Since the rise of civilisation animals have been part of human life, both while they are alive and also when they are dead. In their death their skins are found of various uses, especially as leather products. Leather, simply, is preserved animal skin. The process of preserving animal skin is known as tanning – first, the skin of dead cattle – cow, buffalo, pig, goat, sheep, camel – is peeled though specialized expertise. The communities involved in leatherwork are known differently in different parts of India for example, Madigas in Andhra Pradesh, Arundhatiyars in Tamil Nadu and Chamars in Uttar Pradesh.
Chamars, a dalit community has been known for their scientific pursuit, yet for which they have been hardly acknowledged. For examples they were the first discoverers of the role of salt in keeping the wet skin from rotting. The natural tanning process adopted by the Chamars is largely eco-friendly. The salted skin is dipped into the powered mixture of the bark of Tarwar plant. The Chamars discovered that the tannic acid of the Tarwar bark could be used to convert raw skins into leather. The treated skin is then put into a tub of lime. After a week it transforms into leather. The leather is then washed clean in a stream or a pond. To give a finish touch to the leather the Chamars use the dried and powered fibre of a fruit called Karukkaya. The fibre is boiled in castor oil. On cooling, this solution is systematically applied to the leather to give it a polished, smooth look.
Chamars then transform this leather into shoes, sandals, ropes, bags and belts, and even musical instruments such as tabla.
Chamars however are placed at the lowest end of the social hierarchy. They are denied respect and access to resources like education, land and water. For historians the history of Chamars is not significant because their labour and scientific pursuit is never treated as dignified. Yet the community has an interesting history.
It was the time during the rule of early Mughals in 15th century Agra, also known as the leather capital, the Chamars had began an interesting journey.
Emperor Babur was the founder of the Mughal Empire in India. However, his son Humayun, lost to dreams and opium, was not a worthy successor. To make matters worse, he had inherited a fractious kingdom and was forced to engage in battle. Sher Khan, a rebellious Afghan chieftain was soon to oust Humayun to become Emperor Sher Shah Suri founding the short-lived Sur dynasty. He led his soldiers to victory against the Mughals. Hunmayun barely escaped with his life, almost drowning in a river nearby. A bhisti, a low caste water carrier, rescued him and ferried the emperor to safety on an inflated buffalo skin. In a typical expression of gratitude, Humayun made him king for a day. The bhisti invited fellow leather workers from all over to participate in his good fortune, establishing the foundation for Agra's considerable low caste population and its famous leather industry.
However, Agra's leather industry received its main impetus during the time of Emperor Akbar, who decreed that his soldiers wear shoes. Till that time the Mughal army had fought barefoot. Shoe-makers were summoned from all over the empire and work began to produce hundreds of thousands of pairs per year. Besides the hard-wearing leather jootis with slightly turned up toes for the soldiers, there were also a huge demand for more delicate versions for nobles, their ladies and vast entourages. Besides shoes were the Mughal shields which at least for the common soldiers, were made of leather.
In the British period the Agra Chamars (known as Jatavs) were the first to enter the manufacture of leather goods. Many became millionaires by supplying shoes and belts to the British army during World War II. That continued after independence aswell. But by the 1970s, non-Dalit traders entered the field. They acquired army tenders and began to fabricate leather goods, forcing many Jatav families out of business.