It’s turning out to be another washout year for Aranmula. This village in Kerala’s Pathanamthitta district, enlisted as a heritage village by the United Nations, is popular across the world for its famed metal mirrors, the Aranmula Kannadi that comes with its own geographical indication tag.
However, the sale of the mirrors, considered by many as a harbinger of positivity and prosperity, has been hit for two consecutive years because of the floods in Kerala. For families in the village who are involved in the production of these mirrors, this year’s Onam too does not seem to be bringing any succour.
There are 22 metal mirror producing units under the Viswabrahmana Aranmula Metal Mirror Nirman Society. What is so special and unique about a metal mirror for it to be honoured with a GI tag is question haunts everyone when they hear it for the first time. The answer lies in the inimitability of one of its raw materials, the clay from the paddy fields (Punja Vayal) of the area. The clay in unique combinations, with cow dung, tile powder, jute powder and so on, becomes three different layers of the mould which has different strength and adhesiveness. The mirrors become unique because of the skilled hands which produce these marvellous products. Using the centuries-old ‘lost wax technique’, each mirror is made from the alloy of tin and copper, for which the ratio is still a secret known only to those families involved in the metal mirror production. Each one of those mirrors has to be moulded separately and not all mould will give the desired product. The alloy, after taking shape of the mirror is polished well through different stages using different materials like water paper and velvet cloth to transform it from a crude piece of bronze to the shining mirror.
According to Gopakumar who makes and sells the metal mirrors in his own workshop, he tried many modern techniques to make the production easier. But none of these worked without compromising on the quality of the product. This is the experience of many of the units involved in the production of Aranmula metal mirrors. The visitors come or order the metal mirror directly from Aranmula to get the original product and so the production has to be done in the traditional method.
Usually, Onam is the peak season when thousands of visitors reach the Aranmula Parthasarathy temple to take part in its unique traditions, customs and rituals like Vallasadya, Thiruvonathoni and Uthruttathi Vallamkali (snake boat regatta). It is usually the time when bulk orders for the mirrors are placed. “We keep a stock of mirrors worth rupees eight to nine lakh ready during Onam,” says Rajeev M, the owner of Manikanda Handicraft shop which also houses a workshop which produces the mirror. The price of a single mirror can vary from Rs 900 to over Rs 2,00,000 depending upon its size.
Within two-three months around Onam, these products used to be sold out. That was until 2017.
The flood in 2018
The flood in 2018 devastated Kerala and Aranmula was one of the worst-hit areas. “The whole village submerged in floodwaters leaving no building except the temple, which is at a greater height than any other building,” says K P Srirangan, a resident of Aranmula who is now in his late seventies. This was the worst flood he had seen in his lifetime.
Rajeev says he had more than a thousand mirrors ready, out of which about 850 mirrors were completely damaged. Also, many bulk orders were cancelled as they could not deliver the product on time. This meant the loss had to be suffered by the people who make the mirror, as no advance payments are given. The loss for a single unit which makes the mirror was more than Rs 10 lakh in 2018, including lost raw material and damaged machinery.
“We lost everything and we are still not back to the normal. Everything had to be started from scratch and the flood affected the availability of raw materials, especially the clay from paddy fields,” says Gopakumar.
Fury of rain in 2019
The glow is not any brighter in 2019. With Onam season already underway, the sale is nowhere near the already low target of Rs 1.5 lakh, according to Rajeev.
What keeps the sale high during Onam are the unique rituals in the temple. Vallasadya, which is done as an offering by devotees for blessing and grant of wishes, is one of the main traditions during Onam at the local temple. With this being conducted at the mercy of the monsoons and the river Pamba, it has been cancelled for a few days this year also.
“The level of water in the Pamba is the major deciding factor for the dates of Vallasadya,” says V K Chandran, the convener of the Food Committee for Vallasadya. The rain this year has caused a rise in water levels and Vallasadyas booked for the coming days are expected to be cancelled. This will be a hard hit for the handicraft shops, workshops and artisans of the area not only because of the lesser number of devotees visiting the temple, but also because of the loss of clay from the paddy fields of the area — the most important raw material for the metal mirrors.
What these people expect in the future is not just the aid from the government. Though that would be of immediate help, only the helping hands of those who admire the beauty and worship the positive energy provided by the mirror can bring their life back on track.