The sturdy pieces of furniture which are equivalent to vibrant and exquisite pieces of art designed at the Sankheda town by artisans belonging to the Kharadi community. Sankheda is derived from the Gujarati word ‘sanghedu’, which refers to lathe or the machine used to turn wood. These are internationally renowed for their grand, hand-painted motifs on shiny lacquered turned teakwood.
Earlier only small objects like rolling pins, toys, bangle stands were made. This has now evolved into things like dining tables, swings and sofa sets.
Sankheda is highly revered and considered auspicious.
Therefore, one notices it primarily during religious and festive events in the form of pedestals for idols, cradles for infants, walkers for babies, dandiyas etc.
It is also used for three-piece settees, dressing tables, headboards, tables, rocking chairs, screens, divans, flower vases etc.
More recently, wall hangings, lamps, vases, toys, hammock supports are made in this style.
These are in high demands during the wedding season in Gujarat. Traditional furniture made using this technique is bought in a large quantity during this time.
Swings are also one of the most popular items of furniture as it is well-suited to the hot and humid climate of the regions like Gujarat.
Traditionally the chairs used in the Gujarati weddings on which the bride and groom sat, was a piece of Sankheda furniture. This is still used by some people.
Sankheda furniture, being auspicious, is a common gift during marriages in the Gujarati community. The bride’s family gifts it to her during her wedding, to help fill-up her new home.
They also consider it as precious as gold.
A child’s cradle, known as a ghodiyu is believed to be one of the Sankheda furniture items. Cradles have become a treasured heirloom within the community and is passed down through generations. They are a must have for the new born babies in gujarati families.
It is also believed that in the past, Gujarati royalty gifted cradles to other royalty and heads of other countries.
This craft is also significant as the wood used lasts for generations and it is also considered pure.
Interestingly, this craft has created a deep sense of collective identity amongst the craftsmen.
The process of making furniture involves different skills, therefore, many craftsmen are involved in the production of each piece.
Some train to become masters in wood-turning, while others aim to become masters in painting patterns.
There are 10-15 master craftsmen who are experts in all the skills and they oversee the production to ensure uniformity within a piece and across all pieces of furniture.
The relationship between all the craftsmen involved is of an interdependent nature, due to which they possess a common identity.
This feeling of oneness runs so deep amongst them that they named the town after the craft.
Sankheda furniture is also protected under India’s Geographical Indications (GI) Act, 1999, therefore increasing its value and significance to members of the community.
Myths & Legends:
There are various legends related to the origin of the processes of Sankheda furniture. Some of them are,
200 years ago, the carpenters in Vadodara were impoverished. When a baba named Arivalli, from Aravalli hills came to the village for help, the villagers asked him for guidance out of their dire situation. The baba realised that their only skill was carpentry, so taught them how to elevate their craft by making and using lacquer on their products. After teaching the craft he disappeared. This is considered to be the inception of Sankheda. Over time, artisans started experimenting more by adding tinfoil to the wood in addition to hand-painted motifs and ornamentation’s.
About a hundred years ago, Ichcha Ram Pragji,a Kharadi of Baroda, attended a saint who was very sick. Pleased by his devotional hospitality, the sage blessed him in return by teaching him the secret of polishing with lac. Sages in India used to move from place to place throughout the country for religious discourse and preaching, which made them conversant with the ways of living of the people in different regions. It is quite likely that the saint might have observed the application of tinfoil somewhere and taught the same to Ichcharam. This was then transferred through generations.
A local legend talks about the Suthars who migrated from an old citadel called Champaner due to their land being taken over during a conquest. The people of this community started lac turnery and carpentry in sankheda around 500 years ago. Two of the Kharadi elders of the community who learned about the transparent lacquer work saw a Muslim artisan on a visit for raw materials in Vadodara. The artisan was painting an egg with tin paints and coated it with lac to give it a shine. His art was his source of livelihood and he got paid by selling his products to royal members. The artisan agreed to teach the Kharadi men, who learned the art in secret.
Sankheda furniture is thought to have been an essential part of Vadodara since around the 1820s.
The Ghodiyu or cradle is said to be one of the first things made from the Sankheda furniture.
The earliest record of Sankheda furniture is found in the personal accounts of a British civil servant named James Forbes and a French writer named George Rocques. They wrote of the teak furniture decorated in indigenous colours. Physical evidence of it can also be found in the White House, Buckingham Palace, and even the Kremlin. Lacquered turned wood furniture, adorned with hand-painted motifs came to be known as Sankheda furniture. Around 80-100 families from the Kharadi-Suthar community have been engaged in this craft since 1855. Due to their collective involvement and identity, the craft has maintained its continuity, with the skills being passed down to generations.
Sankheda furniture has a royal history that dates back centuries. It was an integral part of the Emperors’ and Royal families’ lavish lifestyles.
In around 1973, electrically operated lathes were introduced. These replaced the manually operated ones and also increased the production.
Sankheda furniture is painted with traditionally very vivid colours such as rich shades of maroon and gold.
More recently, with colour inventions, one now sees shades of black, burgundy, green, blue, copper, ivory, silver, etc. These also make it standout.
Written documentation, collection, and art museums found grand sankheda pieces like the gold lacquer chessboard or ivory plagued sandalwood box.
The materials used were expensive and the designs, such as one of Durga fighting demons, suggests that many pieces were specially commissioned by royal members.
The designs done on Sankheda furniture can be divided into two categories, i.e. Plain and Ornamental Lacquering.
The plain lacquering consists of rings and bands of various colours. It is considered one of the most ancient designs done on this furniture.
In the ornamental lacquering, here detailed motifs like creepers, folk designs, flowers, geometric designs, figure work are done.
Some of the popular motifs used are chokdi (criss-cross pattern), circles, peacock, minda, jali, double jali, tapka, birds, animals and leaves.
Here, the chokdi or the checkered lines with dots inside them is widely used and is signature to Sankheda furniture.
Traditionally the floral, geometrical patterns were drawn using thick and thin lines.
The artisans also experiment with contemporary designs when demanded by the customers.
The colours and motifs used here, also hold an auspicious significance.
Sankheda has become increasingly popular in international markets, most notably in the United States of America, the United Kingdom, Russia, and Australia.
The craft today has become modernised with motorised machines to turn the lathe and the use of synthetic colours and melamine coating.
Over time, craftsmen began to use synthetic colours in their designs. These colours were not naturally grown in their region, so they used it to elevate the product.
Sankheda is considered especially sacred to the Gujarati communities due to the usage of natural ingredients. However, natural lacquer is being replaced by materials such as melamine, which do not give the same shine as the traditional pieces.
Despite the changes in colours, mode of production, and materials, the design and symbols have remained unchanged.
Also the promotion of Gujarat tourism has benefited the craft, since its awareness has increased among the tourists and its demand has flourished.
Its price increases depending on the intricacy of the design. This also results in high prices of the products.
The artisans also started producing products that were lower in price, so that everyone could afford it. Some of these included wall pieces, rolling pins, toys. These also need less time, raw material and are very popular among the locals and even the tourist who also buy them as souvenirs.
The agencies like Garvi Gujarat (Gujarat state handicraft and handloom development corporation limited) was invaluable in early years and played a significant role in the sale of the Sankheda furniture.
Even though the artisans are illiterate, they make sure their kids get formal education. This helps them in dealing with the clients and in promoting the craft as well.
Teak-wood is mainly used, which is turned and chiseled into the desired shape. It is painted in the traditional colours and adorned with beautiful ornamental designs. The use of kallai is what makes it stand out.
Coconut cover used as a flat surface
Wood- Sagwan and Nilgiri, mostly sourced from Godhara and Panchmahal are used. Any light coloured teak wood can also be used. These are used as they are hard , and easy to carve.
Kachcha colour– Acid base colour for dyeing
Tinfoil– Also known as ‘Kallai’, is sourced either from an artisan who is highly skilled in making it or made by the artisan himself.
Saras- gum used in making kallai.
Coal– Also known as ‘colsa’, it is sourced from local markets.
Primer for whitening- Sourced from the local hardware store
Edible oil– Mainly groundnut oil, sourced from the local grocery store
Lacquer– It is sourced in raw form and then is treated to make it usable.
Natural and synthetic paints– mixed with the lacquer to get the desired colour. Mainly brown (multani), yellow (peelo), orange (kesari), kala (black), red (laal), green (leelo) and white (safed), these colours are used.
Kevda leaf– available locally
NC putty– used to coat the wood, to make its surface even.
Tools & Tech:
Paintbrush- either made from squirrel’s tail or the ones readily available in the market.
Sanghedu (traditionally hand-operated, but now machine-operated) for wood turning- It is the only machine used in this craft.
Hathiyaars of varying sizes and shapes made of steel for carving wood, these include,
Firmer chisel- Used for the tougher or heavier work
Bevel edge chisel- Used for carving in acute angle
Mortise chisel- It has a thick and rigid blade, used for making mortises and similar joints
Paring chisel- Used for cleaning grooves and accessing tight spaces. It has a long blade.
Skew chisel- Used for trimming and has a 60 degree cutting angle
Dovetail chisel- Used specifically for cutting dovetail joints.
Butt chisel- Used for creating joints.
Carving chisel- Used for creating intricate designs and sculpting.
Corner chisel- It has a L-shaped cutting edge and is used to clean out the square holes, mortises and corners.
Framing chisel- It is similar to the butt chisel, though here the blade is longer and slightly flexible.
Flooring chisel- Used for repairing or removing the floor material by cutting and lifting it.
Slick- It is a very large chisel.
Other than these the basic tools like axe, carving tools, files, hammer etc. are used in making the furniture.
Kach paper- Sandpaper that is covered on one side with glass sand. They are used in varied gradations like very coarse, coarse, medium, fine; according to the necessity.
Rawat- A filer
Randho- A plane used to smoothen the surface of the wood.
Dismisss- Screw driver
Akik- Agate stone to shine the surface before applying lacquer
Ojar Ghasiyo- An emery stone used for sharpening tools
Pakkad- Pliers used for bending and cutting
Thikru- A polishing stick used for polishing, which is prepared by the artisan
Ghodi- A painting stand used for supporting the turned piece while painting
Manchi- Wooden seat on which the artisan sits
Futpatti- Carpenter’s ruler used for measuring the wood
Bench drill- Used for creating holes of various dimensions for the purpose of joinery.
The tools used for carving the wood, are mostly bought from the scrapyards. They are reused, once their blunt edges are fixed by the artisans. Even the continuous use of these tools makes their edges blunt and then they are rubbed against the emery stone to achieve the sharpness.
The artisans prefer working in the winter season. Since in summers it becomes difficult to sit infront of the hot burning coal and the drying process takes a long time in monsoons.
On the auspicious day of Maha sud Teras in the month of February, every year all the artisan communities of Sankheda gather to worship lord Vishwakarma. They pray for the well-being and progress of their crafts.
The main design is done with a tin paint called kallai.
To make kallai, a tin wire is mixed with saras (gum) and hammered into a sheet.
This sheet is soluble in water. Small pieces of tin are soaked and then heated.
The dirt is removed when the concoction is filtered with a cloth.
The resulting solution is used as kallai.
The making of this paint and using it to create distinctive patterns is distinctive to the Sankheda furniture.
For the brush, hair from a squirrel’s tail are tied together in a vulture’s feather.
In the hollow tip a wooden strip is inserted, for a grip.
This is then dipped in water to shrink and tighten it.
These brushes are preferred over the synthetic ones, as they are soft and smooth.
The raw cocoon of lacquer is obtained from the saliva of an insect, known as the lac beetle or the lacifer lacca. Here, only the female beetles are used.
It is obtained in flake form, as it is scrapped off from the trees.
The cocoon is washed, dried, and then crushed with wood (sambelu) in a wooden bowl (kundi) to break it down into small granules.
Next, the dark granules are washed with water thrice and dried in the sun to get rid of all moisture. Mainly women conduct this process.
The dust particles that remain on them after drying are removed by crushing the granules against a cloth.
The granules are boiled with water in an earthen pot until it is molten, after which the natural or synthetic colours are added.
The mixture is taken out of the pot with two wooden sticks and dried again.
What remains after the evaporation is smashed down by the foot and while it is still hot, a cotton cloth covering is placed over it.
Then, the lacquer is stretched out thin, with hands and cut into vertical strips.
The lacquer produced here is non-toxic and its colour varies depending on the quality.
The highest quality and expensive lacquer is light and golden in colour and is called button lacquer.
Preparing the kevda leaves:
They are soaked in water overnight, the day before they are required.
Next morning, they are folded and made into an around 4 cm thick pad. As, this makes them suitable for use.
These are then kept under his seat by the artisan, while he is working, so that they become even and ready for polishing.
Production for sankheda:
Wood cutting – Logs of wood usually come in square sections. These are then chiseled and octagonal sections are formed. This is now ready to be turned.
Wood turning – cut pieces of wood are carved and shaped on the rotating lathe. The rotatory action of a bow and string is used. Uniform thin layers of wood are scrapped off to form the desired shape. The craftsman deftly uses chisels and gouges to shape the wood. He achieves symmetric designs and even contours without using any measuring devices or markings.
Sanding – After achieving the desired shape by wood turning, the pieces are smoothened out with sand paper while they are still turning on the lathe.
Wood whitening – a coat of primer is applied to even out the surface and left to dry.
Applying putty – A coat of NC putty is applied on the wood to fill all the cracks and even out the surface. Once dried it is washed to check if it is filled properly.
Colouring – pieces are coated in pre-heated water-soluble colours using a painted brush.
Applying lac – lacquer is applied with the help of the heat from the coals and friction of the lathe’s rotation. Here, 2-3 coats of melamine or lacquer are applied. This protects all the previous coats. The lacquer is not absorbed in the wood, but settles on it and gives a polished finish.
Rubbing coconut shell – This is done after the paint dries for smooth finish
Applying kallai – detailing or painting done by dipping the hand-made brush in the tin paint or Kallai. Ornamental sankheda designs are created. The craftsman paints the patterns and motifs freehand.
Stone polishing – Agate stone or Akik is used to pressure polish the design and bring out the design. This makes it more vibrant.
Final finishing – the final wooden piece is polished with a melamine coating and groundnut oil is rubbed on the piece with a kevda leaf while it is turning on the lathe. This gives it a permanent shine.
The pieces of final product are packed separately, like legs and back of chair are packed individually, similarly the cradle, known as ghodiyu is packed in parts.
These are then joined together, with the provided joineries, as well as sometimes using drilling.
The packaging of these is done in a plastic bag, if they are sold locally and in a jute bag or carton if they are to be sent outside.
The artisan can take anywhere from a few days to a few months to make the Sankheda furniture, depending on the size of the product and the design on it. It’s cost also ranges from around 150 Rs. to 50,000 Rs.
Amidst the smell, sights and sounds of wood-turning in the kharadi bazaar, the town of Sankheda exists in the southeast of Gujarat, closer to Chota Udaipur. The Gaikwads ruled this place and also brought the craft along with them from Madhya Pradesh. It is prominent even today.
Nearest airport is in Vadodara, nearest railway station is in Dabhoi, can also reach by bus from anywhere in Gujarat.
Auto Rikshaws, Public and Private buses
The Sankheda town is said to have derived its name form a demon living there, named Shankhav.
This town also has a very ancient history.
The historians have found the evidence of its existence in stone age, as they have found stone relics from that time, here.
It is also believed that this town might have been the residence of Pandavas for some time as temples from the times of Mahabharata have been found.
A stone inscription found near the Taluka Panchayat Office in a public park, dates back to 1299, showing its existence during that era.
There is one more stone inscription at the entrance of the old fort, this is written in the 15th century in Persian and Sanskrit.
The old fort in the town was once held by the jagirdar of Sankheda, Ganpatrao Gaekwad, a descendant of Pilajirao Gaekwad of Baroda.
The troublesome chieftain long resisted the arms of Gaekwad, but when in 1802 he sided against Anandrao and with his kinsman Malharrao, the jagirdar of Kadi, raised a revolt, a small force of British troops was sent to this tiny capital and the fort surrendered on 7th July, 1802.
Since then it remained in the hands of the Gaekwads of Baroda till independence.
It is located at 35 miles south-east of Vadodara.
It lies on the bank of river Orsang, diving Gujarat and Rajasthan.
Its geo coordinates are latitude 22.1715494 and longitude 73.5814967.
The nearest railway station is in Dabhoi at around 17.5 km.
The nearest airport is in Vadodara at 41.2 km.
The other airports are the Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel International Airport at 140.2 km and the Surat Airport at 145.5 km.
There has been a development in the houses of people and modern houses made from concrete can be found here.
Although traditional houses like huts and wooden houses can still be seen here.
The bird feeders, known as ‘Chabutra’ in Gujarati, are also found in many of the traditional houses.
The place has a very rustic aura to it and the culture of Sankheda shows how its residents are still attached to their roots.
The people belonging to the Kharadi community still live in joint families and the artisan work in the premises of their homes.
Famous for colourful & Lacquered teak wood furniture
List of craftsmen.
Research: Team Gaatha
Images: Vivek Sheth & Pratyusha Reddy