Through the looking glass...

BACK & FORTH

Sashi Sivramkrishna & Sandeep Rao visit Mathodu, a large centre for glass manufacturing in early colonial south India. The duo retrace Francis Buchanan’s ‘Journey’, which records the process of bangle-making in the region.

The year 2011 was drawing to a close. It was vacation time. The weather was perfect; cool, dry and clear blue skies.

From the abundant choice of locations around Bangalore, we finally settled on a slightly lesser-known one; the Vani Vilas Sagara dam near Hiriyur. And we could make it a little more adventurous by visiting Mathodu en route. Mathodu? But why? The hesitation among the group members was hardly surprising. Mathodu is not exactly a tourist spot.

Over the last few years, we have retraced parts of Francis Buchanan’s ‘Journey’, a survey of erstwhile Mysore and other regions of southern India carried out during the years 1800-01. Buchanan had visited Muteodu, now Mathodu, and reported something that we thought would be fascinating to investigate, glass-making.

Mathodu was perhaps the largest centre for glass manufacturing in pre- and early-colonial southern India. This glass was used for making bangles and the excess produced was sold in large quantities to “bangri-makers from the westwards”. The bangles were made in five colours: black, green, red, yellow and blue, and interestingly, the black ones most in demand.

The glass itself was made from local materials, all found in the neighbourhood of the village. A mixture made of alkaline mud or soulu mannu collected from fields, quartz sand and various ores like kemudu (red iron ore) and copper that acted as dyes was put into a furnace where it burned for as many as 15 days and nights before being wrought into bangles.

The furnaces were rather large, of about eight feet in diameter and ten feet in height, in which some 50 to 100 crucibles containing the mixture were placed. Buchanan describes the glass as “opaque and very coarse”, perhaps more like porcelain than the transparent type.

Asking the locals
We took the road from Tumkur to Huliyar and then further westwards, deviating northwards before Hosadurga. We stopped at a small provision store just as we entered the village, introduced ourselves and asked the woman behind the counter whether someone could tell us more about glass manufactured here several decades ago.

“Glass. Of course. They used to make it right behind that fort wall over there,” she said, pointing to what looked like a mantapa in ruins. “Go along that mud path and you can see where the glass was made”. This had to be the place. We recalled reading Buchanan’s record that the “furnaces are constructed in a high terrace, which is built against the inside of the town wall.”

A sketch made by him also showed the town wall alongside the furnace. By this time, a few other villagers had joined us and were quite excited to find people from Bangalore coming in search of glass-making. And, as usual, showing them a copy of Buchanan’s Journey only deepened their interest. “You mean someone from England wrote about Mathodu 200 years ago? Is this a sketch of the furnaces at Mathodu?”

References to Mathodu
We were led to the area where the furnaces were supposedly located. While looking around, we saw small patches of the “white efflorescence” or soda on the soil. People call it choulu mannu, the same as soulu mannu that Buchanan speaks of, used extensively for washing clothes.

Benjamin Heyne, another surveyor appointed by the East India Company, published a volume entitled ‘Tracts’ in 1814, dedicating an entire chapter to the ‘Description of Glass Works at Matod’ in which he refers to this soda as “washerman’s earth”; surely a close fit between what we were hearing and what Buchanan and Heyne had recorded. But we wanted to see that one small piece of hard evidence.

Unfortunately, there were no traces of the furnaces although we were told that just about twenty years ago, they were intact. Neither were the villagers positive about finding any old bangles made from Mathodu glass. Our disappointment soon turned to contentment when we were shown pieces of discarded crucibles with a layer of glazed porcelain clinging to their sides. It felt as if we had found what we were looking for.  Could we say how old the crucibles might be? Not really, because no one knew for sure when glass-making at Mathodu ceased. But there were some answers to this question in other published works.

The ‘Imperial Gazetteer’ of 1881 and B L Rice’s ‘Gazetteer’ of 1897 state that the Mathodu glass works, though operational, were on the decline. Dewan Bahadur L K Ananthakrishna Iyer, however, in his classic work of 1930, ‘Mysore Tribes and Castes’ unequivocally reported “till very recently, the glass used in the manufacture of bangles was made at Mattod...”

From this we inferred that the Mathodu glass works may have ceased operations c.1920s. One major cause of the decline in glass-making, just as our earlier work on iron smelting in this same region had revealed, may well have been scarcity of fuel (charcoal) that arose from deforestation and regulated access to forests.

Our village friends insisted that we meet the local village head. He was thrilled to find so much written about his village in Buchanan’s Journey and Heyne’s Tracts. But his remark that we were perhaps the first people to come here in recent times in search of Mathodu’s glass works made us feel that this detour was indeed worthwhile. Before leaving we thought we should point out something else that Buchanan reports.

It is an extremely insightful comment, recorded at Mathodu on May 5, 1801: “The Vedawati is distant one coss to the west. Its banks, according to the natives, afford many places where dams might be formed to great advantage. At a place called Mari Canavay, they say, that by building a mound between two hills 500 yards distant, an immense reservoir might be formed, which would convert a large proportion of the Heriuru district (Taluc) into rice-grounds.”

More than a century later, Karnataka’s first modern dam was built precisely at this point. It was time for us to leave Mathodu for the Vani Vilas Sagara dam built on the river Vedavati at Mari Kanive.

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