There is fire everywhere. Fire burns at a corner heating an iron rod. Sparks prick your legs and hands and sometimes leaves a hole in your dress. And the clash between hammer and iron rods goes on.
Heat and that monotonous clang hit you as soon as you get down at Thirupachethi Village on the Rameswaram Road. The workshops on the roadsides are the source of both.
Dung-washed floors decorated with kolams and wooden planks do give you some respite from the feeling of entering a mammoth oven.
“Thirupachethi is synonymous with hand-made swords, knifes and sickles," says B. Vijayakumar, a fourth-generation sickle maker. He predicts a bleak future for the tradition. "Soon, these weapons and the tradition of making them will march into museums to remain there as mere displays."
Vijayakumar learnt the trade and the tradition from his father, Baluchamy Aasari, who got his lessons from his father and forefathers.
Till four months ago, Vijayakumar and his father made four to five gleaming sickles and knives in the small workshop in a day. Together they hammered out strips of iron into blades, heated knives to strengthen them and prevent brittleness, and bent, shaped and designed them with wooden grips and handles. Now, Baluchamy Asari, 76, is away from work due to his old age.
Vijayakumar now depends on a labourer for hammering out iron into a blade. If Kannan fails, Vijayakumar is forced to sit idle as hammering is the first process and it needs two persons.
“I can make all processes singlehandedly except for hammering,” he says. “Thirupachethi sickles have a thick bend and sharp tip resembling a peacock’s head. This unique feature adds beauty and majesty to the product."
Unlike the sickles sold in the city, which often get bent, Thirupachethi sickles break. The raw material used is ‘orukku’, a kind of iron. Usually, Vijayakumar buys these broken iron strips (used in cars, buses and lorries) from the Sunday market in Madurai.
According to Vijayakumar, a ban was imposed 25 years ago on the making of swinging aruvals and swords that can be used as weapons. No one knows the exact reasons behind the ban.
Palanivelrajan, a villager, says that stringent laws banning the making of the ‘veechu aruval’ and its like were invoked following the 1997 carnage between two communities.
R. Bharath, a 21-year-old, fourth-generation sickle maker, says that he has thorough knowledge about the weapon-making tradition. “What will I do if you are not allowing me to do a job which we have been passing on from generations to generations?”
“We are so adept at making the sickles and swords. We design weapons just by looking at a model and design shown in films. For us it is not a weapon but a medium to show our skill,” he says.
This traditional profession has its hazards. Sparks and serrated iron pieces can hit a smith's eyes, damaging the corneas. Heavy, red-hot rods are always unsafe to handle, and iron workers must be careful when sharpening blades and hammering hot metal. However, Vijayakumar, Bharath and his relatives are more worried about the ban and the waning tradition that is unique to Thirupachethi’s Aasari community.
Now, the number of workshops has dwindled to eight from 20 while a couple of ironsmiths are trying their hands at making grill doors and windows.
It is believed that in 1800s, Marudhu Brothers made Aasari community members to settle at Thirupachethi village, which supplied weapons to the Brothers for battling against the British army.
“We make all kinds of weapons and accessories necessary for agriculture. But with mechanization, villagers have limited needs. On the other hand, the rich want to buy swords and knives for decorative purpose. But because of the ban we are unable to cater to their needs,” he says.
The only solace for these sickle makers is temple festivals of village deities that carry tall swords. “It is the main source of survival,” says Vijayakumar, who made an 18 ft sword for a village temple.
“Films have portrayed that aruvals are for killing only and of course, it is partially true," says Palanivelrajan, a villager. "The fact is that the aruval making has a tradition of its own and it involves artistic skills which these aasari community members are good at."
“Who will carry out this tradition if bearers of the tradition are not allowed to practice the trade?" he asks. "Authorities say that they have banned weapon making to lessen the crime rate. But has it really helped? ”
None knows how long the clash between hammer and iron rods will continue in Thirupachethi.