We met Mata Prasad, a clay-pot wallah, in the courtyard of his family’s compound near Assi Ghat. It was the morning of the Shivaratri holiday, and although he was not working, he welcomed us to sit with him. Hundreds of clay pots lay out to dry on the roof covering his work space — a simple open-air room with a dirt floor, wooden bed, hooks for his clothes and a potter’s wheel.
Mata Prasad’s six grandchildren swarmed around him. As their shyness wore off, they revealed a common twinkle in their eyes, a trait they obviously inherited from their grandfather. His name means “Gift of the Divine Mother.” His voice is aged and raspy but high-pitched and playful. He speaks Hindi with long, drawn-out syllables, and if you could only hear him and not see him, you would hear his smile. We shared a mutual friend, Hement-ji, who translated for us.
“This is my small factory,” he told us. “Making these pots has been a tradition in my family for many generations.” We asked when he first learned his craft, and he exhaled a heavy chuckle. His eyes opened wide as he looked back in time. One of his first memories was playing with the water buffalo and cows when he was thirteen or 14 years old — back when the British were still there. “Maybe I was 15 or 16 when I started working,” he said. “This time I am not remem- bering, but I am guessing I am 60 or 70 years old.” If you do the math, he’s been spinning pots for a long time.
We returned the following day to observe Mata Prasad in action. He was wearing the same faded red T-shirt, white lungi and childlike smile. He squatted in front of his wheel, nearly an inch from the earth, picked up a large wooden pole and pushed the stone wheel in a counter-clock- wise direction until it twirled out of its awkward wobble into a mesmerizing whirl. He had an economy of movement, gently touching the mound of clay and patiently waiting for it to form him a pot. Each one appeared like magic from behind his hands, and he effortlessly freed it at the base with a string he wore around his left wrist. After the pots sit in the sun to dry for one day, he makes a fire in a small mud room and bakes the pots for 12 hours until morning.
Mata Prasad spins about 500 pots in a day. The three shapes and sizes are used for yogurt, milk sweets and chai. When I asked if he drinks chai, he laughed, “Haan, haan,” (yes, yes) as he moved his head from side to side in the affirma- tive Indian head waggle. “Two times in house, and wherever I will go, my customers who purchase my pots, they offer me chai, chai, chai.” These half-baked, biodegradable cups, called puruas in Banaras, are used once and then returned to the earth.
Nothing quite compares to drinking chai from one of these clay cups. Its primitive shape cradled in your hand and its warm dry rim on your lips, accompanied by an earthy smell and taste, strikes a tribal chord deep in your bones. When I told Mata Prasad I prefer drinking chai in puruas, he quickly agreed, “Haan, haan, because this is Ganga Ma’s clay.” He uses clay that forms on the holy river’s banks after the monsoons; so, like his name, Mata Prasad’s clay pots are also gifts of the Divine Mother.
And just so you can be amazed too, we have it all on video below!