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The fisheries and trade for sacred chanks have been practised for over two millennia. Fishers now only need a licence to collect chanks but are free to sell them to anyone. Freedivers collect live chanks from the Palk Bay and Gulf of Mannar and sell them, still covered with organic matter and with the animal inside them, to merchants who sort them on the basis of size and quality. The shells then reach small-scale processors, who smoothen and polish them before selling them in distinct markets—bangle manufacturers, decorative shell retailers—or as a sacred object of worship.
The largest shell traders are based in Rameswaram in Ramanathapuram district of Tamil Nadu. The steady depletion of this resource and its durability make shell traders store even lower grade chanks until they command a good price in the market. What was considered low grade and useless at one time can today fetch a good price as polishing techniques and processing material make it possible to mask minor flaws such as holes made by shell-boring organisms. The shells are stored in the open and soon the outer cover disintegrates leaving behind the naked shell.
The operculum, a calcareous lid that covers the opening of the shell when the animal retracts into it, used to command a high price at one time as it was ground into a paste for use in the manufacture of incense. Artificial fragrances are added to this paste so that the scent lasts for a long period. Women and children collect the operculum that is removed from the animal and await a passing trader. The value of the operculum varies; a handful can fetch anywhere between 20 and 100 rupees.
The scientific name of the mollusc that lives in the chank is Turbinella pyrum. Once it is removed from the water, the animal dies slowly. The animal is edible and is consumed domestically where there are no facilities for its preservation with ice, or traders to sell it. The local preparation in the Palk Bay, of a curry with chank meat, is similar to other curries with chicken or mutton. In some regions, the meat is shaved into chips and sun-dried. This is then deep-fried and served as an accompaniment to other food preparations.
Only in the larger towns of the Palk Bay and Gulf of Mannar coastlines are there facilities for storage, preservation (by ice) and sale of chank meat. In Mandapam, a trader has established direct market linkages with retailers in Bengaluru. The chank meat is sold to select restaurants specialising in Korean cuisine. Post-harvest processing is simple and involves cleaning off physical impurities using only water. The meat is packed in standardised boxes that are frozen and later transported. The trade involves a careful assessment of risks and only small volumes are traded on the basis of guaranteed demand.
The shells are sourced by middlemen who sell them to larger shell traders such as Kalam Traders and Gandhi Traders in Rameswaram. Here, numerous people are involved in processing work. Shells have to be graded on the basis of weight, shape, smoothness and size. They are also categorised into jaadi and patti varieties, the two main local “types”.
The main shell traders in Rameswaram and Kilakarai in the Gulf of Mannar have processing units located on their premises. These units operate small motorised polishing machines that smoothen the naked shell, devoid of its outer covering of organic matter, and give it a uniform shape. The rough edges at the mouth of the shell are smoothened so that it can be gripped freely without fear of injury. The people involved in the polishing work have been doing it for most of their lives and often with the same employer. The apex of the shell is cut off to allow air to be blown into it. Blowing the conch is supposed to lend auspiciousness to the environs of the devotee.
After the shells are polished, they are once again stored in separate piles in godowns; always according to the variety—either jaadi or patti. These shells are rarely sold as they are, that is, without processing or chemical polishing. While it may appear as though a large quantity is processed daily, in reality fresh stocks of good size are only available depending on the success of each new season, and often traders dip into earlier stocks to meet the demand.
The process of polishing involves subjecting the shell to two stages of chemical treatment. First, the shell is placed in a solution of bleaching powder where it loses some of its pigmentation. Next, it is briefly dipped in highly diluted hydrochloric acid. In the larger processing centres, workers are seen wearing gloves and protective boots, but the acrid smell of acid is reminiscent of its corrosive power and offers a strange contrast to the glistening smoothness of the shell. Save for its shape and name, there is little to indicate the chank’s incredible journey from the Palk Bay’s seabed to the mantelpiece of a consumer’s home.
The final stage of departure from coastal Tamil Nadu to different parts of India and abroad can sometimes involve a long waiting period for the chank. To negotiate the fickleness of both supply and demand in the chank trade, owners of successful companies rely on vast networks of knowledge-bearers on either end of the supply-demand spectrum. The livelihoods of those involved in the trade (fishers, traders, labourers, sales people and owners) depend on several generations of knowledge production and practice. All links of the chain need to be strong for this trade to survive. To ensure the fair distribution of benefits from this trade, these multiple skills and knowledge must be understood. At the same time, we must acknowledge that the gains in this trade have brought with it an accumulation of losses, both in culture and in nature.
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