Whether it’s a Bengali wedding, the famous Durga Puja celebrations or the worship of Lord Jagannath in Odisha, each of these auspicious occasions in West Bengal and Odisha is linked to a special craft practised in the region. The beautiful white headgear, idols, figures, accessories and decorations that add so much charm and colour to these rituals come from the art of Sholapith, practised here for generations.
What sets this craft apart is that it is closely linked to nature as it uses the soft, porous stem of a wild water plant called shola (Aeschynomene aspera) to make these exquisite objects.
– The ‘Malakars’, traditional Shola artisans in West Bengal, have been handcrafting these beautiful, lightweight products for generations.
Local folklore attributes the Shola craft to a divine origin. According to one legend, when Lord Shiva was on his way to marry Parvati, he requested Lord Vishwakarma, the supreme God of the Arts, to make him a white crown for his wedding. However, Vishwakarma was unable to fulfill this wish and, so, Shiva created a man to fashion the ornaments, garlands and the crown.
The man created an exquisite crown, garlands and other ornaments from the soft white core of the shola plant. He was named ‘Malakar’ or ‘maker of garlands’ and to this day, the artisans of Sholapith identify themselves with this name.
Another legend links the origin of Sholapith to Lord Krishna. It is believed that during Krishna’s birth, the Brahmins made an offering of Sholapith garlands and that’s how the craft is said to have originated.
In Odisha, the craft and its origin are closely linked to the worship of Lord Jagannath, the presiding deity of the Jagannath Temple in Puri. The temple was built by the rulers of the Eastern Ganga dynasty, which ruled in Eastern India from the 5th to the 15th CE. These rulers were great patrons of art, architecture and crafts associated mainly with religion and temples, and Sholapith was used to decorate the idols of the holy trinity – Lord Jagannath, Subhadra and Balabhadra. It is therefore believed that the craft owes its origin to the worship of these deities.
According to the book Handmade in India (2007), edited by Aditi Ranjan and M P Ranjan, “Since the 11th century, the craft has its tradition in the Jagannath Temple, where the adornment of the idols and their decorations are done with shola pith.”
In West Bengal, Sholapith is practiced mainly by the Malakars in the districts of Bardhaman, Murshidabad, Birbhum, Nadia, Hooghly and Malda, while in Odisha, it is centred in Puri.
The art of Sholapith involves great finesse and extremely delicate work. The chief raw material used is the stem of the shola plant, which is harvested in September-October. The stems are first allowed to dry completely and the dried, brown bark is then peeled off the stem. This reveals the soft portion at the core of the stem, which is porous, light, spongy and also called ‘Indian cork’.
This core is sliced into strips or ‘shola chorki’, using simple tools like cutters and knives. These strips of shola are easily shaped according to the artisans’ requirements and design. Shola stems are very light and almost paper-like, making it very easy to work with this material. The flexibility of the material also allows the artist to experiment with intricate designs. The process is simple, but it requires precision and great skill. The objects made from shola are light-weight and sometimes one can notice a little contraction and expansion due to changes in atmospheric temperature and humidity.
Auspicious Raw Material
Sholapith has enjoyed a special place in worship and rituals across the ages as it is considered sacred and auspicious for two reasons.
– Shola is white, which is associated with ‘purity’; and it is harvested from nature.
Shola is an integral part of the Durga Puja celebrations in West Bengal. This is a ten-day festival dedicated to Goddess Durga and is celebrated in the month of Ashwin, which corresponds to the months of September–October. Shola is used abundantly to make decorations during this time. These decorations and ornaments are called Sholar Saaj, which refers to the ornamentation of Goddess Durga.
Shola is also widely used to make the Chala, which is the ornamented backdrop of the Durga idol and to craft the garlands and other ornaments for the deity. It is also used in local rituals. For instance, in North Bengal, ‘manasar chali’ or a cluster of serpents, is made of shola, a ritual object representative of Manasa, the snake goddess.
Another popular use of Sholapith is during a Bengali wedding. The bride and groom wear traditional headgear known as Mukut and Topor, respectively. Exquisitely embellished, they are believed to be a symbol of good luck and well-being. The classical Odissi dancers of Odisha also wear Shola headgear during their performances, which makes up an essential part of their attire. In Odisha, besides being used for the decoration and the worship of Lord Jagannath, shola is also used to make ritual boats during the famous Rath Yatra or Bali Yatra.
Apart from these cultural and religious items, Sholpatith artisans craft a wide range of products such as flowers, toys, wall-hangings, models of temples, churches and mosques, carved images of Durga and other deities, human figures, mythological figures and puppets. The list of items and innovations is seemingly endless.
But the winds of change have not spared Sholapith, which like scores of other handicrafts, is under pressure. Due to rapid urbanisation and climate change, the wetlands in the regions where the shola plant grows are drying up. This has compromised the supply of the raw material. The use of other raw materials such as thermocol is also a threat to the survival of this craft.
Ironically, at a time when the world is moving towards sustainability, Sholapith is already a winner. It is completely natural and eco-friendly. One way to help preserve this beautiful art form is to make more and more people aware of its eco-friendly nature and the magic that artisans can work with nothing more than the stem of a plant and their own natural talent.
The digital platform Peepul Tree aims to do just this. It works with local artisans or the Malakars of West Bengal and has curated a fascinating collection of Shola products that you can use to decorate your home and other spaces. For instance, a stunning range of Shola lights and flowers can be brought from their e-commerce portal.
Hopefully, with greater awareness, this delicate craft, whose survival depends heavily on nature, will survive for many more generations.