In the crepuscular light before dawn, Karaikudi’s silhouette is softer; its cacophonous traffic, muted.
The air remains humid and heavy but cooler, scented by a strange combination of jasmine and gutter.
Roadside stalls serve Kumbakonam degree coffee in stainless steel tumblers.
The goldsmiths of Chettinad
Some 3000 acharis or goldsmiths live in the villages around Karaikudi.
Most live on quiet lanes, working from homes.
Some work alone, others in a guild with others, and still others work for shops.
and other milestones.
“The kazhuthu uru used to be 300 sovereigns (1 sovereign is 8 gms so 300 sovereigns is 2400 grams),” said the jeweller.
“But nowadays, traditional families have reduced the weight to 100 sovereigns or 800 grams.”
As a result, most Chettiar women, called Aachis, only wear this wedding-chain for special occasions.
“Making the kalathiru is a sacred job,” says this goldsmith.
“The family typically invites us home on an auspicious day after looking at the naalu-nakshatram (the calendar and the position of the planets on that day).
They feed us a good lunch with mutton and chicken and hand over the gold that will become this necklace.
Then we too will begin the work on a suitable date and work on it with great purity– after taking a bath every morning.
After all, our creation is going to symbolise a sacred union.”
“My name is Balaji. I am a junior goldsmith in my father’s workshop. I work on closed setting diamond earrings. Not so much the kalathiru because that is complex work. I need more experience to do that.”
Symbol of a wedding
The kazhuthu uru is exclusively by the Nagarathar or Nattukottai Chettiar community of Tamil Nadu.
There are some 35 pieces. They are strung by 21 lengths of twisted strings smeared with tumeric.
The central pendant is the actual thali. It has four sharp spikes representing the four vedas (knowledge).
On top are god images: of Subrahmanya standing with his parents, Shiva and Parvati, who are seated on ‘nandi’ (bull).
On either side of the thali are the “ethanams” with a raised yantra like symbol.
Gift from the groom's side
This kazhuthu uru has just been made and is to be claimed by the groom’s family.
The parts will be strung only the night before the wedding after taking the blessings of the family elders.
It will first be worn on the yellow thread.
Later, some families may string it permanently on a gold chain, thick enough to withstand the weight.
Exclusive to land and people
The parts of the kazhuthu uru are made using a set of die-casts.
Each section has a different die-cast.
They are taken out only to make this particular ornament and are exclusively made in the Karaikudi area.
Jewels are markers of milestones, keepers of faith and in some occasions, the most sacred of possessions.