The ancient city of Varanasi is one of the major centres of glass beads also known as kaanch ke moti. Historians say that glass has been used since ancient times and many archaeological excavations have unearthed glass pieces and crucibles that are over thousands of years old in different parts of Uttar Pradesh. Besides this, there is evidence that this art of bead making dates back to the late-Harappan period. Kaushambi and Ahichchhatra (ancient capital of Panchala kingdom) were also believed to be important centres of glass bead making. Glass beads were used to decorate cattle harnesses in the ancient times. However, somewhere along the way, this ancient craft was forgotten and lost in history.
Czech natives, Mr and Mrs Henrich conducted a diploma course in glass beads in the Banaras Hindu University in 1938. Mr. Kanhaiya Lal Gupta was one of the students who enrolled for the course. Soon after, he began to commercially make glass beads under the guidance of Mr. Henrich. This modest beginning of glass beads gradually grew into one of most successful establishments in Varanasi and India providing employment to thousands of people.
As there is abundant supply of a wide-range of semi-precious quartz materials like chalcedony, agate, onyx, jasper and rock crystal, Varanasi today is home to over three lakh types of glass beads. This artistic work is done largely in the rural areas of Varanasi with a large number of men and women employed. The annual glass beads production is around 105 crores of which 70% is exported to USA, Europe, Kenya, Columbia and UK.
The lampworking technique is used to create glass beads in Varanasi. This technique uses oil fuel burner to melt rods and tubes of clear and coloured glass. The craftsman uses an array of flames emerging from different burners of a lamp to heat the glass rods. Once the glass starts melting, the craftsman quickly rolls the molten glass onto a metal stick on which a layer of chalk is pasted to create the basic shape of the bead.
The craftsman holds the glass rod in front of the lamp flames to let it melt and rotates the metal stick kept in the other hand to let the molten glass get rolled over the chalk layer. The chalk layer is very important as it does not allow the bead to get stuck on the stick and helps to provide a smooth and uniform hole in the middle. Additional colours of glass rods are melted based on the design to add embellishments like flowers, dots, lines, curves and other motifs.
Gold and silver foils are used to make gold and silver foil beads. These require masterly skill as the gold or silver foil are wrapped around the chalk pasted metal stick and transparent molten glass is rolled over it to give the desired shape of the bead.
The very popular Millefiori beads are made by applying glass chips to the molten wound glass core and made into beads. Transparent coloured beads also known as crystal beads are made by giving the desired colour, size and shape with the help of a flat metal sheet and dye. It is followed by rolling a layer of transparent glass over the coloured glass which gives an appearance of a single transparent colour.
Various types of glass beads like hollow beads, fancy beads, painted beads, silver foiled transparent beads, opaque coloured beads, zigzag design beads and others adopt different variations of the lampworking technique.
The completed bead will be annealed in a kiln (process of slowly cooling hot glass objects after they have been formed) to set the consistency, texture and hardness. The finished beads are graded and categorized. Based on the client’s requirements, the beads are drum polished, table cut or facetted to give the desired shine and shape. Generally, the size of the bead varies from half an inch to three inches. The see-through hole is uniform and narrow around 2 mm to 5 mm in diameter.
As this is entirely hand crafted, no two glass beads are identical though they have striking similarities. The main types of glass beads made in Varanasi are single colour crystal beads, painted, transparent, opaque, animal shaped, dotted, Venetian, Millefiori, Kashmiri, Murano glass, ceramic, silver foil, prayer, fancy chip flower beads and others.
Varanasi glass beads was awarded the Geographical Indication Tag (GI) in 2016.
Written by Lakshmi Subramanian
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