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The Lac in Assam and Meghalaya

Monday 14 December 2009, by P. Ramirez

In northern Meghalaya and Hamren Subdivision of Karbi-Anglong, cultivation of lac can still be observed in some farms. It is mentioned in the colonial literature as one of the main products that the foothills dwellers traded down in the plains [1]. Lac, known worldwide under the form of shellac or stick-lac, should not be confused with lacquer, of either vegetable or artificial origin. Lac is produced instead by a tiny scale insect Laccifer lacca. Laksha is mentioned in the Atharva Veda (V, 5) as a plant which cures wounds. [2] Captain Wilford (Asiatick Researches, vol. 9, p.65), quotes passages of Ctesias (5th century BC) which seem to concern the cultivation of lac in ancient India on trees called sipa-chora in a hilly region of Eastern India. [3]

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Lac seems to have been widely cultivated in North-East India even before the XIXth century, when the Western accounts started to mention it. The famous botanist William Roxburgh was the first to publish a specific note on the lac (Asiatic Researches 1799, vol II). Lac was also cultivated outside Northeast India, in Rangpur : Asiatic Journal, XIX, 1825, p. 50. "Cutna lac" is mentioned among the exports of Assam to Bengal ("New System of Commerce... 1793", cf. Aitchison, XII, 1931, p. 113) In Meghalaya, lac was produced in Ri-Bhoi and the Lynngam area (West Khasi hills) and traded by Pnar entrepreneurs. In Umsiang area of Northeastern Ri-Bhoi, the association of Pnars with lac is still remembered today, as was Iew laha, the "Lac market", on the Umsiang river, now Assam border. The lac farms were primarily owned by Pnars and when the demand droped down after WWII, most of the Pnar families left. Gurdon (1914: 47-48) confirm this and give an interesting account on the division of labour in the lac industry: "The Bhois and Lynngams cultivate lac. They plant arhar dal, u landoo, in their fields, and rear the lac insect on this plant. Last year the price of lac at Gauhati and Palasbari markets rose as high as Rs. 50 per maund of 82 lbs., it is said, but the price at the outlying markets of Singra and Boko was about Rs. 30. The price of lac has risen a good deal of late years. Formerly the price was about Rs. 15 to Rs. 20 a maund. The lac trade in the Jaintia Hills and in the southern portion of the Khyrim State is a valuable one. The profits, however, go largely to middle-men, who in the Jaintia Hills are Syntengs from Jowai, who give out advances to the Bhoi cultivators on the condition that they will be repaid in lac. The Marwari merchants from the plains attend all the plains markets which are frequented by the hill-men, and buy up the lac and export it to Calcutta. The whole of the lac is of the kind known as stick lac."

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shellac ©P. Ramirez

Allen B.C., 1906 Assam District Gazetteers vol. X The Khasi and Jaintia Hills, The Garo Hills and the Lushai Hills, p86 Lac is generally reared on arhar (cajanus indicus), and on two shrubs which are called by the Bhois nongdak (might be same as hindi dhak, Butea monosperma) and thesit. The method of propagation is as follows :
- Pieces of stick lac containing living insects are placed in baskets, and tied on to the twigs of the tree on which the next crop is to be grown. After a few days the insects crawl on to the young branches, and begin to feed and secrete the resin. They are left undisturbed for about six months, and the twigs encrusted with the secretion are then picked off. Ants and the caterpillars of a small moth sometimes do much damage to the insect, and a heavy storm at the time when they are spreading over the tree will destroy them altogether. The lac produced is exported in the crude form of stick lac. Most of it is reared by Bhois and Mikirs in the Bhoi circle on the Nowgong and Kamrup borders. p92 The principal exports from the district are lime, potatoes, oranges, betel-nut, pan, and bay leaves, which leave the district on the south, and cotton and lac which are raised in the northern hills.

Lac cultivation is still practised by a few farmers in Karbi-Anglong (Assam) and in some places of Ri-Bhoi, Northern Meghalaya. In Karbi Anglong, we have seen lac in Umswai valley.

Birsingki market, on the east of Umswai is still a favourite marketing point for lac. In Sonidan (Nongkhap), Ri-Bhoi, it is reared only on Cajanus indicus (=Cajanus cajan). Farmers get two harvest a year. New stocks are put on trees in Oct-Nov and May. Current prices are around 150 Rps/kg for raw lac, 200 rps/kg for purified lac. Local uses includes first of all dyeing but also fixing the blades of tools.

Assamese terms (Candrakanta Abhidhana) : লাহা [সং. লাক্ষা], লা; the lac লা পৰুবা বি. লা উত্পন্ন কৰা এবিধ ক’লা পৰুবা; the lac insect. : Assamese: জতু (jo.tu) , লা (la) , Meeteilon: cha , Hmar: nuoi

Lac was in high demand in the first half of 20th century, for various application as electric insulators, varnishes, bike handlebars and musical records. The demand dropped after WWII after the introduction of new materials like plastics. Today, there is still a demand from arts & crafts. The new taste for natural products may boost it.

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Lac dyed fabric (Ri-Bhoi) ©P. Ramirez

ANNEX : technical and historical

from Lac dye is a yellowish red powder. Dissolved in water it turns bluish, dark red. Lac dye is soluble in ethyl alcohol and methyl alcohol, also in acetone and acetic acid. Lac dye is partially soluble in water and ether. Lac dye is very lightfast and resistant to temperature, it melts at 180° C and decomposes at approx. 230° C.

Lac dye may be used for dying of textiles, such as silk, cotton, wool. It may also be used for oil painting, in shellac varnishes and possibly in watercolours.

excerpts from Artist’s Pigments c. 1600-1835 (R.D. Harley):

Lac dye is obtained from the females and eggs of the insects known as Coccus lacca, which infest various trees, especially fig trees, indigenous to Asia and India. They, and kermes and cochineal insects, are of a type commonly called "shield-louse", as they are small and round with a shield on the back. Female lac insects have vestigial wings and legs and spend their whole life gathered in large clusters on host plants. When lac dye is harvested, its animal origin is virtually unrecognisable, because it is a solid substance made up of bodies of female insects which are dead, each with some 200 to 500 unhatched eggs, all surrounded by a brown-red, hardened exudation. Individual insects are not visible, and the whole substance looks like some form of growth on the host plant. It is collected by breaking off lac-bearing branches before the larvae hatch. Some lac is left, and at swarming time the larvae of minute size can be seen for a few days moving about to find a place on the tree to settle and feed.

In ancient times Asiatics, who were able to observe the life cycle, knew that lac was a substance of animal origin, so various names meaning "little worm" were developed for lacca and similar insects. To Europeans, however, lac appeared to be part of the sticks on which it was imported, thus the name coccus (berry or acorn) was attached to lac and later to the live insects, a misnomer for which the ancient Greeks and Romans are held responsible.

Discussion on the confused nomenclature connected with a number of red pigments has been undertaken by other writers. The origin of the links between Latin coccus and granum and English grain (all of which are associated with the idea that lac was a seed or berry), and the links between kermes and vermiculum (both meaning little worm) are to be found during the medieval period and they are ably discussed by Thompson. When continuing the discussion with special reference to seventeenth-century England, it is possible to ignore the name grain, which, apart from its specialised use in textile dyeing, was obsolete. Nevertheless, the seventeenth century presents an additional problem in that the words cinnabar and sinopia were wrongly associated with the name sinoper lake, which may have been a development of the medieval name cynople (Latin sinopia) mentioned by Thompson.

Sinoper lake and the variation topias are to be found in sources dating from the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries. The composition of both is uncertain; Thompson states that medieval cynople was a composite lake, and it seems that sinoper may have been similar, for that mentioned in B.M. MS. Sloane 1394 was derived from the dye in scarlet cloth.

Parkinson’s herbal contains an explanation that lac is formed by "winged ants" which settle on trees, that the substance is sometimes imported on sticks (stick lac), or, after it has been cleared from the sticks ans melted, it can be imported in cake form, or in thin pieces (shellac). In order to amplify Parkinson’s description, it is worth adding a few comments taken from a modern authority. When the dead insects are stripped from the branch and crushed, the seed or grain lac, as it is then called, is immersed in hot water to separate the grains from the colouring matter, the liquid is evaporated, and the residue which remains may be then formed into cakes for use as a dye. It was worth importing untreated stick lac, because it was capable of providing a greater quantity of colouring matter than the cakes. Eighteenth century customs records support this view, for, in 1700, 25.543 pounds of stick lac and 26.440 pounds of shellac were imported. In later years the quantity was twice that of stick lac, but considerable quantities of both were imported; in 1760, stick lac amounted to 170.780 pounds as compared with 349.630 pounds of shellac. Naturally, it was not all used as a dye, for lac had other uses in lacquers and varnishes.

During the seventeenth century, ready-prepared lake pigment was often distinguished by a place name. Florentine lake and lakes from Venice and Antwerp are mentioned quite frequently in literary sources, the Italian products being most highly recommended. Hilliard states that lake from Antwerp is quite good, and Gyles follows him, stating somewhat grudgingly that it is "indifferently good". It is noticeable that two of three places mentioned were the most important ports in Europe during the sixteenth century, and that it seems likely that their reputation for superior lakes rests on the fact that they monopolised trade and had first choice of the best raw materials. The tradition that the best lakes came from there lasted throughout the seventeenth century, but it would be wrong to assume that good lakes were not made elsewhere at that time. Norgatedoes not refer to European sources but speaks of Indian lake as being the best.

It was important to obtain a good-quality Indian lake pigment, because as an artists’ colour it presented some difficulties. General opinion amongst painters in oils was that it required much grinding and that it took several days to dry, so long in fact that it necessitated the addition of an artificial drier. If stored in bladders, which were the usual containers for oil colours, the colour had a tendency to grow fat and unusable. There appears to have been some difference of opinion as to how buch grinding lake required for preparation as a water colour. Nevertheless, there was general agreement that, in addition to the ususal gum medium, a small addition of sugar candy was required to prevent cracking in the shell. Some sources contain the suggestion that a little ear wax should be mixed in as well, the reason, implied but not explained, being that the addition would improve the flow of the colour. It is evident that the actual paint presented some difficulties in use, whether it was oil or water colour, but because of its transpareny and its colour it was extremely versatile.

Indian lake could be used in full saturation to shade other reds, used on its own as in the crimson drapery backgrounds described by Norgate, and, above all, it could be reduced most successfully with a large proportion of white to provide excellent flesh tints. Its versatility made it well worth its high price, its value being second only to ultramarine.

[1] (Foreign Political Consultations 4/9/1834, n°56 in Syiemlieh, D. 1989. British Administration in Meghalaya ; Policy and Pattern. New Delhi, Heritage.)

[2] Several historical references to lac can be found on

[3] P.C. Choudhury gives useful references on lac in the history of India ; it is doubtful however that they pertain to Assam per se (The History and Civilisation of the People of Assam to the twelve century A.D., Guwahati: Spectrum 1987(1st ed. 1959), pp. 336,343).


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