These masks are a craft technique to the tribes of Bandhavgarh, where these would be made as religious iconographies on trees or masks used worship or kept in a shrine. Today, with a hard lifestyle in the forests, many of these tribal people have come to Khajuraho, knowing the tourist inflow to make a living.
The wood-carved Gods and masks are used for decorative purposes. Woodwork is also put to use for making chillums, hookahs etc., which are still used in the villages. Figures of gods and goddesses are also made for worship.
The significance of these masks lies in ancient religion of praying to the older Gods like trees, the Sun and the moon, the sky, water, the wind and other such elements in nature which these tribes have regarded to, as nature's supreme elements which keep life going. These masks have ancient rituals and beliefs trapped in them from time immemorial and bring out the raw pure hearts of people living out of civilization.
Myths & Legends
The members of the Kul Bhil tribe use these for worshipping. These are called Kagda. During the Ashad pooja or prayers to the monsoons, the tribals sing and dance adorned with these masks. With the coming of iconographic Gods after the Gods of nature, they also believe that Kali and Durga, the goddess resides in the forests. Therefore the worship is conducted in the forests, praying to protect the people from wild animals and evil spirits.
In India, the tradition of woodcarving existed from the ancient times. Mostly, only the stone-carved sculptures have survived, but these speak clearly of their wooden ancestors on which they were based on. Ancient wood carved temples, which have survived in the hill areas of Himachal and Uttar Pradesh, are similar in style to the Gupta period temples. The craft of woodcarving is mentioned in the Rigveda.
The Matsya purana talks of how every home should have a doorframe carved out of wood as a sign of welcome to the visitors. Carved wooden frames and later balconies with detailed brackets became a tradition in homes and palaces. Each region developed it's own style and design in wood carving, depending on the local traditions and materials available. These developed mostly due to worship. For example, Assam had places of worship called Namghars, which were constructed out of wood. In south India, there were large Rathams or chariots for taking out the deities or idols in a procession during certain festivals.
The tribal population crafted gods and goddesses out of wood. They even made masks and totem poles out of wood. Very few of these are to be found due to their easy deterioration caused by termites and rain. These were important features in festivities and worships. These were also used for amateur theatrical performances. It was believed that the Bhil tribes made shrines with wood, and this is when the craft originated.
Large faces are chiseled out on pieces of wood. The surfaces are not smooth but have some crudity. Nevertheless there is detailing. The value is based on the kind of wood used.
The nose and the lips are made to be large. The eyes are rounded with a dot-like depression in the middle in case it represents an animal, and streamlined fish-shaped eyes in case it is a god. There are strong resemblances to African tribal art.
The beauty of these masks lies in the usage of the already present form of the wooden block. The formations of crevices and twigs, branches and cracks are all accounted as design elements, carving around them to bring out a clear form.
The amount of design precision that is shown here lies not in the smoothness and finish of the masks but in the orientation of the elements and their keen eye of using them and how this vision has been passed down through generations.
These masks and sculptures are not crafted anymore. The need and usage has died down.
Only the old works are remaining. Very few craftsmen sculpt these out to sell it to the tourists. These masks are now antique pieces and neither have a cluster nor the original artisans.