Bangkok’s Buddhist alms bowl artisans
Saffron-robed Buddhist monks, walking through Thailand's cities and countryside, carry large alms bowls so devotees can give them food and other items which sustain the clergy's life in the monasteries.
The alms bowls, born in a tangle of Bangkok's back streets and slums, require the labor of muscular men and women who cluster in a single neighborhood that claims to make nearly all the traditional bowls Thailand’s monks need.
It is not an easy job. An alms bowl, made of metal, can weigh two kilograms when new. The bowls begin their circular existence amid a thunderous din of banging and hammering, and an occasional blast from a blowtorch.
The ear-piercing noise of hammers on metal punctuates the sound of neighbors trying to watch television, pray at small shrines, chat with friends, or care for their families.
"Many of us wear earplugs," says one bowl-maker.
A family tradition
The leader of these artisans is a strong, hammer-wielding woman named Mayuree Serseeserm, who is usually sitting on a battered wooden stool while grappling with the metallic half-shell of a would-be bowl.
"I have been making bowls since I was 12 years old," the 52-year-old Mayuree says in Thai. "I do this because my grandparents did, and I want to continue this tradition. This is the only place in Thailand that makes real bowls for monks.
"We make about 50 bowls a month. Most are eight-and-a-half inches across the top, which is standard for a monk's bowl. It is made of white metal.”
The seams are joined with copper, she explains, indicating welded stripes which enable a cut piece of flat metal to be joined into a curved shape.
"I am the owner of this place," Mayuree says, gesturing with her hammer at a glass showcase which displays a handful of new bowls, set in front of a shabby dwelling staffed by relatives and workers. "All of the families who do this work, live in this neighborhood."
Next to Mayuree, a man with a spinning, spark-spewing grinder busily smoothes an unfinished bowl's bumpy welding spots.
Why factory-made bowls just won't cut it
When a monk places an order for a fresh stack of bowls, this neighborhood turns into an assembly line of human cogs, as if it were a scene from the Industrial Revolution.
"Each family makes a different part, and does a different job," says Mayuree's 32-year-old daughter, Maneerat Nakarat. "About 30 or 40 people in the neighborhood are involved in this work. And yes, it is true that even though we make only about 50 bowls a month, we supply all the monks in Thailand, because the bowls last a long time and do not break.
"While waiting for one of our bowls, a monk may use a factory-made bowl as a temporary way to collect alms. The factory's bowl costs only 120 baht, but it is made of much thinner white metal."
To prove her point, Maneerat pulls out a shiny, black factory-made bowl.
"The factory bowl is easy to dent, if you drop it. Ours are much stronger, and correctly made, according to tradition. Ours have the copper welding lines. The factory's bowls do not have that. And their black color is from spray paint.
"We put ours in a fire for six hours to make it black. But usually a monk will buy an unfinished bowl from us, and then blacken the bowl in their temple's fire. The blackening protects it from rust."
Different styles for different tastes
Several choices of traditional alms bowls are available in this neighborhood, including the three most popular styles, with names reflecting their shape: "Look Jaan" (a Thai fruit), "Manao" (Lime) and "Hua Sara" (Tiger's Head).
"Tiger's Head is the most popular bowl. A stainless steel one sells for about 3,000 baht," says Maneerat.
The bowl's metal finish is hammered so well that it almost looks machine-made, and bears smooth dabs of copper lining the joints. The inside of the Tiger's Head bowl shines, as if it is wet.
To explain the bowl's interior look, a tattooed man grins and holds up a battered yellow can labeled "Clear Gloss Varnish.”
In comparison, the Look Jaan bowl is made of a thinner white metal, weighs less, appears more squat than tall, and lacks a thick protective top rim. It is priced at 1,400 baht.
The only Manao bowl on display is a white-colored "antique" dangling from a rafter.
The alms bowl artisans live in a neighborhood of walkable alleys, which open onto Soi Ban Bat, between Boriphat Road and Wora Chak Road. The area is south from Wat Khao Thong (a Buddhist temple also known as the Golden Mount) and just below Bamrung Muang Road.