The original use of the metal bell was to identify cattle. From the distinctive sound of the bell tied around its neck, the herdsmen could tell which animal of his flock it is and where it has wandered off to. It is said that the deep sound of the bell calms troublesome animals along with alerting the herder of its whereabouts.
In present times, these bells are also used in decoration. Entranceways and interiors are adorned with the metal bells. They are also combined with metal frames to create wind-chimes and also used in festive decoration.
A traditional belief is that the bells ward off evil spirits and witchcraft. Black is color of power among pastoral communities in Kutch and Saurashtra and black yarn is used to tie the bells around the neck of livestock.
There are thirteen different sizes and types of bells customized for different animals. The different sounds for these are achieved by the denting, which is done near the base of the bell. They are tuned to an instrument called 'Ekal'. It takes a lot of expertise and very careful and sensitive use of sound as well as touch. The shape and size of the bell, along with the wooden tongue sourced from the local Khirad tree determines the sound it imparts.
The women help in the stages which require less muscular strain like preparing the powders and the clay mixes whereas the men carry about the metal work. This craft is a sustainable method in which the primary raw material is metal scrap brought in from junkyards. The furnace is the only stage where non-sustainable energy is spent.
Myths & Legends
The craft of metal bell making is believed to be over a thousand years old and to have originated in Sindh which is now in Pakistan. It was patronized by the nomadic pastoral tribes of the Sindh area. They used to migrate taking their cattle along and these bells were used to adorn the animals. Each animal had a bell of a distinctive sound tied around its neck. This served decorative purposes as well as helped locate the wandering animals. The makers of these bells are from the Lohar caste in Kutch and according to some of them; their families have been making bells for as far back as they can trace their ancestry.
In India, the communities always had a strong tie with the animals. There are festivals especially for animals, such as Govardhan Puja, camel races and cattle fairs. The cattle also served as a bartering tool for these nomadic tribes, who slowly moved over the Banni region. Over the years, they have settled down around this region and lived a generally sustainable lifestyle. With the growing fame of their craft and the non-nomadic lifestyle, the uses of the metal bell have transcended from cattle alert to contemporary decorative purposes too
The metal bells are crafted in thirteen different sizes. These are customized for different animals. For example, a goat would have a small bell with a high pitched sound, while a cow would have a larger one with a deeper note. Sometimes even the bells of the same size can be made to sound different by changing the dent made near the rim of the bell. This helps in differentiating the cattle of different owners. In each size, up to five or six different notes can be made.
The standard structure of the bell consists of the cylindrical body with a curved dome like covering. A flattened metal stick with a looped end is put in through the head, to which a wooden tongue is attached
The use of the metal bells on cattle has diminished due to the fact that the tribes have shed their nomadic lifestyle and settled down. They no more have the dire functional need of the bells but it has become more decorative in purpose. The craftsmen have ably moved on to other requirements but the constant need for revamping has proved to be a major challenge.