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 Introduction | The Chank Fishery | The Chank Shell and its Uses | Making Bangles 

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Archived article from the April 2001 [vol2,no2] issue of Princely States Report

The chank shell industry in modern India
- David Heppell

 
The information presented in this article is a summary of that obtained by the author and his wife, Frances, during visits to India, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka in 1982 and 1984, specifically to study the chank shell industry. Without Fran's prolific notes and photographs, much of this would be no more than a faded memory. Specimens illustrating the several stages in the production of chank bangles, examples of the various articles made from the chank shell, and the tools of the trade were purchased for the collections of the Royal Museum of Scotland, Edinburgh. As far as we know, no similar collection exists in any other museum, either in India or elsewhere. Our study path was guided by a detailed investigation compiled by a Scotsman, James Hornell, while employed as a marine biologist and superintendent of fisheries at Madras. This was published as a monograph: 'The Sacred Chank of India', Madras Fisheries Bulletin 14: 1-181, 18 pls. (1914); quotations in this article (in inverted commas) are from that work. Hornell wrote many other papers about the chank in Hindu life, on Indian fisheries and marine zoology, and on various aspects of folklore and ethnology. For an account of his life and a complete bibliography of his scientific and popular papers, see 'A tribute to James Hornell, 1865-1949', by David Heppell and Mark Sherman, Bulletin of the International String Figure Association 7: 1-56 (2000).
 

Valampuri
'Valampuri' chank, Natural History Museum, London.

Introduction

The chank or 'Indian conch', Turbinella pyrum Linnaeus, is a large, thick-shelled gastropod abundant in the shallow waters of Palk Bay and the Gulf of Mannar, between India and Sri Lanka, where it feeds on marine worms. From there it extends around the southern coast of India to Kerala, with isolated populations further north, especially in the Gulf of Kutch, as far as the coast of Pakistan. The chank shell has played an important role in the daily life of the Indian people for thousands of years, for there is evidence of the use of the shell as far back as the early civilizations of the Indus Valley, and traces of chank workshops have been discovered all over India dating back more than 4000 years. The shell is sometimes known as the Sacred Chank because of its importance in both the Hindu and Buddhist religions, where it is used as a ceremonial trumpet and as a libation vessel (jhal shankha). The rare 'valampuri' chanks are especially venerated; in these the shells are abnormally coiled anticlockwise. They are usually donated to temples by wealthy patrons, often richly ornamented with gold or silver. Although the religious use of the chank shell is still widespread in India, the main trade of the shell in modern India is between Tamil Nadu, where the fishery is based, and West Bengal, where most of the carvers and bangle makers work, and where the retail outlets are concentrated. Before partition, the most important centre for chank work was Dacca (now Dhaka, Bangladesh) but, although some work is still carried out there for the 10% of the population who are Hindus, the majority of the carvers migrated to West Bengal about fifty years ago. In 1982 we were told there were about 500 families involved in the chank trade in Dhaka and another 500 in the rest of Bangladesh. In northern Bangladesh we discovered there were no remaining chank shops or chank workers in Rangpur, which had been an important centre for the chank industry in Hornell's time; a few ordinary white bangles and rings were for sale in the Hindu grocery stores, all made in Dhaka. Only a limited amount of the raw material is imported by the Government from Sri Lanka, and most of that stays in the capital. Despite attempts to mechanize some of the processes, most chank shell workers still employ the traditional tools and techniques.
 

 Introduction | The Chank Fishery | The Chank Shell and its Uses | Making Bangles 

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