Forged Hollow Metal Utensils


Forged Hollow Metal Utensils

The production technique of forging the hollow metal utensils crafted from brass and copper sheets is an ancient tradition in Nepal. The technique has been handed down from generation to generation among hereditary tamrakar/tamot craftsmen.

A testament to the skill and dexterity of this craft tradition is on display at the top stories of Nepalese temples. Custom dictated that Newar families dedicate metal household items to the gods at different periods during the human life cycle including the death of a family member. Newari women would dedicate the metal utensils given to them as part of their dowry to the temple gods. These vessels were nailed beneath the temple eaves as a sign of their dedication. Some of the antique metal vessels nailed up have been dated to being more than five hundred years old and studies indicate that the techniques and technology of the variety of vessels remains largely unchanged over the centuries. On examining some ancient gagris (water pots) it was found that they were taller in size with their base being slightly rounded; the present gagri in use in the Kathmandu Valley has a more flattened base though the other features remain the same.

Some of the utensils still produced till today include the bata, ghada (small water pot), gagri (water pot), chwamu bata (open container), khadkaula (cauldron), jasi, phosi (cauldron), babhu, thabhu, etc.

These vessels form an important part of the dowry gift given to the bride by her parents at the wedding ceremony and are used as household utensils by almost all Nepalese. The ubiquitous water pot or gagri – used to store and carry water – has been in use for centuries with little change in design, though regional variations exist to suit the manner of usage. For instance, in the Kathmandu Valley, the gagri is carried by positioning it at the waist and clasping it by its neck with the left hand, while in the hill regions where the gagri is carried over long distances it is carried in conical basket supported with straps that are balanced on the forehead – here the shape of the gagri is therefore adapted to its usage with the pot being slightly conical near the base and decorated with designs at the neck. The women in the southern part of Nepal carry the gagri on their heads. The use of the gagri is decreasing in urban areas where the water is supplied through pipes and water tanks; however it still continues to be used in all the rural areas.

The raw material used includes brass or copper sheets, zinc and brass waste cuttings called patru. A mixture of zinc and copper in the ratio of 4:1 is taken in a crucible (bhoncha), and heated strongly over the oven (kwa jhya) or hot window.

The crucible contains the amount of alloy required to form one or more brass ingots (pows/ patru). The amount produced depends on the size of the articles to be forged. When the brass is melted into liquid at a temperature of 900-10000 C, the crucible, held between tongs, is lifted off the oven and the content poured out into circular disc moulds. In the old days the air blown for burning the charcoal was through the use of hand operated bellows (khalatis /bhowcha) made out of sheepskin. This method is now almost extinct, and the younger craftsmen today do the blowing of air by using small hand-operated mechanical blowers or electrically operated blowers that have the advantage of blowing continuous streams of air. This, of course, saves a lot of labour.

The next stage is the most tedious and consists of beating and hammering the discs, between repeated heatings, on the iron anvil (dhamakhalu). Three or four sturdy and skilled workers are required. This tedious and age-old process of hammering the circular ingots is now being circumvented by imported brass and copper sheets. These brass sheets are first cut out in the necessary size, and then hammered into the different shapes required.

The process involved in the making of a typical gagri is as delineated:

  • First the opening of the gagri is cut out of a brass sheet into two shapes. The part forming the neck of the gagri is bent upwards to form a cylinder and the edges are soldered together. The bottom part is shaped out of a circular brass sheet that is 16″-18″ in diameter. This circular sheet is hammered on stone anvils (ga) firmly sunk into the workshop floor. This stone mould helps to bring the bottom of the gagri into the desired shape after a good deal of beating and hammering.
  • The middle of the gagri is constructed through a similar process of beating and hammering. All the three main parts of the water pot are thus shaped after a good deal of labour.
  • To join the three parts all the edges to be joined together are cut out in the shape of teeth 0.5 to 1 inch apart. Next, these tooth like edges are made to fit one into the other with a gentle beating so that they make a very tight fit.
  • To weld the parts a ratio of 2: 1 of brass and zinc is melted together to prepare the flux. The flux in a powdered form mixed with borax (suhag) is applied over the joints of the tooth like seams. The gagri is then slowly heated over the fire so that the flux melts and fills up the pores between the tooth joints – with gentle beating the gaps between the joints are made air-tight. The same process is repeated while joining the other two parts.
  • After welding together, the edges continue to look rough until they are rubbed with a sharp file. At this stage, the gagri looks dirty and black. For cleansing it is dipped into a sour liquid like a citrus fruit acid (chuk), or in the waste liquor of a brewery (kat/ ajika) for 2 to 3 days. The alternate process is to smear the pot with a dilute acid solution. Some craftsmen in Lalitpur have substituted sulphuric acid for the traditional old brewery waste; at Pokhara and Tansen, however, the craftsmen continue to follow the old method of dipping the utensils in kat/ajika. The gagri is then scoured with the fine sand and clay dust till the metal shines through.
  • The gagri is finally beaten all over with a small pointed hammer till its outer surface is embellished with tiny shiny spots. The more pointed the hammer, the more shiny the spots. This process is called dam halne.

Handmade, has hardly undergone any change over centuries in Nepal. Pokhara, Palpa and Tansen in western Nepal and Howgha in Lalitpur in the Kathmandu Valley are the main centres of this craft. Now, besides the traditional vessels crafted for storage and measurement, more modern products – teapots, trays, vases, candle stands, pots etc. – are being made for the urban market.

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