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 Introduction | The Chank Fishery | The Chank Shell and its Uses | Making Bangles 

The Chank Shell and its Uses

After each day's catch has been sorted and the divers paid, the piles of shells are transferred to 'godowns' (storage sheds) until the end of the fishing season. The godowns are situated half a mile to a mile downwind of the town; the distance and direction are important as the rotting down of the remains of the animal left in the upper part of the shell produces a distinctive aroma. The shells are very effectively cleaned out by armies of fly maggots before being packed into sacks and sold, usually to a single buyer - the Government of West Bengal, although a small proportion is kept back for local use. When the shells reach Calcutta they are sorted again into several trade varieties according to their size and quality, which largely depends on the locality where they were caught. These are then auctioned to middle-men who supply the chank workers with the type of material they require, a procedure which is frequently accompanied by disputes over the price and consistency of the consignment.

The origin of the chank cult in India is almost lost in antiquity, but it is certain that it was well established among the Dravidian populations of the south and west before the Aryan invasion from the north c.2000 B.C. The shell is particularly associated in the Hindu religion with the gods Vishnu and Krishna, both of whom are always shown dark coloured, indicating that they were originally Dravidian gods. Vishnu holds the 'valampuri' chank Panchajanya, from which he expelled an evil demon. There are frequent references in the Ramayana and Mahabharata epics to chanks used as battle trumpets. The loud blasts of the Dravidian forces blowing their chank trumpets would have been more impressive and carried further than those of the cow horns of the Aryans, who soon appropriated them for their own armies. The chank's deep, sonorous boom, perhaps the origin of the sacred syllable 'om', and the rare, white beauty of the shell once its rough outer coating has been removed, appeals to the Hindu's religious sense. As a trumpet it is used during worship both in the temples and, at any rate in Bengal, in the home. The chank calls the people to their religious rites and calls the attention of the gods to the ceremonies to be performed, and no doubt the blowing of the chanks and the beating of gongs is effective in driving away evil spirits. As a result of this intimate association with their gods, the people have come to revere the instrument and ultimately the material of the shell itself.

Chank trumpet, Hatokgram.

Valampuri and Chank
Wedding invitation card, Calcutta.

WAV Audio
MP3 Audio
Chank trumpet with gongs, Calcutta; audio files are 41 seconds in length and just under 1 meg.

The religious use of the chank trumpet is known not only throughout India but also in China and Tibet, as it is similarly used in Buddhist worship. The chanks prepared for blowing are as large as possible, usually about 8 inches long and 4 inches across; the apical tip is removed by a hammer and polished smooth, and a spiral or flower motif engraved into the shell. Every shell has a slightly different 'voice' so, before purchase, the shells set out in the market must be tested by slapping the palm of the hand against the blowing aperture, to judge the quality of the sound. The price of a chank trumpet depends more on its sound than on the size and quality of the shell. During our visit to Bishnupur in West Bengal, my wife and I were invited to attend the evening ceremony at the temple used by the chank workers, where to the sound of gongs and chanks, the gods were undressed and put to bed for the night. The sound of the music on the warm night air, the incense, the scent of fragrant blossoms, the flicker of flames and the moonlight all combined to make that occasion one of our most unforgettable memories of India. The "mystic wail" of the chank is eloquently described by Hornell, as he wrote: "No tune properly so called can be played, but the tone is capable of much modulation by the lips and the long drawn notes as they drone clear and mellow on the evening breeze have a haunting charm that clings sweet and seductive in the memory". In Bengal there are many other times when the blowing of chanks is auspicious, at sundown, at weddings and, according to Hornell, during eclipses and earthquakes. A woman blowing a chank trumpet is often incorporated in the design of the elaborately decorated invitation cards for Bengali weddings. This relates to the custom among Bengali Brahmans, during the wedding ceremony, of seven married ladies headed by the bride's mother processing round the bridegroom seven times; one of the seven carries a conch and blows it as she goes. Hornell (p.145) records another custom then prevalent in parts of Tamil Nadu in which, on the wedding day, the sister of the bridegroom went to the house of the bride accompanied by women bearing gifts and blowing chanks.

Prized specimens of exceptional size or, especially, the rare reversed 'valampuri', donated by wealthy patrons of the temple, were clad in gold or silver and used as libation vessels for Siva or Vishnu. Hornell (p.136) quotes a Tamil proverb: "If you pour water into a chank, it becomes holy water; if you pour it into a pot, it remains merely water". On special occasions cow's milk is used instead of water. Small chanks, with part of the 'spout' end cut away and the spiral columella removed, just as for those used as libation vessels, were formerly used in Tamil Nadu as babies' feeding spouts. Perhaps they still are, but none was noted during our visit, although we did look out for them in the bazaars. Hornell (p.165) commented on this practice: "For the purpose intended it is quite effective, but how far the crevices of the interior, by offering obstacles to efficient cleansing, harbour and promote the rapid growth of bacteria and so lead directly to infantile diarrhoea, it is difficult to say. If the shell be boiled daily, a very simple precaution and easier to do in the case of a chank than in that of a glass bottle, there would be no danger, but I fear this is seldom thought of". In Bengal, the Hindu marriage includes the placing of chank bangles, lacquered red, upon the bride's wrists. These marriage bangles are now almost unique to Bengal, but scattered instances elsewhere and the finding of chank bangle fragments in places where their use is now non-existent suggest it was once the general custom among fully Hinduized castes. From Ranaghat we obtained a pair of thin, rough slices of chank shell, daubed with red lac; these are token marriage bangles (tatwa). They are never worn but are given by a man to his fiancée's family, with other symbolic gifts, as a sign of betrothal.

Bangled Ladies
Ladies of Jitpur with their bangles; their foreheads and hair partings marked with shindur.

Nagaland tribals, tourist postcard, Calcutta.

The non-religious use of chank shell in present day India seems to be largely confined to Tamil Nadu, Bengal and some other north-eastern States. In Tamil Nadu we saw bullocks with a small chank worn around their necks as a protective amulet against the evil-eye, and a similar 'cow's necklace' (garur mala) made from the apex of a larger shell was seen in Baharampur. Children are often protected in the same way by the wearing of small plain chank bracelets or even a single bead worn around the waist. A Tamil custom, to bring good luck and keep out evil spirits, was to bury a chank beneath the first stone of a new house or, in some places, to leave part of the shell exposed inside the doorway, showing as a white patch on the floor, so all entering or leaving must pass over it and thereby avoid misfortune. In Bengal the chank shops sell, in addition to bangles, an assortment of other chank shell products: finger and toe rings, ear-rings, necklaces of plain chank beads (cut from the columella, 4-5 from each shell), medallions of various designs ranging from Siva to Lenin (as several political parties embracing communism are popular in that State), and little containers for shindur, the red powder used for marking the forehead and hair parting; they also stock the shindur. Even the chalky chank dust (shankha churna) from the bangle cutting workshops is sold as an antacid medicine to be taken with lemon juice for stomach disorders or, in little boxes of 'beauty powder', to be mixed with water as a cosmetic to disguise 'pimply pox-spots'. There is evidence that the finely divided calcareous shell particles do have some effect in reducing the incidence of rickets and tuberculosis, and no doubt faith in the product also helps. The medallions are either worn around the neck or fastened around the upper right arm by a cord as an amulet (tabiz); herbal ointments may be placed in the concave back of the medallion in contact with the skin, on the advice of an astrologer, as a cure for various ailments. In Nagaland longitudinal slices of chank shell are used as hair ornaments by the men, and long cylindrical beads made from the columella are worn on necklaces. Chanks were used there as currency until the mid-nineteenth century, especially for trading in cattle and slaves. Hornell (p.166) gives the exchange rate as 1 male slave = 1 cow + 3 chanks; the more valuable female slave = 3 cows + 4-5 chanks; 1 cow = 10 chanks; and 1 chank was equivalent to a rupee. The orthodox Hindu States of Travancore and Cochin used the symbol of the reversed chank, sacred to Vishnu, in the design of their coins and stamps.

 Introduction | The Chank Fishery | The Chank Shell and its Uses | Making Bangles 

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