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
The history of lac in India finds mention in ancient scriptures and texts inclusing the Vedas, the Mahabharata and the ShivPurana.
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.
How are Lac Bangles Made?
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.
The Craft Today
The importance of these bangles marks a religious, cultural and auspicious context. Many Rajasthani rituals require specific ornamentations and the lac bangles are one of them. These are highly sought after for local celebrations such as teej, the marwari festival of gangaur, karva chauth, holi, weddings and special ceremonies for the mothers-to-be. It has been a custom that the bride wears lac bangles on her wedding day and after being married.
The Bangles can be found in various designs across Rajasthan but this indigenous art is clouded by uncertainty as the new generation doesn’t find it beneficial and is not ready to learn the knowledge and know-how of age old art.