As you can tell from our Pools of Light, here at Lumens we love glass ornaments. That means that Firozabad in India is something of a fascination. For ornament lovers this is glasstown, the place where techniques were pioneered and perfected centuries ago, and which is still a major force in decorative glass.
As far back as the sixteenth century people in Firozabad were collecting the fragments of broken glass objects brought by traders and conquerors and using wood-fired furnaces called Bhainsa Bhatti to fuse the glass into ornaments.
A technique was developed which could produce bangles with no joints, which was very unusual. The bangles became famous and desirable and production spread amongst the locals until glass was the town’s main industry.
It expanded beyond bangles and glass makers were soon creating elements for chandeliers and other decorations for the royal courts. They made glass beads for clothing decoration, bulbs, vases, tableware and more, exporting around half of the products.
As recently as the 1980s the workforce was largely made up of young boys, as labour was cheap and so factories did not invest in automation. But 20 years after those observations the largest factories are more automated.
Some of the techniques used, with several men squatting over a wood furnace, were said to resemble the descriptions of glass making as far back as 12th century Europe.
There were once over four hundred companies making glass objects in Firozabad but the ancient business has been beset by very modern problems in recent years.
Firozabad is 28 miles from the Taj Mahal and pollution from its coal and wood-fired furnaces have been blamed for staining the white marble of the Taj Mahal yellow. Glass makers were forced to move to gas but gas supplies were unreliable, expensive and hard to use and many factories went out of business.
Threat of closure hung over the factories and it was proposed that they be moved elsewhere entirely, but an environmental study concluded last year that glass factory pollution was not in fact reaching as far as the Taj Mahal.
The timing was terrible, coming just as Chinese imports became available at much cheaper prices. The competition, combined with rising costs, hurt glass makers badly.
The one trade that remains buoyant is in traditional Indian bangles. Chinese companies don’t make them, and they are used in Indian wedding and other ceremonies, so there is hope for some of the factories, but Firozabad, or glasstown, is not the booming heart of glass it once was.