Mannar: The bell metal town
The town of Mannar lies green and lush within a 3 hour drive from Cochin. We passed two elephants on the highway. They use this route to get to the 1000-year old Panayannarkavu temple, says Venu, my father’s cousin, who’s debriefing us as we drive through the expansive landscape. Elephants are usually present at temple functions and celebrations in Kerala. It’s wonderful how patient they are. Hardly considered animals in light of their everyday temple roles and routines.
We are here to learn about the super alloy, bell metal. And the lost wax casting process that Mannar is famous for. Mannar is South India’s resource for metalwork, second in India only to Moradabad in the north. We stop at a dealership – a shop for all sorts of Mannar produce – and pick up the manager, who takes us to the casting sites. The first thing we learn is that bell metal is a bronze alloy made from stuff strong enough to withstand lightning. With Venu as our translator from Malayalam, we gather that the alloy is made of copper and tin in 4:1 proportions. Some of the largest bells in the world are made in Mannar (bell metal is used to make bells, mainly) – bells for temples, bells for homes, churches, hospitals, schools and village centres. We reach the casting site and our note-making begins.
“The birthplace of Mannar’s industry is the family, and it is within these protective walls that it has remained. Only a few hundred families are involved in the trade, and secrets, skills, figures and calculations are passed down sacredly, from one generation to the next…”
The lost wax process
This is how the lost wax process goes –
It starts with a clay core shaped to approximately resemble the final image. The core is then covered by a layer of soft wax, on which intricate details are delicately sculpted. The wax model is then covered by layers of fine clay. Drain ducts are left for the wax, which melts away when the clay is baked, thus creating a mould for the metal that will be poured inside it.
The molten metal is poured in and hardens between the core and the inner surface of the mould. As the metal fills the mould, it takes the shape of the wax. The outer lay of clay is then chipped off and the golden sculpture is revealed. It is placed on the lathe to be hand-finished.
Incredibly, this ancient, precious craft has sustained itself against rising material costs. We are amazed at how ingenuously economical the moulds are – hand-shaped in clay mixed with twine, grass and stones. The completed moulds are heated in open-ground ovens using cow-dung cakes as fuel. Molten wax coming out through the drain ducts is collected in a vessel containing water, and can be reused after any foreign matter is removed. The molten metal is poured in after the mould has been skilfully buried and supported in the ground. Hard coconut shells are placed over the openings to prevent the entry of impurities.
As we wander around, we are amazed at the sheer number, variety and sizes of the brass and bronze objects that are being churned out. It’s surreal how these gold sculptures are revealed from the earth as part of the everyday in Mannar.
Brass oil lamps called vilakkus and large cooking vessels called urlis are arranged in clusters ready to be dispatched to shops. Vilakkus are as common in south Indian homes as candle-stands are in European ones. A wick soaked in sesame oil is rolled and lit as a daily practice, in the mornings and evenings. A ritual, largely to do with God, subtly assimilated into the pace of the everyday.
We drive back feeling inspired. Excited to reveal our own piece of gold from a scrummy mould in the future.