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Things you probably didn’t know about Alum

Alum Ganesh Sculptures
In countries where drinking water is gathered from rivers, ponds and lakes, alum is thrown into water to clarify turbid water and to reduce microbial levels. In India, alum is often thrown in to river water to help purify it before collection. Here, the rivers and water sources are regarded as sacred sites, and religious sculptures such as images of Ganesh are deposited in the water in religious rites. Sometimes of these sacred sculptures are made of clay which poses no threat, but at other times they are of plaster of Paris, painted with toxic paints, high in heavy metals, or even plastic, polluting drinking water and the shore environment.

An enterprising sculptor, Ramesh Kher from Pune in India has come up with the idea of making Ganesh sculptures from volcanic alum as an alternative to plaster of Paris. The first example was carved by his friend Vivek Kamble - the picture is below. If these alum statues are ritually deposited into rivers and lakes also often used as a source of drinking and washing water, they can help make the water more pure and prevent overgrowth of algae. I hope that the alum water sculptures idea catches on in preference to the painted or plastic ones.

The biodegradable alum river sculpture
The alum Ganesh river sculpture

A very brief history of alum RE British interests. (Yes, I can be brief!)
We don’t have any natural alum in Britain because it rains a lot – like I needed to remind you! In the UK we have been importing alum since at least the thirteenth century for use principally by wool dyers, and American privateers in the 19th century were seizing ships laden with alum. Alum, in some form is some thing that every culture needs. Alum, it seems was on every Genoese merchant’s ship, and records exist from the 13th century of alum cargoes arriving in English ports also on Spanish and Portuguese ships. From 1461, once the Papacy had gained control of virtually all the supplies of alum across Catholic Europe. In England the Reformation meant that other sources had to be found. In 1607 we began to process synthetic alum at Whitby in Yorkshire to make up for our shortfall but this was a highly polluting process. Subsequently new industrialized processes have emerged and most alum unless specified is synthetic.

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