In the history of human civilization, bangles or “choodi” are considered as one of the oldest form of jewelry. An idol of a dancing girl, with bangles in her hands, was found in the excavation of Mohan Jodaro (modern day Sindh, Pakistan) from the Indus Valley Civilization (2700-2100 BC). History shows that the tradition of bangles has been going on for thousands of years. Bangles have been made from terracotta, oyster, wood, glass and metal. Bangles have been an important part of Indian culture and tradition from Harappan and Mauryan times to modern times.
But do you know that the state of Rajasthan in India is famous for a special kind of bangles made by hand? The Manihar community from Rajasthan makes beautiful lacquer bangles by hand. The art of making bangles with lac was patronized by the royal family of Jaipur (Capital City of Rajasthan). Today, these bangles are considered a perfect example of the city’s magnificent handicraft tradition.
History of Lac and its bangles
Before understanding the history of this art, we have to understand the basic substance used in it. Lac is a resin produced from insects. These insects live on trees and take their food from them. Their resin is a natural product that is widely used in food, furniture, cosmetics and pharmaceutical industries. Caria lakka or lac insect is reared for the production of lac. These insect grows on trees like Dhaka, Plum and Safflower.
The history of lac in India is very old. Interestingly, it is also mentioned in ancient texts like Veda, Mahabharata and Shiva Purana. It is mentioned in the Vedas by the name of Laksh Taru or Lacquer tree. The Atharva Veda describes the insect of lac, its natural habitat and its utility.
According to an interesting story in the Mahabharata, King Duryodhana of the Kauravas ordered an architect to build a palace where the Pandavas could be destroyed. The architect built the Palace of Laakh for this work, which was known as Lakhshaghar. Since the lac catches fire quickly, it was thought that the Pandavas would not be able to come out after the fire in the palace. But the Pandavas had already come to know of this conspiracy and a secret path was made for them to get out of the palace.
Similarly, there is an interesting folk tale associated with Shiva and Parvati in the Hindu Purana, which shows the importance of lac bangles. It is said that during the marriage of Shiva and Parvati, a community of artisans was created, which was called Lakheda, for the purpose of making bangles for Parvati. On the occasion of marriage, Shiva gave these bangles to Parvati as a gift. Since then, the custom of wearing lac bangles to married women or brides started.
The art of making lac bangles in Jaipur is as old as this city. The city of Jaipur was founded as the new capital of Kachhwaha in 1727 when Amer Court was brought here by Maharaja Sawai Jai Singh-II. As Jai Singh was a beauty lover and patron of the arts, he invited craftsmen and artisans from every corner of India and abroad. He wanted to develop this new city as a center of trade and commerce.
Many artisans came to the city to do their business and there was also a bangle making community called Manihar. The word Manihar is believed to be derived from the Sanskrit word Mani which means pearl or semiprecious gem. This community is spread across Rajasthan, Uttar Pradesh and Madhya Pradesh in north and central India. This community is mostly formed by Muslims. They are also known as Saudagar or Sisagar. The earliest production of lac is said to have taken place in Uttar Pradesh where the manihars collected resin from trees. According to local folklore, Maharaja Sawai Jai Singh-II called the Maniharas for their art. When the capital shifted to Jaipur in 1727, the artisans also moved there and since then their handicrafts are still alive.
Jaipur city was planned in such a way that carpenters, goldsmiths and artisans associated with clothes and other arts have different neighborhoods. This classification of artisans can be seen even today in the markets of Jaipur. For example, Johri Bazaar is a market for jewelery and clothing. The street in which the bangles are made of lac bangles is called the path of manihars or “Maniharon ka Raasta”.
There are some handicrafts that are only for men. Some arts are only for women. But the art of making lac bangles requires both men and women. While men make small furnaces and screw bangles, women sell them and run shops.
The process of making Lac bangles
Like other handicrafts, the process of making lac bangles is also quite tiring. It is worth noting that even today laakh bangles are made by hand. Even today, centuries old technology is being used. It has not been changed and the machine is not used anywhere in the whole process. The same old talent is used with great skill and tools.
The process of making these bangles starts by collecting lacquer from the trees. India has the largest production of lac in the world. India produces 60-70% of the total requirement of world lac. Jharkhand, West Bengal and Uttar Pradesh are at the forefront of production of lac in India.
The insect named Keria Lakka forms a dark red colored resin called lac. These resin are formed on the branches of trees which are then scrapped and removed. The lac is separated by the process with the long sticks of lac. The lac then goes through several processes. The product produced by this process is called Shalak Lakh or Chapra.
These artisans get lacquer in the form of small flat discs which are called chapadi or tikli in the local language. It is mainly in two colors – dark red brown and orange. These chapadis are the major component of lac bangles. To make lacquer soft, a resin called Barja is added to it. Another component in this process is stone powder called gia powder. In the old days sand was used instead of this powder.
To make the mixture, first the artisans heat the chapadi and resin barja in a large pan. A little water is also added to the mixture for humidity. This mixture is heated to melt lacquer. Then gia powder is added to it. This process continues till the lacquer is formed. After this the mixture is removed from the stove and kneaded well. Its rolls are made after kneading. The roll is then wrapped on a wooden stick called the handle.
Artisans use this handle to heat lacquer on coal or sigdi. By this process the lacquer becomes soft and can be given any shape. From the handle, the lacquer roll is rotated from time to time until it becomes longer. After this the lac is shaped using the tool named Hattha. Colored lacquer blocks are used to add color to lacquer. These blocks are used by mixing the available colors in the market in laakhs. These are heated on coal and applied over lakhs. Various designs are made by mixing different colors and styles.
The colored rolls are cut into small pieces to make the bangle and then roll them. The grooved wooden tool is then pressed into a colored small part. In this process, lacquer takes the form of a narrow groove. After that its loop is prepared. It is heated once again on coal. The artisans use lacquer bangle on the wood lathi to give it the right size and shape. It is rubbed with soft cloth to make it shine. After all these procedures, the colored bangle is made of lacquer and is ready to adorn the wearer’s wrist.
These bangles have different types and designs. How long it will take to make a bangle depends on the type of bangle and the decoration on it. On average it takes six to seven hours to make twelve bangles. Some colored bangles are simple while some are ornate. Small valuable stones and pieces of glass are used in the decoration of bangles. Fine decoration is done on the bangle with a needle.
According to the artisans, the specialty of these bangles is the purity of the raw materials used in them. Lacquer is a natural substance and no chemical is used to make lacquer bangles. While wearing other type of bangles causes itching or rash on the skin, there is no such problem with lac bangles.
The sale of lac bangles increases during local festivals like Teej and Gangaur. Leheriya bangles are especially sold during festivals during spring. The term Lahariya is also used for the bonding of local fabrics, which have their own distinct patterns. There are many types in the bangles of Lehariya like Jodhpuri, Jaipuri and Marwari.
Bangles are an important part of the jewelry of a married woman or bride. Special bangles are made for wedding occasions. Bangles to match the garment are also made. Apart from making bangles, lac is also used to make many other things. It is also used in decorating, painting, home furnishings, pans, diaries. Apart from this, it is also used in making earrings and toys.
Like other indigenous arts, this art is clouded by uncertainty. Despite the popularity of lac bangles, the Manihar community is grappling with a variety of problems. The new generation does not find this work beneficial and does not want to make it their profession. Glass bangles also threaten this art. The number of customers has also reduced due to malls and shopping centers.
Cold lac bangles have arrived in the market which has affected the sale of original lac bangles. Marble sawdust and epoxy resin are added to the cold lacquer. This not only breaks the bangles quickly but also creates many designs. Traditional artisans do not use cold lacquer. Many consider cold lacquer as impure lacquer.
The deteriorating environment is also a problem for these artisans. The production of lacquer is obtained from trees, but the production of lacquer has been affected by the cutting of trees and the changes in the environment. Due to this, raw material has also become expensive. All these circumstances have made the life of these artisans difficult.
The art of making bangles has been passed down from generation to generation, which now needs more recognition. It is very important to preserve the valuable skill and knowledge of making it. Manihars have preserved the centuries-old heritage of making bangles, but now the time has come for us to understand the significance of this heritage and do something about protecting it.
Choodiwala.in is a small initiative to keep this art alive. By making a purchase from this website, you are directly helping these artisans and their families. We look forward to your continued support.