“He burned the sari and handed us a thin slice of pure silver,” my mother said, describing a moment that took place 30 years ago at her home in the city of Firozabad. The man in her story was not a magician, but an extractor. Like many similar artisans in my mother’s hometown, he went door to door collecting old saris to extract their precious metals.
Until the 1990s, sarees were often donned in pure silver and gold, and I remember rummaging through my mother’s wardrobe, looking for her treasure-sparkling outfits. But as she told me, the diggers were looking for something even more valuable than clothes – they were looking for trash, and some sort of trash specific to this town.
So now, to learn more about this seemingly mystical transfiguration of extraction, I returned to Firozabad, a city overshadowed by the neighboring Taj Mahal (45 km to the west) and best known as the glass bracelet capital of India. than for its precious metals. But as I discovered, for some industrious craftsmen, the city was nothing less than a gold mine – a place where the precious metal once flowed down the drain.
Founded in 1354 CE by the Sultan of Delhi, Firoz Shah Tughlaq, Firozabad was built as a palace city which, according to the writings of court historian Shams-i-Siraj, was twice as large as the walled city of Shahjahanbad (now Old Delhi, designed by the same ruler who built the Taj Mahal). According to Rana Safvi, historian and author of The Forgotten Cities of Delhi, it was “used as a prototype for later Mughal-era fortresses, as it was the first time that the concept of a Diwan-e-Aam [audience hall] for the public and a Diwan-e-Khas [private audience hall] for nobles was introduced.”
While Safvi notes that there are very few traces left of this old city, I saw that today’s Firozabad has its own kind of grandeur. As I drove through the city, almost every lane was a kaleidoscope of handcarts and trucks laden with colorful glass bracelets of every shade shimmering in the morning sun. Bangles hold an important place in Indian tradition, symbolizing prosperity and good fortune for married women and newlyweds, who may wear stacks of them on each arm. With around 150 glass bracelet factories today, it’s no wonder that Firozabad has earned the nicknames City of Glass and City of Bangles.