The bronze icons of Swamimalai are used to depict different gods, goddesses, saints, and in some cases, even men, women, and animals. However, most frequently made amongst these are the bronze icons of the deities. The icons of deities are mainly used for worship wherein they are either made of a large size and placed in temples or made in a smaller size and placed in the homes of the devotees for personal worship or decoration. The icons of men, women, and animals are showcased in the homes as works of art.
Apart from the main purposes of worship and decoration, these bronze icons are also known to have some medicinal properties since they expose a sort of cosmic effect. Since these idols are made of 5 metals or ‘panchaloha’ they carry within themselves the ability to store and emit positive cosmos after mantra chanting. These idols are considered to be living gods themselves.
Depending on the usage, these idols can be given a gold polish finish, or brown antique finish, or green antique finish.
The Swamimalai bronze icons were made in India over 1100 years for the main purpose of worship. These icons received a boost during the Chola Dynasty and therefore, have a historical meaning attached to them.
These icons also served the purpose of reminding people of sacred truths, spiritual stories, and the importance of meditation.
Every single feature of the icon, from the body parts to the small decorations, had a cultural significance and connection to the myths and legends of India. These icons have also been made to depict heroes of the Indian epics of Ramayana and Mahabharata.
In the context of craft design, the Swamimalai bronze icons have shown an expansive degree of continuity. The process of making the Swamimalai bronze icons is also considered extremely significant since the ‘lost wax’ technique is utilized and rules of the Shilpa Shastra Manasara are strictly adhered to by the Sthapathis. Every fine detail is carved onto the body of the icon with the utmost precision and presented to the customer as a model of perfection. The artists and their craft are considered indispensable since it has been passed on from generations.
In the present day, the economic significance of the Swamimalai bronze icons is more easily discernible than ever. After receiving the Geographical Indication Tag in 2008, the value and market for these bronze icons have expanded worldwide. Every single bronze icon is sold at a high cost and the geographical indication (GI) tag ensures that no counterfeit icons can take away the market. Moreover, with a large number of Tamils settling abroad in areas like the US, UK, Australia, South Africa, Malaysia, and Thailand, the demand for the bronze icons has seen a sharp increase since these icons are utilized in the process of establishing temples abroad. It was revealed that about 75% of the exports were for Tamil individuals living abroad.
In conclusion, it can be said that the Swamimalai bronze icons have historic, cultural, spiritual, artistic, and economic significance in India and all over the globe.
Coming from a community that was at least 1000 years old, several myths and legends were surrounding the Sthapathis and their work.
The most prominent myth about the Sthapathis is regarding their origin and the Vishwakarma community they come from. It is believed that Vishwakarma had 5 faces, 3 eyes, and 10 arms and was born out of the third eye of Lord Shiva as the deity of all artisans. Five sons were born to Vishwakarma from his five faces and these sons then moved ahead to become the clan deities of specialized crafts.
Another myth surrounding the Sthapathis is regarding their working process. In earlier days, after the Sthapathi had built the wax model, he was required to take it out in a procession through the main street of his town or village. Only if the local people liked the work would the icon be cast in bronze. The Sthapathis did not allow anybody to watch them while they made the deities fearing that it would bring them bad luck. If the Sthapathis created a fine bronze icon, the king would award them with heaps of land and money.
The Chola dynasty was the dominant cultural, artistic, religious, and political force in South India for 400 years, that is, from the 9th-13th Century. Enlightened patrons of the arts, Chola kings commissioned elegant sculptures and dedicated majestic temples to Hindu deities to proclaim the power and wealth of their dynasty. During this golden age, art music, dance, poetry, drama, architecture, and sculpture flourished.
Rajaraja Chola was one of the most prominent kings of this dynasty. During his reign, Rajaraja constructed the temple of Thanjavur which was the epitome of splendid architecture, paintings, and craft. For building this temple, he called upon carpenters, masons, sculptors, and other artists from all around. It was during the construction of these temples that the Sthapathis established themselves as being beyond the rank of ordinary craftsmen. Their familiarity with the Shilpa Shastras, the complex nature of metal icon production, and other religious traditions related to their craft led Rajaraja to acknowledge their skill and utilize their services for constructing another temple- the Darasuram temple of Swamimalai.
The term ‘Sthapathi’ implies a master carpenter or builder. These Sthapathis came under the Vishwakarma community who were known as the designers and artisans of classical Indian traditional sculpture. This community has also been mentioned in the texts of the Vedas and Puranas. The descent of the Sthapathis can be traced back to an ancestor named Agora Veerapathira Sthapathi.
After completing the Dasasuram temple construction, the Sthapathis decided to settle in Swamimalai due to the abundance of rich alluvial soil. This series of events led to the rise of the Sthapathis and their craft of bronze icon making in Swamimalai.
The height of the icon ranges from 6 feet to 12 feet, however, the size can vary according to the requests made by the customer. Some of the idols are that of- Ganesha, Subramanya, Rama. Krishna, Vishnu, Lakshmi, Parvathi, Saraswathi, Hanuman, and so on. The most popular icon is that of Shiva or Natraja.
All deities are either shown with their vahanam or their typical accessories such as a conch, rosary beads, and in some cases, even musical instruments. Many times, the design or figure of the deity is a depiction of a particular event that took place in their life. For example, while Krishna is generally sculpted standing in the tribhangi pose with a flute to his lips, he is also created in the Kaaliya Mardana pose, dancing over the coils of the poisonous serpent Kaaliya or expounding the Geetha to Arjuna.
These icons may either be stand-alone pieces or they could be made in pairs. The most popular pairs are that of Shiva and Parvati, or Vishnu and Lakshmi. Sometimes, these icons could also be made in the form of a group, such as that of Ram, Laxman, Sita, and Hanuman. Apart from the icons of worship, many icons of men, women, and animals are made as pieces of decoration. These icons are shown holding lamps, flowers, or vessels.
All icons are placed on a pedestal to give them stability and every single measurement is done according to the Shilpa Shastra. The basic unit of measurement is ‘tala,’ which is defined as the distance between the end of the lower jaw and the hairline. The tala is divided into 12 equal parts called, ‘angula’ which is further divided into 8 ‘yava’ and so on, until the smallest unit, ‘paramanu.’ These measurements are noted with the help of a narrow ribbon of a coconut tree leaf cut to the length required by the icon and folded at different lengths in proportion to the length of the various icon parts. This creased palm ribbon is stored in water until the icon is completed.
In terms of the aesthetics of the icon, poetry verses can be found instructing and guiding the Sthapathis-
The head is to resemble a hen’s egg; the eyebrow is to be curved like a neem leaf; the eye shall be patterned on a fast swimming small fish; the ear is defined by the edges of a lily bloom; the nose shall remind you of a sesame flower; the upper lip, a bow; the lower, a ripe tinda; the chin, a small mango pit; the neck, the flutes of a shell; the torso, a cow’s head; arm, the fall of an elephant’s trunk; thighs, the lower trunk of a banana plant; knee, a crab and leg, a large fish!
Even though the Sthapathi is required to adhere to these rules, ultimately, he uses his creativity to channel his artistic sensibilities and present a perfectly made bronze icon. Therefore the Sthapathi can combine his knowledge from the scriptures and his imagination to design the icon. This is the main reason why no two bronze icons are ever the same.
Types of Icon Production
The knowledge of making Swamimalai bronze icons has been passed down from one generation to the next. After independence, there was a change in this tradition of teaching and bronze icon making was opened up to non-heredity (non-Sthapathi) males as well through schools sponsored by the state.
At present, icon production in Swamimalai involves an amalgamation of the work done by Sthapathi and non-Sthapathi males, thereby indicating that this profession is no longer limited to one particular caste. Various entrepreneurs have also started getting involved in this business to earn profits.
On the basis of a 2007 book called ‘Masters of Fire- Hereditary Bronze Casters of South India’ by Thomas E. Levy,6 types of icon production have been classified in Swamimalai. These are-
One must note that the number of employees hired by any of these workshops is fluid and depends entirely on the skill of the workshop owners in securing commissions for work. If big orders are secured, the workshop may call upon more workers and employ them on a temporary or sub-contract basis.
Iconology is defined as the study of the symbolism behind sacred images. Since the Swamimalai bronze icons depict different deities in different postures and situations, understanding the symbolism behind them takes us one step closer to understanding their history and spiritual message.
Icons can be classified based on the reasons for which they are worshipped-
The language of the hands known as ‘mudra’ is very significant in all forms of Indian art, be it dance or sculpture. These mudras are used to convey different emotions of the icon deities-
Every traditional handicraft is fraught with challenges and the bronze icons of Swamimalai come with their own. Some of these challenges are- First, in terms of exportation, the process of documentation needs to be done by the Department of Archaeology which takes a few months. When this process is mentioned to the plausible customers, they lose interest and the Sthapathis miss out on their business. Second, there is a problem of middlemen who buy the products directly from the Sthapathis and then sell them further at exorbitant rates. This not only impacts the business of the Sthapathis negatively but it also prevents the customers from getting the bronze icons at the market rates. Third, the industry also faces the risk of fake imitations and duplicates that are made in large quantities. These fake bronze icons present a false picture of the quality and design of the Swamimalai bronze icons.
However, despite these difficulties and the multitude of challenges, the future of the Swamimalai bronze icons holds a promise of longevity that will ensure that these handicrafts continue to hold a significant position in Indian culture and tradition.
The Sthapathis receive tons of appreciation and acclaim for their bronze icons. As a result of which, most Sthapathis claim to enjoy their profession and reap extrinsic and intrinsic rewards. For example, an interview with a Sthapathi revealed that he was proud of his skills and grateful to his heritage. He stated that many Sthapathis received awards at the state and national levels. He also showed that Sthapathis were often photographed with ministers, celebrities, and philanthropists for whom they made bronze icons. Moreover, the Sthapathis also receive support from the state government, The Tamil Nadu State Corporation, and private companies which ensured their significance and flourishment in the future as well.
When one enters the work area of the Sthapathis in Swamimalai, he/she is likely to get overwhelmed by the blend of motion and sounds that fill the air- from the sound of the hammer at one end to the molten metal being poured in the other- the area is a host of activities. However, Ethno-archaeologists and archaeologists have found the concept of ‘chaîne opératoire’ or ‘operational sequence’ to be extremely useful in making sense of the technological stages and associate the ancient and modern social processes in craft production.
In the context of the workers in Swamimalai, the concept of chaîneopératoire is used as a tool of analysis that helps in identification of behaviours and techniques of metal production and its transformation into “culturally meaningful ritual objects.”
The process of making bronze icons by Sthaphathis in Swamimalai includes the following raw materials-
The raw materials used in the making of the mould are-
The raw materials used in baking the mould are-
The Swamimalai bronze icons are also termed as ‘panchaloha’ or ‘5 metals’ since they are an alloy of 5 metals, namely- copper, zinc, tin, silver and gold. Gradually, gold and silver have been removed from this process due to economic reasons. However, even today many individuals pay visits to the icon production workshops and contribute their own gold and silver jewellery to be used in the icon. Presently, the raw materials used for making the icon are-
Note: The bronze metal is an alloy made by smelting tin and copper together. However, when used for the purpose of building statues, led and zinc are also added in small quantities.
The making of bronze icons by the Sthapathis is such a detailed process that the icons produced are not only seen as symbols of worship but also seen as embodiments of perfection. This process requires a high level of craftsmanship and attention to minuscule details, due to which one small mistake in the procedure can render the entire icon as being ‘defective’ or ‘not up to the mark’. This results in the loss of a significant amount of man-hours. One such mistake is when the molten metal or air bubbles do not reach all the crevices. This is seen as a defect and calls for the entire process to be repeated. Therefore, up until this point, whatever materials have been used, go to waste. Since there is no way of inspecting the insides of the clay mould after it has been baked, achieving precision can be extremely difficult.
The lesser-known component of the icon production process is that of re-cycling that aims at procuring brass and copper for workshops. Known as ‘Manalasubhavar’ in Tamil, an individual is given the job of being a ‘mud-cleaner’ who serves as an on-site re-cycler of all the left-over metal from major workshops. The work of the mud-cleaner involves 2 primary jobs, these are- first, extraction of the metal bits and lumps that have been buried in the casting floors of the workshops, and second, cleaning of the metalliferous slag deposits in the crucibles. The basis for contracting the mud-cleaner is by determining the amount of casting work that has taken place in a year.
The work process undertaken by the mud-cleaner is as follows-
Understanding the work of the mud-cleaner is essential for recognizing the intricacies in the organization of a traditional metal workshop.
The elaborate process of making the Swamimalai bronze icons requires a plethora of tools and technology. These are as follows-
The specialty of the Swamimalai bronze icons does not simply lie in the sculptural magnificence of the idols but it also lies in the process of making these idols. The Sthapathis are known to follow various rituals from the sacred text of the Shilpa Shastra Manasara while making these idols. These rituals ensure that the process of idol making is completed and the resulting bronze icons are auspicious.
The process commences with the Sthapathi conceiving the deity’s form in his mind. He recites the Dhyana Sholakas to establish a clear picture of the deity and his/her physical attributes. Apart from the Neetisaram, Amaram, and Shilpasaaram, the Sthapathi is required to have complete knowledge of these Dhyana Sholakas. The Shilpa Shastra mentions about 114 specifications that a Sthapathi must adhere to while making the bronze icons. The physical attributes of the deity not only embrace characteristics from the imagination of the Sthapathi but also borrow features that are based on the traditional standards followed by his forefathers’ generation.
The Agni Purana mentions a Shlok for the Sthapathis-
“O Lord of Lords,
Teach me in my dreams
How to carry out all the work
I have in my heart”
The rituals carried out for making icons that are placed in temples for worship, are more elaborate. The process begins with the Sthapathi carrying out a small go-puja or cow worship. All members in a workshop, regardless of their caste, participate in this puja. There is an exceptional ‘ore puja’ that is carried out when very large icons are produced for temple worship. To corroborate this, we can take a look at the ISKON community who asked the Sthapathis to make Pancha-tattva deities for their temple in Mayapur. During this process, the following rites took place-
The most sacred ritual performed is the ‘Opening of the eye ceremony’ or the ‘kanthirappu, nayanomilanam, netronmilanamorakshimochanam.’
This refers to a ceremony wherein the eyes of the carved bronze icon are finally opened using a hammer and chisel. Opening the eyes of the idol symbolizes the spirit of the deity entering into the idol itself, thereby, this ritual is of great value and significance.
One of the Sthapathis called Swaminathan stated that “ Until the eyes are opened, they are just pieces of art, and then they are Gods to us.”
This ceremony is only performed for placing the idols in big temples like ISKON. The process for this ceremony is as follows-
The process of making the Swamimalai bronze icons involves 10 steps. These are-
Step 1: Wax Modelling
A molten wax mixture is made from a combination of groundnut oil, resin, and paraffin. This mixture is then heated and cooled until it achieves a consistency that can be used to model and shape. The idol is then prepared using this wax. The torso, legs, hands, and seating pedestal of the idol are made separately and then attached by heating and fixing. This wax model is then placed onto a wooden plank to map out the centre of gravity correctly. The accessories and weapons of the idol are shaped and accordingly placed. The idol is then adorned with jewellery by using a softer wax. This form is smoothened and dried. After drying, the wax model is weighed since the metal required for casting should be 10 times of the wax model.
Step 2: Solid and Hollow Casting
A sculpture that is made of metal entirely is termed as a solid cast. The process of solid casting is used for sculptures in temples. A clay-fibre and metal cladding on top is used to make a hollow cast. Decorative pieces are made using this technique to minimize the weight of the sculpture.
Step 3: Mould Making
The idol is placed face-up on top of a bed of sand. A layer of fine-grained clay is applied all around the wax idol. This application is done meticulously to ensure that every nook and crevice has been covered entirely. On top of this layer of fine-grained clay, a mixture of alluvial soil and river sand is prepared in a proportion of 1:3 is applied. The sheath of mud on the side of the face is allowed to dry for 3-4 days. The idol is then turned and channels called, ‘runners’ are attached to the wax form. These runners act as outlets of wax and inlets of molten metal. These runners are placed side by side. A metal wire is wound around the mould to keep the casting intact.
Step 4: Wax Removal
In this step, the mould is heated and placed with the runners facing downwards. The melted wax trickles down the runners and negative space is created within the mould.
Step 5: Baking the mould
An inspection of the mould is done to look for fissures and the cracks are sealed with a mud coat. An open furnace is created around the mould using cow dung cakes, coal, and firewood. The density of the emitted smoke gives an indication to the Sthapathis about the baking. Once baked, the colour of the mould changes. This mould is placed such that it can be flipped into an adjacent pit with upward channels to minimize force and energy. Before being moved into the pit, the mould is allowed to settle. For solid casting, it is allowed to cool down completely before the metal is poured into the cavity. For hollow casting, the mould is placed at the same temperature as the metal to ensure smooth casting. In a corner, ash from the process is collected. Earlier this ash was utilized as manure and even used for washing of utensils.
Step 6: Melting Metal
A rectangular pit with a metal grate and a side inlet (for air) is used as a furnace for heating the metal. Damp mud is used for placing the two bricks inside the pit. These bricks are dusted with sand to prevent the pots from sticking when they are placed on top. 2 pots are placed inside the pit. After weighing, metals are added to the pot- copper (82%) brass (15%) and led (3%). Around the pots, coal is shovelled and a few dry cow dung cakes are lit. An electrical blower is used for stroking the fire. The pots are then covered with stone domes and the metal is allowed to melt. To achieve the desired weight, metal is continuously added in small quantities.
A pit is made next to the baking and melting metal area. This pit is the size of the mould. The mould is placed in the pit with the channels at ground level. After this, the pit is packed with mud. These moulds tend to slightly expand when the metal is being poured inside. Burying the mould ensure that the expansion is countered and the dense mud packing stems fissures and prevents leaks.
Step 7: Metal Pouring
After the metal is liquified, the heating pots are lifted and red hot metal is poured through one of the channels. Air is allowed to escape through the other channel. The pouring of the metal continues until the cavity inside is filled. The cast metal is then allowed to cool and the mould is finally broken.
Step 8: Breaking the mould
The mould is unearthed and the metal bindings clipped. The baked mud casing cracks open at the point where the head of the idol lies. This follows by breaking open the rest of the mould which is then cleaned by a brush. The channels are sawed off and the idol is cleaned.
Step 9: Detailing
A chisel is used to revisit the fine details. The idol is held with the feet and chiselled which results in about 10% of the metal mass getting chipped off. These chipped fragments are collected for future use in castings. To ensure that sharp facial features are not damaged, the face is detailed at the end.
Step 10: Polishing
The idols are cleaned with tamarind water and soap nut stone and scrubbed with charcoal. After that, they are buffed with the help of electrical polishing machines. Some pieces are treated with chemicals to create a patina.
List of craftsmen.