As we look for ways to be more environmentally sustainable, we’ve all had a chance to become familiar with the concepts of repurposing and upcycling. These watchwords of the modern green movement have found a place in the world of home decor as well. They are often heard when materials recycled from old products are used to make something different, as in the case of Moroccan boucherouite rugs. Yet sometimes the best design happens when something old is taken just as it is and is given new life through a little reimagining.
Some of our favorite examples of this kind of design are the bamileke stools of the Cameroon or Ethiopian mesob baskets (both of which might show up in future Design Geek features). Yet one of the most interesting transformations has been the new trend of stools and coffee tables made in the shape of a chakki – stone tools which formed a central part of traditional Punjabi culture in ancient India and modern Pakistan.
What is it called? Chakki (pronounced chah-kee)
Where is it from? The Punjab region of what is now part of both India and Pakistan; the former Sikh empire.
Described first by the Persians as “the land of five rivers,” the Punjab (or Panjab) region has a long history of political and military significance . Over the centuries it has drawn the attention of Alexander the Great as well as the Umayyad Caliphate and Imperial Britain . It was also the site of the Sikh Empire which “extended from the Khyber Pass in the west, to Kashmir in the north, Sindh in the south and Tibet in the east.”
Sikhism formed as a religion in India in the fifteenth century under the guidance of Guru Nanak, the first of ten gurus believed by Sikhs to have possessed the same animating spirit . Known in the Punjabi language as gurmat (“the way of the gurus”), Sikhism gained political and military significance in the region in 1709 when Banda Singh Bahadur, a student of Guru Gobind Singh, the last of the original ten gurus, rose in rebellion against the Mughal rulers of India at the head of a Sikh army .
Though he was eventually defeated by the Mughals, Bahadur was followed by Maharaja Ranjit Singh who would found the Sikh empire through a combination of strategic marriages and military victories, capturing Lahore, the capital of the Punjab in 1799 . Leading a diverse force comprised of Punjabi Sikhs, Muslims and Hindus, Singh would go on to annex important Indian commercial sites, Sikh holy lands, and the cities of Multan, Peshawar and Kashmir . Following his death in 1849, Tanjit Singh’s kingdom would begin to fray badly, destroyed from the inside by internal strife between leaders as well as from the outside by new invaders to the area . A series of failed wars against the British East India company would lead to the final defeat of the Sikh empire and the division of the territory.
Throughout its history, agriculture has been one of the major industries of the Punjab. Today, just as in centuries past, the Punjab continues to be the largest producer of wheat in India . Small wonder then that for centuries the tools for preparing wheat for cooking would be present in nearly every Punjabi home. Though it is difficult to pinpoint exactly when in the history of the Punjab region chakki first came unto use, it is clear that they were not originally intended to be used as seating.
Rather they were designed to be grain mills, used for grinding small amounts of wheat for a single family . Because wheat sours at a faster pace once ground, the diminutive machines are only used to provide enough flour for a single day . The word, “chakki” is a Punjabi term describing a set of two circular millstones set one on top of the other within a short standing table . Measuring some twenty inches in diameter with a three-inch thickness, the upper stone is set onto a spindle protruding from the lower stone which allows it to turn(14). Grain is fed into a small hole in the upper stone while a wooden handle in the upper stone is used to turn it against the lower stone. As it turns, corrugated scratching surfaces on the underside of the upper stone and upper side of the lower stone scratch against each other, pulling the grain away from the center and grinding it as it moves towards the edges (for a quick look at how the process works go here). The flour that results from chakki grinding, known as “Atta”, is quite healthy, containing large portions of bran and gluten, which makes the bread strong enough to be rolled very thinly .