Beads of brilliance
After its revival in the 16th century in Khambhat, the 4,000-year-old Harrapan craft of agate bead-making started dominating the export market but those engaged in the risk-laden process of producing the singularly unique items still await safety provisions
Agates are semi-precious stones which display a wide spectrum of colours and vibrant images. They are believed to have been formed under earth’s cavities out of volcanic action and extreme climatic conditions. The word is derived from ‘Achates’, a river in Sicily, well known in early times for its agates. Etymologically, it is taken from the Arabic word Akik, which means riverbed. According to ancient beliefs, agates possess medicinal properties and are thought to cure insomnia. People possessing this stone were believed to have gathered strength and courage.
Agate is characterised by its occurrence, hardness, fracture, specific gravity, refractive index and lustre. The composition of agate varies greatly, but silica is always predominant, usually with alumina and oxide of iron. The colours and “scenes” in agate are endless. While agate is usually an inexpensive stone, some varieties or special stones with very unusual scenes or markings can be quite expensive.
Cambay or Khambhat is perhaps the only place in India where the Harappan craft of agate bead-making is found in the living tradition. Although Khambhat has no stone deposits; the craft has survived mainly through acquiring stones from the Rajpipla hills, about 200 km away from the city.
As per archaeological evidence, the origin of the craft can be traced to nearby Lothal, a Harappan outpost that flourished about 4,000 years ago. The Lothal site is located between the Sabarmati river and its tributary Bhagavan, in the Saurashtra region. Although the sea has moved 19 km away from Lothal, at one time, boats from the Gulf of Cambay could have sailed right up to the spot. By the 19th century, Cambay port was completely silted, which made it impossible for the larger vessels to reach the harbour, and as a result it lost all its former glory. During the 20th century, the opening of rail route from Bombay to Ahmedabad and the growing availability of cheap synthetic stones saw the near death knell of this industry, but with the growing emphasis on ‘natural’, and the enhanced purchasing power of the middle class, it is becoming a niche collector’s item, and the grant of GI is a positive step in this direction.
In the folklore of Khambhat, the revival of the craft is attributed to Baba Ghor, a medieval saint from Ethiopia (Habash) who had led a large contingent of Sidi Muslims to migrate to India for trade and services under the Sultans of Gujarat. This was from the 16th to 18th centuries, which also coincided with the glory and power of the Sultans of Gujarat. Khambhat was then the principal port of embankment for Hajj pilgrims to Mecca as well as an important centre of trade with the Arab world. Many pilgrims carried agate beads as an offering to be sanctified during circumambulation around the holy Kaaba. It was Baba Ghor who started a factory at Limodra near Rajpipla where the raw material was available in plenty. As the market in Arabia and Africa was flourishing, he asked his brother Baba Abbas to establish a larger ‘karkhana’ in Khambhat. Thus began the identification of agate with the city. Baba Abbas also encouraged craftsmen from the Konkan region to migrate to Khambhat to meet the growing demand.
The strategic location of Khambhat helped it touch the zenith of its prosperity, for it became the most important item for export as well as for revenue for the Sultans. In Gujarat, various places came into prominence as centres of trade and commerce at one time or another according to their importance as seaports. At one time it was Bharuch, at another time it was Vallabhi and for two centuries it was Khambhat, before it gave way to Surat.
During its heyday, articles made at Cambay, including stones for signets and rings, were said to be worth double their weight in gold. Bowls, spoons, handles of swords, daggers and knives were of great value. Contemporary agate products include flower vases, ash trays, bangle, mortar and pestle necklaces, paper weights, buttons, rosaries, lamp shades, earrings, rings, bracelets, key chains, bowls, cufflinks and pendants.
The main sources of raw material are the mines located on the slope of the Ratanpore Hill or Baba Ghori Hill. At the point of origin, the stones are chipped and classified into three grades, good ‘tukdi’, medium ‘gar’ and low ‘khadya’. Given the high moisture content, they are left to dry in the sun on corrugated iron sheets for a period of 6-8 weeks. This is followed by ‘Bhasal’ or the ‘Handa’. In the former, the stones are placed in a two-feet deep trench, and heated with heat ash and goat or cow dung cake for up to three days; and in the latter, they are placed in perforated earthenware pots and heated with goat or cow dung cakes for 12 hours. Heating brings out the real colour of the agate: among brown stones, the light tint brightens into white and the darker tint depends into chestnut, while maize yellow takes a rosy tint, orange turns into red as iron oxide spreads evenly. Stones which in their raw form appear cloudy brown or yellow now have clear marks of white and red bands. These are then properly cut in the required shape on a two to three-feet iron spike known as “shingadi”, a buffalo horn headed hammer, fixed at an angle of 60 degree. Traditionally, the workers would strike the stone with the hammer, and the process was called ‘tappa’. To protect the fingers from injury, the workers wrapped them in cotton bandages called ‘anguthia’. Finally, the lapidarists chisel them into desired shapes: flat, round, triangular, quadrangular, hexagonal etc. by grinding these on an emery to give them the final shape and form which then becomes an object of adornment.
The entire process is quite hazardous to the health of the workers, especially when the process is mechanised. It is therefore high time that we also paid attention to the safety aspects by providing protective gear and face masks to those engaged in the production of agates with the USP that no two products will ever be alike!
The writer superannuated as the Director of the LBSNAA after 36 years in the IAS. He is currently a historian and policy analyst.