Tama, Tamots, and Tamrakars

Kathmandu Valley is a land blessed with fabulous temperate weather, rich fertile fields, and an artistically endowed population consisting predominantly of Newars, the original inhabitants of the enchanted valley. No matter how hot it is during summer days, the evenings are invariably cool and pleasant, though the huge growth in population coupled with thousands of newer concrete structures and hundreds of thousands of fume-emitting vehicles forces old-timers to complain that the weather is no more what it once was. The valley, which once grew a multitude of agricultural produce on its nutrient-filled fields, grows substantially less produce, primarily because of rapid urbanization. Luckily, amidst all this, one factor has remained somewhat unchanged, that is, the artistically endowed Newars have continued to hand down skills and vocations from generation to generation. Skills that they seem to have in their genes. What is more, the community has many different sub-castes, with different sub-castes taking up a different type of vocation. For instance, the Shakyas are particularly proficient silversmiths, the Shilpakars are fantastic wood carvers and the Chitrakars are fabulous painters. In the same way, the Tamrakars are great at working on copper. It should also be noted that among the three big cities of the valley, that is, Kathmandu, Bhaktapur, and Patan (or Lalitpur), the last mentioned has the biggest concentration of such artistically gifted Newars, and for this reason, it is known as the ‘City of the Arts’. Now, coming to Tamrakars particularly, the word is derived from ‘tama’ meaning copper and ‘aakar’ meaning shape (or, to give shape). In the local language (Nepal Bhasa), they are known as ‘Tamo’ or ‘Tamot’ and they are mostly concentrated in the heart of Patan, more specifically nearby Patan Durbar Square. South of this square, you will find rows of shops chock-a-block with copper, brass, and bronze ware. Note the shop’s names: the words ‘Tamrakar’ or ‘Tamot’, will figure somewhere in it. Tamot Traders in Tangal and Tamrakar Handicrafts in Chakrabahil, for example. Some of these shops are at least three generations old. The Tamrakars have played an important role in Nepali culture, more so in its traditional architecture which is evident in every temple, in every religious icon, as well as in many homes and hotels. You are liable to find many elements made of copper or its major alloys, brass and bronze. Traditional kitchen utensils are also made using these metals. In older times, almost all religious items were made of copper but later, brass began to be used as well. One can assume that this was due to the cost of brass being lower than copper. Copperware has always been highly valued because it can be resold immediately. This is one reason why traditional gifts for newlyweds included ‘gagris’ and ‘ghyampas’ (copper vessels for various household use). Another reason being that copper has valuable health benefits too. Many believe that drinking water kept overnight in a copper vessel aids good health. Aside from this, the intricate toranas above temple doorways all over the valley are repousse works in copper. The statues of various gods and goddesses inside shrines are also of copper. Items used for Buddhist religious rituals are also of copper, such as: the ‘sherkem’ and the ‘bhumbha’ (small containers for offering holy water), the ‘pauwahi’ (holding rice for offering), the ‘mana’ (prayer wheel), and the ‘dhupdani’ (incense holder). Newars who follow Hinduism make use of items like: the ‘kalaha’ and the ‘kotaha’ (for carrying puja items), the ‘khadelu’ (hanging oil lamp), and the ‘panas’ (lamp stand). Indeed, copper is an important part of the heritage and culture of the valley. If more vindication was needed, one has only to visit a couple of Newari homes to see that they will invariably have a number of copper ‘gagris’ and ‘ghyampas’ around.
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