Contributed by Ed Conyngham, SEACS member

A Burmese sirahi on a garden table

"A Burmese surahi, in my garden."

In late 1961, as I was finishing my tour in Mandalay, and as the packers were pounding the last nail into the crate, I decided I should have a Burmese water jar. I asked the packers to wait, and rushed out to a roadside spot where I had seen vendors selling them. There were two types for sale, one a squat earthenware bowl, like those commonly seen in roadside watering stations, and the other, a globular earthenware pot topped by a tall pouring spout. I bought two of the latter, hoping that at least one would survive shipping to our next post.

In 1976, we moved to Mumbai. On weekends, my wife and I often went antiquing in the crowded lanes of Chor Bazaar where we saw many brass jars, some resembling my Burmese jars. I assumed that this showed India’s stylistic influence on Burmese pottery, not surprising given their common history.

Fast forward to 2019, long after my retirement, when the New York Times published an article by Hannah Beech titled “Clay Pots Everywhere Quenched Myanmar’s Thirst Until they Vanished.” She quotes Burmese who describe how traditional potters in Yangon are being forced out of business because of the increased use of plastic water bottles, and how the young dislike clay pot water because it tastes like dirt, and how the traditional roadside water stations (yei-o-sin) are being neglected. This was followed by an article in the state-run The Global New Light of Myanmar, “Clay Pots Find New Market Along Shweli River.” Both articles bear on the present state of traditional pottery making, but for this paper, I would like to focus on the “Comment” section of Hannah Beech’s article. Here are three remembrances of water jars from that section:

Usman Suleiman:

“It was customary for folks without refrigerators to keep water in unglazed clay pots. The ones in North India, and what is now Pakistan, are surahi…a round pot with a narrow graceful long neck. As a young boy growing up in Karachi, such surahis would be kept out on the street, particularly during the month of Moharram. They were called sabeels, to serve thirsty passers by. To this day, Urdu poets write odes to the necks of beautiful damsels comparing them to the surahi.”

Bindu 621:

“The custom of clay pots kept in towns is also prevalent in Gujarat among Hindus. My mother used to send money every year for water to be given free to travelers for the hot summer months in towns in the Saurashitra region of Gujarat. They were called “parabs.” Even today in Bombay we keep water in clay pots or “matka” which as the water evaporates through its pores gives one a cool, refreshing drink of water. Far superior to fridge-cooled water in my opinion! “


“It is not just a Buddhist tradition. It is also a Hindu tradition. I am from Tamil Nadu, in southern India. Clay pots were filled with water throughout the year, and with a dilute buttermilk, water and salt mix (neer mor) during the summer months. These were placed outside the door, usually on a pedestal. The curved rim of the cup allowed us to drink without touching the lips so the cup could be used by others. To this day everyone in my family, except babies, drinks from cups without the lips touching the cup.”

The Urdu word surahi has come to mean both unglazed earthenware jars meant to hold water, and decorative, glazed or porcelain jars meant to show off the skills of the potter. Both typically have a globular base, and a tall pouring spout. Decorative surahis, however, offer more varied forms than earthenware water jars. Singapore’s sublime Temasik surahi, for example, enlarges the form significantly ,giving the potter more space to display decorative skills while still managing to preserve the surahi shape. A tour-de-force of the potters art.

There is little in English on how surahis were used other than carrying water, but LEXICO, Oxford’s online dictionary, gives us this description based on Arabic sources of how they were used on social occasions: “Hookahs and candles would be arranged around the guests, along with surahis, fresh from the potters, exuding the monsoon scent of rain falling on parched earth.”

two B&W Chinese export vases found in the Celebes

E. W. Van Orsoy De Fline"s "Guide to the Collection": Pl. 34 No. 3117 F and 2148. I believe the tall vase can be called a surahi.

E.W. Van Orsoy De Flines, Djakarta, 1972, Third edition (in English) 1972. "Guide to the Ceramic Collection".

Charles Nelson Spinks, "The Ceramic Wares of Siam," The Siam Society, Bangkok, 1965, Plate 12.

Surahis have a history that goes back hundreds of years to their beginning in Arabia and are still being made. To get an idea of contemporary surahis, click on “images for surahi” in your search engine. These are mostly decorative works though, a world apart from that of earthenware surahis where the acts of kindness by Moslems, Hindus and Buddhists kept the surahis filled with water for passers thus promoting social cohesion in communities across the Indian subcontinent all the way to northern Thailand.

I found no photographs anywhere similar to my Burmese water pots, but I found a sketch of a pot on p. 213 of Sylvia Fraser-Lu’s Burmese Crafts, Past and Present that looks quite like them. The caption for the sketch reads, “a water goglet, Papun. Late 19th century.” The sketch is on pp. 400-401, vol 1, pt 2 of Scott and Hardiman’s 1901 Gazateer of Upper Burma and the Shan States.

My pots were new in 1961, but given the tendency of potters to keep making the same forms over long periods of time, it seems possible that my pots were from Papun in the Kayin state. Papun was a noted pottery center in the late 19th century and was still active in 1961 when I left Burma.

Goglet was a new term for me, but it is not a misspelling of goblet as I first thought. Merriam Webster’s unabridged online dictionary, the only one to have the word, defines goglet as “a long-necked water vessel usually of porous earthenware that is used especially in India.” In other words, a goglet is another word for surahi. A reader left a comment on the Merriam Webster site saying that the word was in common usage in India in the 1950s and 60s. I am, however, sticking with surahi.

– Ed Conyngham, July 6, 2022

Works Cited

Dawn F. Rooney, Folk Pottery in Southeast Asia, Images of Asia, (Singapore: Oxford University Press, 1987), 19, 57.

Sylvia Fraser-Lu, Burmese Crafts Past and Present, (New York: Oxford University Press, 1994), 213.