Thirubuvanam, Tamil Nadu, India...
The craft was originally devised to make metal tools like ‘Hasiya’ (grass cutting tool), arrow heads, ‘Sandi’ (Trishul -“ three pronged fork used by cowherds), knives and axes. Farming tools like ploughs, sickles etc are also made. The hurra and bataraha only differ from the olaha in being smaller and lighter. The olaha is the largest and heaviest,and is not used when the soil is very hard or muddy.
Khurpa – is a cutting instrument for chopping up flesh and removing the skin of animals. It is also used to root up dub grass.
Sakri – are chains for fastening doors. ‘Chhanni’ is an iron sieve for cleaning rice or sifting flour.
Jhdra is a perforated iron spoon used for removing wheat cakes from the oil in which they are being cooked.
Apart from utility based products, today they make small abstracted forms of animals which are crafted out of metal, like monkeys, tigers, deers etc. Ornate lamps and holders are also made. The craftsmen also make window grills and metal lattices. The ‘Laman Diya’ is a famous traditional oil lamp, widely sought after. Rustic, raw and symbolic, these are eloquent symbols of the tribal environment. They grace many ceremonies and are crucial elements in many of the tribal rituals.
Out of the Gond tribe, which, as it gave its name to a province, may be considered as almost a people, a number of separate castes have naturally developed. Among them are several occupational castes such as the ‘Agarias’ or iron-workers, the ‘Ojhas’ or soothsayers and many more.
The Agaria are indeed the servants of the fire which they so constantly tend, and the name will not seem inappropriate to anyone who has watched by night their ghostly figures clothed in showers of sparks as they move to and fro in the weird light of the flames flickering above the furnace.
By VERRIER ELWIN
The Agaria burn charcoal and extract iron from ore in small clay furnaces. It is rare for the ‘Lohar’ to practice iron- smelting. The Agaria use bellows of a particular kettledrum pattern and work them with their feet. Many Agaria cover the bellows with cow-hide which the Lohar refuse to touch.
The Agaria worship tribal gods or demons, who are clearly associated with the ancient Asura, such as Tyohasur, Koclasur and Agyasur. The very form of their names marks them as Asura and enemies of the Hindu gods. The Lohar, on the other hand, worship the ordinary Hindu gods and do not seem to have a special god of the forge.
With the time, occupation and process has changed. Today Agariya buy iron from market and then transform in to any products. The craftsmen work in their ‘Aangan’ or front yard. Beautiful metal pieces are made by skilled artisans. They craft is passed on from one generation to the other. The children begin their learning from as young as 5 years of age.
One of the popular products is the ‘Laman Diya’. It is believed to be named after a similar lamp used by the nomadic tribe called Banjaras. It is one of the 5 types of lamps traditionally made by the Lohars or blacksmiths, the others being, Khut, Supali, Gadli and Viman. The main difference between the Laman Diya and the other lamps is that, the LamanDiya can be used irrespective of ritual or occasion while the others are for specific ceremonies.
The myths give tantalizing glimpses of an earlier technique of iron-smelting: there are many references to leaf-covered bellows; one description of a pair of bellows made from leaf-baskets and bamboo sticks in the sides, sounds like an experimental piston-bellow. We also read of a process by which ore and coal were piled together, plastered with mud and fired without
blast. Apparently, the first time, iron was extracted from ore in an open hearth. The first Agaria used their knees as anvils and hammered the iron with their fists.
Another story says, the Sun, the Wind and the Moon were children of Chuchu Raja and lived below the sea. The Sun married Bhaiyan Rani, but she said, “I want air, and light and darkness: take me out of the water-. So they went up out of the water, and the Sun lived in the sky. But he was so fond of the beautiful Bhaiyan that he could never leave her in the mornings, so she changed her appearance to that of an old woman covered with flies and clothes knotted together, and after that he went quickly to his work.
God first made the world by laying a great lotus leaf on the face of the water. But the Sun arose and withered that leaf with his heat. Then God made the world of lac. But when he climbed on it, it broke into a thousand pieces.
At last, from the dirt of his breast God made a crow, and allowed it to suck his milk two-and-a-half times, saying, “Now you have drunk my milk, you’ll never be hungry or thirsty; you and I will search for the earth together-. So away, away, away went that crow, till it grew weary and thought, “My father is my enemy: he created me only to kill me-. So thinking, she fell on the body of Kekramal Chhatri, the great crab. Kekramal Chhatri went down below the water and found Nal Raja and Nal Rani sleeping. They had slept for twelve years. He shook them awake.
Nal Raja said, “Nizam Raja has the earth, not me-. But Kekramal Chhatri squeezed his throat till he vomited up the earth in little balls. So the crow took the earth back to his father, and God made the world.
Five years passed, then Nanga Baiga and Nanga Baigin were born out of a crack in the ground. Nanga Baiga said to Mother Earth, “Mother, where is my ‘Baja’ (fiddle)?- She said, “Child you are yet but a navel and a cord; what need is there of a fiddle?- So, said Mother Earth. But on that day Basin Kaniya (the Bamboo Maiden) was born, and Nanga Baiga went to cut the bamboo, in one breath, above and below. So he made his fiddle with his own hair for strings, and played it, and God’s seat shook with the sound. Then God knew that the Baiga were born, and sent to call them. But his messenger found Nanga Baiga asleep in a winnow. Mother Earth said, “Don’t go, my son-, but Nanga Baiga took his fiddle and went. God said to him, “Drive your nails into the earth to make it steady-. But Nanga Baiga had no nails, so he cut off the little finger of his right hand and drove that into the ground. But God was not satisfied. “I want strong pillars-, he said.
So Nanga Baiga called Agyasur and worshipped him, and Agyasur flamed up with great flames, and from the fire an Agaria was born. Since we Agaria were born from fire, we never fear it, and can beat the slag from the glowing iron with our hands. Then that Agaria made twelve pillars of
Virgin Iron and set them at the four corners of the world, and it became steady, and God sowed seeds everywhere.
The forefathers of the craftsmen used to collect iron ore from the surrounding forests. They used to derive the metal for the craft, out of these ores. Lately, the government has taken over the forests and is now mining the ores for extracting metal like silver, gold, iron and aluminum. Around 300-400 native families have been believed to be driven out of the forests.
The work of making small metal animals had started around 12 years ago.
The designs are derived from the surroundings. The craftsmen carve out simplified forms of animals and plants. The figures are lean with slight exaggerations to indicate the identifying characteristics of the animals. For example, a craftsmen notes that the chest of the monkey is broad, and its hips are narrow.
The diyas, deepaks or lamps are mainly composite objects. Small shallow bowls to hold the oil and wick, vertical and horizontal rods or decorated strips, bird and animal figurines, diamond shaped leaf-like structure etc are all put together to form the ornate lamp structure.
The Lohars make various kinds of diyas:
Lamandiya – Can be hung anywhere and used for lighting.
Supalidiya – Can be dig into the earth. The central vertical rod, around which the holders are made, has a sharp end at the bottom to facilitate this. It derives its name from the Supa or winnowing fan to which the upper portion of the lamp bears resemblance. Used for birth, marriage and other ceremonies
Khutdiya – Has a rectangular base and can be placed standing like a lamp-post. This is what its name also means – Khut stands for ‘standing’. Used for birth, marriage and other ceremonies
Gadlidiya – Has wheels at the bottom and so can be moved from place to place, much like a Gadi or vehicle.
Vimandiya – Has the shape of a chariot. Like the Gadlidiya, this is also used specifically in rituals to the deities as well as propitiating the dead.
The works of the craftsmen are exquisite. They mostly make the lattices or jails. Nevertheless, they lack of good marketing and exposure, which has led to the low demand of the articles. They are also living under the threat of their raw materials dying down or being denied to them. The government authorities have taken over the land and sourcing ore has been difficult.
Metal – iron from Dindori or Mandla
The story of how the Agaria discover the best places to dig for iron is a very interesting one. There are three chief ways. Sometimes ‘Lohasur’ (the iron demon) would send them a dream in which he would come as a little child and indicate the place where the ore is, just as he showed them where to build a new smithy. They would then go to find the place. Another way of searching was by shooting a red arrow through the air. Where it fell, they used to dig. However, it is not sure whether the red arrow technique is still used or not.
These days the Agaria can also recognize a good digging site by the color of the soil. Very often the ore is found right on the surface owing to the rich deposits the place is blessed with. They sometimes put it very vividly; “The iron is sending its children for a walk in the open air.-
Coal – Available in nearby village and town
Oil – for polishing
After all the coal has been ignited, the remaining ash is a waste unfit for any use.
Furnace, It consists of three major parts:
a) Jatar or Bhathi – bellows
b) Chulha – mouth
c) Pather – Big strong stone slab which is half embedded inside the floor on which the red hot iron bit is hammered.
Panki or hand-blower, Lihai or flat iron pieces, Sandsi or tongs, Chisel, athoda or hammer, Muthli and Muthla – light and heavy hammers, Chimta – large iron forceps, Suma – thick cylindrical tool for making holes, Wooden platform/seat
For all the mythological setting, the Agaria actually give fire a thoroughly practical and natural origin. It came from the rubbing together of bamboos, a sight the Agaria must often have noticed in the forest; it sprang into being from the breaking of a stone, from the friction of iron pyrites against each other, or from the sun’s rays. In the last story, there is a reference to the Virgin Fire which has considerable importance in Agaria magic. Virgin Fire must be used to kindle the wood for charcoal: “Only a true virgin bears the best charcoal and iron; with violated fire the coal is spoilt.- It is an essential item in the ritual for the extraction of Virgin Iron from a new furnace. It is always better to use Virgin Fire for the manufacture of any kind of iron implement. Now with the time things have changed, today they use matchstick
The natives of Dindori have been procuring metal from the ores from nearby mountains since centuries. Working on it in fire, they have mastered the techniques of beating, cutting, chiseling and filing to obtain the desired forms. These pieces are made separately and usually put together through interesting joineries to make the final composite form.
The craftsmen begin the work with no initial sketches. The objects take shape from pure experience and inspiration. The bits of metal are placed on the Pathar. The heat makes it pliable and it is beaten to get the required shape. Fingers, palm, feet etc of a figure are made in this manner.
Basic forms are crafted using the hammer and bent using tongs. The tongs are of various sizes to facilitate the different thicknesses and sizes of metal parts to be bent. The unnecessary portions are cut away and then filed to soften out the sharp edges.
There are two kinds of metal work – solid and hollow. The solid ones appear flattened from both sides. The eyes, nose and tattoo marks are made using various sizes of chisels. The clothes and other accessories are made separately and then attached on.
The Dias are made in various sizes and shapes. The elements, figurines and strips, are made separately and joined to form various types of composite lamps.
List of craftsmen.