The clanging of hammers on metal, echoing through the back alleys of Bangkok, sounds out a fading tradition...
In the face of globalisation, numerous traditional arts face extinction. In Thailand, one craft on the brink of extinction is the making of monks’ alms bowls by hand. It is common to see Buddhist monks wandering through the country with these bowls, collecting offerings from devotees – a custom that dates back thousands of years. The tradition of handcrafting alms bowls is just as old.
However, now that most bowls are mass-produced in factories, these niche craft communities have died out… save one: Bangkok’s Ban Baat (the “Monk’s Bowl Village” – “bàht” is the Thai word for a monk’s bowl; “ban” for community).
A group of craftsmen from Ayutthaya settled in Ban Bat in 1783 during the reign of King Rama 1, and began making alms bowls for a living. Today, five families of artisans live here, and continue to make alms bowls in the traditional way (although unlike their ancestors, they may have a bit of help from a blowtorch). The workshops echo with the ear-piercing clangs of hammers hitting metal, making watching television and chatting a little difficult for the neighbours. Many of the alms bowl makers wear earplugs.
When a monk orders a bowl, the families come out in full force to produce it. Each family has a different responsibility during the process: first, the steel rim of the bowl is wrought into a circle. A cross-shaped frame is then attached to the rim, and the gaps are filled with white steel. Finally, the bowl is hammered into shape, and polished and glazed to make it waterproof.
It is a lengthy process that takes days, and the final product – which differs in style and shape – can weigh up to two kilograms. Needless to say, strong men and women work here!
The work itself is also imbued with religious significance, particularly the phase of creating the cross-shaped frame. In Buddhist folklore, upon achieving enlightenment, the Buddha received alms bowls from the guardians of the four cardinal points (north, south, east and west). The Buddha, not favouring any guardian in particular, combined the four into one: the cross symbolises these four points and their respective guardians; the eight separate pieces of steel that make up the bowl are said to represent the Buddha’s eightfold path.
While the community receives much-needed support from foreigners who buy the bowls as souvenirs, and from the many monks who insist on only using handcrafted bowls in virtue of tradition and their finer quality, it seems that this time-worn skill will eventually die out.
Traditional crafts are sustained by family and communal custom, but the children of these crafters, as well as other young people, are increasingly disinterested in the work. As the older generation passes on, so may the knowledge of how to handcraft these sacred bowls.
Check out Asian Geographic’s The New Asia Issue 2/2017
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