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The Cradle of Metal Urn Artistry - India

by Harsh Sahni

Urns of all kinds have been around for thousands of years and help us peer into cultures long gone. Many of the cremation urns for sale today exhibit remarkable craftsmanship and detail that derived from brilliant craftsmen who developed these products long ago. One area of the world we can see this craftsmanship still in practice today is India.

Urns give insight to ancient times

Ancient civilizations are gauged on various parameters like architecture, art, literature, philosophy and other measures whose legacies outlast the period they were born in. One such essential parameter is craftsmanship, which historians and archaeologists pore over to decipher the times gone by. India has been home to not one but multiple great civilizations. While one of the most notable one remains the Harrapan civilization (part of which is in modern day Pakistan), multiple others with remarkable legacies flourished and perished in various parts of India.

Urns have been one such essential marker of craftsmanship, which give insights into ancient times. In the aforementioned Harrapan civilization have provided details of popular motifs and designs, materials, rituals as well as changing burial practices over time. While the early practice was to bury the deceased in coffins, the late Harappan period is characterized by the discovery of a large cemetery filled with painted burial urns.

A notable excavation from the Harappan period has been the large burial urn with ledged rim for holding a bowl-shaped lid. The painted panel around the shoulder of the vessel depicts flying peacocks with sun or star motifs and wavy lines that may represent water. This design is a pottery style introduced at the very end of the Harappan period. This transitional phase, which yielded diverse material remain,s suggests that this was a period of considerable dynamism and changing traditions.

Moving to the Southern state of Tamil Nadu, recently the Archeological Survey of India found urns decorated with motifs at an Iron Age burial site, dating back to 1,000 BC. These urns, their motifs and objects buried alongside give insights into the habitation, their crafts as well as burial and other practices.


Cremation urns go metal 

Today urns are not just buried but also found as mantelpieces in households, encasing memories of loved ones. This explains a shift to more durable materials like marble and metal. Metal craftsmanship is also nothing new to India. There is enough evidence to conclude that iron technology (mining and smelting), developed in India independent of other civilizations, dating back to 1800 BC. 

Contemporary metal craftsmanship in the Indian city of Moradabad can directly be traced back around 500 years. Here, artisans learned this traditional art form from their ancestors and forefathers who were engaged into this practice from many generations. India is the largest brassware making country in the world and the United States of America is the largest importer of its products. Producing a single well crafted brass urn involves many artisans skilled in their respective craft. Four stages are important for making a brassware urn are: Molding and Casting (Dhalai), Finishing and Polishing (Chilai), Engraving (Nakashi and Dastakari), Enameling (Rang Bharai). Each process requires a craftsman skilled in the specific stage of creation.

While we can’t look into the future it is a nice reminder that the urn we might pick to remember our loved one, could also be a special marker of a artisans or craft going back for centuries. It's exciting to know that in a world that has become obsessed with technology that hand-craftsmanship still exists and is available at reasonable prices.  

 Harsh Sahni is a writer and researcher based in Delhi, India. Harsh has worked with UNICEF and The Times of India.