Tambat Ali – The Coppersmiths of Pune

As many of you know, my annual two month trip to India always starts with spending some time in Pune. It was my former career in IT that first brought me to the city, and although I no longer work in IT I still return to Pune every year to see friends, visit familiar places, and explore the city further. One of the places I find myself constantly returning to is the old city, and more specifically Tambat Ali. This is the one place where I finally feel I have returned back to my second home.

Over the years I have photographed Tambat Ali on multiple occasions but have never got around to writing about this place. With my travels being prevented for the last couple of years, it felt like a good opportunity to revisit my images and finally document a little about this fascinating place. Please click on any image to view it in a larger dimensions.

Tambat Ali (Copper Alley) is a street that is alive from dawn until dusk with the constant hypnotic rhythmic sound of the beating of metal objects. This unique street is a neighborhood in Pune where the traditional craft of moulding metal, specifically copper, into objects of everyday use has been practiced for centuries. Located in the densely packed narrow alleys of the old city, the current livelihood of the Tambats (coppersmiths) is under threat from rapid urbanization and other pressures of growing industrialization.

Historically, Tambat Ali came into existence in Kasba Peth around 250 years ago during the Peshwa reign. Kasba Peth is Pune’s oldest market area with the spatial separation of communities based on profession or caste. Communities like the Bhoi (palanquin bearers), Fani (comb makers), coppersmiths, tailors, and bangle workers have separate lanes here. Among these, Tambat Ali is home to those who make copper objects. Tamba in Marathi means copper, and hence a Tambat is a coppersmith.

Most Tambats originally came to Pune from the Konkan region during the rule of Sawai Madhavrao (1774–1795). As the Maratha Empire continued to expand, the Peshwas with a vision of creating their administrative headquarters in Pune, asked traders and craftsmen of various communities and regions to come together to settle in Kasba Peth to support the everyday functioning of a potential capital city. The coppersmiths of Tambat Ali established their small workshop-cum-homes in Kasba Peth, and held in themselves great pride from having served an empire.

The community flourished during this era, with the Peshwas being their early patrons for religious and military needs. Tambats made weapons, copper coins and kitchen utensils for the royal family. Seven generations of Tambats are said to have lived in Tambat Ali, passing the knowledge of their craft down the generations.

This craft cluster still retains the traditional planning of clusters – a dense interconnected maze of narrow access ways, compact residential and work clusters, and wider chowks. The Tambats of Pune specialize in ‘mathar kaam’ which is the art of beating copper to make it stronger. The traditional workshop-cum-living quarters of these artisans are called ‘bakhal’ where these artisans even today craft some of the best metalware known worldwide for its intricate hand-beaten work.

Over the last century there has been a gradual decline in the number of households involved in the trade. At it’s zenith, it is estimated that 800 households were supporting 110 copper craft workshops in Kasba Peth. Today that number has shrunk to just 8-10 households whose livelihood depends directly on the tambat craft, supporting just a handful of workshops.

The decline in these numbers is due to a number of factors; rising copper prices, a drop in the use of copper vessels, very little financial reward for a lot of physical hard work, and a reluctance of the next generation of Tambats to take up the craft. Nowadays, most of the craftsman make objects wholesale and export them to other places. However, there are still a few shops that sell them for retail in Pune.

The Tambats today, through very few in numbers, are trying to adapt to new styles and designs. No longer confined to just pots and utensils, they are retaining the market for copper with new age designer products for urban consumers. With initiatives from NGO’s, private sector industries and some sensitive designers, the Tambats have regained motivation and are up for the challenges of the modern world equipped with their traditional knowledge and skill.

Despite the decline of the trade in Kasba Peth, you can still hear the sound of copper being hammered by this handful of craftsman from 8am to 8pm every day except Sunday. Locating them in the old city can be a little tricky, just let your ears lead the way.

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Categories: India, Maharashtra, Pune, Tambat Ali

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7 replies »

  1. I grew up in Pune [1946-1968] in an area called Budhwar Peth, next to Kasba Peth. The Budhwar Peth also had a coppersmith workshop within minutes of where we lived.Thanks for sharing these beautiful photos. Older generations of my family used such copper and brass pots and pans. Eventually, when the stainless steel came into vogue, the use of copper and brass diminished.

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