A few weeks ago, we were driving down to Kalakad Mundanthurai Tiger Reserve (KMTR) in the South Indian state of Tamil Nadu – some colleagues of mine had to do field work there, and I ‘volunteered’. Who wouldn’t want to witness a magnificent rainforest like KMTR firsthand? But the region has more than forest that is unique and beautiful – an art.
A few kilometres after the city of Tirunelveli, in a small township called Ambasamudram, there are blacksmiths specializing in making a curious array of cutting tools – there are rows and rows of small shops selling knives, axes and hatchets of all shapes and sizes. But there is one implement that is very special, that they are proud of, that they make like no other – the aruva.
Yet, even in Ambasamudram, to find an ‘authentic’ Tirunelveli aruva is hard – we visited a dozen shops, we asked a score people, and had almost given up finding an aruva we liked. Then, as a last attempt, we turned into a small lane and walked, searching. That is where we found him – the Master.
His name is Murugan. His workshop is a tiny thatched enclosure. Most of the space inside is occupied by a crude furnace – a tin box cut out makes one side, and a vertical mud triangle with a hole in the centre another. A pipe connected to a leather ‘pump’ is let in through the hole, for air to be blown in for the coal to burn. On one side of the furnace is a long, stone basin with water. There is a solid wooden bench for Murugan to sit on. The rest of the space is occupied by many bags of coal and dry grass; a few knives lie scattered about. We peered into the workshop and asked, ‘Do you make aruva?’
‘I make only one or two aruvas a week; most of my income comes from repairing implements’, he told us. The local people use cutting tools for agriculture, for harvesting coconuts, for gathering firewood… There are always broken implements; there is enough work for him through the year. Murugan is a fourth generation blacksmith. ‘In those days, they used iron from train suspensions for the aruva’, he said. Now-a-days, they harvest iron off automobile scrap.
He showed us an aruva he had made – it was beautiful: with curved, heavy, metal blade, brass rimmed buffalo horn handle, and an exquisite metal hook with its end artistically curled, which the locals use to sling the aruva to a piece of cloth tied around their waists. This was the ‘authentic’ aruva we were looking for.
Now, with the aruva, there is one step between choosing and buying – the Master always gives a few final touches, sharpens the blade, makes it last. But before Murugan could attend to our aruva, there were a few knives he had to sharpen, repair or reshape. We watched him as he worked. The knife handles are first wrapped with cloth and allowed to soak in water. ‘This lets you hold the knife after you’ve put it in the furnace’, Murugan explained. In the meanwhile, someone pumps air into the furnace. The blade is then put in the furnace and grass is piled on top; in a few minutes the blade glows red hot. It is then beaten into shape – one stroke with a heavy hammer to flatten the metal, and a lighter tap with a smaller hammer to fine-tune the shape and give the edge sharpness alternate in musical harmony.
It was then our aruva’s turn. After the blade is sharpened, the aruva is put in the furnace again, and the red hot metal is quickly dunked in icy water – ‘To give the blade strength’, the Master says. The edge is made sharper using a motorized grinder (the only modern equipment that’s used in the whole process), heated again in the furnace till the edge is hay-brown, and rubbed with sand. The aruva glints in the sun, the blade deadly sharp.
‘Our aruva is used only for good things’, Murugan says, ‘Not one has ever been used to do anyone harm’. The Master cares – it is his aruva!
*Thanks to Dina Nethisa Rasquinha for all the photos!