Lac Bangles: Jaipur’s Royal Treasure
Bangles are one of civilisation’s oldest forms of jewellery. Remember the iconic Dancing Girl of Mohenjo-daro? The arms of this bronze sculpture, dating to 2700-2100 BCE, are adorned with bangles. History has revealed that bangles have traditionally been crafted from a wide range of materials, from terracotta, to shell, wood, glass and metal. From the Harappans to the Mauryans to modern times, bangles have been an important part of Indian culture and tradition.
But did you know that in an old and narrow lane in the busy markets of Jaipur, artisans practice a type bangle making that uses a natural resin known to man from Vedic times? The bangles crafted here are handmade, lac bangles and you will find them at Maniharon ka Rasta in Tripolia Bazar. The locality is also home to the community that makes these lac bangles, the Manihars.
Making lac bangles was a craft patronised by the royal court of Jaipur, and is still one of the most remarkable handicrafts of this city.
The History of Lac & Its Bangles
The history of this craft can best be understood through its raw material – lac. Lac is a resinous substance secreted by insects that feed on certain trees. It is a valuable natural product used widely in the food, furniture, cosmetics and pharmaceutical industries. In India, an insect called Kerria lacca or the ‘lac insect’ is cultivated for lac production and trees like Dhak, Ber and Kusum are hosts for these insects.
The history of lac in India finds mention in ancient scriptures and texts including the Vedas, the Mahabharata and the Shiv Purana. The Vedas mention the Laksha Taru or Tree of Lac. The Atharva Veda describes the lac insect, its habitat and usefulness.
According to a legend in the Mahabharata, Duryodhana of the Kauravas, in an attempt to destroy the Pandavas, commissioned an architect to build an edifice where the five brothers could be killed. This architect built a house of lac, known as ‘Lakshagraha’. Since lac is highly flammable, the idea was that the brothers would be trapped in the house once it was set on fire. However, the Pandavas learnt of this plot and an escape route was prepared for them.
Another fascinating legend that highlights the significance of lac bangles is associated with Shiva and Parvati. It is said that during the wedding of Shiva and Parvati, a community of bangle makers called Lakhera made lac bangles for Parvati. Shiva gifted these bangles to her as a mark of their marriage. Since then, brides and married women are adorned with lac bangles.
Where To Find Lac Bangles In Jaipur
The craft of making lac bangles in Jaipur is believed to be as old as the city. The city of Jaipur was established in 1727 CE as the new capital of the Kachwaha clan, when the court of Amer was shifted here by Maharaja Sawai Jai Singh II. An aesthete and a patron of the arts, Jai Singh invited craftsmen and artisans from all across India and abroad to this new city, which was conceived as a centre of trade and commerce. Among the many artisans that set up their craft businesses in the city was a community of bangle makers known as Manihars. The word ‘manihar’ is believed to be derived from the Sanskrit word ‘mani’, which means ‘jewel’ or ‘precious stones’. The community, which is predominantly Muslim, is scattered across the states of Rajasthan, Uttar Pradesh and Madhya Pradesh in North and Central India. They are also known by the names Saudagar or Shisgar. Interestingly, some artisans of the Manihar community trace their ancestry to Iran.
The city of Jaipur was planned in a way that different types of craftsmen, such as wood-workers, jewellery makers and textile craftsmen, lived in separate mohallas or small neighbourhoods. Visit the markets of Jaipur and you can still see this distribution. For example, Johari Bazaar, as the name suggests, is a market for jewellery and fine cloth. The lane where lac bangles are sold is called Maniharon ka Rasta. While some crafts are gender-specific, lac bangle-making involves both men and women. The men make the bangles while working at small kilns and furnaces, while the women sell these and manage the shops. When visiting Maniharon ka Rasta, watch out for shops named ‘Maniharin’ which are run by the women of the community.
How Lac Bangles Are Made
Enter Maniharon ka Rasta and you will be dazzled by shops with stacks of glistening lac bangles on both sides of the alley. If you’re wondering what that odd odour is, it’s the smell of melting lac. Look around and you are bound to spot men at the counters in some shops, deftly moulding lac into vibrant bangles.
As with all handmade crafts, the making of lac bangles is a tedious process, and in places like Jaipur, it is still practiced in the traditional way. We spoke to Mohammad Shafi from Maniharon ka Rasta in Jaipur. A 14th-generation artisan, he told us about the history of this craft and his community. Talking about the process of making the lac bangles, he says that the techniques haven’t changed across centuries – there is absolutely no machinery used.
The process begins by collecting lac from the trees.
India is one of the largest producers of lac in the world, meeting 60-70 per cent of the world’s lac needs. The states of Jharkhand, West Bengal and Uttar Pradesh lead in lac production.
The insect Kerria lacca secretes a scarlet-coloured resin known as lac. This forms small beads on the branches of trees, which is scraped off. The long sticks, called ‘sticklacs’, are processed and lac is extracted from them. The lac is then processed to clean and refine it. The product thus obtained is known as ‘shellac’.
The shellac comes to the artisans in the form of small, flat discs called ‘chapadi’ or ‘tikli’ in local lingo. It comes in two colours, burnt umber (deep reddish brown) and ochre (orange-like). These discs form the main component of lac bangles. A resin called berja is added to the lac, for softness. Another component in this process is fine stone powder called giya powder. In earlier times, sand was used instead of this powder. To prepare the base mixture, the artisan heats the chapadi and berja resin in a large kadhai. Water is added to the mixture. As the lac melts, the giya powder is added to the mix, which is allowed to blend till it forms a thick lump. This mixture is then taken off the fire and kneaded well and rolled into coils. A coil is attached to a wooden rod, known as hati.
The artisan uses this hati to heat the lac over burning coals or a sigdi. This process makes the lac soft and easy to mould.
The hati is rolled from time to time to roll the coil into elongated coils. The softened lac is moulded using a hand-held tool called hatta. To add colours to the lac, coloured lac blocks are used. These blocks are used by mixing lac with colours available in the market. The blocks are also attached to wooden rods. They are heated over the coals and then applied over the lac. Several designs and patterns can be made by applying different colours in varied styles.
To make a bangle, the coloured coil is cut into small pieces and rolled out again. Using a wooden tool called khali, which has a groove in it, the coloured coil is pressed. The coil takes the shape of the narrow groove. Using this, the long coil is joined into a loop. This is then heated over the coal again. The artisan inserts the completed lac bangle into a wooden mandrel to calibrate its size and refine its shape. It is well-polished by rubbing it between a soft cloth. After all these steps, a bright colourful bangle comes alive, ready to adorn the wrist of its wearer!
There are different types of lac bangles. The length of time needed to make a bangle depends on its type and ornamentation. But, on average, it takes 6-7 hours to make a dozen bangles. Some are simple, coloured bangles, and others are intricately embellished. Small precious stones, beads, glass pieces are used to decorate these bangles. Sometimes, needles are also used. A simple pair of lac bangles is priced at Rs 50 but the price tag can go up to Rs 3,000 to Rs 4,000 for the heavily ornamented ones.
The Craft Today
The handmade lac bangles of Jaipur are a big draw among domestic and international tourists that descend on this vibrant city every year. The uniqueness of these bangles, according to the artisans, lies in the purity of the materials used. Lac is a natural substance and the artisans in Jaipur don’t use chemicals.
The sale of lac bangles peaks during local festivals in the spring and the monsoon, such as Teej and Gangaur. There are exclusive Lehriya bangles sold during Teej in the city. Leheriya is a local term used also for ‘tie and dye’ textiles.
Lac bangles are an important part of a bride’s ensemble and exclusive series of bangles are crafted for this occasion. The bangles can be customised to match different outfits worn by the bride.
Interestingly, lac has many applications other than its use in bangle-making. It is also used to make decorative objects, paintings, home accessories, pens, diaries, toys and other pieces of jewellery such as earrings.
Sadly, like so many other indigenous crafts, bangle-making too faces an uncertain future. Despite the popularity of the product, the community of Manihars is confronted with many challenges. One, the younger generation doesn’t find the business lucrative and doesn’t want to pursue the craft. Two, competition from other kinds of bangles, such as glass bangles, is posing a threat to this industry. Three, the popularity of malls and shopping centres has lured away clients form the traditional bazaars, and the popularity of hand-made crafts has diminished. A cold-lac variety of lac has also been introduced in the market, which is impacting the original lac bangles. It is prepared by mixing marble dust with epoxy resin. It offers durability and allows the artisan to make a wider variety of designs. Traditional craftsmen, however, are averse to this thanda (cold) lac as they consider it ‘impure’. Climate change and deforestation are also posing challenges to this craft. These are compromising the production of lac, which escalates the price of the raw material.
The Manihars of Jaipur have carried forward their legacy of bangle-making for centuries, but it will take a concerted effort to save their special craft, which is, after all, a part of India’s rich and wonderful heritage. Thanks to the efforts of platforms like Peepul Tree that such crafts are getting recognition and promotion. At Peepul Tree, you can find a beautiful range of these handcrafted lac bangles, made by the 14th-generation artisan of lac bangles, Mohammad Shafi from Jaipur.