A fish, a gun, a map of undivided India: India’s old locks tell riveting tales
The best ones are found in Gujarat and Rajasthan, where lock-making used to be a thriving business because of the busy ports, and the growing wealth of traders.
They’re symbols of trust, tokens of love and puzzles that can take half a day to solve. One is shaped like a map of undivided India, the others resemble fish, monkeys, pistols.
About 3,500 locks fill up the loft of the Patel family’s single-storey home in Hamirpura, a village about two hours from Ahmedabad, in the Kheda district of Gujarat. Traditionally farmers, they’ve been collecting metal and wooden locks for four generations, and over a century.
The locks are a mix of originals and replicas. The heaviest weighs 41.5 kg and requires eight keys to open. The tiniest at 4 gm, and 1 inch high.
There are pin locks, combination locks, trick locks, cylindrical locks and even one made of solid silver, traditionally used to lock a bride’s dowry box. Another has an inbuilt alarm. There’s a lock that has a concealed keyhole that is only revealed when you press the right rivet.
“When my grandfather [Gopal Patel] started his collection, people didn’t lock doors in the village,” says Dashrath Patel, 50, third-generation custodian of the collection. “It was when thieves entered his home and stole a pot of ghee that he went in search of one. It turned into a hobby and he started collecting them – first by trading silver coins and later, buying them for three or four paise each.”
To buy his first lock, Gopal Patel travelled about 55km, from Kheda to Khambhat (formerly Cambay), a port town known in the 19th century for its sturdy locks. “Khambhat was an important trade port, so the Khambhatis manufactured locks to seal the chests that would be shipped overseas. Even today, it’s easy to find these old locks by the hundreds in the town,” says V Raghunathan, 63, a Bengaluru-based former banker, academic and author who has been collecting locks for three decades, since he started his career as a finance professor at the Indian Institute of Management – Ahmedabad in 1982.
His collection comprises about 750 unique locks — among the rarest is one shaped like a girl with her hands joined in a namaste; another is a combination lock dating back to the Mughal period with old Arabic text inscribed in its rotating dial. The right sequence of text is a verse from the Quran. These were sourced from Rajasthan.
“In pre-Independence India, parts of Rajasthan and Gujarat were individual principalities with trading communities and a lot of wealth. Since they had precious materials to safeguard, lock-making became an important part of the culture and they’ve been primary states to source locks from ever since,” Raghunathan says.
His collection also features pieces from the other lock-manufacturing hubs in India such as Jammu & Kashmir, Kerala and Uttar Pradesh.
TALES FROM THE CRYPT
The oldest locks in the world were found in Egypt, about 4,000 years ago. It was a wooden latch-like device with a key that looked like a toothbrush, says Raghunathan.
In 19th century India, the type of lock you used told a story. A temple lock would often have motifs relating to the deity. A padlock that took five keys to open could indicate a joint family of businessmen who didn’t trust one another and only wanted the secured chest to open if each was present with the key.
“More than artistry or quality, the Indian locks were known for their functionality and ingenuity,” Raghunathan says. “There are locks where you can see the keyhole and have the key in your hand, yet the method of inserting the key is so complex, such a spatial puzzle, that it can take one half a day to open it.”
The most valuable collection of trick locks in India belongs to Dr Hiren Shah, 60, an Ahmedabad-based paediatrician who has been an avid collector for 25 years. “Trick locks are the true art of deception. They are mechanical puzzles that I find exciting to solve,” he says. His collection features over 2,000 original pieces with about 500 different trick or puzzle locks sourced from different parts of India.
Over the years, he has been invited to conferences and lock collectors’ meets in Germany, China, France and Australia to talk about his collection.
Chinese, African and Iranian locks are also popular among collectors. “The finishing of Chinese locks is more detailed and aesthetically pleasing. Many feature motifs of animals that represent the Chinese zodiac,” says Raghunathan. “African locks, though rudimentary, are extremely ornate and typical of the tribes that make them. Iranian locks, even those that resemble our Khambati locks, are often better finished with floral motifs etched on the metal.”
Today, it’s a challenge to find original locks in India. “They haven’t been given their due. You won’t find extensive collections in museums, or books on them,” says Raghunathan, who is planning a tome tracing the history of Indian locks.
Shah has set up Houseum, a house museum displaying his precious collection.
Last year, the Patels showcased their collection at an exhibition in Vadodara. This May, they were invited to showcase selected pieces an exhibition organised by the municipal corporation of Surat. “We were told that in Surat, about 2 lakh visitors saw the locks,” says Patel. “I believe it’s important for people to know about these old locks. A lock, after all, is a symbol of trust.”