Aranmula Kannadi: Holding up a mirror to the rich culture of Kerala

aranmula kannadi

As a state steeped in natural bounty that has earned it the sobriquet of God’s own country, Kerala is an expanse of wonder in all its encompassments. Known for its luxurious backwaters and gorgeous landscape, this place in south India is a delight to behold in all its aesthetic entourage. Venturing beyond however and the green gorgeous land is also as much any cultural connoisseur’s dream come true. Steeped in cultural riches and ethnic treasures indigenous to it, the whole of Kerala is like a poetry in motion, one that beseeches its treasure trove of antiquities and uniquities in all their exclusive charm.

Mirroring this vibe peculiar to Kerala, of harbouring quaint charms and distinctive legacies, of sitting in such traditions that are as spellbinding as they are unique is the town of Aranmula and a couple of its encompassments. A temple town of the state some kilometers away from its capital city of Trivandrum, Aranmula is a global heritage site enlisted by the United Nations. Famous for the Aranmula Parthasarathy Temple from which it derives its name, the town however is also famous for quite a few other namesake attractions. Be it the wooden palace Aranmula Kottaram or the metal mirror Aranmula Kannadi, this is a temple town that goes beyond its religious significance. Dwelling however in such ‘magical’ fore that is only perhaps an extension of the divine, every element of Aranmula continues to be as intriguing as the heritage of the town itself.

Particularly with the Aranmula Kannadi, the intrigue is all the more riveting. This namesake mirror form the Keralian town is an exquisite piece of art as well as a specimen of craft indigenous to the region. Having received a Geographical Indication tag in 2004- 05, the mirrors are a definite identity marker of Aranmula while also continuing to hold within its fold such enigma that stems from its essence as being one of a kind. A reflecting mirror all right, the Aranmula Kannadi however is unique in that it isn’t any ordinary glass mirror. Or rather, a glass mirror at all for that matter. It is in fact a mirror made of an alloy of copper and tin, thereby making it quite distinctive and exclusive a reflecting surface. The first of Keralian elements, in fact of Indian craft presences to get the coveted GI tag, the manufacturing technique of the mirror is a closely guarded secret, thereby making it an item not just special but also endowing upon it a totally Keralian identity. Made to perfection by skilled local artisans who have been passed on the tricks of the trade through generations, the Aranmula Kannadi resides in such legacies that are as fascinating as its being.

It is noteworthy that the legacy of this mirror that is so assertive of the place it originates in stems also from another quintessential element of its culture, that of the Parthasarathy temple. Stemming back centuries ago when the king ordered the craftsmen to make a new crown for the reigning temple deity in three days since the old crown was broken, the mirrors find their place in royal history. What worried the craftsmen back then was the immediate deadline which was difficult for them to meet as they had no raw material at their disposal. It is said that the wife of the chief craftsman prayed to the Lord and had a dream whereby she was instructed the secret proportion for creating an alloy that would shine like a mirror. Instructions were followed and the raw materials procured and a bright crown was made which when polished, glistened like a mirror. So much so that it even came to be called the kannadi bhimbom (mirror image). Mighty impressed by the Vishwakarma artisans who were were brought from Sankarancoil in Tamil Nadu to Aranmula for the construction work of the Aranmula temple, the King arranged for their stay near the Theke nada of the temple. The artisans obliged and over time took to working on a vaal kannadi or hand mirror using similar composition of materials they had made the crown with. In the place of esteem that these mirrors came to beget in the Keralian royalty, they very soon became decreed by the king to be a part of the ashtamangalyam set, a brass plate comprising eight auspicious items now so integral to Keralian weddings, functions and religious ceremonies.

Beyond its residing in folklore, the Aranmula Kannadi continues to hold place of prestige also in its sheer shine that which has rendered it quite a wondrous specimen of modern metallurgy. Quite a beauty in its reflective lustre as well as in its golden hued polished edges, the mirror is not just an artifact shrouded in history, it also is a worthy collectible of the modern age. The Aranmula Kannadi also is quite expensive for a mirror- with prices that range from around Rs 3000 for a 3 inch buy going up to as massive as Rs 100,000, the kannadi definitely is a prized possession for those aware of the tremendous legacy it beholds. Even without the legacy though, these pieces of tremendous reflect would still command hefty prices considering how painstakingly elaborate the craft that goes into its making tends to be. That, combined with the craft being the secret treasure of only a handful of artisans currently and you can well imagine just how elusive a beauty this piece of non glassy mirror happens to be.

What makes the Aranmula mirror so special is that it forms an exclusively reflecting surface, that which holds no any scope for refraction of light. Which means that the image produced therein is the truest representation of the object, without even the slightest of distortions. A metal-alloy mirror or first surface mirror or front surface reflection mirror, unlike plane glass mirrors where reflection takes place on the back surface of the glass where the reflective coating is applied, the Aranmula Kannadi produces the reflection on the top metal surface. This essentially eliminates any scope for aberration, giving the impression of an image that is just another copy of the image itself. Unlike ordinary glass mirrors where a certain gap is deciphered between the object and the image even when placed attached to the mirror, the Aranmula mirror eliminated all such ‘impressions’. In its impressive tactic therefore, the Aranmula is no any ordinary mirror, it indeed is the king of all mirrors! No wonder, a 45 cm tall wonder piece of the Aranmula Kannadi is preserved in the British Museum located at London, UK.

Crafting this royal piece of artifact however is no easy job. The process starts with making the alloy which is then cast with a mud mold in a furnace fanned by a fire. As the molds cool down, they are broken to reveal the crude version of the mirror which is then cut, filed and polished to arrive at its exact shine and its characteristic reflective surface. Only after that are the mirrors mounted on a brass frame to arrive at an exquisite specimen of craftmanship that stuns with the mere sight of it. But even when being residers in an alloy and not in glass like other mirrors, the Aranmula specimens are still brittle, tending to break with every fall. This feature also makes it easy to discern whether the kannadi you are ravishing about is indeed a piece of art or just a figment of fraudery. The discerning judgement however comes at a price- easily a few thousand of the Indian rupees you would have to shell out to covet one of them.

The Aranmula Kannadi might be an artifact of Kerala rooted in heritage and culture and that which spans the modern day encompassment of prestige and pride. But in its essence the mirror is also as reflective of the green gorgeousness of the state it projects. The making of the Aranmula mirror is quite an environment friendly exploration of craftmanship as well. Locally sourced eco friendly materials basically make up this phenomenon of real reflection, even as the waste generated is minimum and most of the materials are recycled for further use. The alloy pieces can be re- melted while the mold bits can be ground again, making for a craft as rooted in the sanctity of the environment as it is in the sanctity of the object it imagifies. No wonder with such minute attention to detail and utmost care and concern for the environment, this very thoughtful way of going about the craft means that Aranmula kannadas cannot be produced in bulk. A maximum of a 15 mirrors can be made per month by per artisan which explains its high price on the back of its cherished importance. Of course, demand for the Aranmula Kannadi is high among those who know its worth. Considered to be a symbol of luck and one that suppossedly has positivity emanating from it, the mirror makes for quite revered gifts at auspicious occasions, and therefore sees a surge in demand particularly during the Onam celebrations in the state. In their meticulous craftsmanship that involves long hours of toil with mud and fire, the manufacturing of the mirror itself is no less auspicious a process. Commencing with the offering of prayers, every Aranmula Kannadi is still hand crafted with devotion by the same extended family in Aranmula. In its rich history and crystal clear reflection, the mirror is also a heritage in keeping. The proper maintenance of the mirror is as much an art as its manufacturing process itself. Well, not so much but the Aranmula Kannadi does have a set mechanism for maintenance. Required to be kept away from heat and dust and at room temperature, the mirror even need to be wiped of marks and spots in only a prescribed direction!

kathakali face model aranmula kannadi

In its legacy that stems back to sometime in the 18th century, the making of the Aranmula Kannadis is somewhat of a dying craft, the revival of which has only been augured in recent times more by the efforts of the artisans themselves and the many diggers of history rather than by the government. For a craft however, rooted in such antiquity, the Aranmula Kannada definitely has shone in its realest light for centuries hence and continues to reflect even today the true nature of things. The many mirrors of the society might have failed evolution today but not this gem of a mirror, the Aranmula Kannadi.