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

Making Bangles

The wearing of chank bangles (shankha balara) by married Hindu women is now confined to Bengal (West Bengal and Bangladesh) and Bengali women living in the adjacent parts of Bihar, Orissa and Assam. Archaeological evidence, however, indicates that such bangles were worn and bangle-making workshops established in southern and central India, the Kathiawar area of Gujarat, and Sri Lanka as long as 2000 years ago, and apparently were cut in the same way as is done in the present day. Hornell suggests that this formerly widespread custom and trade was suppressed by the Moslems after their invasion of the south in the fourteenth century, and the craft transferred to Bengal. The Government of Tamil Nadu would like to reintroduce a local chank bangle industry but cannot attract the skilled craftsmen and their attempt, some years before our visit, to revive in that State the former custom of wearing bangles of chank shell, was met with total resistance by the local women who preferred to wear bangles of metal or coloured glass. In West Bengal in the mid-1970s, plastic replicas of chank bangles were offered for sale. Initially these were popular because they were pure white and very cheap, but the chank bangle makers soon mounted a counter offensive, informing the women that they possessed none of the inherent 'protective' qualities of genuine chank shell and were, therefore, ineffective. Sales declined and now the plastic imitations are very hard to find. Before 1947 there had been a small scale chank cutting business in Chittagong, employing Moslem workers. Only large shells were used for producing the massive broad bangles or armlets favoured by the neighbouring hill tribes. After Independence, India no longer exported chanks to East Pakistan (now Bangladesh), and those available from Sri Lanka were not of the large size required. As the hill tribes did not have the Bengali Hindu's special relationship with the chank, we found that they had happily accepted bangles of the traditional patterns carved in substitute materials such as elephant bone or bamboo.

In Calcutta and other large towns it is the fashion to wear pure white bangles, carved in a profuse variety of designs, while in the villages many women prefer locally-made bangles decorated with coloured lac and often of several pieces. The white bangles for everyday use are made in two main types (smaller or larger ones were described as being for children or 'fat ladies'), pairs of single bangles, engraved with various leaf, flower or geometrical patterns, about 1cm thick (bala), and sets of six bangles, each about 0.5cm thick and usually with faceted designs, worn three on each wrist (churi). The internal diameter ranges from about 55mm to 65mm. Women of the labouring classes wear strong serviceable bangles (bauti), thicker than the bala type, which are not readily broken in the course of their day's work. The bangles worn by the Bengali women are not confined to those made of chank shell and in fact some wear a considerable number of glass and metal bangles between their wrists and elbows. The chank bangles are invariably worn closest to the wrist (with the exception of the single simple iron bracelet on the left wrist, which some believe is derived from the slave's bracelet, symbolizing the woman's obedience to her husband) and protected from damage by the others by a plain smooth red ring (polla) now made of some synthetic plastic material, but possibly originally of coral.

The lip and apex of the shell are smashed with hammers, Kilakarai.

A skilled sawyer and shells ready for sawing, Calcutta.

The shell is held steady by the sawyer's feet, Hatokgram.

1822 engraving of a Dacca shell cutter, showing the cross bar of the saw. The proportions of the saw and the method of sawing are incorrect.

Using the Adhurhi
Chipping away at the remains of the septa, Lakshminathpur.

Using the salui to smooth the inner surface, Raibaghini.

A sandstone shil from Dacca, Royal Museum of Scotland, Edinburgh.

An ekdhara from Dacca, Royal Museum of Scotland, Edinburgh.

Female (left) and male (right) eye symbols on the ekdhara blade.

Engraving a bangle supported on a tripod, Bishnupur.

Gold Bangles
An expensive pair of chank bangles embellished with gold wire worn by the wife of a master carver, Bishnupur, together with the red polla and the iron bracelet on the left wrist.

Finishing the Bangles
Finished bangles after acid-dipping (in a small bowl) and painting on auspicious red spots before selling to the hawker, Bajitpur.

Coloured Bangles
Lacquering coloured bangles over a charcoal fire, Hatokgram.

A finished pair of nagachi compound bangles, Hatokgram.

Rubbing down the half segments for khilan bandani using the shil, Hatokgram; completed bangles seen at bottom right.

Mina Bauti
Finished mina bauti bangles, Bajitpur.

A small amount of chank cutting and engraving is done at Kilakarai in Tamil Nadu, mostly for the local souvenir trade. Historically the chank shell industry was based in Dacca (now Dhaka), the ancient capital of Bengal, but after partition the majority of the chank workers and their families migrated into West Bengal. Nowadays the main chank emporia are in Calcutta, depending chiefly on the material supplied from Tamil Nadu as there is no chank fishery off the coast of Bengal. The trade is highly organized and depends on several layers of agents and middlemen. The wholesale sorting and grading of the chanks from the various southern fisheries and most of the preliminary preparation of the shells is done in Calcutta, and the cut sections, tied up in strings of hundreds, are transported to other towns and villages to be carved and finished locally. Chanks from different localities have distinguishing characteristics well known to the Calcutta dealers, who can tell at a glance whence any particular shell has come. Each of about eight trade varieties is sold separately as the price varies with the quality. The best shells are from the Tinnevelly coast and a similar quality but with more shells of a smaller size are those from Rameswaram. The sawn slices are also graded; the selected best, cut from Tuticorin shells (titkutti grade), are used for the highly ornamented bala and churi bangles which have a lustrous finish and therefore require fine-grained, hard and porcellaneous white shells. Lower grades of shell sections have their 'worm holes' filled with wax and zinc oxide powder.

To understand the processes involved in preparing the chank for bangle making it is necessary to name the parts of the shell. The oldest part is the apex, from which it descends in a number of clockwise and rapidly enlarging spiral whorls around a spiral pillar, the columella. At the base of the shell, below the aperture, is the canal; the outer lip of the aperture meets the body whorl at the shoulder, above which the older, smaller whorls form the spire. The top of each whorl is attached internally to the central columella by a septum. This complex structure must be reduced to an approximate barrel shape before it can be sliced into sections of an even thickness. First part of the outer lip and the canal are broken off, then the septa are shattered by hammering through the aperture with a tool (bidhuni) resembling a geologist's hammer, sharp-edged on one side and square on the other. The apex is then smashed in with a different hammer (adari), to release the columella. The shell is then ready for cutting. This is the most highly-skilled part of the whole bangle-making operation and is the only stage which is performed only by men who have been specially trained for this exacting work. Outside Calcutta, bangle making is largely a cottage industry carried on by the head of the household with the aid of his extended family including the women and children. As skilled sawyers are seldom found in the villages, the rural bangle makers mostly buy the ready cut sections.

To cut the sections the sawyer sits with his knees widely separated, tightly wedged between two short stakes about 18 inches apart driven into the earthen floor. His back is supported against the longer stake which projects about 15 inches above the ground. His feet function as a vice during sawing, the shell to be cut being placed between the right heel and the toes of the left foot. A wooden disc is placed over the aperture of the shell enabling the sawyer to keep the shell pressed firmly by his foot against the shorter stake, which is 4 or 5 inches high. To make the bangle sections the shell must be cut obliquely not transversely, so it is placed between the sawyer's feet with the apex somewhat to the right and towards the shorter stake. The sawyer marks with a pencil where the first cut is to be made. The spire of the shell is sliced off first and will be used for making finger rings and amulets. The number of working sections cut from the remainder of the shell depends on its size. From a normal sized shell, about 3 inches across, four sections may be cut for the broader bauti bangles, six for the common bala type, and eight to ten for the thinner churi bangles. With all stages of the bangle making, the workers are paid by piece work according to the degree of skill necessary for each part of the process.

The shell sections are cut with a large, heavy, two-handed saw (karat) with a crescent-shaped iron blade about 830mm long, 232mm maximum width and 2mm thick, with a sharpened band 27mm wide thinned to a thickness of about 0.6mm adjacent to the cutting edge. Each end of the saw is cut to form a metal horn-like handle. Riveted to the back of the blade are two tangs, about 70mm in from each end, wound with twine. We were told that these special saws are made at Dinodathpur in Burdwan [Barddaman] district; the blades are changed every two to three years. None of the large saws in use at the time of our visit had any cross bar connecting the two tangs, but when Dacca was the centre for this work the saws had a cane rod attached across the tangs, probably for use as a carrying handle, as seen in old prints and museum specimens.

The big saw may appear extremely cumbersome, but it is used with amazing dexterity and speed. The sawyer places his left hand on one twine-covered tang and his right hand on the horn of the blade at the opposite end of the saw, and begins a vigorous to and fro movement, his hands passing through a short arc of a circle at each swing. It takes on average 4½ minutes to saw through once. With hard shells the saw needs to be frequently sharpened by tapping over the whole length of the cutting edge with a chisel set in a wooden handle (arul). The teeth of the blade are minute, very numerous and shallow, and dentate rather than serrate in shape so that the saw cuts equally well in both directions. These skilled workers must keep themselves very fit in order to maintain their cramped posture for long periods. One hundred working sections a day is about their limit, but normally they achieve considerably fewer. Some machine saws are used, but the bangle makers reckon they cause tiny fractures making the sections more fragile. It is also likely that the skilled workers fear unemployment if the machines were brought into general use. When the saw is new the blade is daubed with auspicious red marks; in Raibaghini we saw one painted with the trident emblem of Siva. These wear off after a few days but are replaced annually when the saw and all the other tools of the chank making craft are re-dedicated to Augustyamunni, the patron god of the chank workers. This special puja takes place in July or August and lasts for three days. The tools are brought into the house and placed before an earthenware jar in which rest a green coconut and a mango branch, these three objects together representing the god. All the tools, even the machine saws, are given spots of red paint at this time.

After sawing, the projecting 'beaks' (the remains of the septa) have to be chipped off from the inner edge of the sections, using a small hammer (jhora) and taking the utmost care, as this part of the section is its weakest point. This reduces the amount of rubbing down needed, which is the next stage of the process. The inner surface of the bangle sections are smoothed by the use of a wooden spindle (salui) 18 to 20 ins long, coated with an abrasive layer of fine river sand embedded in coarse lac. The sections are rubbed up and down the spindle until the rough edges have been removed. Then the sawn surfaces are ground down by rubbing them with a circular motion on a wetted sandstone slab (shil or, in Dhaka, pata). The bangles are then ready for the outer face to be engraved with the traditional patterns, which are sketched on in pencil. The engraver uses a small saw with a wooden handle, various files (reti), gouges and other hand tools. The engraving saw is called kat in West Bengal and ekdhara in Bangladesh, where it seems to be more widely used than in India; to protect the engraver from accidentally cutting himself, the sharp blade has a male eye symbol incised on the right side and a female eye symbol on the left. For the carving of the design the bangle is supported on a wooden tripod consisting of an A-frame (dakhna) with a projecting rod (bari). White bangles, except for one expensive variety which has gold wire wound around the spiral design, are then dipped in nitric acid to give the surface an ivory-like lustre and in some places finished with one or two tiny spots of red lac for good luck. Smaller chank shell items, such as rings and medallions, are similarly given an acid dip unless they contain stones of coloured glass. If the end product is to be a red marriage bangle, or one of the coloured or compound bangles preferred by the village women, a segment of the bangle is heated by being laid on glowing pieces of charcoal. When hot enough it is removed and rubbed with the end of a thin stick of coloured lac, made by combining the lac (gala) with red cinnabar (hingul) [mercuric sulphide] or yellow orpiment (harital) [arsenious trisulphide]; then the next segment is heated and so on. The shell is never totally covered, as at least a tiny portion of the white chank must show through to avoid deception. When incised patterns are required to stand out red upon a white ground, the surface is scraped with a special tool after lacquering.

As part of the Bengali Hindu marriage ceremony, red lacquered bangles (lal shankha) are placed on the bride's wrists. An iron bangle placed on the left wrist is also essential to the ceremony. The red marriage bangles are not sold in the shops, but are made to special order. They have a symbolic rather than decorative function and may be of plain design and made of poor quality shell. In Bishnupur they are made from three segments of shell held together by wire in a matrix of chank powder mixed with lac (korar), then covered with red lacquer. The fate of these after the wedding varies in detail from place to place or even from family to family; they may be removed soon after the ceremony and kept in a safe place, or they may be worn until they break which, because of their fragile nature, will not be long. In either case a woman wearing the red marriage bangles would be recognized as newly wed, as they are not replaced. In Bishnupur the custom is for the bride's father to order the red bangles, for which the bangle maker (shankhari) receives a plate of rice, dhal and other traditional gifts as well as his stated price (a rare occurrence in India, for no haggling is permitted); the bangle maker is the first to bless the bride by placing the bangles on her wrists. After the wedding feast the bride and groom go to the groom's house, then on the eighth day they return to the bride's family at which time the shankhari replaces the red bangles by white ones. While the bride's arms are bare of bangles a cloth is tied around her upper forearm and only removed after the bangles have been replaced. The red bangles may be kept or offered in puja to Vishnu's consort, but never worn again. Because of the shortage of chank shell in northern Bangladesh the Hindus there have had to use red plastic bangles for their weddings.

The breaking of a white bangle is regarded as a misfortune and is mended or replaced as quickly as possible; the woman will probably cover her wrist with a cloth until this has been done. When a woman is widowed her jewellery is discarded and her chank bangles are removed and broken. Again there is some variation in the details of this tradition; Hornell (p.103) notes that it was usual for the widow to break and throw them away on the first occasion when she bathed after her husband's death and that formerly, before cremation became the general rule among Hindus, the bangles were buried with her dead husband. In one village we were told that a widow, accompanied by other widows of the community, throws her broken bangles into the nearest source of water, perhaps symbolic of returning the chank to the sea. If the wife dies before her husband her bangles may be kept as mementos and given to a son or daughter on the occasion of their marriage.

Some coloured bangles (kor shankha) may be worn singly but most of the examples that we encountered in the village of Hatokgram, near Bishnupur, were made up into compound bangles of five, seven (satgachi) or nine (nagachi) layers - never an even number. The quality of the shell is not important for the coloured bangles, so segments of broken white bangles may be recycled in this way. The nagachi bangles consist of a set of nine bangles, those further from the hand gradually increasing in size; the outer two are red, next to these are two stained violet which are slightly engraved, and the five middle ones are white, ornamented with yellow lac. A man and wife together could make one pair of this type per day. As it is not possible to insert the hand through the finished article, the hawkers who travel from village to village selling these bangles fit them as part of the sale. The two largest are put on first, squeezed over the hand unbroken; all the others must first be broken before they can be put on, and then repaired. Finally the nine sections are glued together with incense. A similar process is followed for fitting the other compound bangles, once they are in place they cannot be removed without breaking them. The patterns of these compound bangles seem to be remarkably conservative, each maker producing identical copies of the same design. In Hatokgram one type, known as sonamukhi (named after a town 21 miles north of Bishnupur where this style originated), was fomerly made from seven or nine sections but now the number has been reduced to five; the outer ones are red with an overlaid design in yellow and the three white ones in the middle are ornamented with shallow engraving, some green and yellow lac and tiny spheres of lead. A further type of bangle which we saw in Bishnupur was made from two half sections of shell, hinged and fastened with a clasp (khilan bandhani); these can be either white or red. We were also shown some antique marriage bangles, very elaborately carved and lacquered, which, being composed of several sections joined together, were also hinged so they could easily be put on and taken off. In Bajitpur some bangles (mina bauti) were made from two segments of shell joined together with red lac, the exposed white sections being carved with traditional designs. We were told that many of these were made for sale to the villages of Assam.

Photographs by Frances Heppell. 'Shell-cutter' from The world in miniature. Hindoostan, containing a description of the religion, manners, customs, trades, arts, sciences, literature, diversions, &c. of the Hindoos, by F. Shoberl; engraved by R. Ackermann, London, 1822. Wedding invitation card purchased in Calcutta, 1982. Nagaland tribals from a tourist postcard, Calcutta.

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

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