Have you ever attended a Bengali wedding? Or been pandal hopping on the streets of Kolkata during Durga Puja? If you have, you might have noticed a peculiar ivory white headgear on the grooms and brides or adornments on the Devi, for that matter. Those adornments are exclusively made out of Sholapith, or Indian Cork.
It is an age old specialized craft that started in West Bengal. Shola is the soft white core obtained from the plant called Aeschynomene aspera. This soft bark has been used in crafts in Bengal since time immemorial. There are not very specific stories about the origin of the craft in Bengal but there are sure mythological stories around its origin. Due to that and the beautiful ivory colour which denotes “purity”, the substance is mainly used in religious and auspicious affairs.
There are different versions of the story about how Shola came into being. While most people of Bengal follow the rendition that involves Shiva, the people of Odisha like to follow the story involving their worshipped deities, Lord Jagannath, Shubhadra and Balaram.
The Shiva Story:
It is said that Shiva was on his way to marry Goddess Parvati and he had requested God Vishwakarma to make him a garland and crown, purely white in colour, to be worn during the occasion. Now Vishwakarma could not fulfill the Lord’s request. The benevolent Lord Shiva gave him another chance. He pluck a lock of his own hair and threw it into a pond, from which sprung a white reed. Vishwakarma still could not figure out what to do with the reed. So the Lord plucked an arm hair and flung it into the pond again. This time, emerged a young man who he called “Malakar”or the “Garland-maker”. He used the soft core of the plant for the first time making sholapith adornments for the Lord Shiva.
To this day, the craftsmen of Bengal who dwell in this art are known as “Malakars”.
The Jagannath-Shubhadra-Balaram story:
The Jagannath temple was built in Puri by the Eastern Ganga dynasty rulers. These rules were great patrons of art and crafts.The adornments used on the deities in this temple was made purely of Sholapith. It is hence deduced that the origin of Sholapith was from the worship of the holy trinity.
There is another story as well that describes the usage of Shola garlands as a way of worshipping by Brahmins during Lord Krishna’s birth. The myths continue.
The story of the art:
The capital of Bengal was in Murshidabad prior to the Battle of Plassey under the reign of the Mughal Sultanate. The emperors of the court had a fascination towards ivory crafts and the craftsmen of Murshidabad used to carve out and provide the needful to the court. As time went by, the supply of ivory became less and less, compelling them to find a substitute. It was then that they came across the beautiful ivory white and easy to work with Shola. It was mainly a wild plant whose stem had a core that could be easily carved out with knives and tools and made into several shapes. Thus started the Sholapith craft in Bengal.
The plant is taken first and dried. When the bark has dried up, the outer brown cover is carefully peeled off with special instruments to reveal the soft inner core with which the craftsmen work ever so delicately and with utmost finesse to make some of the most aesthetic carved idols and showpieces ever.
Shola has its many uses, especially as adornments of God as told before. More often than not, a Bengali bride or groom is often bedecked in Sholapith crowns on their big day. It is said to be a symbol of good-luck and well-being of the new couple.
Shola finds elaborate uses in Durga Puja, the main puja of Bengal. The ornaments of the goddess are made of this material and a goddess in this attire this has a specific name of her style- the “Sholar Saaj”. Sometimes the backdrop or the “chala” of the great Devi’s idol is also made of Shola and thoroughly embellished. The garlands might also be made out of Shola sometimes.
In north Bengal, the Shola is used to make “manasar chali” or the cluster of serpents used to worship Devi Manasa. Local rituals require the usage of sholapith from time to time.
In the Muragachha Colony and the Borboria village of Nadia district, Shola is used extensively to make string puppets. The head and torso is made with the ivory-like material and layered with clay and colour to give volume.
In the southern parts of West Bengal, Shola finds its way into the making of decorative items, toys, flower bouquets, greeting cards, miniature idols and so on.
The Sholapith Durga is the most common of these idols and decorative items. These mini Durga idols are kept in a lot of Bengali households to seer off evil and protect the family. It is quite often kept in the “Thakurghar” , the house of God , as well and worshipped along with the many other deities.
The waning of the Shola craft:
It is a sad thing that this craft is waning rapidly. The wetlands are becoming quite rare in the rural parts of the state and along with it, the plant. However, Sholapith products are not only a beauty, they are eco-friendly as well. They are biodegradable, thus taking the worries off our shoulders when a Durga idol is immersed in the water during its “Visarjan”, on the last day.
The future can make use of Shola more than any other products which are comparatively more deleterious to the environment.It is a product which is quite comparable to a synthetic brethren, the thermocol but having a superior quality in terms of malleability and texture.
The Sholapith industry is fighting a losing battle to the synthetic substitutes of the society as well the hyperactive younger generation who does not feel this occupation to be a lucrative one. However, there are measures being taken to ameliorate the condition by taking help from the German Consulate General. A Kolkata-based social enterprise is working to keep up the old craft of Shola carving under the “Cultural Preservation Programme”of the German government.
The history pages of Bengal do echo with colourful stories, don’t they?