The Lohar blacksmiths of Chomo in Rajasthan
Tangled cables snake through the air, and small fires fail to fully dispel the apparent gloom of the small smithy. The smell of ash and molten metal mixes with the scent of baking bread. This is not just a workshop; this is where a group of blacksmiths and their children live. In total, there are 40 of them.
Here, in the village of Chomo, deep in the state of Rajasthan in northwest India, Swedish-born photographer Tobbe Malm could not be farther away from his own home in Norway.
Blacksmiths at work in their smithy
A blacksmith himself, Malm was fascinated by the lives of the people he met in Rajasthan. “The meetings with the blacksmiths were very positive,” says Malm. “The way I shoot with wide-angle lenses means that I go very close to people, so it led to a lot of nice meetings," he adds. Malm also explains that the families he visited seemed to be happy with their lives overall, despite their poor living conditions.
Women also help with the metalworking.
A lot of the blacksmiths of Rajasthan, such as the families photographed here, belong to the Agaria or Lohar caste. Agaria is derived from the Hindi word “aag,” meaning fire, and “lohar” comes from the Sanskrit “lauha-kara”, or “iron-worker”. The Lohar people are spread out across north and central India, and are called by different names in different parts of the country.
The face of concentration
Most Lohar think that their origins date back to Vishwakarma, the Hindu god of artisans and architects. The Lohar that Malm visited believed that “their caste has existed since the beginning of time, and their traditions say that the first Agaria forged the ploughshare with which oxen furrowed the primeval earth.”
Another skilled craftsman at work, this time in the open air
Iron smelting is an ancient industry in India that dates back hundreds, if not thousands, of years. Looking at the Lohar of Rajasthan today, it seems that little has changed in all that time. Even now, the smithies resemble medieval workshops before the advent of modern machinery.
Even being blind in one eye doesn't hold this blacksmith back.
At the smithies Malm visited, work starts at 9am and goes on until 7pm every day. The whole family is involved. Children crush coal while their parents work. The men forge steel implements and the women make bread – when they’re not also working with metal. Most of what they produce is used for farming or as cookware.
The summer heat must be ferocious in here.
“I declared that I am also a blacksmith,” Malm recalls. “They looked at my hands and laughed. ‘Do you use gloves?’ someone asked, studying my hands – which were clean at the time.” They insisted that Malm gave them a demonstration of his own blacksmith skills. He obliged by using a forging hammer to create a shovel out of hot iron while a cheering crowd of locals looked on.
Perfected ancient techniques in action
In Chomo, the Lohar have buildings in which they live and work, but traditionally the caste is nomadic, moving from town to town in bullock carts. Despite their cheery appearance, it’s a difficult existence. Many children do not go to school, and literacy is low. These days it is also hard for their products to compete with machine-made items. But still they cling to their ancient way of life.
Instead of going to school, children help with the work.
After Chomo, Malm moved north to the town of Mandawa. Here, the blacksmiths are out in the open, working around a pit in the ground. A bicycle wheel serves as a bellows, fanning the burning charcoal and dried goat dung.
This bicycle wheel powers a fan at this outdoor smithy
In Mandawa, men and women work alongside each other forging metal tools. For the Lohar, marriage is arranged within their own caste. The bride’s family has to pay a dowry to the groom's, which is made up of cash and appliances. Although child marriage is outlawed in India, it is still very common in Rajasthan.
Dim lighting in the workshop
The Lohar, however, do allow divorce and remarriage. After the death of a spouse, an acceptable type of remarriage would be to the younger brother or sister of the deceased. Although the Lohar are monogamous, under special circumstances (if a wife cannot bear a child, for example), taking another partner is acceptable.
The finished product
Within Lohar society, sons inherit the property, and the eldest males are the heads of the families. Although their status is not considered equal to that of the men in the family, women work alongside their husbands at the smithies, at least until there are sons to take their place. They also raise children and cook the food.
The Lohar don’t wear any protective gear.
Although the Lohar are scattered around north and central India, they see the Rajasthani city of Chittaurgarh as their ancestral home. Here, they say, they were once weapon makers in the kingdom of Mewar. When the Moguls invaded, the Lohar fled to other parts of the country.
Some historians trace the Lohar, along with several other Rajasthani communities, even further back to the Scythians of Iran. They say that this war-like tribe infiltrated and established themselves in India between 500 BC and 500 AD. These days, whatever their ethnic origins, they are truly part of the northern Indian demographic – but with less and less demand for their handmade metal implements, their future is uncertain.
Women and men working side-by-side
Malm says that he hadn’t planned to meet up with blacksmiths on his photo trip to India, but after his good experiences meeting the Lohar, he hopes to return and work with them some day. We’d like to thank Malm for sharing his wonderful photographs and memories of Rajasthan with us.