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Shankhari


Shankhari (shell artisan) an occupational group specialised in shell cutting and making ornaments such as bracelets, earrings, rings, etc. Tradition ascribes the origin of shankharis to one Dhanapati Saudagar of Karnataka. His descendants became specialised in shell cutting and over time grew into a trade caste. Shankharis have the Brahmanical gotras and observe the same taboos and rituals as of the higher castes. Traditionally, child marriage, polygamy, widow-remarriage and joint family systems were common institutions among shankharis. Widows are not normally allowed to marry again, nor is divorce recognised. Nearly all shankharis belong to the Vaisnava sect and comparatively few Shaktas are found among them. Castewise, shankharis rank with the Navasakha. brahmans take water and sweetmeats from them. Their own rule regarding diets on various occasions are the same as those of the highest castes. Many shankharis are vegetarians.

Cutting conch shell

Trade in shell products has always been brisk. Shell products are commonly used in Hindu ceremonies. There is evidence that Bengal shell products were exported in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries on quite a large scale. Terracotta evidences suggest that shell-bracelets were exported to south India even during the ancient period. The centres of shankha craft were dhaka, barisal, dinajpur, rangpur and sylhet. Now shankhas of the traditional type are almost exclusively made in a mahalla (block) in old Dhaka called Shankhari Patti. The way shankharis cut the shell with a sharp edged instrument is called samata.  

The next step is to reduce the front edge of the shell with the sharp saw called majar deya. The procedure of making the shell rounded and plain is called jhapani. Main instruments for shell craft are saw, bamboo stick, wooden wheel etc. The ingredients such as sand, incense, and mustard oil taken in a wooden saucer are used to smoothen the inner portion of the shell. With the help of steel, chisel shells are embossed with different creative designs. Shell products are now widely manufactured as a cottage industry in the coastal areas, particularly in cox's bazar. But artisans of such manufactures are not associated with any caste or religion. [Sharmin Naaz]