BANGKOK – Nestled among the narrow alleyways and canals of Bangkok’s Old Town is the community of Thailand’s only remaining artisans keeping alive the centuries-old craft of handmade Buddhist monks’ bowls.
Ban Bat (Monk’s Bowl Village) is the only community in the country still hand-making these bowls, which are carried by monks in bright saffron robes around neighborhoods at dawn to collect alms (donations, mostly of food such as rice). It’s a Buddhist tradition not only practiced in Thailand but also next door in Myanmar, Laos and Cambodia.
Punctuated by the loud bangs of steel being beaten into shape, Ban Bat was founded during the reign of King Rama I when craftspeople from former capital Ayutthaya settled in Bangkok’s Rattanakosin area around 1783.
Hirun Suesrisom is the 60-year-old head of the Thai Alms Bowl Preservation Group in Ban Bat. His grandfather, In, and grandmother, Tuan, traveled to the area by boat from Ayutthaya to settle around 150 years ago, and Hirun is in the sixth generation of the family to make the bowls by hand.
“In the past, everyone in the village was making the bowls. But in 1971, factory-made bowls were starting to hit the market,” Hirun told EFE.
These mass-produced bowls dominated the market due to their low cost and fast turnaround time.
“Our community back then had to stop making (them) and the parents would have to find other jobs to do,” Hirun said.
There are now only about 10 people from just a few families producing the bowls, he said.
At the time of mass factory production, the villagers couldn’t sell any of their own bowls, Hirun said, so they made two or three a day as a means of preservation. But now the artisans are supported by Thais who try their hand at learning the craft from Hirun, tourists who buy the bowls as souvenirs, Buddhists who purchase them to donate to monks, and monks themselves who place orders.
“Our bowls have eights seams but the factory-made bowls have none because they are made out of one metal piece. Ours last for 100 years and sound like bells,” said Hirun.
The bowls are made with one cross-shaped piece of steel with each of the four ends curved up from the center to fix to a circular rim. Four bodhi-leaf shapes are then put in place to fill the gaps at the corners. The seams are then soldered before the bowl is hammered into shape, polished smooth and finally covered in a dark lacquer.
There are various sizes and shapes, including ebony tree fruit, lime, and – the most popular – tiger head, which all take around three days to make with different people crafting each step in the process.
Down a little soi (side street) lined with traditional shophouses near Hirun’s workshop, his elder sister, Mayuree Suesrisom, 62, hammers away at a bowl.
“I started making these bowls when I was 12 years old... I love everything about it,” she said between clangs that reverberated down the lane.
Around the corner sits Hirun’s niece Maneerat Nakarat, 42. She is in the seventh generation of the family to make the alms bowls, and said she feels “honored” to be one of the few people in Thailand left producing them.
“We are the only community that still makes the bowls by hand. Everyone places an order with us – everyone all over the country,” Maneerat said.
Just as Hirun’s parents inherited the handicraft skills and knowledge from their elders, they also wanted their children to help preserve the craft, and this carries on with each generation.
“Our kids (also) grew up seeing their parents, aunts and uncles making the bowls. And since their parents are doing it, they have to do it too. It’s like cultural heritage,” Hirun said.
The teachings also extend to Thais outside the immediate community who want to learn from the masters.
“I hope everyone will come and learn from here. We are willing to teach everything. I just hope Thai people will be more interested in this,” he added.
But even though there are so few people now making the bowls, Hirun does not fear the craft will someday disappear altogether.
“I am not afraid it will die. I have already taught so many people,” he said.