The traditional swordsmiths of Udaipur

At 90, Heeralal may just be the only surviving artisan of a centuries-old craft

January 26, 2019 04:00 pm | Updated 04:00 pm IST

Rare craft: Ghanshyam and his wife sharpen a sword

Rare craft: Ghanshyam and his wife sharpen a sword

There’s a din in the air and before me is a riot of colours. I am in Udaipur’s City Palace that is hosting its 4th World Living Heritage festival, where, despite all the brouhaha, I am drawn to an old man polishing a sword with what appears to be a wooden wheel held in place by a rotating stand. This is Heeralal, 90, perhaps the last surviving sikligar, or traditional swordsmith.

Sikligars from Rajasthan polish, furbish and make swords as well as restore and sharpen old ones. Some 400-500 years ago they were a nomadic community and part of the king’s entourage during battle.

Vandana Singh, Centre for Art Conservation & Research Experts, New Delhi, has worked with the community for over seven years. She says: “These craftsmen inherited their skill down the generations. The craft itself was a closely guarded secret and not documented anywhere. I spoke to many families and found that only one person, Heeralal, continues to practise the craft in the traditional way.”

Like my soul

The craftsmen use rudimentary tools to polish the blades of the sword — emery stone, ash, horse shoe, ferni (a blade-sharpening machine) and deer horns for buffing as they don’t leave scratches on the blade’s surface. Swordsmiths also use chapadi, a mixture of river sand and lac melted together, to fix the handles on the sword blades.

Intricately carved sheathed daggers

Intricately carved sheathed daggers


The swords then go into an oven or batti and are quenched with sesame oil. In earlier times, the swords would only be tempered on moonless nights when the blade would gleam true.

Heeralal’s son Ghanshyam speaks of how his grandfather worked with the royals, polishing and maintaining their swords. “He used to say the sword must be polished with traditional tools and not machines so that the temper is maintained. It also helped that in the past the quality of the iron used was superlative, which is not the case today. We shape the swords by hand just like sculptors,” he says.

For Heeralal, the sword means everything. “It’s like my soul,” he says. “I don’t worry whether I make money or not. I value it far too much to let it go.”

Magical powers

The swordsmith Heeralal

The swordsmith Heeralal

During Navratri, in Heeralal’s village Ameth, swords are placed before an idol of the goddess Durga and worshipped. They are believed to gain magical powers. “The swords are then viewed entirely differently, as spiritually charged ritual objects,” says Singh. After the nine days of festivities, the sword is taken out on a procession, as villagers dance with swords while some of them strike themselves with it by way of asking for forgiveness for past sins.

Traditional conservation techniques are part of the ‘Arm and Armours’ project at the City Palace, and Shriji Arvind Singh Mewar of Udaipur is overseeing the effort. Singh and her team are working on cleaning, conserving and restoring as well as documenting the weapons in the armoury here. They are also merging traditional smithing with advanced nano materials to restore and repair old swords. “Carbon fibres and carbon nanotubes have been used as the reinforced materials and pure lac is used as a matrix material. These are non-toxic and biodegradable,” says Singh.

A carved sword handle

A carved sword handle


However, as with most things traditional, the challenge is the lack of demand. Sikligars now use their skills to make scissors.

But Singh and her team have begun to document the dying art by interviewing the remaining swordsmiths and organising live demonstrations to rekindle interest in the art form. The sikligars might yet get another innings.

The freelance writer and photographer from Bengaluru seeks offbeat experiences through travel.

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