Bead Craft of Khambhat – A 5000 Year Old Legacy of Indian Civilisation

About 5000 years before, the region of Indian Subcontinent entered through the 1st step of civilization that simultaneously occurred in Egypt, Sumer and China. The human society became complex with rapid rise of urbanism. Status became an important factor to segregate people from one class to another. A specialized craft made out of various semiprecious stones such as agate, carnelian evolved to meet the need of Indus Valley aristocrats.

Indus Valley Civilization died out around 1700 BC, but the craft did not. It has survived till now at Khambhat, a sea side town with rich heritage and history on the coast of Gulf of Khambhat in Gujarat.

After the declining of Indus Valley Civilisation, bead making was practiced throughout the Subcontinent, especially in areas having closer access to raw material. But with the ravage of time the craft declined everywhere except Khambhat.

Gujarat which was the southernmost province of Indus Valley Civilisation has considerable deposit of agate, which upon heating produce red-orange carnelian. These are mined by local people and then brought to Khmabhat through mediators. At Khambhat, first these are dried in the sun to remove the moisture that is trapped. The selected stone nodules are laid out on roof tops or enclosed courtyards where these can be easily monitored.

The next stage is heating. When the nodules are well dried, they are baked in terracotta vessels or simple pit kilns.

The third step is chipping. A pointed iron stake is stuck in the ground and the nodule is chipped by resting it against the point and striking it with a hammer made of hard wood or buffalo horn. There is every possibility that tradition is a continuation of Indus Valley time, except the iron stuck – in Harappan time a copper stuck may have been used.

Polishing or grinding is the next major step. Today, especially power energy wheels are used, but in the past the bead rough out used to be grinded and shaped on a hard sandstone.

Mr Anawar Hussain Shaikh is an award winning bead maker based out in Khambhat. We had recently interviewed him on various aspects related to Khambhat beads. He also demonstrated the process of chipping and polishing. His assistant Pratap Bhai is an expert driller. He also demonstrated his skill and shared his version of Khambhat bead making.

Come, let’s discover the legacy of India’s oldest known craft, the bead making of Khambhat.

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