The word bangle is derived from a Hindi word “bangli” meaning glass. Various metals like bronze, copper, gold and silver have been used to make bangles through centuries. But the art of making lac bangles is unique to India. This natural resin has been mentioned in Indian texts as ancient as the Vedas, where the Laksha taru (the Lac tree) has been mentioned. In the Atharva Veda, there is a small chapter devoted to the description of Lac insect, its habits and usefulness. Even the Mahabharata mentions the story of the Lac palace built by the Kauravas in a plot to eliminate the Pandavas.
Lac bangles are considered auspicious in several parts of India and are popular in Bihar, Andhra Pradesh and Rajasthan. The Rajasthani marriage rituals require specific traditional ornaments and different festivals have different ensembles related to them. In fact, each celebration can be identified with a distinct style of bangle design. For instance, a wedding in the family calls for the “gulali choodha” or the red colored bangle or the “hare bandon ka choodha”, the green colored bangle. Pink colored bangles are worn exclusively during holi. Hence the sale of these bangles surges during wedding and local celebrations such as Teej, Karva Chauth and Holi.
Crimson red, plant sucking, tiny insects such as Laccifer lacca, Carteria lacca and Tachardia lacca colonize the branches of selected species of host trees and secrete a natural scarlet resin known as Lac. The different layers of resin residue on the branches of the host trees are scraped off, crushed, sieved and washed several times to remove impurities. This Lac, is further heated so that the impurities settle down and can be removed easily. To this molten Lac, which is originally brick red in color, the bangle makers further add wax (to increase the cohesiveness), titanium (to increase the volume) and coloring agents. Generally the volume of lac varies from 5% to 95% and is highly instrumental in determining the quality of the Lac bangles.
Bangle Making Process
Normal lac is pasted thickly on a wooden rod and rolled over a flat surface to make it into a cylindrical shape. This lac is then heated slowly over the coal burner. The heated lac is continuously pressed and rolled over the flat iron plate with the help of wooden tool. The colored lac is heated simultaneously and then applied evenly by rubbing it on the lac. Once the color has been applied to the lac base it is again shaped into a thin coil and cut off from the plain lac rod. The width of the bangle varies as per the design incorporated on the bangle. Brass or steel is used as base for the lac. The metals are first converted in the shape of the bangles and the thin lac coil is rolled on the brass or steel base. For a thin lac bangle 3 thin brass bangles are kept together and on that lac coil is rolled, in case of steel base, the base thickness is made according to the required width of the bangle. The thickness and the length of the coil approximately depend on the final shape and size of the bangles. The semi-finished bangle is slipped into a round wooden beam with a tapering end for adjusting to the proper shape. The bangles are then kept aside for drying.
The bangles are embellished with beads, mirrors, pearls and semi-precious stones. The stones are heated over a tin plate kept on a small burner. The base of the stones gets heated and thus easily melts the lac surface on which they are placed and stick there after cooling. They are picked up one at a time and stuck on the bangle. The process requires great precision. It is usually the women members of the family who do the embellishments.
Deforestation has immensely affected the Lac reserves in India resulting in escalation of the raw material cost. Indian Lac Research Institute (now called Indian Institute of Natural Resins and Gums) is the only research institute in the world that looks after natural resins. But despite the best efforts of the Indian Government, this traditional craft is slowly dying. Lakhera or Laheri is the traditional artisan community that has been involved in lac bangle making in India. Statistics reveal that the number of furnaces for Lac processing have reduced to less than 200 in Rajasthan, from more than 2,000 that existed merely a generation ago.