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History of Tin-coating of Metallic Utensils in India Back

-By late Shri Parshuram Gode  Parshuram Gode’s research piece on the history of tin-plating between the period AD 1300 and 1900



Side by side with my studies in Indian dietetics I have been trying to study the history of Indian cooking utensils and other domestic vessels used in Indian homes. In this connection I was told by many friends that the practice of tin-coating (kalhai) of copper and brass vessels and plates is now current in many parts of India.

Copper and brass vessels are subject to chemical action caused by sour or acid food placed in them. This action is lessened, if not prevented, by the tin-coating applied to the vessels. Persons who have made tin-coating a profession are called ‘Kalhaiwallas’. Some of these have regular shops in cities, while others move about from house to house, doing the work of tin-coating on the spot with the help of instruments and material which they carry with them. The rate for tinning vessels of ordinary size is generally quoted for 100 vessels of assorted size.

I have not come across any Sanskrit word for kalhai but Prof. K. P. Kulkarni in his Marathi Etymological Dictionary, makes the following entry about kalhai: kalhai = kathilaca mulama, etc.(Tinning, the wash of tin given to culinary utensils) Can any Sanskrit or Prakrit scholar prove historically the connection of the Arabic Kalhai with Sanskrit kaladhauta and Prakrit Kalahoya as suggested by Prof. Kulkarni?

The Marathi Dictionary ‘Sabdakosha’ by Date and Karve derives the word kalhai from Arabic kalhai = Kathil and records a usage of the word from Rajwade’s Sources of Maratha History.

In this usage the word Kalhai does not mean tin-coating but the coating of mercury (para) applied to mirrors. The ‘Sabdakosha’ records the words: Kalhaikar or Kalhaigar for persons who carry on the profession of tin-coating of domestic utensils. It also records the word kathil and connects it with Sanskrit Kastira and Apabhramsha Katthila.

The ‘Rajavyavaharakosha’ (C.A.D. 1676) records the words kathila and kalhaikara as follows:

-kathilam vangamucyate

-kalhaikarah Sisakaro

I cannot say why kalhaikara is called sisakara in the above line. Perhaps the Kalhaivalas of Shivaji’s time not only practiced the art of tin-coating but of lead-coating also. The lexicon ‘Parasibhashanushasana’ (a lexicon of Persian terms) of

Vikramasimha (Before Samvat 1600, i.e. A.D. 1544, according to the editor Dr. Banarasidas Jain) was published in 1945. In this lexicon I find the word kalaiya

(tin) mentioned in verse 4 of Prakarana II. This is the earliest reference to the word kalaiya traced by me in Indian sources. However the word means tin and not tin-coating with the history of which I am concerned in this paper.

The reference to ‘Kalhaikara’ (the person who practiced the art of tin-coating) in the ‘Rajavyavaharakosha’ proves clearly how tin-coating had become current in India in the 17th century. To support this conclusion we get the following additional evidence of Sanskrit and non-Sanskrit sources:

The ‘Sivatattva Ratnakara’, an encyclopedic cultural Sanskrit metrical work by Keladi Basava, king of Ikkeri (A.D. 1698-1715), was published by B.M. Nath and Co. at Madras in 1927. This work mentions ‘Kalaya-lepa’ or tincoating in the chapter on supashastra (cookery)- Kallola VI, Taranga 18, Verse 13:

Kalaya-lepite patre etc.

The use of a utensil with tin-coating for cooking purposes is clearly laid down in this verse. The word ‘Kalaya’ used in the verse is not a Sanskrit word but it is an Arabic word for tin slightly Sanskritized by Keladi Basava.

The Hindi poet Surdas refers to Kalai as I am informed by my linguist friend Dr. Siddheswar Varma of Nagpur in his letter of 26-8-1904, which reads as follows:

‘Regarding Kalhai the only material immediately available is a line from Surdas, quoted by Hindi Sabda Sagar, Vol. I (1916) sub voce kalai. The line stands as follows:

‘Ai udhari priti kalai’ etc.

The lexicon renders kalai as ranga which Bhargava’s Standard Illustrated Dictionary of the Hindee language renders as ‘tin’, while it renders kalai as thin coat of tin on an object.

Abul Fazl makes detailed remarks in his Ain-i-Akbari (C.A.D. 1590) on the kitchen of Emperor Akbar. Food was served at Akbar’s table in dishes of gold, silver, stone, copper and china. Tin-coating of copper utensils in the kitchen is referred to in the following concluding para of the remarks on the kitchen:

‘The copper utensils for His Majesty’s use are tinned twice in a month and those of the princes and the Harem only once in that time. Whatever copper utensils are broken, are given to the braziers, who make new ones.’

In the seventeenth century the East India Company carried on regular sale of tin through their agents in India as vouched by the following contemporary reference:

  1. John Marshall in India (A.D. 1668-1672) Oxford, 1927,- “selling of a consignment of tin.”
  1. Supplementary Calendar to India Office Documents by Sir William Foster (A.D. 1600-1640), London 1928. December 1614 – Notes on the trade at Surat commodities in demand include ‘guns (a few tin)’ etc.

In the seventeenth century a vast quantity of English tin was consumed in parts of Asia and also Persia and Arabia, where tin-coating of dishes was current as vouched by Tavernier in the following extract:

‘The money of the king of Cheda (a port upon the Malaya coasts) and Pera.. This money is of tin…Formerly the English brought it (tin) out of England and furnished great part of Asia where they consumed a vast quantity; they carried it also into Persia and Arabia ; for all their dishes are of copper, which they cause to be tinned every month.’

Tavernier further refers to the use of tin for tinning cooking utensils, etc., in the following extract of his Travels:

‘Some years ago very rich mines of tin were discovered it Delegore, Sangore, Bordelon, and Bata; this has done some injury to the English, because there is no longer need of their tin as formerly, sufficient being now produced in Asia. Tin is only used in this country to tin cooking pots, kettles, and other copper utensils.’

In our search for the history of tin-coating in India we have gone up to about A.D. 1500 on the strength of literary evidence recorded above. This literary evidence is further corroborated by archaeological evidence, viz., the discovery of a copper container with tin-coating both on its interior and exterior found at Kolhapur (in the excavations at Brahmapuri). I am thankful to my friends Dr. H. D. Sankalia and Dr. M. G. Dikshit for drawing my attention to this tinned container. The foregoing archaeological evidence is very important for the present inquiry as it takes the history of tin-coating of copper utensils in India up to C.A.D. 1300. The practice of giving a tin-coating to both the interior and exterior of a copper or a brass vessel is typically a Muslim practice current even to-day. Non-Muslims, however, and especially the Hindus, give tin-coating only to the interior of a vessel, perhaps on economic grounds. The use of solid tin vessels (instead of tin-coated vessels) now current in some parts of India appears to have been current in India prior to the advent of the practice of tin-coating picked up from the Muslims. This presumption is warranted by the following reference to dining-plates of gold, silver, copper, bronze, clay, tin and lead quoted from Bodhayana by Vidyaranya or Sayana (C.A.D. 1375):

Vidyaranya quotes the following verses from Bodhayana in his Jivanmuktiviveka (Vidvatsanyasa prakarana)

‘He (ascetic) should eat on leaves plucked with his own hands or ones shed of their own accord, but never use the leaf of the Banyan or the holy fig or the karanja. Even when reduced to the narrowest straits should he never eat off a bronze plate; for, one eating off a bronze plate verily eats filth, nor off a plate of gold, silver, copper, clay, tin or lead.’

If the above quotation is traced in the works of Bodhayana (C. 2S0 B.C.), the author of the Dharmasutra which goes by his name, the antiquity of solid tin vessels for more than 2000 years would be conclusively proved. As the quotation stands at present it is earlier than A.D. 1300, i.e. prior to the history of tin-coating recorded in this paper. A study of the antiquity of trapu (tin) and its several uses in Indian cultural history needs to be undertaken by some scholar interested in the problem.

In concluding this paper I have to request my readers to record some references to tin-coating in Sanskrit and non-Sanskrit source prior to A.D. 1300. In this connection I record most gratefully the remarks of my friend Shri K. N. Dave of Nagpur communicated to me on 31-8-1949 through Dr. S. Varma:

‘Although tin (trapu) was known to Atharvaveda, I have not come across its use for tinning copper or brass pots. On the other band in the Manasollasa (C.A.D. 1130), Vol. 2, pp. 116 and 131 refer to grain and meat being cooked in plain copper pans (Sthali). Evidently the art of tinning was introduced into India by the Muslims. I know of no Sanskrit or Hindi word for the process of tinning pots and pans. Hindi ‘Kalai Karna’ is clearly from Arabic ‘Calai’.



Article Source:

INTACH Pune Patrika, An INTACH Pune Chapter update

(April 2016)

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