his family. He used to follow an elderly man of the village Meme Eshey Morup and learned the basics watching him work. Now Tsepail and his son Rigzin are keeping the tradition alive.

Tsepail is usually occupied with farming activities with his wife Sonam Dolma. He goes to his little workshop once he finishes taking care of farms.

What Tsepail makes?

His common design includes traditional Ladakhi Tea Pots called Tipril, incense burners that are bought mostly by the local village people, large vessels for grain storages.

A day in this last potter’s life looks like this…

Lamchung Tsepail and his wife Channg Dolma in their farm in Likir
After finishing farming activities, LamchungTsepail making pots in his workshop
The spout of the Ladakhi teapot is decorated with a dragon – druk design…
…which was taught to Tsepail by his teacher during his apprenticeship

Ladakhi clay and handwheel

The main ingredients that go in making Ladakhi pots are the sand locally known as Rdza Sa and clay deposits that are collected from the mountains of Nimmo Rong Juk. The clay and fine sand collected from hills towards Alchi are mixed together. The tools of the trade are a paddle, an anvil, various sizes of oval stones, and a hand-turned wheel: a banding wheel of sorts.

Tsepail’s workshop has three electric wheels gifted by the visitors but he would hardly use them. His favorite is the traditional hand-turned wheel

The work is essentially hand-built. A smooth oval-shaped stone of the desired size is placed in the center of the wheel
A ball of clay is paddled downward over the stone as the wheel is turned to produce the base of the vessel
The form is then set aside to harden while Tsepail enjoys his cup of butter tea and play the radio
When the base is leather hard, it is flipped right side up and the top of the vessel is created by paddling coils
Those magical hands start giving the distinctive shape to the pot…
…using the most basic Flat Wooden Tool to define the shape
A circular wooden tool is used to carve design patterns on the pots
The decorations on the pots are simple and elegant
Often embellished with small pieces of red stones and clay flowers

Traditional Kiln

The pots are fired in a cow dung igloo and it takes Tsepail 2-3 hrs to meticulously create the igloo-like structure that is then lit in the evening.

The pots are placed in the Igloo and the outside is covered with glass and tin that works as insulators trapping the heat even after the fire goes off
Tsepail’s wife, Channg Dolma joins him in this delicate process
The Igloo shaped structure is set on fire and it burns overnight
Next morning the pots are taken out
Cow dung ensures the pots remain in place and don’t collapse on each other
Once ready, Channg Dolma right away uses one of those incense burners
As the harvesting season is over, Tsepail will be spending his maximum time in his workshop making different Tiprils and incense burners.
Lamchung Tsepail carried forward the legacy of pottery by making the pots using the most authentic process. He has also done his duty of transferring the knowledge to his son, Rigzin who is proud of his family’s traditions
Rigzin likes to add a little bit detailing in the designs on the pots. He is a professional potter who caters to the demand of local hotels and monasteries

These days Lamchung does not need to move around much as he regularly gets large orders placed for these traditional items from hotels and other establishments coming up in Leh and all around Ladakh.

All Photo Credits: Ayan Biswas

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