TALES FROM THE CRYPT
They’re symbols of trust, tokens of love and puzzles that can take half a day to solve. One is shaped like a map of undivided India (below),
others resemble fish, monkeys, pistols. About 3,500 locks fill up the loft of the Patel family’s single-storey home in Hamirpura, in Gujarat.
Traditionally farmers, they’ve been collecting metal and wooden locks for four generations, and over a century. The locks are a mix of originals and replicas. The heaviest weighs 41.5 kg and requires eight keys to open. The tiniest weighs 4 gm, and is 1 inch high. There are pin locks, combination locks, trick locks, even one made of solid silver, meant for a bride’s dowry box. There’s a lock that has a concealed keyhole only revealed when you press the right rivet.
“When my grandfather [Gopal Patel] started his collection, people didn’t lock their doors in the village,” says Dashrath Patel, 50, third-generation custodian of the collection. “It was when thieves entered his home and stole a pot of ghee that he went in search of one. It turned into a hobby and he started collecting them.”
To buy his first lock, Gopal Patel travelled about 55km, from Kheda to Khambhat (formerly Cambay), a port town known for its sturdy locks. “Khambhat was an important trade port, so locks were made here to seal the chests that would be shipped overseas. Even today, it’s easy to find these old locks by the hundreds in the town,” says V Raghunathan, 63, a Bengalurubased former banker, academic and author who has been collecting locks for three decades, since he started his career as a finance professor, at the Indian Institute of Management – Ahmedabad in 1982.
His collection comprises about 750 unique locks — one shaped like a girl with her hands joined in a namaste; another a Mughal-era combination lock with Arabic text inscribed in its rotating dial. The right sequence of text is a verse from the Quran. These were sourced from Rajasthan.
“In pre-Independence India, parts of Rajasthan and Gujarat were individual principalities with trading communities and a lot of wealth. So lock-making became an important part of the culture,” Raghunathan says. His collection also features pieces from the other lock-manufacturing hubs in India such as Jammu & Kashmir, Kerala and Uttar Pradesh.
FORM & FUNCTION
In 19th century India, the type of lock you used told a story. A temple lock often had motifs relating to the deity. A padlock that took five keys to open could indicate a joint family of businessmen who didn’t trust one another.
“Indian locks were known for their functionality and ingenuity,” Raghunathan says. “There are locks where you can see the keyhole and have the key in your hand, yet the method of inserting the key is so complex, such a spatial puzzle, that it can take half a day to open it.”
The most valuable collection of trick locks in India belongs to Dr Hiren Shah, 60, an Ahmedabad-based paediatrician. “They’re mechanical puzzles that I find exciting to solve,” he says. His collection, pieced together over 25 years, features over 2,000 original pieces with about 500 different trick or puzzle locks.
Over the years, he has been invited to conferences and lock collectors’ meets in Germany, China, France and Australia to talk about his collection.
“Ancient locks haven’t been given their due in India. You won’t find extensive collections in museums, or books on them,” says Raghunathan, who is planning a book himself. Shah has set up a house museum displaying his precious collection.
Last year, the Patels showcased their collection at an exhibition in Vadodara. This May, they were invited to showcase selected pieces an exhibition organised by the municipal corporation of Surat. “We were told that in Surat, about 2 lakh visitors saw the locks,” says Patel. “I believe it’s important for people to know about these old locks. A lock, after all, is a symbol of trust.”
■ Dharma Patel and his son Dashrath with the family’s lock collection. The heaviest weighs 41.5 kg and requires eight keys to open.