Thirubuvanam, Tamil Nadu, India...
‘Gathas’ or ‘Sati Stambhs’ carvings are used as memorial stones for the dead and serve as a visual memoir of the deceased. Stone figures are carved along with other iconographic details that visually depict the persona of the individual, their standing in society, as well as personal interests. This method of depiction helps in capturing the essence of the individual and serves as a memory for the family of the loved one. The tribes believe that after death the spirit resides in the stones, where the spirit provides protection to the family and becomes their guardian angel.
The memorial stone or pillar erected for a deceased female is called ‘Sati’ or ‘Sati Stambh’ and when it is a male the stone is called ‘Gatha’. If the deceased were a priest, then their stone is given special treatment where the stone is carried around the village along with ceremonial fanfare, drum beating and singing.
An auspicious day for the installation of the ‘Gatha’ is decided by the priest after the 12th day of mourning has passed. After the sculpting of the pillar is complete, the detail of the ‘eyes’ is accompanied with a special ‘puja’ or prayer. The following day the community gathers around a tree or a well to witness the installation of the pillar. Clothes are given as prayer offerings called ‘Paharani’ and animal sacrifices are made to appease the spirits. The memorial stone pillar is installed facing the eastern direction and the stones are considered to hold and calm the wandering spirits. The ‘Gatha’ stones are not treated like tombstones, which are usually placed above the buried body, but are placed within the area premises of the community the deceased belonged to.
The iconographic representation of the deceased is what makes these stone pillars so unique. Key attributes of the person are highlighted through exaggeration and the popularity or stature of the person is symbolically depicted. For example, the presence of sun or moon in the picture of a person signifies their fame while the presence of a horse signifies that they were powerful or wealthy. Special attention is given to the details of the face and is enlarged in proportion to the body laying more emphasis on it. The women in the ‘Sati Stambha’ are portrayed in a very simple manner. The placement of the stone also differs based on the tribes or communities. The ‘Gond’ community customarily places their Gatha stones under the shade and they call the craft ‘Sthapna’, derived from a Sanskrit word meaning ‘to situate’. Their stones are observed to be bigger than the ones used by other tribes. The ‘Bhils’ on the other hand position them in open spaces. The ‘Gathas of Jhabua’, rely on iconic imagery whereas the ones in the ‘Chindwada’ region have more realistic and natural looking sculptures.
Since the dawn of time man has always relied on stone inscriptions as a way to record historical events. Ever since the first working tools were invented in the Paleolithic age, pre-historic man inscribed and chiseled on stones and cave walls. He recorded daily events and documented important data such as cures for the sick, successful hunting expeditions as well as made markings to commemorate the dead.
In the famous ‘Pachmarhi’ cave paintings of Madhya Pradesh, a disheartened family is depicted attending a funeral ceremony. The burial practice of the period depicted in the paintings has a close resemblance to that practiced by present day tribes. When man learnt how to hunt, fish, construct huts and grow food he moved from cave shelters and hidings to the more open plains and river beds. Studies of the paintings have revealed the ritualistic practices that developed to appease the spirits of the dead and elements of nature.
Buddhists are known to have adapted this in the form of a ‘Stupa’ from as early as 300 B.C. Tribal carvings on granite slabs were significantly seen in ‘Bastar’, from where the craft is believed to have spread to the states of Andhra Pradesh and Karnataka.
Most memorials in Karnataka seemed to be derivatives of this form of granite pillars with elaborate motifs, characteristic of 8th century Hindu memorials. The same is seen in the memorials erected for the ‘Nishidi’ (of Jain monks who died fasting for a cause) and ‘Sati’ (women who sacrificed themselves on the husband’s funeral pyre). ‘Tulsi’ platform-like memorials were constructed specially for the deceased priests and holy men. According to the anthropologist Verrier Elwin, the existence of these customs among the people of Dravidian origin and it’s almost absence among the Aryans, indicates its tribal origins. The custom traveled to the south with the migration of the tribes when they wanted to avoid foreign invasions.
It is seen that the tribes imitate their ancestral art of at least 6000 years, even today. Symbols and objects that signify social stature such as horses are used in the engravings. For example in the tribal memorials, a man depicted riding a horse with a servant following him and carrying a decorated umbrella indicates his high status.
Even though the tribes never rear horses but their dead are often portrayed riding a horse. It is believed that could be a vestige of an ancestral style that has remained unchanged in the last six thousand years.
A ‘Gatha’ stone is made on a large piece of rock with no prescribed measurements and has symbolic motifs and other iconography carved on it. Symbols of weapons like swords, bows and arrow are used to depict a brave person; likewise a man fond of alcohol is depicted with liquor bottles and drink glassware.
Commonly seen, are the figures wielding weapons in traditional attire of the ‘Angrakha’ (a long coat), ‘Pyjama’ and ‘Pheta’-turban’. The males are sometimes depicted holding hookah pipes.
Sometimes auspicious figures are shown accompanying the figures of the deceased. A man on a horse representing a bridegroom, a ‘Naai’ or a barber, a ‘Panihari’ or a woman carrying water are some of the figures whose portrayal are regarded to be traditionally essential.
The ‘Sati Sthambhas’ are usually depicted in a simple manner with the addition of only traditional motifs, though in some villages the images of Sati are shown to be riding a horse. The carvings are intricately detailed that enhance and highlight the beautiful details of the ornaments, ‘Odhani’ (veil) and ‘Gaghra’ (skirt). If the woman was married then the pillars are marked with images representing children. In earlier times, the artisan or priest would add a description of the deceased, provided by the family members. In present times, a photograph of the person has replaced the description and the name of the individual is carved in.
It is difficult to spot a ‘Gatha’ stone without the motif of a horse. This has come to be a prominent motif in the craft. The other commonly seen motifs are ‘Crescent of moon’, ‘Sun’, ‘Peacock’, ‘Tiger’ and ‘Dog’. Traditionally, earthen colours like ‘Geru’ were used to paint the stones but now oil paints and enamel paints are also used to paint the ‘Gatha’ Stones.
Stone – These are found in the local villages in the surroundings and are used as a base to carve as memorial stones.
Oil Paints – It is used to paint the final carved memorial stone figures.
Geru – It is a natural earthen red color that was traditionally used to paint the stone carvings.
Hammers – It is used to hammer the chisel while carving.
Chisels – Different types of chisels are used in carving the stones.
Nails – It is used as a thin pointed tool to carve intricate details.
Brushes -Various brushes are used to paint with oil colors and geru.
Sandpaper – It is used to polish the carved stone before and after chiseling.
The Gatha stones are considered to be auspicious and have an important place in the culture of the tribes. These memorial stones are used to appease the spirits and commemorate the dead. Each stage of the Gatha stone making is accompanied with prayers and ceremonial gatherings. From the day the date is fixed for sculpting, to each stage of the carving and finally the grand installation of the Gatha stone, each and every step of the way is celebrated with elaborate religious rituals. The completed memorial is taken to the village elders for their blessings, followed by a grand feast organized to celebrate the Gatha installation where alcohol is enjoyed liberally.
A ceremonial ritual is conducted to commemorate the placing of the stone, where the sculptor or artisan presides as the priest during the ceremony. Donations of food and clothing are also made
The stones selected for carving are mostly hard, crusted, white stones. A fair sized rock is broken to obtain a flat surface with an even thickness of 10-15 cm. The flat stone surface obtained is worshipped by performing certain rituals, and then work on it begins.
The design to be made is drawn using pencils and charcoal, with the portrait of the person drawn in full detail. Using various sized chisels and hammer, the designs are carved. Depth is added to the sculpture by carving out spaces of about an inch around the figures, this enhances the sculpture making them look life-like. Traditionally, Geru was used to paint the stones in a brick red color, but recently oil paints have also come to be used in painting the sculptures. The carving is often done between, ‘Kartik Chaudas’ (end of November) and ‘Holi’, which is celebrated in the middle of March. A peculiar tradition is followed by the artisans where they work on the stones only in the night and not in the mornings. It takes almost a fortnight to carve a Gatha.
List of craftsmen.
interview – Shri Shiv Dhanna lal ji, Alirajpur (04/20/2012)
Tribal Arts and Crafts of Madhya Pradesh ,Mapin Publishers, First published in 1996