In the last Shraban Sangkranti, Manju Rani Pal of Barishal placed an earthen pot at the makeshift temple built on her courtyard. Before that, she had filled the pot with water and covered it with mango leaves, coconut and a garland.
Seeking the Hindu serpentine goddess Manasa's blessings for the welfare of her husband and her two sons, Manju dropped a china rose and sprinkled vermillion powder on the pot. For the last 30 years, she has been performing the same ritual with a new pot replacing the older one.
Her husband Paritash Pal crafts the pots, continuing a family profession.
The bottle-gourd shaped earthen pot, depicting a bright female deity with four arms and three eyes, looks like a doll of Manasa. From the pot's heel to the lower terminus of the neck, its body is swollen significantly as to represent a pregnant woman.
Actually the pot is not a statue of Manasa. Instead, it symbolises the amorphous goddess who is worshipped for fertility, prosperity and the prevention of snakebite.
This is Srighat, as local people say. Its special design and the motifs painted on it with white, yellow, red and black colours make the pot recognisable among other types of pots.
However, use of Srighat is only for a few day a year. Only on Shraban Sangkranti, the 30th day of Shraban month of the Bangla calendar, devotees in parts of Bangladesh and West Bengal in India collect Srighats from artisans for worshipping Manasa.
According to artisans, Srighat originated in Barishal in Bangladesh. After partition in 1947, most of the Srighat artisans settled in West Bengal, leaving a few of their cousins in Barishal, Faridpur and Gopalganj districts in Bangladesh.
Paritash, Kalachand and Dilip, three Pal brothers, are among the artisans of only three surviving artisan families at Mahar village under Wazirpur upazila in Barishal. Despite the dwindling market for earthen products, especially Srighat, the passionate artisans still craft the pot for Manasa worshipping.
Paritash said that in the last season [Asadh,1426], the three brothers jointly crafted 200 Srighats. In a village fair, the pots were sold for Tk100 each.
Paritash pointed out that "Five devotee families can worship Manasa over a single Shrighat. Hence, the earthen item is less in demand." He added that crafting earthen items is hard work and time consuming, and they earn very little to justify the effort.
The earth for crafting Srighat is collected from silted riverbeds, as devotees believe the soil is pure. Artisans thresh out pebbles and prepare soft clay from the soil.
Artisans first craft the heel of the deity with the clay on a rolling wheel. When it is dried, the body is formed carefully with the same clay. When the pot gets the shape of an air-filled balloon, its neck and head are mounted.
All the produced pots are burnt in a large kiln. Then a reddish earthen pot gets a white colour base. Other members of the artisan families, even females, help in the difficult task.
Finally, artisans paint the traditional folk motif of Manasa on the pot. The deity gets a red saree and bright ornaments. All the motifs and outlines are drawn with a thin pencil brush.
On a visit to Mahar village a month ago, Paritash's younger brother Dilip was found giving final touches to some Lakshmi statues he had crafted prior to Lakshmi Puja. Dilip says the demand for Lakshmi statue is very high.
He said that his great grandfather Ashwini Kumar Pal and grandfather Ramesh Pal were famous Srighat artisans.
The Pal brothers tried to link the origin of Srighat art with the fifteenth-centry Bangla poet Bijay Gupta who composed Mangalkabya in honour of Manasa. Gupta was born in the village of Fullasri, between the rivers Ghaghor and Ghanteswari in Barishal.
"Srighat originated in Barishal," Dilip said.
A Barishal-based cultural activist and folklore researcher Kishor Kumar Bala echoed Dilip's statement.
Kishor added that Srighats are being replaced by photographs of Manasa, so the market for the earthen item is dwindling.
"People now prefer worshiping Manasa's photograph rather than preserving the Srighat. Moreover, the meagre income by crafting Srighat is not sufficient for special artisans'. These artisans are leaving their ancestral profession as time goes by," Kishor said.
On July 2 this year, Shibu Pal, also a Mahar Palpara-based artisan died at age 80. The octogenarian artisan could paint Manasa on Srighat skillfully to his last day. Now after Shibu's demise, there is no one of his family to continue the pottery art.
Shibu's two brothers Amulya Kumar Pal and Bishwajit Pal left the profession long ago. And his lone son Krishnakanta Pal is now a Bureau Bangla officer after earning a degree.
Jibon Kumar Pal who leads the third Pal family of the same village does not craft Srighat anymore.
In spite the fact that many in their family are changing their profession, the Pal families are struggling to maintain their pottery art out of dedication.
"This is our tradition. I am also from a Pal family and I know how to craft a Srighat. I will worship Manasa over Srighat until my death," said Manju, mother of Babuganj High School teacher Paresh Pal and Uzirpur Government High School student Parthajit Pal.