For years and years the government put off the decision to make varakh, silver leaf, by machine on the grounds that no machines were available. Finally, this year a historic decision has been taken and the FSSAI notification has come that no varakh can be made except by machine.
The person responsible for this change (apart from me!) is Surendra Karnavat, a diamond jeweller in America. He and his wife were members of the Rajasthan Association of America and came to India in Vasundhara Raje’s first term as Chief Minister, lured by the promise that they would get all help to start a machine based varakh industry. He was given none of the promised assistance and could only start in a very small way. However, he did not give up hope and started by supplying only a few shops in his own area. I heard of him, and met him, while campaigning to have varakh made in a vegetarian way. Then, when the FSSAI started to take the matter seriously, he came in to show them how it could be done properly.
The varakh industry is a huge one. India uses over 300 tonnes of silver leaves in paan, chawanprash, tobacco products, ayurvedic medicines, mithais and temples. It is used in Germany on food (the food number is E 175), France on photo frames. In Japan it is everywhere – interiors, tea, instruments, frescos, temples. In fact, Kanazawa has a Gold Leaf Museum. The whole of Southeast Asia uses varakh, to pay homage to Lord Buddha. It is used on chocolates, cocktails and liquors – German Goldwasser and the Swiss Goldschlager are examples -- soups, salads,ice creams, coffees. Now, gold leaf has become a part ofanti-ageing creams, face packs and foundations. The use of the gilded leaf is endless. Gold leaf has been used for jewellery, for art decorations, picture frames and gilded art. We have used it in our glass paintings. But we don’t export it, because we make it in a dirty – and now illegal – manner. ABP News has done a piece on it, which is doing the Whatsapp rounds so you can see it.
300 tonnes translates like this: one kilo of silver has 225 gaddis (bundles). One gaddi is 150 sheets of silver varakh. That means, 6.75 crore gaddis every year. The world market asks for 300 kg of gold varakh every day
Till now, the varakh makers are in slaughterhouses. They are all a sect of Muslims called Pannigars.They select cattle by feeling their intestines while they are alive, and then having them cut and extracting the intestines while they are hot. These intestines are made into pouches, and silver is beaten in between them till it is thin enough to be sold. The method is filthy and certainly not pure silver. When you eat it, you place yourself at risk.
The second method that is used by most mithai sellers – who will pretend that they are getting the varakh from vegetarian sources (which is what the president of the mithai association claimed to me) – is to beat the silver between plastic sheets. However, this is also a filthy meat based method, as the plastic is coated with animal fat for lubrication and is also then covered with leather. The varakh that emerges is also not hygienic or fit for eating.
Karnavathas replaced leather / animal fat with a specially engineered paper which is translucent and smooth. This paper is fed into a machine and the process of making varakh is completely mechanized, without coming into contact with the sweaty human hand. The leaf has a thickness of 0.18 microns in silver and 0.1 microns in gold, making it of international standards even for gold fillings and ayurvedic medicines. The machine has taken 15 years to develop and meets the guidelines of the US FDA.
He is one of the very few people in the world who has the knowledge of producing varakh paper (also known as interleaf paper or carbon coated paper). He wants to help low cost machines to be produced and installed, and train unskilled labour – perhaps even the same people who have been sitting for years at slaughterhouses and taking out the intestines of freshly killed buffaloes and cows. He believes there is scope for at least 2 lakh people to be employed, and that this is the only way for the varakh industry to become a clean, hygienic, well managed organized sector, instead of being a filthy unorganized secretive sector that operates in the shadows of butcheries. This could also be a major employment area for women, as gold and silver leaf have to be transferred from interleaf paper to tissue paper, and this delicate exchange can be best handled by a woman. Gold and silver leaf can be major exports from India and earn foreign exchange.
Karnavat was invited by the Chinese government to establish a unit and train the Chinese. He refused because he wants to make India the silver/gold leaf hub of the world. This seems to me to be an excellent potential industry and, now that Mudra loans are available to small businessmen, this should be taken advantage of. In fact, if you are a large mithai maker you should establish your own ancillary varakh leaf factory. If you want to get in touch with him to start it in your own area, and to make sure that no mithai or paan is being made from cattle intestines in slaughterhouses, this is his address: