The Beads of India's Past

THE room was dark and cool, the muted luminescence provided by narrow bars of sunlight that penetrated the curtain chinks. Across the table from where I sat, my professor loosened the drawstring of his leather pouch. I leaned forward with anticipation. Small pieces of rock-like material, indistinguishable in the dimness, clattered upon the table as he released the contents of the bag.

Professor Misra chose a nugget from the scatter and raised it to a light shaft. My eyes held the illuminated stone. It was translucent green with an underlying bluish glimmer. It made me think of the sea, of still and quiescent depths. "Beryl," said Professor Misra naming the quartz, "the variety, aquamarine."

This was my first sight of the stone. Although I had seen sharp, glossy photographs of beryls before, there was something palpably different about the real thing. Here I was actually experiencing the visual, fascinated by the fact that something so resplendent could come out of the plain brown earth.

However, it wasn't their innate aesthetic appeal which initially drew me to beryls and other colorful quartzes. I reached them via the lesser known route of scholarship. This happened when I chose a special paper on ancient beadmaking as part of my doctoral work in history. Professor Misra, my research guide, got me involved in the subject. I read about remote mountain tribes in India mining exotic stones like onyx, chalcedony, jasper, amethyst. Archaeological reports spoke of ancient beadworking sites b eing discovered. I came upon references to beads and pendants shipped to far lands centuries ago. The historian in me began to view the bead evidence as a cipher written out by time, holding the exciting past. I resolved to unravel it.

My quest took me to a palm-fringed lagoon in the deep south of India. There, besides its shimmering blue waters, lay the old beadmaking site I intended to explore. From a small fishermen's village where I stayed, I would set out every morning, walking across the palm groves to the sandy bank of the lagoon. Sticking to a monotonous but effective routine, I moved about with eyes glued to the ground, picking up stone flakes, unfinished beads and occasionally, complete specimens.

During breaks I would sort them: orange carnelians, green jaspers, purple amethysts, and agates banded white and black. Gathering the beads, I often imagined the lapidaries working their craft long ago, many hands chipping and grinding and boring the stones.

Of course, I planned to recreate a good part of this picture out of the quartzes I had retrieved from the lonely shore. They told their own story. The presence of spherical and polyhedral beads in shapes difficult to execute testified to the high skill of the beadworkers. The rough outs and incomplete examples, discarded at various stages of crafting, delineated the manufacturing process. Analysis under a microscope would reveal the methods of drilling and polishing.

Yet, as I deliberated upon ways to reconstruct the past, I had sensed something amiss, as if the crux of the entire issue were eluding me. Then, one quiet afternoon, while watching the fishermen casting nets into the lagoon from their flimsy catamarans, I knew what it was.

The awareness came to me through self-inquiry. Why was I doing all this? To enlarge my understanding of the ancient lapidary industry. What end was it going to serve? Suddenly, more than the technical dynamics of the craft, the thought of the endeavor and enterprise that had gone into creating the bead seemed important. I had raised a rather obvious point but the realization of it mattered. For a moment it brought into sharp focus every historian's subconscious search: to retrieve the best from the actio ns of generations gone.

Carrying away records and bead samples and the images of my meanderings, I departed from the lagoon with a new confidence. I was keen to get down to the nitty gritty of analyzing the data. Back in the department, closeted in my study with reference books, journals, and maps, I worked on the field report. The beads were kept in proximity, in small glass bottles on a side shelf. Strangely, I had begun to perceive the myriad colored stones with more than just academic curiosity. They seemed to me, somehow, familiar and reassuring like old friends. In quiet hours I liked to look at the quartzes, spreading them out on the table, admiring their hues, taking my mind back to the wind-swept lagoon from where they came. Such moments still overwhelm me with memories of the sojourn: the palm fronds rustling, catamarans on the blue waters, the rumble of the sea not far away....

They are generous little things, these innocuous stones, silently making nice things happen. Like the appreciation that came my way when I presented my report before the faculty. Or the time I met some tribal people. They had come down from the desert mountains, the same bare outcrops where Professor Misra had gone to collect the aquamarines. Ours was a chance encounter in a wayside tea shop of the highway. But one which left we wiser.

Speaking a quaint, unfamiliar dialect, the hill folks described caves and grottoes where the quartz veins gleam and fast-flowing streams that bring down green-blue beryls with the gravel. In that instant, as we chatted and laughed while trucks sped by in the twilight, we were one close and warm group. It reminded me of my time with the simple fisherfolk in the village by the lagoon. Yes, the twain had met again, and I knew whom to thank for it.

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