Sunday, August 31, 2008

Tanii beads-1 : sampu or chank shell beads

Among the Tanii's most valued ornaments are chank shell beads, also inaccurately called "conch shell" beads. The Indian chank shell is a large gastropod shell (Turbinella pyrum) found along the coast of India and Pakistan. It has been used as ornament in the Indian subcontinent for 4000 years and is regarded as sacred by both Hindus and Buddhists. Tanii chank shell beads seem to have reached the Subansiri area via Tibet. In the Himalayas and Tibet the shell has numerous sacred associations : symbol of purity, source of benevolent forces, etc.

Turbinella pyrum

The Taniis use the chank shell only as beads or necklace fasteners, not as rituals objects as in Tibet. At the same time it is the only shell used by them as body ornament. Cowrie shells (Moneta moneta) which are sought after for decorating the cane straps of Tibetan swords (chiri) do not serve for making beads nor any necklace part.

1. Beads
Sampu (or sampo) is the generic name for chank shell bead. A single strand of 70 to 80 of such beads makes one typical necklace known simply as sampu tasan.

3 types are distinguished :
  • * sampu/sampo (proper) : these are large, chunky or discoid white beads which make up the middle and lower section of the necklace.

  • * sanje sampu : these are smaller, more cylindrical in shape, and usually flatter; they are positioned at the upper section of the necklace.

  • * hiiku : the biggest ones, hand carved so as to give the beads a helicoidal shape, they are also one of the most valuable ornaments of the Taniis. One single bead can cost upto 15000-20000 Rps. Usually found by pairs, they occupy the lowermost section of the sampu tasan.

Some necklaces are fastened under a chank shell button (sango tape) which is worn on the nape of the neck. They are circular, square or oblong in shape. Square fasteners have rounded corners.

Long oblong chank shell used as fastener for sampo tasan

Round and square sango tape on various necklaces

The fondness of many Himalayan people for marine shells has lead some scholars to speculate erroneously that the historical cradle of those populations is located near the sea. Although this "sea origin hypothesis" is not backed by any archeological nor historical evidence, it periodically resurfaces (you can find one example here). As a matter of fact the reality appears to be just the opposite. Marine beads fetched high prices in the Himalayas not because they would have always been in possession of the Himalayan peoples, but because they were not, and because they constituted a rarity in the region that could be only acquired by purchase or heritage. It is a well known fact to anthropologists that even in the Pacific islands were marine shells are abundant everywhere, those who are the most sought after and fetch the highest prices are never the ones found locally, but always those coming from distant places, often through complex trade routes.
(Special thanks to Nanku Hage for having
helped me to collect the above pictures at Ziro)

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