Varaq: The Ancient Arts of the Precious Metal Leaf-Beaters

The glitter and glitz of precious metals defined royalty, flaunted wealth and symbolized status and power with alchemists innovating ways to satisfy the ever-growing pursuit for the new, the inventive and the bespoke.

By Craft Revival Trust

Nathdwara Pichwai by Varaq (Ritual)Original Source: Text and Photo from: 'Making Varaq: The Ancient Arts of the Precious Metal Leaf-Beaters', Edited by Ritu Sethi, Published by Global InCH International Journal of Intangible Cultural Heritage

Some of these ancient techniques continue and among them is the arts of Varaq, the micro-thin hand-beaten precious metal leaf of gold and silver

Varaq work done by Shakil Baig and his family. Dome of a worship place designed by VaraqOriginal Source: Text and Photo from: 'Making Varaq: The Ancient Arts of the Precious Metal Leaf-Beaters', Edited by Ritu Sethi, Published by Global InCH International Journal of Intangible Cultural Heritage

Varaq is used in ways both sacred and secular the material adapted to myriad uses. From gilding icons and deities, ritual and decorative objects of stone and wood to being applied onto wall murals and interiors. Its applications on paintings extending from detailed miniatures to the ritual painted textile Pichwais of Nathdwar, Rajasthan. Manuscripts illuminated with gold leaf, gold-tooled leather bookbinding to edge-gilding of books. 

Varaq on Shoulder mantleOriginal Source: Text and Photo from: 'Making Varaq: The Ancient Arts of the Precious Metal Leaf-Beaters', Edited by Ritu Sethi, Published by Global InCH International Journal of Intangible Cultural Heritage

Its extensive use in textiles from clothing to ceremonial and ritual flags and in the past on palanquin covers and tent hangings.

Use of Varaq on Mithai (Dessert/Sweet)Original Source: Text and Photo from: 'Making Varaq: The Ancient Arts of the Precious Metal Leaf-Beaters', Edited by Ritu Sethi, Published by Global InCH International Journal of Intangible Cultural Heritage

Additionally an intrinsic part of the MateriaMedica of Ayurvedic and Yunani healing systems, its use continues in ancient cosmetic recipes. And of course the ubiquitous presence of edible gold and silver Varaq on special-occasion Indian foods from confectioneries, desserts and nuts to the biryani.

Varaq RibbonOriginal Source: Text and Photo from: 'Making Varaq: The Ancient Arts of the Precious Metal Leaf-Beaters', Edited by Ritu Sethi, Published by Global InCH International Journal of Intangible Cultural Heritage

Process : Gold and silver biscuits are flattened in  a roller machine into ribbon-like strips. These are cut and interleaved between sheets of high tensile strength paper. 

Process of making VaraqOriginal Source: Text and Photo from: 'Making Varaq: The Ancient Arts of the Precious Metal Leaf-Beaters', Edited by Ritu Sethi, Published by Global InCH International Journal of Intangible Cultural Heritage

In decades past these separator sheets were made of animal gut but this is no longer the case.

Process of making Varaq by Hammering the pouchOriginal Source: Text and Photo from: 'Making Varaq: The Ancient Arts of the Precious Metal Leaf-Beaters', Edited by Ritu Sethi, Published by Global InCH International Journal of Intangible Cultural Heritage

The interleaved sheets are placed in a pouch and the leaf-beaters ambidextrous skill is now on display. With one hand he rhythmically hammers the pouch while without pause the other hand rotates it clockwise ensuring an evenly beaten surface. This process goes on for 3 to 4 hours till the metal ribbon has expanded to the micron required.    

Varaq-final productOriginal Source: Text and Photo from: 'Making Varaq: The Ancient Arts of the Precious Metal Leaf-Beaters', Edited by Ritu Sethi, Published by Global InCH International Journal of Intangible Cultural Heritage

In the next stage the women of the community transfer the Varaq with incredible gentleness on to individual sheets. Inspite of the heat the fan is not turned on as even a breath of air can displace and break-up the delicate micro-fine Varaq

Varaq work on the ceiling by AfzalOriginal Source: Text and Photo from: 'Making Varaq: The Ancient Arts of the Precious Metal Leaf-Beaters', Edited by Ritu Sethi, Published by Global InCH International Journal of Intangible Cultural Heritage

Equally adept in the arts of applying the Varaq the services of several members of the Pannigrahi community are often called on  by luxury hotels and homes and places of worship to gild walls, ceilings, furniture and other objects.

AfzalOriginal Source: Text and Photo from: 'Making Varaq: The Ancient Arts of the Precious Metal Leaf-Beaters', Edited by Ritu Sethi, Published by Global InCH International Journal of Intangible Cultural Heritage

However, all that glitters is not gold as the makers live in relative obscurity across the many centres in India as these gossamer leaf-beaters of precious metals whose craft we see around us continue to remain unknown.

Credits: Story

Ritu Sethi, Asia InCH Encyclopedia

Credits: All media
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