Not long back, I attended a seminar on heritage at the Sree Sankaracharya University of Sanskrit in Kalady near Kochi. Under the broad ambit of heritage”, a number of papers were presented on different topics. One, however, made me think of a mirror held within a brass frame, a mirror which was given to me as a part of my wedding trousseau many years ago. But this wasn’t just any old mirror. This was the Aranmula mirror, made from metal by a secret process passed down from generation to generation in the little village of Aranmula in Kerala.
In 2005, the Aranmula mirror earned the coveted Geographical Indication (GI) tag from the government, which meant that it could be made nowhere else in the world but Aranmula. At present, only 19 registered craftsmen called “acharis” have the legal right to make the mirror. Why? Because of the number of fake ones floating around in the market. Such is its popularity, so high is its demand, that a huge illegal trade is thriving, where several counterfeiters are producing phony machine-made Aranmula mirrors, duping innocent customers in India and abroad.
It is only in a nondescript two-storeyed building in the Aranmula junction that you will find the authentic Aranmula kannadi. This is the Parhasarathy Handicrafts Centre, where AK Selvaraj and his brother, Gopalakrishnan work their magic, transforming metal into mirror. They learned the craft from their father, Arjunan Achari, who at one point, was the only one making these mirrors. But today, under the Vishwa Brahmana Aranmula Metal Mirror Nirman Society started by Selvaraj, the craft has been taught to 19 artists who have started their own mirror making units across the state. I pay a visit to their shop, which also happens to be their home.
So what is so special about the mirror? Widely believed to bring good luck, the technique to make an Aranmula mirror is a highly guarded secret. It involves just the right amount of copper and tin, which makes the mirror what it is. The process starts with collecting a special kind of mud from the fields. The mud is made into a fine paste and then moulded into circular or square shapes. The tin-copper alloy is then sealed with the mud at a high temperature (of about 400 degrees) for two or three hours. Later, after it is cooled, the mud is broken and a flat piece of metal is left behind. The acharis then polish these for days till the metal transforms, almost magically, into a shiny mirror.
Legend has it that the original method was dreamt by a widow living in the Aranmula kingdom centuries ago. But hard-hitting scientific facts lie at the crux of this apparent metal to mirror magic. Dr Sharada Srinivasan, who spoke at the heritage conference in Kalady says that it’s a highly skilful process using “low technology, organic and everyday materials to get a sophisticated high technology end-product.”1 She is a professor at the National Institute of Advanced Studies, Indian Institute of Science, Bengaluru, and has been doing research on Aranmula since 1990. The binary alloy of copper with 33% tin is perfect for a mirror since it is a “hard, stable and silvery compound that can therefore be polished to a mirror finish.”2
AK Selvaraj’s workshop is decorated with photographs of famous personalities (Sachin Tendulkar, APJ Abdul Kalam) receiving the mirror, which is Kerala’s official state souvenir. To control the number of fake products floating around in the market, the makers ensures that every mirror created by them is marked with a hologram sticker.
I picked up a small mirror, priced at Rs 1000. Mirrors are usually made-to-order (there are varying sizes of the mirror and frame designs) and some big ones can cost up to a lakh of rupees. “Handle with care,” I was told. I bade the mirror makers farewell, and walked down the stairs, the Aranmula mirror cushioned and wrapped carefully in plastic, thrice over.
achari: craftsmen who make the Aranmula mirror