There are various traditional skills are still practiced in the North, in spite of some skills going extinct due to the civil-war. In my village Moolai in Jaffna Peninsula there are still blacksmith’s forge where everything is done by hand where the sound of iron hitting against iron could still be heard from an old forge surrounded by trees which provides much shade. Nathan is the present owner of the forge, where his generations have worked for the past 140 years. Nathan’s grandfather had learnt this art from his father and later trained his father. Nathan now 59 years, first picked up a hammer at the age of 12 as a schoolboy. Since then have worked along with my four brothers; for it is a tradition for families to work together. Two of them work in the forge casting and transforming iron. One brother is engaged in carpentry with his son. Two others are sculptors who carve using wood or stone. There united work supplements the skills of each other.
This humble forge attracts customers from many villages, including Jaffna town, as far as the islands of Delft and Karainagar, as iron blades are common in every home in the Northern Province.
An assortment of knives are used in the kitchen and garden. Larger knives are used in farms to cut fodder for cattle. The axe is common in cultivation and is used for clearing patches of forest. The curved blade is similar to the Egyptian khopesh (sickle sword) and is used in some Hindu kovils where goats are sacrificed during religious festivals.
At the forge is the bellows, a large apparatus consisting of three leather bags, stitched and held in formation by strips of soft wood. When the assistant blacksmith pulls on the wooden handle the bag sucks in the air and releases it through the tuyere- a thin pipe.
The pipe opens into a small pit where charcoal embers infused with air breathe orange flames. Nathan heats a rectangular iron piece, until it glows red and places it on the heavy anvil. Within seconds he hammers with speed and dexterity to transform the iron into a blade, dipping the blade into a bucket of water. Today, a heavy knife costs 3,000 rupees and an axe 4,500 rupees.
Nathan uses different temperatures for different blades and even the hammer differs according to the required blades. The wrong hammer could damage the blade, there are 5 kinds of hammers.
The largest one weighs 14 pounds and it is 100 years old, used to beat large rods of iron – used as the axle for bullock carts. The other hammers weigh 5, 3, 2 and 1 pound respectively. The assistant brought a large rim of iron, which has to be fitted onto the wheel of a bullock cart. Other two helpers arranged coconut husks in a circular design and filled the centre with charcoal and dried hay. The rim is placed on the husks and covered with more hay. The assistant lit the fire, while Nathan went over to the other side of a fence made with dried palmyrah fronds separated the forge, from a garden where palmyrah trees rose majestically reaching into the sunlight.
Under the shade of a massive khomba tree his brother was busy using a cloth to clean a large wheel. He makes the wooden items to supplement Nathan’s iron blades. Also make handles for the knives and axes. But his main skill is making bullock carts, which take almost 25 to 30 days.
To make a whole bullock cart costs about 130,000 rupees, as everything is done by hand. in a corner of the garden an assistant was busy chiseling away at a wooden cylinder for the cart.
When cart is complete the customer taken to the kovil next door and the cart is delivered after a short prayer. All present are served some sweet pongal (a rice based food infused with jaggery and raisins). This is the passion with which they work.
Back at the forge the iron rim has been heated, and Nathan stood ready with a 3 pound hammer, as assistant picked up the hot rim with heavy tongs. The rim is placed on the wooden wheel and Nathan begins to gently hammer it into place, as assistant poured cool water onto the iron rim. Within five minutes the process is complete. Both men smile in contentment.
Half an hour later two majestic white bulls arrive at the forge, with an older man with a young boy, the customer whose wheel they repaired. Nathan and brother fix the wheel and the cart is ready. The bulls are tied to the yoke and the cart slowly rolls onto the road.
Unfortunately some years from now this forge will become silent, as Nathan and his brother are more than blacksmiths, this skill does not have a single apprentice. The work of these brothers will be remembered in the village of Moolai.