Silver: The Queen of Metals

Features Issue 70 Jul, 2010
Text by Utsav Shakya

Photo courtesy: Hand made silver crafts, Thamel

The Lhasa Newars single-handedly initiated the trade of silver and consequently, silver artwork in Nepal. Silver is now the most commonly used metal to make a wide variety of objects that are used for various ceremonies, both by Nepalis and Tibetans, mainly because of its durability and affordability.  Silvercraft now is the source of income for a large number of Newars who still create these objects using age old traditions.

The Queen of Metals

The history of silver is as old as the history of man.  The Bible speaks of “Joseph, who was rich in silver, gold, and oxen”. In the pre-Christian era, in certain civilizations, silver was considered more precious than gold. To the early Egyptians, silver had a religious significance and was used profusely in articles of worship.Silver can be hammered into sheets so thin that it would take 100,000 of them to stack an inch high. It can be drawn into a wire finer than a human hair. It is this ductility that enables silversmiths to turn it into  works of art. Silver can be shaped by hammering, spinning, or drawing - it can be decorated with etching, chasing, or engraving - silver is the queen of metals. There is no substitute.

It is also the most hygienic metal known to man. It has actual germ killing properties. In the hillsides of Nepal, people still drop a piece of silver in drinking water as a means of purifying it. It is also the most durable art form and the most economical purchase that can be made for the home. Silver grows more beautiful with the passing years, never wears out, and can be passed on as part of a heritage that grows stronger with each passing generation.

The Origin of Silver and Silver Craft in Nepal

The trade between Tibet and its southern neighbors has been carried out since ancient times. The lure of trans-Himalayan trade was Lhasa; India and Tibet were the principal partners while Nepal formed the principal venue through which this trade was conducted. In the seventh century C.E., the emergence of a powerful Tibetan kingdom with its capital at Lhasa transformed Kathmandu Valley into the intellectual and commercial crossroads between India and central Asia. It was through these routes that Nepal exported to Tibet, food grains in exchange for gold, salt, silver, wool, sheep, goats and yak-tails.

This era also gave rise to a popular breed of traders from Nepal who either worked in Tibet or traveled between the two Himalayan kingdoms for commerce; the Lhasa Newar traders. The Newar community of Nepal has always been one that was and is steeped in art, culture, tradition and commerce. So, it is only natural that it was this section of the community that took advantage of the Tibetan market to trade silver and silverware that was made in Nepal in exchange for Tibetan goods. It was during this time that silver entered Nepal for commercial purposes. Silver was brought in by the Lhasa Newars, primarily of the Tuladhar families and was used to make tea pots, snuff boxes, Tibetan bowls, flower vases and exquisite jewelry too. These items would then cross over into Tibet once again, where they were bartered at very high prices in foodstuffs and luxury items such as Rolex watches. “If only trade through Lhasa were as convenient and lucrative as in those days, it would mean a whole new life for the hundreds of families living in the area,” says Mani Ratna Tuladhar, one of the Lhasa Traders who now owns a construction company.

In 1550, Dolakha, then a small independent kingdom in Nepal, controlled for a short time, the trade route along the Tambakosi River to Tibet. The first silver Tanka (coin) was minted in Nepal which is extremely rare. By 1642, when the great 5th Dalai Lama was installed in the Potala in Lhasa as the undisputed ruler of all Tibet, Nepal had a virtual monopoly of trade with Tibet.

In 1720, a large Chinese army arrived in Lhasa, carrying with them 5 years advance pay in silver ingots. Silver ingots were a standard medium of exchange in China at this period, but they were very inconvenient, as the weight had to be checked before each transaction was completed, and each one tended to be rather heavy for the day-to-day needs of the average Tibetan. For these reasons, the Nepali coins circulated at a considerable premium over the silver ingots, and the Tibetans found it worthwhile to send the ingots to Nepal, have them struck into coins, and then bring them back to Tibet.

This arrangement, with the Tibetans bringing silver to Nepal for striking into coin, continued for several years, but after 1736, the Nepalis took undue advantage of the Tibetans and began to debase the alloy of the coins supplied to 67% and later to only 50% silver. Very large numbers of these debased coins were sent to Tibet. It was during processes such as these that a large amount of silver entered and managed to stay in the valley. Silverware made in Nepal also managed to gain popularity in Tibet and since Tibetan rules and regulations were relaxed and favorable for trade then, the Lhasa Newars exported the silverware to markets using Tibet and even India as its gateways to a bigger market. Besides this and later on, silver was also brought into Nepal in large amounts from Bangkok.

“The Bangkok route was almost something from a movie,” says Buddha Ratna Bajracharya. “Silver was smuggled by the kilos and the objects that were made with the silver were smuggled back as easily too. The silver traders had contacts with airport staff and there never was any problem. After the price of silver went up considerably, the silver from India became more popular in Nepal.” The trend continues till the present day.

An age old Process:
The fine pieces of art that one sees in showroom displays or being adorned by people is still, in Nepal at least, made by a process that actually resembles something out of medieval times. The tools, the technique and the settings under which silverware is created lies in a charming time warp. It has to be one of those things that retain its allure by not changing with the times. We visited one such location in Patan’s Agnishaal, where a family of three brothers has kept age old traditions alive.

Buddha Ratna Bajracharya, Sapta Ratna Bajracharya and Amir Ratna Bajracharya have kept a thirty-five year old business running. Their entire family is involved in what is very much a family business. Buddha Ratna Bajracharya, the oldest of the three brothers described and demonstrated to us the process of etching intricate designs on the silverware as he spoke of how the work has been passed on to him from his father. “My father was the one who taught me the art of etching on silver. Now it’s the only thing I know I am good at,” says Buddha Ratna Bajracharya. But our quest to observe how silverware is made right from the start, was aided by the youngest of the three brothers, Amir Bajracharya.

Youthful and always smiling, Amir took us to his Jyasa, (workshop in Newari) and demonstrated ably and with much patience the initial process of making any silver object. The silver that is mostly used by silversmiths in the valley and also outside comes in small pellets and can be bought quiet easily at the local silver dealer’s shop according to your requirements.

These pellets are then heated in a small makeshift furnace by using coal or gas. Special asbestos cups hold the required amount of pellets as they are melted to beautiful golden yellow lava like semi-liquid matter. This semi-liquid cools down quite fast and is beaten with a hammer to flatten out to the required thickness. This process is repeated a number of times. The silver goes into the furnace again and again where they get heated until they turn a brilliant golden red and then beaten hard by a hammer. This process also aides in strengthening the silver and allows it to lose a little of its brittleness.

The flattened pieces of silver are then put into a rolling machine that produces sheets of silver of the thickness that is normally used to make traditional, ritual objects such as the Sukunda and the Auntee or even jewelry such as rings, bracelets, earrings or even necklaces.

All Jyasas are equipped with a peculiar and unique shaping tool that is made quite simple and conveniently out of a tree trunk. What resembles a part of a tree trunk sits on the floor of Amir’s workshop, earning its place at the front and center. Parts of the trunk are hollowed in, so that it forms circles or ovals. The silver sheets are then loaded onto the cavities and then beaten with mallets so that they obtain the shape of the cavity. Amir demonstrated to us how the circular shape of the silver pots and flower vases are made by using a sheet of silver and then gently molding it into a half circular sheet by striking light blows of the wooden mallet on the silver.

Two such circular sheets might be joined to form a pot like structure out of them. An amalgam of silver and copper is used to assemble these parts together. Parts of the silverware such as the base of a pot, its central belly and the cylindrical neck are all seamlessly fused by using the same amalgam.

After the individual parts of the object are given its primary shape, they are taken to the craftsmen who etch suitable designs on the object accordingly. In our case, it was Buddha Ratna Bajracharya who demonstrated the process of etching the designs on the actual piece. “The process involves much patience and a good, stable hand to etch out intricate lines that do justice to the design,” said Buddha Ratna as he worked on the silver with tools that looked as if they were extensions of his body.

The designs that are etched on the objects again depend on the usage of the objects. Ritual objects such as those used in traditional Newar ceremonies often feature Lord Ganesh and also the Astha Mangal symbology. Tibetan themes are inspired heavily by Chinese mythology and therefore often portray fairies, dragons and fishes on the objects.

The process of etching itself is not so simple. The sheets being quite thin and delicate cannot be etched upon directly without any support. To avoid penetrating the sheet and causing damage to the piece, a paste locally known as Lhay, which solidifies to form a suitable support is poured at the back of the part that is being etched upon. Lhay is made out of brick powder and tin. After the etching is done, the piece is gently heated over a fire so that all the Lhay melts out to leave the etched piece. After all the parts have been etched to satisfaction, the pieces are joined together using the amalgam of silver and copper. The finishing touches are then applied so that the marks of the amalgam joints and any corrections may be treated to give a near perfect object of art.

Alternatively, modern factories around the world have evolved, using modern equipment such as laser stone cutting, stamping, pressing, spinning, casting, and mechanical polishing. These factories supply nearly all high street jewelry retailers as well as dealers of traditional, ritual objects that are also used as decorative pieces.

The machine produced designs are often programmed to perfection and are visually stunning too. But the real charms of silverware lie in its painfully handmade intricacies. It is analogous to preferring art that is on canvas to having a high resolution picture of a painting.

The metal of Choice
Due to the availability and cost effectiveness of silver, it continues to be the single most used metal in Nepali rites and rituals. Because of its color, it is also considered as the purer of metals and is therefore used to make several objects that are used in religious and other customary events including Nepali marriages.

The Sukunda is one such silver object that is a necessity at all Nepali ceremonies. It is a hollow cup-like object that has a small protruding plate at the top front that often carries oil to light a small cotton lamp. A figure of Lord Ganesh is almost always etched on the front of the Sukunda and the back has an umbrella made of serpents to provide shade to the image of Lord Ganesh. The significance of the Sukunda is that because Lord Ganesh is worshipped before starting a journey or beginning a new venture, the Sukunda is always present at all such events, marriage being one of them. Lighting a Sukunda is said to bring  good luck. A silver Sukunda is a must have at all Newar ceremonies.

The Auntee is another traditional object that has an interesting story attached to it. It is a tall jug like object with a long neck for pouring out liquor at traditional Newar feasts. It is often held at a great height while pouring the liquor into a small cup, thus producing a characteristic sound and bubbles too. “I heard this tale when I was young that when people drink, four of the five senses are used. The liquor is held and therefore felt by a person, it is smelt, it is seen and it is also tasted. But the sense of hearing is not used. This is where the Auntee comes in,” says Buddha Ratna Bajracharya.

The Nhyanka and Sinaboo are two other traditional Newar objects that are used at marriage ceremonies. Nhyanka is the Newar word for mirror and is a flat, heart-shaped piece of polished silver that is mounted on a small base. The Sinaboo is used to hold red vermillion which the groom puts on the bride’s forehead as a symbol of love and a promise of providing security. The bride then customarily looks at herself in the Nhyanka to notice the symbol of her marriage. After looking at herself in the Sinaboo with the vermillion, it is said to be bad luck for the bride to look at herself in any mirror for the rest of her married life without vermillion on her forehead.

The Kali is a traditional, simple, bangle-like object that is put on each foot of a toddler. It is of considerable weight and is worn so that while the toddler learns to walk, the weight might help the child to obtain better balance. As the child grows up, the Kali is removed to let the child walk on its own.

One of the major ritual objects is the Panas used in the holy festival of Dashain. On the tenth day of the festival, called Tika, meaning vermillion, it is customary for elders to bless younger family members and to put Tika on their foreheads and Jamara, which is a grass like shoot of barley signifying good luck and best wishes. The Panas is a small vase- like object with three convex plates at its head which hold red vermillion, black vermillion and Jamara. It is traditional to use the Panas on Tika.

Tibetan Ritual Objects
Besides these ritual objects, Tibetan designs are also prominent in the Nepali markets. These too, are mostly made in Patan’s workshops by Newar families, but they are mostly sold in areas in and around Boudha where most Tibetans and Nepalis of Tibetan origin live. These Tibetan designs also have a huge market abroad, in Singapore, Thailand, India and Burma. Silverware made in Nepal is said to fetch many times the cost price in foreign markets.

Tibetan designs are more extravagant and along with the usual etchings of dragons and Lord Buddha, parts of the object are often highlighted by the use of gold or gold polish and also gems and other precious stones. Bowls that were primarily made out of copper or tin for monks to beg for alms are now made in silver using etchings of the Buddha. These bowls now make for great decorative pieces. Silver and gold tea pots too are popular. The streets around Kathmandu valley are literally full of simple as well as intricate silver jewelry. These are mostly of Tibetan designs with holy inscriptions etched on the surface of flat rings and bracelets.

There are also some young minds that are fusing the old with the new and coming up with designs that catch one completely off-guard. Rajesh Shakya is one such individual who has combined his creativity and talent with his family’s silver business. Besides the Newar ritual objects and idols of Gods and Goddesses, one sees in his showroom in Patan Durbar Square, an eclectic array of creative ideas that appeal to the youth and the youthful. His designer jewelry such as snazzy silver pendants, rings and bracelets are made from silver wires and are unlike any that one will find in Nepali markets. He also enjoys putting a twist on regular objects such as the silver wine glass that looks like something out of a Greek war movie and the lab beaker we found with a silver base and neck. “Perhaps I will start a silver themed bar someday,” jokes Rajesh Shakya about his latest creations. It would not be such a bad idea.

Through the centuries, the silversmith or goldsmith has, by a process of elimination, become the most highly skilled craftsman in the world today. The silversmiths of Patan with their traditional approaches to the centuries old art form are no exception to this. Amir Bajracharya and his family still talk of the Tibetan shopkeepers who buy from them and sell their products at exorbitant prices as Saujis, an old fashioned term for rich folks. Highly skilled yet modest, these silversmiths are in dire need of fair representation in the markets that are full of their own art. Only then can the work of these people flourish.