When the curving tip of the aruval is taken out of the fire, it looks almost alive; its incandescent core glowing in the dim light of the grimy workshop where it is being made. In Big Short Film’s recently released Thirupacheti Aruval, a film about this famous south Indian billhook (somewhat like a sickle or machete), P. Chandrasekaran is making the tool from scratch.
With the help of an assistant, the blacksmith, who lives in Thiruppuvanam in southern Tamil Nadu, slices discarded automobile-leaf springs into the correct size before moulding them with fire and might. You need at least two people to make an aruval, beating the blade repeatedly with two differently sized hammers, the suthil and sambatti, to forge that perfectly curved tip from the heat-softened, malleable metal. “The parrot-shaped nose is what makes it so special,” he says in the film. “No one else makes it this way anywhere; no one can.”
While the aruval itself is manufactured and used all across Tamil Nadu and Kerala, the ones made in Thiruppuvanam and Thiruppachethi, in Sivagangai district, are iconic, so much so that Thiruppachethi, or Thirupachi, is often synonymous with the aruval. Dileep Rangan, the director of Thirupacheti Aruval, explains that quality and craftsmanship set the ones found here apart from the rest. “The blade is sharper and it doesn’t chip ,” he says.
The aruval’s origin is shrouded in tradition, myth and legend. Used even today to clear fields, collect firewood, or just crack open the top of a coconut, it continues to be in demand—even in the worship of Karuppu Swamy and Ayyanar, male deities revered in rural Tamil Nadu and Kerala. The craft pays reasonably well: Two years ago, author Aparna Karthikeyan noted prices could range from ₹250-900 apiece, with the bigger, showier ones, used only for temple donations, going up to ₹3,000. In recent years, though, its use as a weapon has put an unwelcome spotlight on both the tool, shaped somewhat like a curved sword, and the craftsmen who forge it.
Its legacy, then, is a complex mix of fame, necessity and notoriety. On the one hand, it is an indispensable part of rural life. On the other, Tamil movies—including blockbusters such as Aruvaa and Thirupaachi—have sealed a negative image, portraying it as a ready weapon, one as ubiquitous as a gun in a Hollywood western. The latest entrant to this long list is the much anticipated Rajinikanth-starrer Annaatthe, slated to release in November. The movie poster features the actor astride a Royal Enfield bike, wearing a helmet and earphones, an aruval dangling from the bike.
According to S. Theodore Baskaran, a Bengaluru-based film historian and conservationist, the aruval features extensively in films set in rural south Tamil Nadu. “Its use is highly exaggerated in movies,” he points out, adding that in real life, incidents of aruval killing are relatively rare. “Its use as an instrument of attack is more a creation of films,” he says. This reputation, however, has had a direct impact on the craft.
“Every time there is an aruval killing, the police come here,” says Chandrasekaran, adding that there is now a limit on the size of the aruval that can be sold commercially. While temple aruvals can go up to even 27ft in length, only the smaller, sickle-like aruvals—the kathir aruval—can be sold for everyday use. “We are forbidden to make anything over 2ft,” says Chandrasekaran. Since 2013, there has been a complete ban on the veecharuval, a longer version of the aruval, often used in gang warfare and communal violence. “The police made us sign a paper promising that we would not make it,” he says.
Today there is so much negativity associated with the aruval that the people making it are under constant monitoring and fear, says Rangan. The aruval, he adds, is, first and foremost, an agricultural tool—something his film focuses on. “As a film-maker, I did not try to rewrite how something is viewed,” he says. “I showed the narrative as it is and let people decide on what they want to take from it.”
Arriving at the exact period when the aruval became an intrinsic part of Thiruppachethi’s legacy is tricky. Its ubiquitous association with Sivagangai district could, however, be linked to Rani Velu Nachiyar, who ruled the area in the 18th century—and was one of the earliest rulers to wage war against the British. According to Chennai-based historian Meenakshi Devaraj, numerous pattarais, or workshops, to forge metal weapons were established during her reign. Two brothers, the Maruthu Pandiyars, who served in her court and later succeeded her as the rulers of Sivagangai, were experts in weaponry. According to legend, one weapon was a curved sword very similar in shape and size to the veechu aruval. In the film, Arumugam, another blacksmith, says that when people tried to cut a tree with this sword, it was effective, so “they made a proper tool out of it”. In 1801, over 50 years before the first war of independence, the brothers chose to challenge British domination. They were captured and executed. But the workmen in the pattarais they left behind continued to practise their craft.
In her 2019 book, Nine Rupees An Hour: Disappearing Livelihoods Of Tamil Nadu, Chennai-based Karthikeyan notes: “Every year, in Thiruppuvanam and Thiruppachethi, which have ten pattarais, highly skilled craftsmen make around 72,000 sickles entirely by hand—about ten a day at every workshop.” Business is unpredictable but never bad, she writes.
Yet, the craft, like many others, is endangered. Part of the reason, of course, is the negative image it wields. But making it is also hard, even dangerous work: hours spent huddled over the flames in scorching workshops, shaping the molten metal. “It is physically painstaking work,” says Chandrasekaran. “You can’t do it without a break.”
While Chandrasekaran has considered installing machinery that can streamline the process, he cannot afford it right now. Moreover, while mechanisation can help with the hammering process, the fine-tuning and shaping will still have to be done by hand, he says. Finding apprentices is hard, and there is no one left to continue the family legacy. “I am the last generation in my family making aruvals,” says Chandrasekaran, the third generation in his family to take up the craft.
For, while it has helped him raise and educate his two sons, they have refused to learn the craft. Santosh Kumar, his older son, now works as a graphic designer in Chennai. “My father’s apprentices get paid ₹1,200 a day, way more than my starting salary,” he says with a laugh. “But the work is too difficult; I just cannot do it.”