The Hardness of Shells
Bangles have always been a part of Indian culture. One of the oldest artifacts discovered in Mohenjo-Daro is a bronze figurine of a dancing girl, wearing bangles on her left arm. Other ancient examples are the copper bangles excavated from Mahurjhari; the ornate bangles dating back to Mauryan Empire and the gold bangles from Taxila. In Indian mythology and culture, bangles find a prominent place. Every Indian goddess is seen wearing bangles. Fragments from archaeological excavations show that bangles were made from copper, bronze, shell, terra cotta, silver, gold, lac, glass and anything that could be used in craftsmanship.
Today, in India, wearing bangles, especially lac, glass and shell are a must for married woman. However, the material and color varies from region to region. While in North India, especially Punjab, Jammu & Kashmir and Rajasthan, gold, silver and glass bangles are preferred, in states like Odisha and West Bengal, bangles made of lac (pola) and shell (shankha) are mandatory. Legend states that Shiva gave a pair of conch shell bangles to his wife Parvati.
Shankhas are white bangles made from conch-shells. The shankha bangles hold a special place in every married Hindu woman’s heart. She usually receives it from the elderly females of the family on the morning of her wedding day. This is one of the first symbols signaling the start of a new life for her, she adorns this white conch shell bangle throughout her married life. Even today, in the villages of Bengal and Northern Odisha, young girls visit the sankhari (maker of conch shell bangles) with their parents before their marriage to pick the bangles of their choice for ensuring long lives for their husbands and a happy married life.
Over the ages, the patterns and designs of the Sankha bangles have changed. Besides the simple white carved ones that look so pristine and pure, they even come with inlays of gold and precious stones. They are intricately designed with patterns symbolising love and respect. Motifs like flowers, leaves, peacocks, elephants and various other designs drawn from the stories of the Ramayana are carved on the bangles. The craftsmen even detail out faces and bodies of Hindu gods and goddesses over the shankhas. The milky white bangle usually nestles between the red bangles made of lac.
In accordance with the disappearance of age old rituals and traditionswith and the onslaught of westernisation, the wearing of sankha among married women too is on the decline. The age old cottage industry is on the brink of closure. While most of the production is in Bengal, Jaleswar in Odisha too has a small group of shankharis who had migrated years ago. Of the dozen families that walked on the shells, now only three remain.
According to Asit Mandal, a few sankhari families had migrated to Jaleswar from Bengal in search of a suitable place for their wares. As Jaleswar fell on the trade and pilgrim route of Puri, the Jagannath Sadak made it easy for them to procure the conch shells from Puri and could also send their finished products to the various markets. The mandals have been in the profession for the last two centuries, he himself has been cutting the bangles for the last forty years. He recalls that there were two dozen families fifty years ago, now only three remain. None of their children are interested to continue with the profession.
This shankhas are made from the shells of a sea snail species called turbinella pyrum. The shells are found in the Indian Ocean and surrounding seas. The main suppliers are in Tuticorin and Puri. The Andamans had a bountiful supply of the shells, but export was banned a decade ago. Many of the conch shells are now banned under the Endangered Species Act, and the low availability results in prices rising every year. The profit margin is so dismal that many craftsmen have stopped making the bangles and taken up other professions.
The dwindling demand is also a cause of concern. Earlier, women used to wear the bangles as long as their husbands lived; now they are mostly worn during the wedding. Till a few years ago, a decent pair was not more than Rs 300, but now the cheapest come at double the price.
Earlier, the artisans used to cut conch shells by hand. It was a tedious process, the shell used to be sliced into four or five pieces. Machines were introduced two decades ago, and today, both the cutting and the polishing are done on machines.
It is sad that the last community of shankharis, who settled in Odisha hundreds of years back are struggling to hold on to a tradition handed down by their forefathers. Mandal and his ilk are continuing to fight and showcase the culture and tradition that is captured in this beautiful artwork.
by Anil dhir