Unlocking a famous traditional heritage of Aligarh

aligarh locks

A city bubbling forth in effervescence with the many myriad traits of character running across its strands of time tested existence, the identity of Aligarh is a multifaceted expression of its dynamism that refuses to remain confined within the singular lores of a land steeped indeed in the remarkable legacy of its history as well as the exuberance exuded by its realm of the cultural. Known as famously for being a university town in housing the Aligarh Muslim University as in its earlier prominence as Sabzabad or the green country, this city in the state of Uttar Pradesh in India is also however remarkable in another aspect of its being- of hosting an element in continuity that lends it an altogether different place of pride in not just an Indian but the entire global context. World renowned for its locks and lock industry is this city that makes also for one of Uttar Pradesh’s important business centers, manifesting through this identity an exclusive essence of it that has earned it coveted global attention.

As the place where the lock industry took shape in India, Aligarh no doubt rests in a credible importance that goes a long way in justifying its pan world presence and fame. Taking pride in producing some of the sturdiest and strongest locks that hold the key to many a safe and secure worlds of varied dimensions is Aligarh’s reputed resting in its almost heritage status of the industry that has come to define intricately a large part of its identity. But it isn’t just the quality and quantity of the locks that the city produces every year in enormous measure that has made it the point of attraction when it comes to its indigenous industry grappling though still with numerous issues of complicated continuity. Equally capturing of attention has been the unique mannerisms in which this world of the locks unfolds as not just an industry but also as a craft of traditional stemming that has today come to be so integral to the historical as well as cultural identity of Aligarh.

Known aptly as the lock city of India or more colloquially as Tala Nagri, locks of all shapes and sizes and designs and features are turned out from within the numerous lock making units in Aligarh that has been practising this craft of imbibing beauty in practicality for centuries. Believed to date back to the times of the Mughal rule but without much detailed history of its origins, the lock industry of Aligarh has grown from its unorganised roots to being the significant definer of its identity today, owing its incorporation into the mainstream of its economy that has since come to be a prominent feature of its being. While it had been the premises of the handmade on which Aligarh kickstarted its journey along the lock crafting path and on which still thrives the exquisite fame of it, the entire industry is much more evolved in the present times, having been streamlined by the British sometime during the turn of the 19th century to manifest it more as an economic activity. But the crafty core of the industry still has sustained its remarkable presence in all alacrity as even today, locks from Aligarh are valued not just for their strength and durability but also in the visage of beauty afforded by them.

A distinct brand in itself, the unique world of the Aligarh locks reveals in truly aesthetic expressions as well, wowing one and all with such locks that can be shaped like anything from a fish to an owl to camels and elephants and everything that you would never believe a lock to be, beyond its standard structure and universal design, manifesting thus as an art form that however today risks fading into the dark lanes of oblivion. Even in its history, the expertise and craftsmanship of Aligarh’s lock makers has been evident with variations like puzzle locks, locks with different keys, handcuff (hathkadi ) locks, intricately designed ones, or those with false holes existing ever since its inception as an industry of unique potential. These brass locks indeed present themselves as very arty depictions of expertise and talent, hanging from doors like some display in decoration even when they perform indeed the most important function of securing up your confines. Handmade since ancientries but today embracing the demands of the time to be mostly mechanised an industry that can manage to keep up with the increasing competition in the market, the lock industry of Aligarh encompasses still the distinct reputation that had made it the global phenomenon that it is today.

fish lock
Source: The Hindu

Today though the handcrafted Aligarh locks that double up effectively as exquisite pieces of ornamentation cater instead to the domains of the many dying arts, that are pricey and stylish but of little value in a world that prioritise substance over style. This despite the fact that even the most artistically crafted locks of the town are steeped as much in the requirements of safety as in style, coming with triple locking mechanism even as the double lock style is also purported to be an Aligarh invention. As such styles of locks that do not open entirely even with the right key, it is indeed evident that the craftsmanship of the many lock makers who have been continuing the Aligarh lineage of this trade for years is rather steeped in the tricks of the traditional mode of business that flourished at one point of time in history under royal and then under imperial patronage.

While the exact origins and history of how this world famous lock industry came to find its footing in Aligarh are not known, there is no doubt that the easy availability of raw materials for the lock making process as well as the readily available supply of skilled labour is what made this city the center of the lock producing business. In fact so adept are Aligarh’s legions of lock makers in their craft that they can produce anywhere between 30 to 40 locks by hand every day, not compromising though in any way with the superior quality of their fare and retaining therefore their worldwide fame. But despite such a unique mode of culture pertaining to the entire expanses of the vivid city, the present day condition of the industry is not particularly appealing. With cheap, imported machine made locks flooding the markets, Aligarh have had no choice but to streamline their trade to meet the mechanised demands even as infrastructural loopholes and the poor working conditions of the workers engaged in the industry have pushed the industry into a situation of impending doom. Apart from these, socio- economic and environmental issues like pollution, child labour, lack of incentives on the part of the government and many such factors have contributed to take the sheen out of an industry that continue though to make the economy of the state richer by an annual turnover of some 200 crores.

But beyond the explorations of realms pertaining to the economic and the heritage, the lock industry of Aligarh continues to be a significantly remarkable identity in itself, traversing a path that makes it an existence so in sync with the singular premises of the nation through which it has come to be. The famous lock making exploits of Aligarh have embarked also along a diametrically different path of what traverses the notions of the social and the cultural as well, presenting across its operations the working of a communal harmony so essential to India’s pursuit of preserving the unity in its diversity. As a city of a mixed Hindu- Muslim presence, Aligarh has managed to unlock the potential that resides in every expression of communal harmony through their pursuit of a passion that is a very important part of their history and continuity. In its timeless practice therefore of the lock and key trade, Aligarh has managed to achieve something much mere global fame- the dynamically diversive city has indeed furthered its own pride of harbouring the essence of a truly inclusive Indian existence.