Copper: The World's Most Reusable Metal

Features Issue 56 Jul, 2010
Text by Amar B. Shrestha / Photo: ECS Media

The elderly Ram Gopal Tamrakar is the owner of Tamot Traders in Tangal,Lalitpur and according to him, till only a few years ago, no Newar marriage was complete without the bride being presented with dozens of ‘gagris’, tall water bearing vessels made of copper. And according to the equally elderly Badri Man Tamrakar of Tamrakar Handicrafts in Chakrabahil, Lalitpur,“Ghyampas too were traditionally popular gifts for newly married couples.” These too are made of copper, used to store rice or liquor, and are really huge, the smaller ones weighing at least 8 kilograms and costing about NRs.6,400 apiece.

Ram Gopal’s son, Bijay who looks after Tamot Traders now informs us, “My grandfather, Tirtha Lal Tamrakar, established one of the oldest shops making and selling copperware. It is in Haugal, Lalitpur, and is more than fifty years old.” In many other such establishments in this historic city, one will find that the continuation of generations in a trade which needs a particular skill, is a common occurrence. Anyone who is even a little familiar with Newar history knows that the skilled Newars have many different sub castes and that this is usually based on vocational grounds. And so, to cut a long story short, ‘Tamrakars’ are to copper what ‘Shakyas’ are to silver and ‘Chitrakars’ to paint. The word is derived from ‘tama’ meaning copper, and ‘aakar’ meaning shape or to give shape.

They are known as ‘Tamo’ or ‘Tamot’ in ‘Nepal Bhasa’, their mother tongue. ‘Tamos’ or ‘Tamots’ or ‘Tamrakars’ are inhabitants of the Kathmandu valley and are widespread within as well as outside the valley, but mostly concentrated in the heart of Patan. Patan city or Lalitpur (city of arts), is a city of wondrous traditional architecture and famed for its highly skilled artisans. The Patan Durbar Square, listed as a World Heritage Site, is said to be ‘the largest display of Newar architecture in Nepal’. Wandering along the streets south of this square, one will come across rows of shops cluttered with copper, brass and bronze ware. And don’t forget to note the shop’s names, which invariably will have the word ‘Tamrakar’ or ‘Tamot’ somewhere in it.

It is certainly true that metal craft is something that needs long years of training as well as the requisite skills and it goes without saying that there is widespread appreciation of such skilled work. It is evident in every architectural monument, every temple, every image of worship, and in many homes and hotels. It is also to be noted that most such work involves either copper or its major alloys, brass and bronze. In fact, many kitchen utensils of everyday use, until but a short while ago, used to be of these metals. Ram Gopal Tamrakar adds, “In the old days, most religious idols and other items for worship used to be made of copper but later, there was more use of brass.” Supposedly, this was due to the cost factor, copper being much more expensive than brass.

This brings us to the subject of prices. It is interesting to know that Chile, the world’s largest supplier of copper, is enjoying unprecedented economic boom today due to the consistently hefty price increases for this most commonly used of metals. It is also worth mentioning that the government of Chile’s stability is also better assured because of this factor. Here, in Nepal, while copper is currently being imported at Rs.700 per kg, brass costs Rs.600 for the same quantity. No wonder then that theft of electrical wire is a common crime. It is hard to imagine how much copper goes into making electrical wiring world wide. Almost all electrical connections are made with copper wire that come in minute strands. According to Bijay, most raw materials are imported from Singapore. Talking about supply and demand, the American Copper Development Board reports that at the beginning of the present century, the world’s demand for copper was about half a million tons. Today, it has grown tenfold. The dramatic demand has been due to the tremendous technological advances, especially in electrical engineering. Besides Chile, the United States is the second biggest producer of the metal which is hailed as the world’s most reusable resource. Based on British Copper Development Board data, while there is a worldwide resource of nearly 5.8 triplon pounds of copper, only 0.7 triplon pounds (12%) is said to have been mined throughout history. In addition, nearly all of this 0.7 triplon pounds is still in circulation because of the high recycling rate of copper. According to the same statistics, except for wire production which uses newly refined copper, more than three-fourths of the amount used by copper and brass mills, ingot makers, foundries, powder plants and other industries comes from recycled scrap.

This vindicates Bijay Tamrakar’s statement that copper ware is valued highly because it can be resold immediately. Perhaps this is one reason why the Newars, being business savvy as always, gift ‘gagris’, ‘ghyampas’ and other copper utensils to newly weds. Talk about being far sighted and talk about being practical! Copper’s recycling value is high and top grade scrap can fetch 95% of the value of newly mined ore. But, of course, that is not the only reason for copper’s popularity. Copper has been shown to have amazing health benefits. Although needed in very small amounts (about 0.9mg for adults), copper is an essential constituent of all living tissues and vital for normal growth and well being of plants and animals. Copper bangles and bracelets are quite popular and believed to lower blood pressure and prevent rheumatic pain. Similarly, many here believe that drinking water kept overnight in a copper vessel aids good health. This is probably based on the fact that copper inhibits microbial growth, therefore providing protection against harmful germs. Copper’s antimicrobial use has now been expanded to include fungicides, pesticides, oral hygiene products, antiseptics and so on.

However, leaving all this aside, about three quarters of total copper use – over 2 million tons a year - is consumed by the electrical engineering industry. Power transmission and generation, wires, telecommunications and electrical products all use copper because of its high ductility, malleability and conductivity. Copper and its alloys are also being increasingly used in architecture and building besides its continued use in shipbuilding, railroads, money making (coins), clocks and watches, printing, etc…. And while the average car seemingly contains little copper, in fact it has 40-45 lb. depending on size and type. In general engineering too, copper is used quite extensively because copper plate and sheets can be readily hammered into pans or shaped and riveted, or welded into tanks, boilers and containers of varying shapes and sizes. In the brewing of beer too, copper has always played an important role throughout the ages. Copper sheet is used to line fermenting vessels and so, these are called ‘brewing coppers’. As for liquor, the fermented liquor is distilled in a columnar rectifying still which is invariably made of copper. In agriculture and horticulture, copper compounds are a constituent of many powders and solutions used to fight plant diseases. Coming to the ‘space age’, the giant electromagnets employed in atom smashers have copper wire windings.

Thus the odyssey of copper continues – an odyssey that chronicles human endeavor since he emerged from the stone age. It is believed that copper first came into use as the first non-precious metal employed by the Sumerians and Chaldeans of Mesopotamia some five to six thousand years ago. Pre-dynastic Egyptians, in their hieroglyphs, represented copper by the ankh symbol also used to denote eternal life. In the middle ages, it was iron that took center stage after the introduction of iron smelting in about 600-700BC. However, the durability of copper and its principal alloy, bronze, ensured their continuing use. A new copper alloy, brass, was discovered soon after and it opened up new frontiers in the copper smith’s art.

Copper is undoubtedly one of the world’s most valuable resources and has experienced great leaps in demand since the two world wars. This rapid increase in demand has gone hand in hand with new technologies in the extraction of the metal. The mining of copper has always been an arduous process. The mines were set up on hillsides and the flow of water  downwards would pull the earthen material through a series of screens from which miners would remove copper fragments. Because of this need to hand pick ores, in the last century, ores of up to even 4 percent grade were worthless. Today, most mines have only 0.8 to 2 percent of the metal and extraction would have been impossible without the ‘floatation process’ discovered in 1921. Even with this, it requires huge plants, continuous working and immense capital to extract copper.  The product of flotation, the concentrate, is then passed on to the smelter, and after more processing, refining is done in huge batteries of electrolytic tanks. Modern reverbatory smelting furnaces are immense in size, can smelt 1000 tons per day and may be 130 ft. long, 25 ft. wide and 12 ft. high. A large refining tank house may contain 1,500 concrete tanks and 100,000 anodes (impure copper slabs) and cathodes (pure copper sheets). The final products are cathodes on which additional pure copper has been deposited as the anodes are electrolytically decomposed. The yield is disproportionately small. For example, in 1963, nearly 400 million tons of ore yielded only 4 million tons of new copper. That is, 99 percent of the material mined, was removed.

So, it is indeed a great relief that such an important resource is recyclable and that there are ample reserves left in the world. More so because not only is copper as much used here in various fields as is elsewhere, the metal holds special meaning in our everyday lives, and in our religious ways. The intricate toranas above the doorway of temples, (Hindu or Buddhist) all over the Valley, are of repousse works in copper as are the statues of various gods and goddesses inside the shrines. The ‘sherkem’ and the ‘bhumbha’ (small vessels for offering holy water), the ‘pauwahi’ (vessel holding rice for offering), the ‘maney’ (prayer wheel) and the ‘dhupdani’ (incense holder) – paraphernalia meant for religious use by Buddhists, are also made of copper, even if gold-polished. So too are the ‘panas’ (standing lamp stand), the ‘kalaha’ and the ‘kotaha’ (containers for carrying puja items), and the ‘khadelu’ (hanging oil lamp)- all meant for religious use by Hindu Newars.

The use of copper has undoubtedly declined in kitchenware nowadays, but there is still many a home in the Valley which boasts of large numbers of copper ‘gagris’, ‘ghyampas’ and the like. Recent additions, thanks to the entrepreneurship of our hard working Tamrakars, have been gleaming copper water filters and beautifully designed three tiered cooking vessels for making a Nepali’s favorite food, the ever delicious momos. Surely, the steaming of the same within the protective realm of copper can only make them all the more delectable!