Daggers drawn: Amritsar’s kirpan industry losing its cutting edge to China
Cheaper machine-made Chinese daggers have flooded the market, rendering local units out of business. Though the quality of the Amritsari kirpan is arguably better, the impact can be seen as the city that once housed hundreds of manufacturing units can today boast of only 30 to 40.punjab Updated: Jun 03, 2017 21:00 IST
Once a flourishing business and a reliable source of income for hundreds of skilled workers, Amritsar’s kirpan-making industry is gradually losing its cutting edge. The onslaught of machine-made Chinese daggers has dealt a blow to the industry, leading to the closure of several small-scale units in the past two decades.
The Chinese daggers are attractive, cheaper and available in bulk. This has rendered local artisans jobless as Amritsari kirpans are crafted manually and take time making. Though the quality of the Amritsari kirpan is arguably better than the Chinese dagger, the impact can be seen as the city that once housed hundreds of such manufacturing units can today boast of only 30 to 40.
“The competition from the machine-made Chinese daggers that are offloaded in bulk has taken a toll. It is tough for local manufacturers to keep up with this competition,” says Rajkumar Mehra, who manages the over three-decade-old Sardar Kirpan House. The shop’s owner, Jagdish Singh, died a few years ago and Mehra is running the shop on behalf of Jagdish’s sons, who are settled abroad. “We have not shut it down as per the wishes of Jagdish Singh,” he says.
Demand and supply
Most of these units are on the stretch from Sultanwind Gate to the Kulfi Wali Gali. The kirpan-making factories are housed in dingy single-room units. The units are in a pitiable state despite the availability of skilled workers, machinery and raw material. There are only two to three workers employed at each kirpan-making unit today.
The artisans make iron, steel and wooden kirpans, ranging from three to15 inches besides bigger versions of 2-3 feet called talwars (swords). The units supply the kirpans to retail shops, meet orders from visiting non-resident Indians besides organisers of religious fairs and Sikh weddings.
The kirpans range from Rs 50 to Rs 2,500. The price is determined by the metal and the length besides the quality of the handle and the sheath. The maximum export is of Taksali and sarab loh (iron) kirpans.
“NRI Sikhs who partake of amrit (holy nectar) are the ones who order these kirpans,” says Ashwini Kumar, the owner of Guru Kirpa Kirpan House.
Kumar says the maximum demand is for kirpans that cost between Rs 100 and Rs 600. Though there is less demand for antique kirpans, they can cost more than Rs 20,000.
Another factory owner, Daljit Singh Niku, says, “There is no dearth of potential in Amritsar. The Punjab government should step forward to revive this industry by enrolling unemployed youth. The Chinese sword import should be restricted so that the local industry can benefit.”
A collective turnover of the units is difficult to ascertain as every kirpan unit functions independently.
“There was a time in the ’80s when we had hundreds of units but ,after Operation Bluestar, business was hit. Today, Amritsar is left with barely 30-40 units, including small and big factories.”
“There are six such units in the Sultanwind area; a few in East Mohan Nagar, Dana Mandi and on the 100 Feet Road. They work independently. There is no association. The industry is divided between manufacturers and retailers. Each has its own turnover as prices vary from production till the shop counter. Decades ago, kirpan-making was a big industry but today everyone is earning their own livelihood and only 30 units are left,” says Niku, who has been running a factory in Sultanwind for more than three decades.
Kewal Krishan Mehra, who is into polishing, buffing, and finishing kirpans for four decades, says, “We are in such a fix that even if we know that this industry is hit by slump, we can’t leave this trade. Kirpan-making is the only skill we have.”
“At times, we’ve made 80 kirpans a day but there is no fixed turnover.”
Krishan says there are no fixed profits anymore. There are days when a unit may have no work, but there are days when he gets an order to make 30-40 kirpans of various sizes and prices. “At times, we’ve made 80 kirpans a day but there is no fixed turnover,” he says.
That’s a fry cry from the 1,000 kirpans such factories churned out daily in the ’90s
Bluestar hit biz
“Unlike Amritsar, Dehradun has emerged as a big market for the sword industry. There was a time in the ’80s when I had hundreds of units running in the holy city but after Operation Bluestar, business was hit. It triggered shutdowns. Today, Amritsar is left with barely 30-40 units, including small and big factories,” Krishan adds.
In 1984, kirpan factories closed down for six months following Operation Bluestar. The overseas market has also been shrinking. The law forbids the export of sharp-edged weapons but they are sent to the unlikeliest markets such as Uganda and Cyprus but most go to the US, the UK, Germany and Japan.
Lovely Sagar, who makes copper-based kirpan covers and etches them with meenakari carving, admits Amritsari daggers are time and labour intensive. Another worker, Michael, who makes wooden kirpans from tali wood, says the only way to beat the Chinese daggers and ward off competition is to boost the local industry with government help.
Baljeet Singh, 50, a shopkeeper on the Heritage stretch to the Golden Temple has been in the trade since the age of 20. He says Chinese swords in the market may be the reason for the fall of the industry but the effect of demonetisation can’t be denied. He says the demand of Chinese daggers is temporary as the quality is no match for locally made kirpans. “Customers are aware about the superior quality and prefer Amritsari ceremonial talwars and kirpans. The attractiveness of the Chinese daggers gets them customers initially,” he says.
History is witness that the kirpan and Amritsar have remained inextricably linked. Sixth Sikh guru Hargobind started carrying the kirpan to denote temporal and spiritual authority in the 16th century. Legend has it that he collected the best among the region’s swordsmiths and resettled them around Golden Temple.
In 1699, the industry got a boost when the 10th guru, Gobind Singh, ordained the kirpan as one of the five icons of Sikhism. Eventually, Amritsar would become the main contributor to Maharaja Ranjit Singh’s armoury.As times changed, the kirpan lost its martial importance.
Once crafted for battles, it is now a handicraft for ceremonial wear. The product is popular at Sikh festivals of Maghi and Baisakhi. Apart from being a symbol of Sikhism, a kirpan is traditionally important at marriages. Amritsari kirpans find takers in other states during Ram Navami, Muharram and Diwali.
Amritsar has even supplied silver or gold-plated kirpans to the army. It makes for an apt farewell memento, too.
The first power-run kirpan factory came up in the 1940s. Since no licence was required for making kirpans in Punjab, the number of such factories grew rapidly. They led to scores of ancilliary units opening up. Jobs were generated and factories churned out 1,000 kirpans daily in the ’90s.