Behind the Scenes of a Festivity
Maya Mukhi -- Compassionate Friend, Monsoon-Winter 1997 --- Beauty Without Cruelty India
If you look beyond the glitter of varkh, into the sheds where it is produced, and at the lives that are sacrificed to make this possible, you'd think twice before buying that box of mithai topped with the precious foil!
Silver foil, or varkh, as it is generally known in India, adds glitter to mithai, supari, paan and fruit, and is used in Ayurvedic medicines and on deities in many Jain temples. The silver-topped mithai is even served as prasad in temples and on auspicious and religious occasions. Varkh is also used in flavored syrups as in kesar syrup.
Several years ago, as suggested by BWC, Indian Airlines instructed their caterers to stop the use of varkh on mithai served on board their flights. Today, many BWC members ask for mithai without varkh, having realized the cruelty involved in its preparation.
According to a feature article in Business India, an astounding 275 tonnes of silver are beaten annually into foil for mithais and chyavanprash! That is a whopping 275,000 kg.! (At the present market rate that would cost a phenomenal Rs 165 crore).
Just how is varkh made and what is it that makes its preparation and consumption so sinful?
Varkh is not derived from an animal source. However, a crucial material of animal origin, ox-gut, is used in its manufacture. This ox-gut is obtained from the slaughterhouse.
In the bylanes of the villages of Ahmedabad and other cities, amidst filthy surroundings, placed between layers of ox-gut, small thin strips of silver are hammered to produce the glittering foil.
The intestine (ox-gut), smeared with blood and mucus, is pulled out from the slaughtered animal by the butcher for the specific purpose. It is then taken away to be cleaned and used in the manufacture of varkh.
The gut of an average cow, measuring 35 feet in length and 3 inches in diameter, is cut open into a piece measuring 420" x 10". From this, strips of 9" x 11" are cut to give approximately 60 pieces of ox-gut, which are then piled one onto another and bound to form a book of 171 leaves. Next, small thin strips of silver are placed between the sheets and the book slipped into a leather pouch (an animal product again). Artisans then hammer these bundles continuously for a day to produce extremely thin foils of silver of 3" x 5". The leather and ox-gut, being supple, can withstand the intense manual hammering for up to 8 hours a day till such time as the silver is beaten to the desired thickness. When ready, the foil is carefully lifted from between the leaves of ox-gut and placed between sheets of paper to be sold to the mithaiwallas. A booklet of 160 foils weighs approximately 10 gm and costs about Rs 200.
An average middle class Indian family of four consuming approximately 100 kg of mithai per year for forty years consumes silver foil produced with the gut of 3 cows and one-tenth of a cowhide!
India is not the only country where foil is made by such methods. In Germany, small specialized enterprises produce gold-leaf, which is beaten down to 1/10,000 mm thickness, for decorative and technical purposes by similar methods. The gold foil is used by the Jews for as much the same purpose, namely for food preparations, as it is in India.
In India the 275 tonnes of silver that are beaten annually into varkh utilize intestines of 516,000 cows and calf leather of 17,200 animals each year. Therefore, BWC hopes that someone, somewhere will develop through research an alternative process for the making of varkh without using ox-gut.