Dindori, Madhya Pradesh, India...
The autochthonous deities of the region who live in the natural environment are the ones to be feared and propitiated through sacrifices. While domesticating the formless autochthonous deities, they were placed in dehras i.e the house of the deity. The carvings on the temple are carved to attract positive energies and to protect from evil eyes. As a result, many times the designs are taken from tantric literature. Other than the carvings in temple structures, there are wooden sculptures of deities that further developed into different lifestyle products.
The crafts are the visual expression and a physical manifestation of what is happening in the societies and also the internal creative impulse of the artist. This craftwork has preserved the narratives of the bygone ages. These not only carry the craftwork but the vitality and the inspiration of the consciousness that was behind the work. It is a medium of expression that goes beyond mere functionality, incorporating a range of aesthetic and symbolic elements. It can also be compared to language which is a symbolic form that transcends individual expression, reflecting the broader values and beliefs of a particular society.
The geography of the Himalaya mountain range is exceptional due to its relatively youthful age in historical terms, endowing it with striking and imposing features that have yet to be softened by the passage of time, unlike other mountain ranges globally. Landslides and earthquakes are also common occurrences in this region. For thousands of years, the native people in this area have ingeniously devised ways to coexist harmoniously with the mighty Himalayas.
Customized to the local environment and climate, agriculture, clothing, and architecture in this region are intricately intertwined. Traditional houses here are uniquely crafted using local materials such as wood, stone, and clay, employing a technique known as Kath-Khuni.
The term ‘Kath-Khuni’ comprises two parts: ‘Kath,’ meaning ‘wood,’ and ‘Khuni,’ meaning ‘corner.’ Differing from conventional construction methods, this technique replaces vertical columns with horizontal beams. ‘Criss-cross’ bracings provide support for these timber structures, with layers of stone between wooden layers ensuring stability, and slate tiles covering the roofs.
During earthquakes, Kath-Khuni structures may experience shaking and generate cracks, but there is minimal risk of complete collapse. Human ingenuity further embellished these structures, especially in the Kullu region, where locals began adding carvings to visible horizontal beams in temples. These carvings, featuring local motifs, gods, or flowers, introduced new character to the temples. Eventually, local merchants adopted similar techniques, giving rise to a new craft form that adorned their houses. These symbolic forms are not static, but rather, evolve over time as the society changes and adapts to new challenges and opportunities.
The craft is an expression of the socio-cultural reality and embodies the myths, legends, and folklore, of the groups and communities. The carvings depicting different motifs come from different myths and legends. It is not restricted to the motifs but often the temples are themselves the result of different narratives. There are numerous narratives behind the origin of Nagas. One is about a sage Kashyap who married to two women and among them the elder one gave birth to a child who was half man and half snake. The Mahun Naga, which has a temple in Bajaura is believed to have powers to cure diseases. During drought, the devta are remembered as they are agrarian society and climatic factors play an important role. Therefore, Nagas retain the religious belief of the people as they are directly linked with water springs and the power of rain. These also include the introduction of different deities and mainly the mainstream Hindu god and goddess in the local pantheon. Jagat Singh who is known as the greatest king introduced the worship of Ragunath in the 17th century and the well-known Kullu Dussehra was inaugurated. There is a widespread story behind this change in the religious setup.
“A Brahmin committed suicide because of the king Jagat Singh and after this incident whatever the king ate became worms and whatever he saw was blood stained After a few days, the king consulted a Baba to overcome this curse. The baba advised him to visit Ayodha and bring the idol of Ragunath to Kullu and offer him the kingdom while himself serving only as the God’s governor. Thus, in the end the King offered his throne to lord Raghunath and declared himself as his delegate and first servant.
The craft of carvings have been started with the mohra, a form of the mask from a solid piece of wood, and with time it became more formal and eventually figurative. The craft also developed independently and as well with the architecture. There is a good amount of wood exposed to the exterior of the structure including the bands of wall and multi jambs and lintels of the openings. The plain wooden part exposed must be the inspiration for carving where it acted like a canvas to become a form of expression. As we move backward in the timescale and the classical elements in the carving were there with the folkish one. But there is a clear departure one can observe in the temples mainly that were renovated in the 2000s. There is an excessive dependency on floral devices and geometrical that is both angular and curvaceous.
Woodcarving has been changing its themes to remain relevant in the socio-cultural setup. Earlier the craft was inclined towards magical-religious rather than mere aesthetics. The two divisions of carving are classical and folk. The classical are the one that belongs to a larger region whereas the folk is local that emerged from a specific region. The following are the major three forms of design in the wood carving of Kullu.
Natural – Due to the stylized form, it is difficult to recognize the origin of natural motifs except for a few such as the flower lotus. Among them, ashtadal lotus (one with eight petals) is the most common. Others are Cypress trees with Persian origin, Chinar leaf Kashmir origin, and Motifs like grapevine is known to have a Mughal origin. The most prominent motifs are patralata, (leaf with creeper) and phula-lata (flower with creeper) composed of multiple curves and twists and intertwining tendrils and the motifs rise and fall like a wave.
Figurative – The important individual figures are the dwarpal (doorkeeper) that are placed in the entrance door on both sides of the structure. In addition to this are individual human figures and a series of human figures dancing or engaged in some ritual. The carved motifs also has royal figures sometimes with weapons and marching like soldiers. Another figure is mithuna, (erotic couples) in the temples that were used to be considered auspicious. These were believed to protect the structure from lightning. Other common figures are classic Navgarhs, the nine planets that are believed to be the annihilation of evils. A dominant theme in all the recent temples is dashavatar (ten incarnations of Vishnu) on both sides of the entrance gate inside a panel. These are believed to be manifestations of Vishnu on earth to sustain dharma and all these are from different yug.
Birds and animals – Many times, the birds are represented in a beautiful composition in a stylised manner. Peacocks, ducks, eagles and parrots are among the carved devices. In the classical text peacock is also known as shukrabhuj, the arm of masculine strength. These motifs in the front panel regard the avian symbol as a protective sign against the evil eye. Kurad are the wooden beams that are part of the structure of the temple and the front edges are carved in shapes of different animals like lions, crocodiles, ducks, etc. Different names are assigned to them as per the figures makar-kurad (crocodile), singh-kurad (lion), hath-sundi kurad (elephant), mor-kurad (peacock) and garaud-kurad (falcon). The worship of reptiles and other venomous reptiles majorly snakes are considered important in the agrarian communities of Himachal Pradesh as it saves them from the fear of their poison. The linear form of serpents are convenient for the door frame. They are mostly carved in their natural form as their rhythmic body makes them a perfect decorative motif with great elegance.
Others – The traditional jewelry of Kullu, Dodmala, is a necklace made of a large size of silver bead that looks like a soap-nut are carved out in different temples. Ghat-pallav or poorn-ghat, a pot with spilling water and emerging creepers is a widely used motif from temples of all the time.
Over time, the significance once attributed to these motifs has gradually faded. Motifs that once possessed distinct forms and profound meanings are now simplifying into basic designs requiring minimal effort. While the scarcity of wood presents a challenge, its significance in religious contexts drives artisans to find alternatives. However, this pursuit of alternatives sometimes compromises the authenticity, reducing it to a mere façade. The emergence of mechanical tools has brought about a shift in the craft’s vocabulary, thereby influencing traditional artisans who were once adept at manual practices.
The entire process of carving emerged into an established social, cultural and religious setup. There is a huge impact of the mediums used and the space where the process is located. The medium here is defined by the tools and techniques used whereas the space is the surrounding of the workspace.
The wood is the only raw material used in the craft but the wood is not any wood. It is the divine wood of deodar. The deodar tree has its presence in the folklore and literature of Himachal Pradesh where it is known by the name devadaru, the divine wood. It is seen as a symbol of power, longevity and prosperity. The origins of many local deities are from the deep forests and known as dehras, that are later raised into temples.
It used to be a craft entirely done with hands with the basic tools such as the chisel and the hammer. There are different types of chisels including different sizes and shapes that are locally done by the blacksmiths. Through time the tools became more advanced but till date, many artisans are using the manual tools for carving. The mechanical tools definitely occupied the other work including cutting and planning the surface for carving. The techniques that are now developed include metal stencils and carbon paper for marking the wood which gives more accuracy and ease for the artisans. A mug full of water is usually placed near the artisan that they use to increase the sharpness of the chisels. In terms of techniques almost all the carving is in the style of straight carving but there is evidence that the slanted chiseling was unknown till the 11th century and had been common in Muslim art.
Woodcraft holds a sacred place as a temple craft, encompassing a meticulously choreographed journey from the felling of trees to the assembly of wooden components, all the way to the culmination of rituals. At the core of this craft lies the intricate process of carving, a domain governed by stringent rules and regulations which, although somewhat eased in recent times, continue to be upheld by the dedicated artisan communities. During the installation of the frames and any activities within the garbhgriha (sanctum sanctorum), adherents are required to don a dhoti and partake solely in falaahar, a diet restricted to fruits.
The waste produced from wood carving mainly consists of wooden chips or burada, which people commonly utilize as fuelwood for cooking purposes.
The region is known to have its existence in mythologies where it is known as Kulantapitha (The end of habitable world). By tracing the power dynamics of Kullu as per the Bansalvali, there are records of 88 kings from which 73 were Pals and 74th were Singh while some scholar suggests that there was rule of indigenous Thakurs and Ranas, the kshatriya warrior from the plains. The founder of the dynasty was Bihangami Pal who hailed from Pragya and later settled in Kullu. Even the relation of Hidimba seems to revolve around the making and breaking of alliances and struggle over territory and sovereignty. With every passing king there were some changes in the existing political and cultural spheres. Jagat Singh who is known as the greatest king introduced the worship of Ragunath in the 17th century and the well-known Kullu dussehra inaugurated.
The geography of Kullu, located in the Indian state of Himachal Pradesh, is characterized by its mountainous terrain and natural beauty. Situated in the Kullu Valley, the region is enveloped by the towering peaks of the Himalayas. The Beas River meanders through the valley, providing fertile land for agriculture and supporting local communities. The landscape boasts lush forests, picturesque meadows, and abundant flora and fauna. Kullu's elevation and topography contribute to its cool climate and scenic landscapes, making it a popular destination for tourists and nature enthusiasts.
The infrastructure of Kullu consists of a network of roads connecting towns and villages, with Bhuntar Airport providing air access. The region has access to basic utilities like electricity and water supply, while healthcare facilities and educational institutions serve the population's needs. Kullu's status as a tourist destination is supported by accommodations, eateries, and recreational facilities.
The traditional architecture of Kullu, Himachal Pradesh is built from its surroundings that seamlessly become a part of it. The geographical conditions and socio-political elements have contributed to form the style of architecture. The sloping roof surmounted by the stone wall helps to sweep the snow during winter. The prime materials that are required to build a structure are stone and wood. Kath-Kuni is the type of wall construction that is prevalent in the region both for temples and residential buildings. The literal translation of the term is the wooden corner where Kath is kashth, a wood, and Kuni is kona, a corner. This layered construction of alternate wood and stone is most visible in the corners of the walls and thus the cross-section of wooden beams explains the term Kath-Khuni. The space between the two wooden logs is filled with loose and small stone pieces and this helps in insulation. In addition to this, these also help to dissipate the seismic forces and thus help in preventing cracks in the walls.
Kullu's culture is rich and diverse, shaped by its geographical setting in the Himalayas and the confluence of various traditions. The region celebrates its cultural heritage through vibrant festivals, rituals, and artistic expressions. Traditional folk music and dance, such as the Kullu Natti, showcase the local identity. The people often wear colorful attire, and handicrafts like handwoven shawls and wood carvings are integral to their artistic expression. Religion plays a significant role, with numerous temples and monasteries reflecting both Hindu and Buddhist influences. The Dussehra festival is a highlight, featuring elaborate processions and performances that attract visitors from afar. Kullu's culture reflects a harmonious blend of spirituality, artistic creativity, and communal celebrations.
The people of Kullu, known as Kulluvis, are known for their warm hospitality and strong community bonds. Primarily of Himachali origin, their way of life is deeply intertwined with the region's rugged terrain and natural surroundings. Agriculture, particularly apple cultivation, is a mainstay of their economy, while tourism also provides opportunities. Many locals follow Hinduism and Buddhism, with temples and monasteries serving as spiritual centers. Traditional attire often includes colorful clothing and intricate jewelry.
Kullu is famed for its captivating Dussehra Festival, a cultural extravaganza featuring processions and performances. The region's stunning natural beauty, encompassing mountains and meadows, draws nature enthusiasts. Adventure seekers are enticed by activities like rafting and trekking. Spiritual sites like the Raghunath Temple offer solace and architectural marvels. The local handicrafts, including shawls and wood carvings, showcase artistic prowess. Apple orchards thrive in the landscape, and traditional dances like the Kullu Natti reflect cultural vibrancy.
List of craftsmen.
Ms. Lalita Waldia
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