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India’s God factory thrives – in China

India’s constant demand for gods has saved atheist China’s biggest ‘Hindu god factory’ from the global recession. Indian consumers are also inspiring more Chinese to learn the tricky art of mass-producing cut-price gods with names they cannot pronounce, writes Reshma Patil.

world Updated: Jun 07, 2009 02:49 IST
Reshma Patil

India’s constant demand for gods has saved atheist China’s biggest ‘Hindu god factory’ from the global recession.

Indian consumers are also inspiring more Chinese to learn the tricky art of mass-producing cut-price gods with names they cannot pronounce.

Across south China, known as the world’s export factory, sinking markets in the US and Europe have crippled over 67,000 factories and left 20-30 million migrants unemployed since last year.

But the Chinese workers, who make 40 Hindu gods per person per day in a factory in southeast China’s Quanzhou near Taiwan, are clocking overtime 7-10 pm shifts to make the Ganesha you will buy in Mumbai or Gurgaon.

These 120-150 workers from rural China, who don’t know the names of any of the gods they mould and paint, can make 1,000 idols of any style in 45 days — cheaper than Indian artisans. When Hindustan Times visited them, not a single worker paused from the task at hand to look up.

“The demand for Hindu gods is always stable in India, but US buyers of gods stopped coming,” said Donna Du, an English major graduate who started the factory in 2004 to make sculptures of couples and doves for India’s Valentine’s Day and Friendship Day. But the religious demand grew so fast that the factory decided to focus exclusively on Hindu gods.

The lightweight and hollow idols travel in a container packed with 1,000 cartons — each carton crammed with 144, 288 or over 300 pieces — on the ancient maritime silk route. The idols are sent by road from coastal Quanzhou to Xiamen port, and then by sea via Hong Kong or Singapore to Mumbai..

“India’s economy is still growing, so demand is good,” said Donna, who remembers the names of only Sai Baba, Krishna and Ganesha. “Inexperienced Chinese competitors are trying to make Ganeshas, but they make mistakes, like the trunk on the wrong side.”

Quanzhou is surrounded by the world’s shoe factories making over one billion pairs of sneakers every year. But the young Indians who travel here every three months head to this lesser-known factory where the Chinese take the Ganesha global.

The factory’s showpiece is an air-conditioned sample room stacked with idols of at least a dozen gods in all sizes and a table with a maroon velvet tablecloth. Here, the Indians meet manager Chen who doesn’t speak English or Hindi and wears an Om locket to “show sincerity”.

“Indians bargain until midnight over a few cents,” said Donna. “The cost of raw material and labour went up last year, but Indians are tough. They won’t pay more.”

Indian traders bring pictures of idols they want copied. A local sculptor makes the design and mould. The sculpture for the mould can cost Rs 700 per inch. A two-inch Ganesha sold for Rs 14 will sell in India for over Rs 100-200. A big idol sold here for Rs 350 each will sell for many times the price in India.

Across a floor that smells like a laboratory, workers manually pour creamy polyresin into moulds. Since the 1990s, Quanzhou has been a hub for making cheap sculptures of polyresin, a flexible compound with a finish like fibreglass.

On another floor, local Chinese with no art training paint 40 idols per day, one part at a time. Hindustan Times saw one worker just spraying black paint on the hooves, tail and snout of Krishna’s cows. A girl was painting the gold blouse on every Saraswati.

A girl painting gold lines on Ganesha identified herself as Zhen, and said she trained on the job. “I thought it was very difficult,” she said. She sends part of her 1,000 RMB (Rs 7,000) monthly salary to her parents in a village three hours away and spends the rest.

In another factory, while workers loaded Christmas shipments, the manager said his staff has begun learning to make Hindu gods. But they finish only three or four idols per day. “Hindu gods, very difficult,” he said, shaking his head.