(Written by Deborah Thambi)
Koonammavu may be a tiny dot on the map of Kerala, but this village, located 25 kilometres off Kochi, has been producing and exporting an item considered integral to the Christian faith across the world: rosaries.
For nearly 150 years, residents, largely women, of Koonammavu have been engaged in the business of stringing prayer beads of varying types and sizes mostly at their homes and passing them on to companies that export them all over the world. Many believe the business was started by Saint Kuriakose Elias Chavara, a 19th-century Catholic priest, who urged the locals of Koonammavu to make and sell rosaries for a living.
Over the years, as the demand for rosaries from Koonammavu grew, thousands have become a part of the cottage industry — some engaged in making them and others devoted to marketing them. In fact, the demand saw the business trickling over into neighbouring villages like Kodungallur, N Paravur and Njarackal over time.
But like most sectors across the world, the unprecedented economic fallout of the Covid-19 pandemic has brought the rosary work in Koonammavu to a halt. With religious institutions forced to close for over six months and now partially reopening in phases all over the world, ancillary businesses like rosary-making have taken a hit. Demand for prayer beads has slumped. Stocks are lying idle. Women, who had a bargaining power in the family with their robust income from rosaries, were financially hit.
Antony Varghese, an entrepreneur in Koonammavu, said, “Many families were able to afford their children’s education and other necessities from the income they drew from making rosaries. But today, their finances are meagre, to the point that they have to depend on food rations provided by the government.”
Unlike other sectors, the rosary workers do not have a co-operative or a labour union to support them and have urged the government for compensation. Even though petitions were individually sent to authorities, there were no tangible results, said an entrepreneur.
Each worker earns between Rs 2 and Rs 7 per rosary depending on the size and the materials used. The choice of beads range from pearls, stones, brass to imported crystals from China that are then strung using either brass wires or nylon twine.
A brass-plated rosary can be made in 30 minutes whereas one with nylon twine takes just about ten minutes. Entrepreneurs say the materials are largely brought from Mumbai, Hong Kong and China. The final product is then exported to countries like Brazil, United Kingdom and United Arab Emirates.
Mercy Pious, who is raising her two college-going daughters from the money she makes through the prayer beads, said, “If we had the money to start another business like a chicken or goat farm, we would. But since we don’t have that kind of money, I can only look forward to selling rosaries again.”
Pious, whose husband has been bedridden due to liver ailment, further said, “We have had to meet our daily expenses by pledging whatever little gold we have and taking out small loans from self-help groups like Kudumbashree.”
Augustine Urakath, 62, who has been selling rosaries for over 40 years, said he hasn’t received any positive responses from the church on the future of the sector.
“When we asked the Church for guidance, the priests told us that it may take years for the situation to resolve itself and that we should start looking into other businesses. But I can’t do that because this is all I know,” he said. Many people in the village have turned to selling coconut oil and dried fish in the wake of the pandemic.
Rinton Ravi, who operates a dealership called La Corona Del Rosario, said October has seen a small uptick in sales. “It is the month of rosaries so there has been a small recovery in sales. Still, business has slumped to one-fourth of what it was pre-Covid,” he said.
(Deborah Thambi is an intern with indianexpress.com)