The Swamimalai bronze icons are made by a community of artisans known as the ‘Sthapathis.’ Hindu worship has been inextricably linked with these bronze icons since time immemorial. These icons are not just symbols of worship, they are a reflection of the artistry and craft that is embedded in the Indian culture; they are emblems of the spirit of gods and goddesses; they are witness to the proposition that traditional handicraft can stand strong in the face of modernization. The magic in the fingers of the Sthapathis and their adherence to the Indian scriptures while crafting have earned these bronze icons worldwide acclaim. Moreover, the knowledge of making these bronze icons has been passed down from one generation to the next, corroborating the idea that art transcends all boundaries of life and death.

Though bronze icon making is an age-old Indian tradition, it was only during the Chola dynasty that this craft rose to the significance and occupied a central position in Indian culture and Hindu worship. After the Bhakti movement, a large number of temples were constructed all over South India. Subsequently, the expansion of the Chola dynasty led to the emergence of more temples in South India and the sponsorship of all art forms that were embedded in religious doctrines. Therefore, the synergy resulting from the temple creations, the power of the Chola dynasty, and their appreciation for Indian handicrafts fueled the success of the Swamimalai bronze icons that were based on the religious text of Shilpa Shastra Manasara.

Q What is panchaloha?

Since the idols of the Bronze Icons are made of 5 metals they are termed as ‘panchaloha’. They carry within themselves the ability to store and emit positive cosmos after mantra chanting.

Q How is the Chola dynasty associated with bronze icon casting?

Though bronze icon making is an age-old Indian tradition, it was only during the Chola dynasty that this craft rose to significance and occupied a central position in Indian culture and Hindu worship.

Q What is iconology?

Iconology is defined as the study of the symbolism behind sacred images.

Q Who are the Vishwakarma community?

The Vishwakarma community 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.

Q What is the history of casting in India?

Rajaraja Chola was one of the most prominent kings of the Chola dynasty. During his reign, he constructed the temple of Thanjavur. It was during the construction of these temples that the Sthapathis established themselves. Rajaraja acknowledged their skill and utilized their services for constructing another temple- the Darasuram temple of Swamimalai. After completion of the temple, the Sthapathis decided to settle in Swamimalai. This series of events led to the rise of the Sthapathis and their craft of bronze icon making in Swamimalai.

Q How can bronze statues be preserved?

Depending on the usage, these idols can be given a gold polish finish, or brown antique finish, or green antique finish for preservation.

Q Which is the cluster in Tamil Nadu make bronze idols

The bronze icons are made by a community of artisans known as the ‘Sthapathi’, these icons are manufactured in Swamimalai, Tamilnadu

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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.

Myths & Legends:

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-

  1. Heredity Family Owned Manufactory– These workshops are either run by an individual or two or more Sthapathis. They employ about 7-10 craftsmen. These workshops are large enough to handle commissions both from within the country and outside the country. These are the largest type of workshops in Swamimalai and are handed down from one generation to the other.
  2. Heredity Family Workshops– These are smaller in comparison to the Heredity Family Owned Manufactory. These workshops are usually located at the home of the Sthapathi and employ about less than 10 people. Despite being smaller, the talents, clan affiliations, and cache of being ‘heredity’ brings commissions from various local and foreign temples and well-to-do individuals.
  3. Individual Hereditary Skilled Craftsmen– These individuals are a part of the Sthapathi clan but for personal reasons, decide not to establish their own workshop. They usually find employment in their father’s, brother’s or nephew’s workshops and engage in other economic activities (such as farming) to sustain themselves.
  4. Entrepreneur Owned Manufactory- These workshops are established by those who are not a part of the Sthapathi clan through heredity. They can be jointly owned by a business entrepreneur and a skilled craftsman.
  5. Family/Entrepreneur Workshop- These workshops are owned by one or two non-hereditary skilled craftsmen. One may be talented at wax model making and the other might be specialized in the art of engraving. These workshops employ less than 10 craftsmen.
  6. Individual Skilled Craftsmen- These are non-hereditary craftsmen who may be talented wax modelers, engravers, or both. They claim the position of ‘out workers’ by producing the wax models at their homes.

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-

  1. Yoga mūrti; These icons depict the Supreme Being in various meditational postures.
  2. Bhoga-mūrti; These icons depict the deity in a domestic situation and are most suitable for worship in temples constructed in towns and places of habitation.
  3. Vīra-mūrti; These icons depict the Deity in a heroic posture such as Rama defeating Ravana or Durga defeating Mahisasura or Shiva as Naṭaraja.
  4. Ugra-mūrti; These icons are used for protection against enemies.

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-

  1. Abhaya Mudra- the gesture of fearlessness
  2. Varada Mudra- the gesture of generosity
  3. Chin Mudra-the gesture of teaching
  4. Dhyana Mudra-the gesture of meditation
  5. Tarjani Mudra-the gesture of vigilance


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.

Labour Experiences

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.

Introduction Process:

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.”

Raw Materials:

The process of making bronze icons by Sthaphathis in Swamimalai includes the following raw materials-

  • Kungulliam – Resin
  • Mezhugu – Paraffin wax
  • Wax – Beeswax
  • Kadalaiennai – Groundnut oil

The raw materials used in the making of the mould are-

  • Kali Mann – Clay
  • Vandal Mann – Fine riverside clay
  • Manal – Sand
  • Karuvu – Mould

The raw materials used in baking the mould are-

  • Bricks
  • Kari – Coal
  • Rattai – Dried cow dung cakes
  • Sauku/ kaatumaram – Wood

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-

  • copper (82%)
  • brass (15%) (an alloy of copper and zinc)
  • lead (3%)

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.

Tools & Tech:

The elaborate process of making the Swamimalai bronze icons requires a plethora of tools and technology. These are as follows-

  • Leaf Strip: The measurements of the statute are measured using the leaf strip. This leaf strip usually comes from the coconut tree. In some cases, ribbons may also be used.
  • Spatula: This is used for smoothening and shaping the wax model.
  • Knife: This is used to remove the unwanted portions of the wax model.
  • Scrapper: This is used to impart sharper relief on the wax model.
  • Foot Rule: This is used for measuring purposes.
  • Soldering Iron: This is an iron rod with a handle that is used for evening out the edges on the wax model. It is heated with fire.
  • Hammer: This is used to chisel the statue. Different sizes of hammers can be used depending on the purpose.
  • Chisel: This is used along with a hammer to remove unwanted metal from casting.
  • Engraving Tool: This is similar to chisel but is used to carve out fine details.
  • Files: This is used to remove the sharp edges of the casting.
  • Forceps: These are used to handle the hot crucibles during casting.
  • Air Blower /Furnace: It is used to blow air to build up the fire inside the furnace.
  • Crucible: This is used to melt the metals for casting.
  • Kettle: This is used to melt the wax for pouring into the mould.
  • Tongs: Both long and small tongs are used to handle different size crucibles.
  • Crucible Ladles: These are used for skimming the surface of the hot crucible of slag and unwanted material.
  • Tala: This is used to determine the dimensions of the face of the image.
  • Sandpaper: Used to smoothen/ polish the surface of the metal image after revealing.


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-

  1. Purification rites were performed during a fire sacrifice and Brahmins were asked to give their blessings to ensure that the work went smoothly.
  2. This was followed by a ‘go-puja’ and ‘tulsi-puja’
  3. Finally, ‘Agni-puja’ was performed as the process of casting is done under immense heat.

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-

  1. The icon is transferred from the work area of the Sthapathi to the temple.
  2. The process of Dhaanyadhivasam takes place wherein the icon is placed on a bed of cereals and covered by screens on all four sides.
  3. The icon is then placed into a river or tank for 3-5 days before consecration. This process is referred to as Jalathivasam wherein the tank is mixed with clean water, perfumes, and sandal paste.
  4. Then a process called, Sayanathivasam takes place wherein the icon is placed on a bed with pillows.
  5. After this, the location for the icon’s pedestal is prepared.
  6. Process of Bijanyasa, Dhatuniyasa, and Rathnanyasa, take place respectively wherein cereals, chemicals, and gems are placed inside the pedestal in a stipulated manner.
  7. The icon is then placed on the pedestal and the position of the icon is evaluated to ensure accurate positioning.
  8. The icon is then secured onto the pedestal through a process known as Bhandana. For metal icons, it is referred to as Jatibhandana.
  9. In the last step of this ritual, the Sthapathi opens the eyes of the icon with a gold hammer and chisel and invokes the deity by tapping at the body parts where the five senses are present.


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.


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-

  1. Digging a temporary rectangular washing pool, with a shallow washing basin attached.
  2. Lining the shallow washing pit with bricks to facilitate the processing of large sediment quantities from the floor of the workshop.
  3. Washing the casting floor sediment by scraping it onto the shallow washing basin and splashing water onto the sediment till only the metal bits and other debris are remaining for sorting and collecting.
  4. The cleaned metalliferous sediment from the casting surfaces is left to dry and is then poured into crucibles for smelting. After drying, a magnet is run over the sediment to remove iron impurities.
  5. The mud-cleaner carries only 3 tools- an aluminium basin, aluminium scraper, and a strong magnet.
  6. The mud-cleaner also performs other recycling tasks such as removal of slag from the crucibles.
  7. The slag and metal bits collected are placed onto gunny sacks and then pulverized in the ground stone mortars. The cleaned-out slag from the crucibles is smashed in stone mortars so that the metalliferous sediment can be smelted to extract as much possible metal.
  8. The pulverization takes place in a large ground stone mortar with a brass pestle. After crushing, the process of smelting can begin.
  9. Scrap Zinc (in the form of old belt buckles, engine parts, and other objects) is weighed carefully so that a percentage can be added to the crucible for alloying into large brass ingots.
  10. After pulverization, the cleaned metalliferous crushed sediment is dumped into crucibles inside the furnace for melting.
  11. The crucible of molten metal is then carried from the furnace to the ingot casting area.
  12. Steel prongs are used for holding the crucible. The recycled metal is then cast into large open moulds on the ground to form ingots. After cooling, the ingots are stored with other metal items suitable for re-melting and casting later.

Understanding the work of the mud-cleaner is essential for recognizing the intricacies in the organization of a traditional metal workshop.

Cluster Name: Swamimalai


With an aroma of incense sticks, the antiquity of sacred Indian texts, the taste of the ‘Prasada’ offerings, the sound of golden temple bells ringing, and texture of smooth bronze icons- the temple town of Swamimalai is filled with wonder and majestic sights that enthrall and captivate thousands. The gently flowing river Kaveri, the fine quality of clay and soil, and the splendor of the temple culture have all culminated to generate worldwide acclaim for the Swamimalai idols and appreciation for the craftsmanship of the Sthapathis. These bronze icons not only capture the essence of Swamimalai’s history but also tell us a story of the Sthapathi community, their knowledge, and skill through the ages.

District / State
Swamimalai / Tamil Nadu
6,985 (2001)
Tamil, English, Hindi
Best time to visit
between the end of November and mid-March
Stay at
Kumbhkonam has many good hotels
How to reach
Railway Station - SWI/Swamimalai (1 PFs)
Local travel
Auto, walkable distance
Must eat
Puliyodarai, Paruppu Payasam, Rasam


The history of Swamimalai is connected with the legend of Lord Shiva and his son, Kartikeya. (Murugan) It said that once, due to a curse laid by Bhrigumuni, Shiva had forgotten the Pranava Mantra. He then rushes back to his son Kartikeya to ask if he remembered the Mantra. After this, an intense debate takes place between Lord Brahma and Kartikeya in which Brahma fails to adequately express and convey the true meaning of the Pranava Mantra. Due to this, Kartikeya imprisons Lord Brahma and suspends his duties. After this, Lord Shiva turns to Kartikeya to learn the Pranava Mantra. Kartikeya stated that he is only willing to teach Shiva if he will learn it properly. Thus, with folded hands and a bowed head, Shiva stood before his Guru, Kartikeya, and learnt the mantra. As the incident took place on this sacred ground, it came to be known as ‘Swamimalai’ since the son, Swaminathan (Kartikeya) was the Guru and his father, Shiva was the disciple.

The town of Swamimalai is also famous for being one of the ‘PadaiVeedugal’ (Battle Camps) of Lord Kartikeya and is home to one of the six temples made for him.

To gain a historic perspective on the dynasties that reigned over Swamimalai, we can take a look at the nearest city of Kumbakonam and its history through the ages. These are-

  1. The Sangam Period (300 B.C - 300 A.D)

This period is the earliest historical period in Tamil Nadu’s history. It is named after the Tamil Sangams or assemblies.

  1. The Pallava and Pandya Period (300 A.D - 500 A.D)

The Pallavas ruled over the northern region of Tamil Nadu and the southern region of Andhra Pradesh. They were most acclaimed for their architectural patronage (most visible in Mahabalipuram) The Pallavas left behind magnificent temples and architecture which laid down the foundation of medieval South Indian architecture.

  1. The Chola Period (900 A.D – 1200 A.D)

This dynasty was the longest-ruling dynasty of South India. A significant portion of Tamil literature and architecture has been impacted by their patronage of Tamil literature and zeal for temple building. The Chola kings believed for their temples to not just be limited to the purpose of worship, but also include several economic activities. It was during this period that the Sthapathis rose to power.

  1. Pandya revival and Muslim rule (1200 A.D -1400 A.D)

In the 6th century, the Kalabhras were pushed out of the country of Tamil and ruled for Madurai. They again faced a decline when the Chola dynasty was revived. The Pandyas allied themselves with the Sinhalese and the Cheras in harassing the Chola empire until they found an opportunity for reviving their fortunes during the late 13th century.

  1. Vijaynagar and Nayak Period (1400 A.D- 1800 A. D)

The Vijaynagar dynasty was based in the Deccan Plateau. The legacy of the empire is the monuments it created all over South India. The empire’s patronage enabled the fine arts and literature of South India to reach new heights.

  1. British Rule Independence and Democracy (1800 A.D to present day)

The Kumbakonam region came under the influence of the British East India Company in 1799 and by the late 19th century, early 20th century, emerged as a center for Hindu religion and European education in the Madras Presidency. Under the Britsh rule, railway lines were opened and the Suez Canal was established. The town of Kumbakonam continued to grow even after India’s independence though it fell behind the nearby town of Thanjavur in terms of population and administrative importance.


Swamimalai is a town panchayat city near Kumbakonam, in the Thanjavur district of Tamil Nadu. It has an average elevation of 25 meters and its coordinates are- 10°57′N 79°20′E / 10.95°N 79.33°E. This town lies on the banks of river Kaveri and the road that connects Kumbakonam to Thiruvaiyaru.


Swamimalai is primarily an agricultural town wherein rice and sugarcane and produced in large quantities. Despite being close to the Kaveri delta, which is usually hot, the climate of the temple town remains moderate and healthy. The fauna from the Kaveri delta is limited to cattle and goats. The soil and clay found on the banks of the river Kaveri and its excellent quality resulted in the Sthapathis settling here years ago.

The maximum temperature in the summer is about 40 degrees Celsius and the minimum temperature is about 20 degrees Celsius. The nearby city of Kumbakonam receives an annual rainfall of 114.78 centimetres which suggests that the town of Swamimalai receives nearly the same amount.


The town of Swamimalai is divided into 15 wards and elections are held here every 5 years. The town Panchayat has a total administration of over 1,878 houses to which it provides basic amenities like clean drinking water and sewerage. The town panchayat is also authorized to build roads in Swamimalai and impose tax collection on the properties that come under its jurisdiction.

In the present day, only the temple town of Swamimalai has a school that teaches the craft of making bronze icons. 4 other schools can be found in this town. The nearest hospitals are in the city of Kumbakonam.

In terms of connectivity, Swamimalai is well connected by road and air. The Tamil Nadu State Corporation has buses that connect Swamimalai to all major cities in the state. These buses run at frequent intervals and make it possible for individuals to commute to and fro from Swamimalai, especially to Kumbakonam. The Swamimalai Railway Station is one of the primary railway stations, with about 7 trains passing from here. Facilities such as automatic ticket vending machines, information kiosks, ATMs, LCD screens, and internet cafes are also available at the railway station. The nearest airport is in Trichy (90 kilometres away) and the nearest International airport is in Chennai. (275 kilometres away)


The entire district of Thanjavur has vernacular settlements. These settlements are of two types- consciously planned and organically grown. The town of Swamimalai has rural vernacular settlements that were consciously planned by the Cholas and the subsequent dynasties exclusively for people with specialized skills. Therefore, these settlements were planned for the Sthapathis of Swamimalai and were community-based. Over the years, these settlements have also undergone changes and seen development.

Stage 1: In this stage, the house was a single-spaced multifunctional unit constructed with thatch, mud, and other materials. This was the most primitive form of dwelling found. These houses had a domical roof and were circularly planned. Later on, rectangular plans also emerged. These houses were also highly sustainable in nature.

Stage 2: In this stage, the house was divided into 3 parts- Thinnai (the front raised veranda) which was considered to the male zone, Koodam (the living hall) which was considered to be the family zone, and the Samayal (Kitchen) which was considered to be the female zone. These structures were constructed using locally available permanent materials. The roof of the house was pitched with a two-sided slope and made with country tiles.

Stage 3: In this stage, a courtyard was introduced in the earlier tripartite division of the house. This facilitated additional activities and allowed for a climate-conscious design. The roof contained ridges and valleys to accommodate the “open to the skyspace.” This house was made with locally available permanent materials and represents the final development in rural housing.

The temple architecture of Swamimalai is also given a significant amount of emphasis since the essence and soul of the town lies in its temples. The most famous- Swamimalai Murugan temple is built on top of an artificial hill that one can reach with a flight of stairs. It is believed that the 60 steps are a representation of the 60 months in the ancient Tamil calendar.


While Swamimalai holds an important pilgrimage site, it is also a vibrant community connected to the network of villages, towns, and cities that make up the modern state of Tamil Nadu.

The most prominent aspect of Swamimalai’s culture is the celebration of various temple festivals throughout the year, which allow the ancient Indian scriptures to manifest themselves in ground reality and provide a glimpse into the glitter, glitz, and glory of traditional India. These festivals are-

The Monthly Kirutikai festival: This festival is celebrated in the Tamil month of ‘Adi’ and is dedicated to Lord Kartikeya who slew the demon Surapadma. Therefore, symbolizing the victory of good over evil. It is celebrated with joy and fervor in all temples of Kartikeya found in Tamil Nadu

Thaipusam festival:This festival is celebrated in January and emphasizes on debt bondage. In this festival, a ceremonial sacrifice of KavadiAttam is performed for Lord Murugan, who is the Hindu God of War. In this ceremony, the Hindus take a vow to offer a Kavadi to the deity in return of tiding over a calamity.

PanguniUthiram festival: This festival is celebrated in March and is considered to be special since the Uthiram Nakshatra coincides with a full moon. This full moon is a symbol of marriage between Parvati and Shiva, Murugan and Deivanai, and Andal and Rangamannar. This day is also considered to be the day when the marriage of Ram and Sita is celebrated.

Visakam festival: This festival is celebrated in May and is considered to be a day wherein the moonlight floods the world with a glorious effulgence making the over-arching sky infinite and vast.

Kanda Shashti festival: Skanda Sashti is observed on the sixth day of the bright fortnight of the Tamil month of Aippasi (October – November). This day is dedicated to the second son of Lord Shiva – Lord Subramanya who on this day, annihilated the mythical demon Taraka.

ThiruKarthikai festival: This festival is celebrated in November and December wherein the 6 stars of Hindu mythology are worshipped. Any worship performed to these six stars is equal to worshiping Lord Muruga himself. The worship is done by lighting up rows of oil lamps in the evening of the festival day around the houses and streets.

The food of Swamimalai is also considered to be an integral part of its culture- the harmonious blend of flavours and mouth-watering South Indian dishes leave individuals smacking their lips and licking their fingers. The most commonly available food items are that of Idli, Dosa, Sambar, and Rasam. A thali or platter is also very popular. The filter coffee in the nearby town of Kumbakonam is considered to be a specialty.


As per the 2011 census data, Swamimalai has a population of 7,289 of which 3,523 are males while 3,766 are females.

The population of children between the ages of 0-6 is 778 which is 10.67 % of the total population of Swamimalai. The Female Sex Ratio is of 1069 against the state average of 996 and the Child Sex Ratio is around 985 against the state average of 943. The literacy rate of Swamimalai city is 89.91 % higher than the state average of 80.09 % - male literacy is around 93.87 % while the female literacy rate is 86.24 %.

About 85% of the population is Hindu and the remaining are either Muslim or Christians. At present, there about 1200 artisans from the Sthapathi community. The Sthapathi community in Swamimalai is a patrilineal society organized along clan lines who trace their descent back to an ancestor named Agora VeerapathiraSthapathy from the time of the temple construction. They are endogamous in the sense that marriages are arranged between the different clans of the Vishwakarma community. For example, the males of the icon producing Sthapathis will often marry women from the goldsmith/jeweller group.

Famous For:

Apart from the world-renowned bronze temple icons, Swamimalai is also famous for its extravagant temple culture and festivals.


List of craftsmen.

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