Majestic mirrors

The ancient art of making metal mirrors is still practiced, without modifications, by a few artisan families in Aranmula village of Kerala. The making of the mirror, a unique gift of India to the world, involves a long process that needs a lot of patience, writes Sadanand Menon

LIKE Darjeeling tea or Benarsi sari, the Aranmula bronze mirror is a unique gift of India to the world. The exquisite metal bronze mirror is produced only in Aranmula, a village in Kerala. The mystery of its production is a family gift handed over through generations. The ancient art of making metal mirrors is still practiced, without modifications, by a few artisan families in Aranmula.

The largest known Aranmula mirror is at the British Museum with a height of 18 inches, and is said to be worth a few lakhs, as this size mirrors are no longer made now a days
The largest known Aranmula mirror is at the British Museum with a height of 18 inches, and is said to be worth a few lakhs, as this size mirrors are no longer made now a days

How is the Aranmula mirror different from ordinary mirrors? The image from the Aranmula mirror`A0is reflected from the upper surface of the reflecting material, whereas in the glass mirror, the image is reflected from the bottom layer, where mercury coating is put. You can conduct a test. Touch the mirror with one of your fingers, and watch the reflected image on the mirror. In genuine Aranmula mirror, there will not be any gap between your finger and the reflected image, but in all other mirrors there will be a gap.

The origin of the mirror is linked with the Parthasarathy temple of Aranmula. Legend has it that the local king had brought eight families of bronze smiths from Tamil Nadu in connection with the renovation work of the Parthasarathy temple centuries ago. The artisans had settled in Aranmula after the completion of the work. Their descendants became lazy and a public nuisance, inviting the ire of the king, who then ordered their eviction from the town.

The worried artisans sought refuge in Lord Parthasarathy, the presiding deity of the temple. The same night, it is said, one of the artisan family had a divine vision that gave him the alloy composition of the reflective metal piece that gives distortion-free images. The artisans jointly moulded a magnificent crown out of this mirror-like bronze and presented it to the king.

He not only pardoned them but also honoured them with land and jewels. Since then the artisans took up mirrors making as their profession, presenting this masterpiece in metallurgy to the world.

The making of this bronze metal mirror is a long process that needs a lot of patience. Some undisclosed metals (as known to the seven artisan`A0families of Aranmula) are alloyed with copper and tin to cast the mirror in typical clay moulds. The method is the age-old lost-wax process in traditional style after melting the metals in a furnace fitted with a manual blower. According to one of the artisans, often they have to make three mirrors, before one that is suitable for polishing and without defects is obtained.

The moulded metal disc is mounted on a wooden plank to polish it, using well-ground burnt clay powder and castor oil on a jute cloth. The polishing process can go on for two to three days. The polished metal discs are then mounted on bronze frames with exquisite carvings. According to the Aranmula artisans, the smallest mirror of one-and-a-half inches costs about Rs 950. An Aranmula mirror with a length of two inches (weighing 200 gm) costs`A0 Rs 1,200, whereas the one with a dimension of`A0 six inches (weighing two-and-a-half kg) cost as`A0much as Rs 15,000.

The largest known Aranmula mirror is at the British Museum with a height of 18 inches, and is said to be worth a few lakhs, as this size mirrors are no longer made in Aranmula. It is heartening to note that recently this skilled and unique mirror craft from Aranmula was awarded a geographical indicator (GI) patent in India.

But the problem is that there are only seven families making the`A0Aranmula mirror, as they want to preserve the secret within their clan. The Government of Kerala tried to apprentice some outside artisans to the group of`A0Aranmula makers, but that did not help. As on date, only few dozen mirrors are made every month as the labour in polishing this mirror (two days for every mirror)`A0to the final stage is very costly. But in view of its fame, the Aranmula mirror finds a good market among tourists, especially in August when the Kerala festival of Onam is celebrated.`A0

Can Aranmula mirrors be made by modern computer-aided methods ? In these days of advanced researches on DNA and metal analysis, you would expect that the secrets of a 600-year-old art would be easily deciphered. Studies by Sharda Srinivasan, a researcher in Archaeometallurgy in the National Institute of Advanced Studies at the Indian Institute of Science, Bangalore, and her colleague, discovered the secret of the alloy that Aranmula mirrors were made of a binary copper-tin alloy with 32-34 per cent tin.

She also noted that the skill of alloying was developed to such perfection by the Aranmula artisans that it matched the pure delta phase of bronze, offering the best possible uniformly-polished surface, and is long lasting. MF





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