A quiet panchayat town on the banks of River Kaveri, Swamimalai is well known for more reasons than one. Located just about five kilometres from the temple town of Kumbakonam, the town is home to the famous Swaminathaswamy Temple. The latter is a holy temple that is one of the six most holy shrines of Lord Subramanya (also known as Skanda, Murugan or Karthikeya). Considered highly sacred, the temple is located atop a 60-feet-hillock and is thronged by thousands of devotees during the annual Vaikasi Visagam festival. The highlight of the temple is that Lord Subramanya here is mounted on an elephant as opposed to his traditional vehicle, the peacock.
Reliving the bronze age
Swamimalai is also an important centre for bronze idol making, and the artisans here have been following a tradition and that is several centuries old. It is truly a specialised artistic tradition that is unique to the town, and hence the bronze idols manufactured here are known as the ‘Swamimalai bronze icons’. This has also earned them the Geographical Indication (GI) tag by the Government of India in the year 2008–09.
The sculptors, known as sthapathys, have been involved in the craft of bronze idol making for centuries now, and have been almost solely responsible in not only preserving and nurturing this craft but also propagating the same. Known to be the descendants of Vishwakarma, who is believed to be the god of all engineers and architects, sthapathys are said to have their origins in Gingee, near Vellore in Tamil Nadu.
Originally stone sculptors, they moved to Thanjavur, where they were trained to make bronze idols using the ‘lost wax’ process when the ‘big’ temple was built. The latter, of course, refers to the renowned Sri Brihadeeswara Temple at Thanjavur, that represents the zenith of architectural brilliance achieved by the Cholas under Raja Raja Chola I in 1010 AD. All the bronze images of the magnificent Gangaikonda Cholapuram Temple were also done by these talented craftsmen.
After the completion of these temples, the clan slowly migrated in different directions until one of them discovered the fine silt on the banks of River Kaveri in Swamimalai. The clay was supremely fine and amenable to making the most perfect mould. Additionally, it never cracked under heat which made the sthapathys settle down in the town and continue their rich tradition of idol making.
It was also the golden era of temple building when temples were not only centres of worship but also the nuclei of all social and political authorities. Settlements grew around temples and with ample support of the emperors, sthapathys were accepted and recognised as members with a high social standing in the community. “Today, there are around 500-600 sthapathys in Swamimalai who are involved in this profession. While some have been doing it for generations, there are others who are the first from their generation to choose this profession,” says Suresh Kumar, who runs Rajan Industries, a premier manufacturer and exporter of bronze idols in Swamimalai.
As per the books and Lost wax process
The highlight of the idol manufacture in Swamimalai is the usage of the ancient method called the ‘lost wax’ process. A science that finds reference in the Rig Veda and the Shilpa Shastras, this age-old method spells precision, technique and aesthetics while adhering to the firmly laid down standards and principles. The ancient texts that spell out the grammar and nuances of the craft are held in high esteem and followed even today.
The process itself consists of the following steps. First, the required figures are moulded in specially prepared wax that is a mixture of beeswax and resin. Then, the figure is covered with clay which is sun-dried. The clay case is heated, and the molten wax is made to escape through a tiny hole resulting in a hollow mould. A five-metal alloy called panchaloha, consisting of 82% copper, 15% brass and 3% lead with traces of precious metals (read silver and gold) is poured into the mould.
The next phase is the most crucial as it is akin to the ‘birth of the idol’, wherein the alloy cools and solidifies within the mould. Once done, the mould is broken apart releasing the metal idol, which is subject to innumerable rounds of chiseling, filing, smoothening and polishing to render the end product.
“While manufacturing traditional idols of gods that are used for worship, all guidelines and rules documented in the Shilpa Shastra are followed. A detailed figure of about two to three feet that is intricately carved takes anywhere between four to five months to complete. Moreover, the making of these idols is started on an auspicious day and time to ensure its successful completion. A good time is also earmarked for the day the eyes of the deity are opened. These aspects are not so important for contemporary creations that are mostly used like display pieces” says Suresh.
The manufacturing of the traditional mythological idols is a craft that requires both precision and perseverance. The process is complicated and requires a high level of skill. “There are 30-40 artists who come each year to learn the craft. While we train everyone, only a handful are able to master the craft, after which they are eligible to manufacture idols. We also have people coming from abroad to learn the art for whom we have short duration (four to five days) workshops,” Suresh says.
There is a high demand for these idols and craftsmen toil eight hours a day, six days a week to meet the numbers. Coupled with the fact that this is a niche and exclusive craft, the number of people who are able to deliver for the export market (USA, UK, Australia, Europe, Malaysia, etc) is relatively small.
Not without difficulties
There are also other challenges associated with export as Suresh outlines, “Each item that is exported needs to be certified by the Department of Archaeology, and the paperwork is cumbersome. Many a time, the entire process spans months by which the customer would have lost interest in the product. So often, we lose out on business once we mention these constraints to the customer. Also, another dilemma we face is that sometimes, idols that are perfectly crafted are mistaken for ones that have heritage and antique value! So, the stamp of authenticity and the certificate by the department become mandatory.”
As in any other industry, there is always the problem posed by middlemen who end up selling the product to end users making unreasonable margins. The industry is also faced with the risk of fake imitations and duplicates that are produced in large numbers. According to Suresh, the future of the industry is bright notwithstanding the challenges, as there is an increasing interest in abstract and modern creations in addition to the traditional designs and figures.
All in all, this fascinating craft of the past has lent itself to be a flourishing industry of the present albeit with a multitude of challenges. In spite of all of this, future holds a promise of longevity to this indigenous art whose legacy is sure to live on amidst a plethora of opportunities.