From being a common put-away for rainy-day money to being a must-take for the thieves that sneaked into people’s houses at night, Bugwaer – the penny bank – has been a constant sight in Kashmiri households since ancient times.
Archeologists in Kashmir have found earthen penny banks dating back to the 11th century, containing coins from the Lohora dynasties of that era.
Sticking a butter-knife into the small slit of the penny bank to take out cash and coins is a shared memory in Kashmir. One can hardly come across a person who has not made mischief with a penny bank as a child. Though Generation-Z hasn't seen much of the Bugwaer, countless millennials in Kashmir can recall glueing a smashed penny bank poorly in an attempt to conceal a childhood trickery.
According to 79-year-old Ghulam Mohiudin Khattana, back in the days, the penny bank was the only feasible way of storing money.
"It was just as good as a bank; sometimes even better, because it hardly left any room for a person to give into cravings for nibbling cash from their savings," Mohiudin said.
Parents would save the money for their daughters’ marriages in the penny banks. Young men would conserve parts of their earnings in them to later use the amount to buy a horse, a cow, a piece of land or anything else. Children would put-away their Eid money and women would slip in some part of the money received from the daily sale of a cow’s or goat’s milk into their personally kept penny banks. Often, these penny banks kept by their women and children in their family would bailout the debtors in terrible liability.
Mohiudin remembers, forty years ago, when in the span of only two weeks, some 80 penny banks were stolen by a mischievous thief in his Nowgam village, near Charar-e-Sharief, "following which, terrified by the spree of thefts, everyone in the village either buried, or hid his/her penny bank in secluded places."
"Since everyone was putting away their penny banks in the wake of the thefts, I too decided to hide my penny bank atop the tallest Deodar tree in the village, but unfortunately, only a few days later, a bird pushed it away and a passing shepherd stole all my money," Mohiudin recalls while reminiscing the old days.
Since the penny bank was a priority target for thieves, people in the past would often bury their penny banks in hidden and secluded places, to be dug out later in times of need. In the event of the person's death or any other reason that forced the person to abandon the buried penny bank, an occasional lucky farmer or a man with a good soul would stumble upon the treasure and become wealthy; Kashmiri folklore is full of such incidents.
Lately, however, these buried treasures have also been giving surprises to the archaeologists in Kashmir as well, who have come across various finds of penny banks from the past, filled with precious coins.
In the past, it was also a tradition in Kashmir to offer a penny bank to gods at the temple and give it away at the shrines of Sufi saints. Last year, during the COVID-19 lockdown, Malik Ubeed, an eight-year-old boy from Bandipora district, garnered huge praise for offering his piggy bank to the District Commissioner's office in Bandipora. He wanted the administration to help the needy during the lockdown and use the amount from the penny bank to fight the covid-19 pandemic.
In-accordance with the ancient tradition, penny banks are still a priority-make item for the potters in Kashmir. Kashmiri potters are known for their skill in making penny-banks in different varieties and shapes. One of the most sought-after varieties in Kashmir is a penny-bank made in the shape of a rooster. These penny banks are adorned with bright and shiny colors, and sometimes decorated with Papier-mâché filigrees as well.
Potters from Srinagar’s Ishbar, a small neighbourhood on the periphery of the city, are specifically known for their skills in making penny banks in awe-inspiring shapes and treated with eye-catching colors.
Habibullah Kumar, a 62-year-old sixth generation potter from Ishbar, says he can make a penny bank of any size and shape, but since it is cumbersome, immensely time-consuming, and does not fetch proper returns in the market, he refrains from crafting penny banks in unconventional shapes. "We do, however, make some penny banks in peculiar shapes, which include a duck, a rooster, and an elephant."
The process of fashioning a penny bank starts with collecting a special kind of soil from an area that is considered free from common impurities like root splinters, microplastics, and glass shards. This collected soil is then dried and ground into a fine grime with a small bat. Subsequently, after adding water, the soil is left overnight to allow the water to completely soak-in and loosen it. Once the soil is done, it is again kneaded with bare hands, in the same manner in which you do your dough in the morning to make Rotis, and then placed on the wheel.
Previously, the potters would use a manually propelled wheel called ‘Chreat’ in the local vernacular, but the introduction of a rubber belt and a half-horse-power electric motor has completely reduced the labour required to push the wheel with a stick.
Apart from the prerequisite work, an average potter in Kashmir can craft nearly 60 to 100 penny banks in a day. The research suggests that penny banks can serve as a pedagogical device with which parents can teach their children the rudiments of thrift and savings. It can also inculcate a temperament for financial management in children. Penny banks are also immensely convenient for saving spare change.
According to one estimate, Australians alone are losing $38 million a month by tossing away their coins in the trash. The research conducted by Galaxy Research in August 2017 of 1,000 respondents aged 18-64 years concluded that twenty-eight percent of the people hate carrying coins, with 11 percent so opposed to carrying loose change that they preferred to throw it away. The reasons for throwing away loose change included: they found the coins of small denomination ‘inconvenient’ to use, and it unnecessarily bulked up their wallet.
Nowadays, many companies have come up with digital penny-banks that help the users convert their spare change into digital money to save it.
Mahreen Mushtaq and Saba Riyaz are two friends from Srinagar who say that after struggling continuously with saving money, a few months ago, they bought piggy banks from a local potter and have been consistently putting in their savings in the money jar.
"Both of us have two bank accounts, but since withdrawing money out of them is an easy task, we were never able to save money. We saw a penny-bank as the only recourse that would prevent our spendthrift urges from gnawing at our hard-earned money, " one of the friends told Rising Kashmir.
Ghulam Nabi Kumar, a shopkeeper of wooden and pottery items at Hazratbal Srinagar, says that he is noticing a revival in the use of penny banks amongst people, and lately, "the sale of the item has been slowly jumping".
Ghulam Nabi has been the pottery monger for the past thirty years, and during these years, he has witnessed many success stories that originated with the purchase of a penny bank. "Some five years ago, a youth bought a big seven KG Penny bank from me, and recently I heard that he had smashed the jar and started a small hotel. He had saved Rs. 3 lakh in his penny bank."
In the market, there are many alternatives to the pottery penny banks, but none seem to be working for people with money saving needs.
"Apart from penny banks made up from pottery, there are many alternatives made up of plastic, wood and other items, including ceramic; but none of them work. They come up with an accessibility option which is a bane for savings. Some have a rubber plug underneath, while others have a lock that can be opened with a simple turn of a small shiny key," Mohiudin said.
Compared to the past, nowadays people have immense expenses, therefore, saving money is one of the toughest challenges of modern life. Researchers have been suggesting hacks and tricks left-right-and-centre, but to no avail and to the continuous failure of the majority of the people.
"People have to realise that money is as sly as quicksilver, and they need deterrents that can prevent them from spending more. Capitalist economies thrive by prompting consumers to spend more. The advertisers invoke our insecurities and imply that we should buy more and more. But on an individual level and from a family economic perspective, not being able to save is disastrous. Life is uncertain and contingency plans are a must. The old people were aware of this fact, and that is why they had come up with the penny bank, a master technique of saving money. We need to adopt it on a mass scale, " said Mamoon Wani, an economist by profession.
With things becoming complicated by the day, and modern intricacies redefining life, many more things from posterity may follow the Bugwaer to revisit life in Kashmir – and with their healthy inclusion, we can bring harmony to the earth and prosperity to human existence.