Preserving the old crafts
The ancient art of making beautiful alms bowls is being revived.
My mission, says Hirun Sueasriserm, “is to preserve traditional craftsmanship”. Next to him in his Ban Bat workshop, an amateur artisan shapes a metal sheet into an alms bowl.
Foreigners are welcome to gain first-hand experience of making alms bowls which has become a rare skill. (Photos by Pawat Laopaisarntaksin)
Following a long tradition of crafting metal into shapes that appeal to connoisseurs, he is determined to follow in his ancestors’ footsteps and pass the skills on to the next generation.
The 56-year-old has turned his residence in the historic area of Rattanakosin island — well known for its centuries-old skill of hand-making monk’s alms bowls — into a learning centre for enthusiasts.
The course is free, regardless of nationality.
The rare craftsmanship which has been passed on from one generation to another for almost two centuries is now on the verge of extinction as young people no longer seem interested in hard work.
Mr Hirun’s business is also being challenged by cheaper factory-made products.
Not so long ago, about 40 families in Ban Bat community hand-crafted alms bowls to supply stores throughout the country.
However, the product faces declining demand, forcing many out of business, Mr Hirun said. Today there are only five or six families engaged in the business.
He blamed technological advancement and fierce economic competition from mass-produced bowls for the decline.
In the meantime, young people no longer seem to care about becoming artisans, he said.
Mr Hirun works hard to educate the public about the importance of preserving the craft and has turned his house into a learning centre.
To draw more enthusiasts, Mr Hirun also works with the Office of Non-Formal and Informal Education (ONIE) in Pomprap Sattruphai to include a hand-crafted alms bowls programme into its extracurricular activities.
Launched about five years ago, the programme is aimed at inspiring the young who are fond of art and crafts to become artisans.
Students have a golden chance to gain first-hand experience from veteran artisans with years of experience under their belts. With such skills, enthusiasts learn how to give a product a unique touch that a machine cannot make.
“Artisans at my centre are more than happy to pass on the wisdom and skills to enthusiasts,” he added.
His centre also provides apprenticeships for anyone interested in craft work. An apprentice artisan who develops high-quality products can reap the rewards by earning 400 to 800 baht a day, while opening the way to being fully employed, he said.
Mr Hirun also helps anyone who wants to start a business because it will preserve traditional crafts and crafting skills for future generations.
One of the strengths of handmade bowls is a long lifespan, although they are more expensive than ones produced in a factory.
“A handmade bowl can be unique and special. Every single bowl from my studio is made with passion and effort. This whole-hearted belief in the crafts represents the artisans’ strong faith in Buddhism, hard work and commitment,” Mr Hirun said.
In the beginning it was difficult to find students. But the media and word-of-mouth helped spread the news and draw in more enthusiasts. It also helped boost his business.
Handmade alms bowls are becoming unbelievably popular again among older monks, he noted. And that is a good sign for ensuring the survival of this traditional craft.
The skills used to make the bowls are easily turned into a profession for those with passion, he said, saying he earns about 100,000 baht a month, which is enough to cover expenses and expenditures for artisans at the centre.
Mr Hirun said his business started to feel the squeeze in 1971 when there was a big drop in new orders. Many entrepreneurs in the community succumbed to cheap mass-produced bowls and shut down their businesses.
The decline was partly due to the higher prices, he noted, adding a handmade bowl is priced at about 800 baht each compared to 100 baht for a mass-produced product.
Mr Hirun said an alms bowl has become a made-to-order product, with about 30 pieces purchased each month.
Faithful Buddhists usually order his products to be given to monks in rural areas while foreigners buy them as souvenirs.
He takes great pride in making a contribution to Buddhism. His business inspired one foreigner, who had learned to make alms bowls at his centre, to enter the monkhood.
Ampornsilpa Limapirak, a teacher at ONIE in Promprap Sattruphai, said the centre has many occupational programmes, including hand-crafted alms bowls, to create career opportunities or to help people make some pocket money.
Each year, about 20 students take part in Mr Hirun’s class. Knowledge and hands-on training are provided by highly skilled artisans, Ms Ampornsila said.
Wanchai Phiapan, 27, a messenger boy who joined the programme, knows that opening a business for hand-crafted products is no piece of cake.
However, attending the programme helps him to explore his passion for art with like-minded people.
Mr Wanchai said working with metal to make a bowl requires both physical and mental strength and allows him to practise and develop patience.
“We have to put our heart and soul into this work. The work tests how strong the mind is. My heart swells with pride when I finish one,” he said, adding handmade alms bowls are one of Thailand’s oldest and most treasured arts.
He urged people who have a love for hand-crafted products to attend the programme which is a source of great pride to everyone.
“That sense of pride brings me happiness and makes me feel good about my own life,” Mr Wanchai said.
Konglar Saengtham, 31, who travelled the long distance from his home in Surin province to become an apprentice, said making the alms bowls helps to keep his mind off drinking and hanging about with friends.
“I distracted myself by making alms bowls when I was trying to quit drinking. Well, we need strong willpower to quit. Support from colleagues played a big part,” said Mr Konglar who has been on the wagon for more than three years.
“Nothing is more important than being part of continuing a long-standing tradition.”
Hand-made alms bowls are more expensive, but they are now much sought-after.