About 70 km from Guwahati, off National Highway 427, lies the town of Sarthebari famous for its bell metal craftsmanship and a centuries-old industry much sought after by Buddhist monasteries in Bhutan, Nepal, and even China for the bells and cymbals they make. Bell metal utensils, kanh in Assamese, are common in Assam’s households and are also used in ceremonies for their utilitarian value and aesthetic appeal.
The industry in and around Sarthebari, faced with the onslaught of machine-made bell metal products in the market, believes that getting a Geographical Indication (GI) tag is the best way to keep the tradition alive. The 340-odd small units in the region employ over 2,200 artisans who work with the hard alloy of copper (78 per cent) and tin (22 per cent) to produce over 40 types of bell metal products, ranging from varieties of thal or kahi (dishes), dofola kahi (large dishes), bati (bowl) and ban bati (mounted bowls), kalah (pot), bells, tal (cymbals), and bota (a type of tray).
While there is no documented history of how the industry began in Sarthebari, or for that matter in Assam, its antiquity has been traced to the Varman Dynasty (350-655 AD). Kumar Bhaskara Varman, the last of the Varman dynasty that ruled the Kamarupa kingdom, is known to have gifted bell metal utensils to the Chinese traveller Hiuen Tsang and King Harshavardhana. Historical evidence suggests the presence of the industry in Sarthebari before the 14th century.
The production process (explained in the pictures) begins with either a mahajan (businessman) or The Assam Co-operative Bell-Metal Utensil Manufacturing Society Limited (established in 1939). They supply the raw material, mostly scrapped bell metal procured from different parts of India and from neighbouring countries, and sell the finished products.
The craftsmanship is handed down from generation to generation. Hence every production unit specialises in a particular product. Ideally, the kohar (head artisan) owns the unit and employs the other artisans, who are all local residents. Almost every other household in Sarthebari and adjoining villages has a production unit called gorsal or sal—made of a woven bamboo sheet wall with a tin roof. Each unit has about seven or eight artisans, with a complex division of labour on the basis of the designated work (maithnar, kaitnar, gurailer and jogali). There are also a few large units with over 30 artisans.
The cooperative society has been pleading with the Assam government to make tin and copper available at reasonable prices. Making the hard alloy is unviable for the small units because of the high prices or unavailability of tin (around Rs.3,500 a kg) and copper (around Rs.700 a kg). So they depend on scraped bell metal, which is relatively cheaper (around Rs.1,150 a kg). Charcoal, which is used in the making process, is also not available in enough quantity. As a result, many of the units function only for 15 days a month.
The cooperative society estimates the value of the Sarthebari bell metal industry at Rs.100 crore, and it has managed to put up a challenge to the march of the machines, so far at least.
Barasha Das is a Journalist, based out of Guwahati. She specializes in story-telling about people and places of the Northeast, ranging from humanitarian issues, the environment, climate concerns, history, and culture.