Rameswaram: She sells seashells by the seashore. This primordial tongue twister has come to us down the ages from our primary classes. It also evokes the joy of picking up seashells from the seashore of various sizes and shapes if one is lucky by the sea, or buying them from for poor fisherwomen of coastal hamlets, whom the 2004 December Tsunami made mincemeat of.
'Sangu' in Tamil, or 'Chank' for those coming from North of the Vindhyas, or plain seashells in English for the humble Presbyterian souls, has been a popular symbol of remembrance for tourists and pilgrims visiting this ancient pilgrim-island of Rameswaram for decades. It is also popular at the nearby Katchatheevu annual St Antony's church festival.
And artisans living off it have cultivated the technique of inscribing customers' favourite names on 'Sangu' into a fine art by itself. People visiting Rameswaram, often go back with a few souvenirs to remember their trip to this holy place, says Suresh a trader in 'Sangus' near the famous temple here.
'Sangus' have a larger significance for pilgrims, as they are part of the 'pooja' paraphernalia in many a Hindu household, and the ones picked up from Rameswaram have added value, says Suresh. It had spawned a mini artisanal splash here with scores of artisans specializing in inscribing the "names you want", or the silhouette of one's favourite deity on seashells. They also double as pretty key-chains.
"There are three types of 'Sangus' unique to Rameswaram's marine eco-system, explains Suresh and S Muruganangham, an artist who lives by embossing human names, figures on them with the help of a simple chemical technique.
"We write the names the customer wants on the seashells - with colourful bright paints and immerse them in hydrochloric acid; in the resultant action, except for the painted part the other parts get bleached that what remains is just the painted name, like a beautifully etched handcrafted item," says Muruganandham.
Even till a few years back, inscribing names on 'Sangus' used to be very popular among the tourists and pilgrims, they said. But now the artisans doing this work have fallen on bad days and for various reasons 'Sangu' is no longer 'Kingu' in Rameswaram, they add rhyming up with a hit Tamil film song.
Security concerns about the Sri Ramanathaswamy temple, particularly after the recent fire at the Madurai Meenakshi Amman temple, has resulted in orders from the State government to remove all the shops in the vicinity of the temple where 'Sangus' were once being sold, they rued.
As a fallout of this, the sale of 'Sangus' have taken a deep beating and hundreds of artisans living off it are now jobless, the duo regretted and urged the Tamil Nadu government to revive these artisans and their age-old livelihood.