The precious bell metal industry is the second-largest handicraft industry of Assam. Sarthebari in Bajali district of Assam is home to this craft. It is a place unheard to many and so is the craft of bell metal. Much astonishing is the fact that 40 percent of the residents in Sarthebari live upon this craft.
Bell metal is an alloy of copper and tin with much utilitarian and aesthetic value in Assam. If you visit any household in Assam you will come across a form of bell metal utensil in their home. Every Assamese takes great pride in serving their guests in bell metal utensils. People of Assam use bell metal for various ceremonious occasions and domestic purposes.
The craftsmen of the bell metal industry are referred to as kahar or orja. They still carry through the age-old technique of preparing these utensils by hand which is very tiring and needs great skills. The fact that these utensils are handmade increases their beauty and value.
Bell metal industry as a whole is very huge with thousands of craftsmen plying their trade. But in reality, this is the amalgamation of many small scale industries with very small set ups. The craftsmen get together in these small set ups to prepare various bell metal products.
Nowadays you will find many factories manufacturing bell metals of craftsmanship like handmade. But these craftsmen of Sarthebari continue their hard work undaunted by these challenges.
History of Bell Metal in Assam
History of bell metal craft dates back to 7th Century AD during the time of Kumarbhaskarvarman, a king of the Varman dynasty. But it was only during the Ahom rule in Assam that the industry got its due exposure. The Ahom kings started taking special interest in this craft. They showered laurels and gave special incentives to artisans excelling in this craft. The industry was given royal patronage which thereby flourished.
Ahom royalty and the common subject as well started using bell metal utensils. The artisans felt inspired by the royal patronage to craft more varieties over time.
Many Indians including Assamese people believe in certain medicinal properties of bell metal. It is believed that food consumption in bell metal utensils help in treatment of intestinal conditions and cleanse the body of unwanted minerals.
The Ahom royalty evidently used Maihang kahi and Maihang bati and till date it prove to be invaluable. It is in fact used to serve the most esteemed guests today as a mark of showing respect.
The common products made in Sarthebari are kalah or water pot, sarai (traditional tray or platter), kahi (dish), bati (bowl), lota (water pot) and tal or cymbal.
Religious and Social Importance of Bell Metal Utensils
In Assam all religious and social ceremonies are solemnized in proper traditional ways. There are age old customs we have been following till date with the same spirit and bell metal products occupy an important role in these. For example, when a baby takes his/her first solids we hold the Annaprasanna ceremony and this first meal is served in utensils of bell metal which is kind of a tradition. This first set of utensils is gifted by the maternal grandparents with much love and affection. Most of the guests who attend the ceremony also gifts bell metal utensils to the baby.
Bell metal products also play an important role in our social way of life. We gift a sarai to felicitate a person as a token of love and respect. In religious ceremonies too the sarai is used to make offerings to the gods. Another variation of the sarai called the bota is also an important part of any religious or social function.
Bell metal utensils are used on a daily basis by most households to serve food, especially to elders. And when guests visit it is almost customary to serve food in these utensils.
How to Reach the Home of Bell Metal Industry
Sarthebari is located at around 90 kms from Guwahati city and is well connected by buses and other means of transport. Hiring a cab, however, would be an easier option than travelling by buses or on trains. You can opt for a day tour to this little town. Guwahati to Sarthebari via Hajo is 76 kms away and takes around two and half hours of drive. Tihu in Nalbari district is the nearest railway station to reach Sarthebari from Guwahati railway station. Sarthebari is well connected with Guwahati and just takes a day’s tour from the city. So staying in Guwahati would be the best option.
The Crisis of the Bell Metal Industry in Assam
The craft of making bell metal products has been passed down from one generation to another. Therefore there tends to be a certain lack of interest in the trade by the younger generation of these kahar. It is only because of lack of employment that they stick to the trade. Though this is not the case with all the craftsmen. However, there is urgent need to provide skill based training by the government to develop interest.
Availability and procurement of raw material is another issue faced by these craftsmen. Since there is no fixed market, sales also tends to vary. The amount of investment required can hardly be afforded by them. Further there have been rise in factories manufacturing products of bell metal in large quantities which is much cost effective. Therefore government intervention is of utmost importance inorder to save this craft and the craftsmen.
The bell metal industry of Sarthebari is striving hard to survive, more so after the pandemic has hit the entire world. So during your tour to Assam this time include Sarthebari in your list of places to visit and buying a bell metal souvenir would be a wise decision.