Bronze Icons of Swamimalai: The Last Bastion of an Ancient Craft

Article of the Month - Aug 2021

This article by Abhishek Anand

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Swamimalai is a small town lying on the banks of a southern Kaveri tributary, in the Thanjavur district of Tamil Nadu, a little over 250 kms south of the state capital Chennai. The great river Kaveri itself flows a few miles north of the town. Nearest railway station is Kumbakonam, about 5 kms from here, and the nearest airport is Trichy, 90 kms away. The town of Swamimalai can be reached by regular state bus service from all the major cities of Tamil Nadu.

The Great Temple of Madurai Meenakshi

Swamimalai is believed to be one of the six sacred abodes of Karthikeya, the eldest son of Shiva. Lord Karthikeya is known by many names such as Murugan, Kanda, Skanda, Kumara, Mahasena, Shanmukha, Subramanya and Vadivela. Tamil sangam literature designates Muruga as the Lord of the Mountain Regions. His six sacred abodes also find mention in sangam literature. They are: Thiruparankundram, Tiruchendur, Palani, Swamimalai, Thiruthani and Pazhamudricholai. Swamimalai boasts of a beautiful Lord Murugan temple, with an interesting legend, where he is said to have taught the meaning of ‘Om’, the sacred pranav mantra, to his father, god Shiva.

15" Kartikeya (Murugan) | Handmade | Madhuchista Vidhana (Lost-Wax) | Panchaloha Bronze from Swamimalai

But, what makes this sleepy little town of less than ten thousand inhabitants special, is its long, traditional and time-honoured association with the ancient Indian art of bronze sculpting. Apart from being a center for pilgrimage and tourism in South India, it is also the de facto bronze icon capital of India. The skillfully crafted Swamimalai bronze idols are some of the most sought after artifacts by art lovers and connoisseurs throughout the world. Swamimalai bronze icons embody a characteristic grace and precision, bringing together in a perfect combination, the skill of an expert craftsman, the imagination of an artist, and the sensibilities of a poet.

 

36" Large Lakshmi | Handmade | Madhuchista Vidhana (Lost-Wax) | Panchaloha Bronze from Swamimalai

Below is a beautiful idol of a standing Devi Lakshmi, a fine example of exquisite Swamimalai craftsmanship:

Swamimalai Under the Cholas

 The Chola kings, apart from being among the strongest dynasties ever to rule the lands south of India, were also great patrons of religious art and architecture. Their reign, lasting 450 years, was a period of cultural, religious and geo-political unification of the Tamil people. They built magnificent temples that not only structurally withstood the ravages of time and weather for over a millennia but still continue to thrill the world with their exceptionally intricate craftsmanship and mind-numbing grandeur. 

Rajaraja Chola I, (985-1014 AD), built one of the largest Hindu temples in the world: The Brihadeshwara Temple, literally the Great-God Temple, in Thanjavur. His successor, Rajendra Chola (1014-1044 AD), built another one in Gangaikonda. A century later, Rajaraja Chola II, (1146-1173 AD), built the famous Airavatesvara Temple in Darasuram, near Kumbakonam. Airavatesvara Temple is unique in that while it is dedicated to Shiva, it also reverentially depicts other traditions of Hinduism, such as, Vaishnavism and Shaktism, side-by-side along with the legends associated with the Nayanmars, the Shaivite saints of the Bhakti movement. 

Each of the three temples mentioned above have been declared as World Heritage Sites by UNESCO. They are also counted among a cluster of eighteen such medieval era Hindu temples in the Kumbakonam area of the Thanjavur District.

 

46" Krishna with Arch | Handmade | Madhuchista Vidhana (Lost-Wax) | Panchaloha Bronze from Swamimalai

The story goes that Rajaraja Chola I, who built the Brihadeshwara temple in Thanjavur, brought with him an army of skilled labourers, craftsmen, and sculptors. As the work progressed, some of the sculptors tasked with building bronze idols for the temple, discovered that the alluvial soil, in the area within 5 kms of Swamimalai, was especially suited for making the moulds for bronze icons. This soil when used for making moulds for the wax models never developed cracks upon drying. The abundant sunlight and dry weather further aids their efforts. Because of these exceptionally favourable conditions many of the sculptors chose to settle in that area and continue their bronze work, traditionally passing on their unique skills to their future generations. 

These master sculptors called themselves Sthapathis, or descendents of the celestial craftsman, Vishvakarma. They religiously followed the canons of iconometry and iconography as prescribed by the Shilpa Shastras and Agamas. The present day Sthapathis also consider themselves successors and torchbearers of the traditions laid down by one Akora Bhadra Acharya who settled in Swamimalai after the construction of the Swamimalai temple.

Shilpa Shastra: A Guide for the Craft

Shilpa Shastra is an elaborate treatise on temple architecture and the making of statues, icons and idols of gods, deities and other religious figures. It is in sanskrit and believed to have been compiled during the Gupta period. The writings of Shilpa Shastra are in the form of a vast collection of palm leaf manuscripts. These ancient scriptures can still be found carefully preserved in Saraswathi Mahal Library in Thanjavur.

Shilpa Shastra forms a part of the corpus of literature on the art and craft of sculpting and architecture along with other treatises, such as Agamas and Kshyapa Shilpa Shastra. A tamil translation of these texts together form the primary guide book for the present day sthapathis living in the Swamimalai region.

 

Shilpa Shastra assigns a dhyana sloka, a verse that gives a description of the physical attributes along with the spiritual meaning, for each deity. The slokas prescribe the method of preparation of various alloys and their respective compositions. The details of constructing the wax model, the mould and casting are all part of comprehensive prescriptions contained within these slokas. A sthapathi should be well versed in them. While an average sthapathi is not expected to know all the verses, they must know by heart, the ones associated with the deities whose idols they are engaged in sculpting. 

A dhyana sloka lays down the overall measurements of the idol along with the proportion of length of the different parts of the body in relation to the total height of the idol. There may be differences in these measurements depending on whether the idol is to be installed in a home or a public place. These calculations are called Aayaadhi calculations. Idols crafted according to these calculations are believed to bring good fortune and prosperity to the devotees.

Iconometry of Swamimalai Bronze Crafting

The unit of measurement in Shilpa Shastra icon-making is a tala. It is the distance between the hairline of the icon and its gnathion (the extremity of lower jaw).

Each tala is further subdivided into 12 angulas. One angula is measured as the breadth of a finger and is equal to 8 yavn. One yavn, which is the size of a grain of barley, equals 8 yukas. One yuka is 8 likshas. One liksha is the size of an egg of a louse and equals 8 balagra. One balagra, of the size of the tip of a human hair strand, is 8 rajas. And finally, rajas are subdivided into paramanus, the smallest units in the Shilpa Shastra scale of measurement.

65" Superfine and Super Large Perumal with Sri Devi and Bhu Devi Bronze Set | Handmade | Madhuchista Vidhana (Lost-Wax) | Panchaloha Bronze from Swamimalai

The dhyana slokas of Shilpa Shastra assign distinct classes to the different deities and the dimensions of their icons must follow the measurement ascribed to these classes. Shilpa Shastra describes 30 such proportions for different types of icons. Every icon must follow these fixed proportions. There are ten categories of icons and each category has three measures, namely, uthama (superior), madhyama (intermediate) and adhama (inferior). 

The ten categories themselves are based on the count of talas beginning from one to ten. They are: ektala, dvitala, tritala, and so on till dasa tala. The below table lists the proportions on uthama dasa tala as laid down in the Shilpa Shastra.

 

Total height from crown of the head to the sole of the feet124 angulas
Forehead4 angulas
Eyebrows to chin13.5 angulas
Neck4 angulas
Neck to chest13.5 angulas
Upper arm from scapula to elbow27 angulas
Lower arm from elbow to wrist22.5 angulas
Hand from wrist to the tip of the middle finger13.5 angulas
Chest to navel13.5 angulas
Navel to pubis13.5 angulas
Length of upper leg from pubis to knee27 angulas
Kneecap4 angulas
Lower leg from knee to ankle27 angulas
Height from ankle to sole of the foot4 angulas

These measurements are done using the odiolai or the palm frond. 124 divisions are made for modelling the male figure (as listed in the table above) and 120 similar divisions are made for the female figure.

Dasa tala is the highest of the ten categories and is reserved for the most important deities in the Hindu pantheon. The icons of the trimurti; Brahma, Vishnu, Mahesh; are always made to the dimensions of uthama dasa tala. Goddess Lakshmi, Saraswati and Durga are made to the dimension of madhyama dasa tala. Other gods like Shanmuga, Ayyanas, and the Navagrahas (or the nine planets) are made to the specifications of adhama dasa tala.

 Nava tala, based upon a measurement of nine talas, is the second highest category. The uthama nava tala is used for Ashta Vasus icons. Madhyama nava tala is for depiction of Yakshas and Apsaras while the lowest measure of nava tala, the adhama, is used for depicting asuras and demons.

7" Standing Navagrahas With Their Respective Vahanas | Handmade | Panchaloha Bronze

Similarly, the three measures of uthama, madhyama and adhama are found in the rest of the tala categories as well. The ashta tala is used to depict mortals while the sapta tala is for the pisachas (ghosts). The shasta tala is used in the depiction of dwarfs. The pancha tala is used for the icons of Ganapati among others. The chatus tala is for images of children. Tritala, dvitala, and ekatala are for kinnaras, kimpurushas and kurmam respectively.

 

23" Bhagawan Rakshak Ganesha | Handmade | Madhuchista Vidhana (Lost-Wax) | Panchaloha Bronze from Swamimalai

Iconographical connection to Nature

In the Bronze tradition of Swamimalai, the sthapathis have a unique way of interpreting their craft. While the gods and representative idols are mostly anthropomorphic as a whole, the individual body parts are often identified with objects from the natural world. It emphasizes the deep spiritual connection that this tradition entails. Another interesting thing to note here is that these related natural objects are not chosen for their metaphysical or conceptual connection to the deities but primarily because of their geometrical shape and visual similarities to the individual part in question.

 Head of a deity, for example, is modeled after the egg of a hen. Eyebrows after the leaf of a neem tree. Eyes after kandai fish. Nose is modeled on a gingelly flower and the upper lip on a bow. Body is modeled after a bovine head, arms after the trunk of an elephant, while the kneecap is modeled after a crab. A full list of these associations is given below.

Head          Hen’s egg
Eyebrows          Neem leaf
Eyes          Kandai fish
Nose          Gingelly flower
Upper lip          Bow
Lower lip          Kovai fruit
Chin          Kovai fruit
Ear           Lily flower
Neck          Conch shell
Body           Cow’s head
Hand          Elephant’s trunk
Thighs          Tree trunk
Kneecap         Crab
Lower leg         Kandai fish

The Sculpting Process

The Swamimalai icons are commonly made of four different materials: bronze, panchaloha, gold, and silver.

 

Bronze icons are the most common and are used for installation in homes and small temples. Bronze is an alloy of copper containing about 12% tin. It is stronger and more ductile than copper and is easy to work with. Often lead is also mixed to the bronze in small amounts for casting.

Panchaloha is an alloy of five metals: gold, silver, copper, zinc and iron. It’s precise composition is laid down in the Shilpa Shastras. It is a traditional alloy of sacred significance. Panchaloha icons are generally crafted for installation in temples and for worship by the general public. You can also get gold and silver icons from Swamimalai but they are built exclusively on demand.

Below is an example of panchaloha idol:

The icon making process consists of four major parts. The first part consists of building the wax model using the palm leaf scale. The wax is prepared by mixing pure bee’s wax, resin and groundnut oil in the ratio 4:4:1. This mixture is strained through either a coarse woven cloth or a fine metal sieve and water cooled to remove any impurities. This wax is then worked into a model of the icon according to the measurements of the dhyana slokas. The basic attitude of limbs and torso is achieved in the wax model itself, however more minute details are left for later, to be chiselled away from the metal to achieve the final finish.

8.5" Bhikshatana Shiva With One Of The Bhoota-Gana | Handmade | Madhuchista Vidhana (Lost-Wax) | Panchaloha Bronze

The second part is the creation of clay mould by melting and draining the wax away from the mould cavity. Third part is melting the alloy and casting the metal using the dried clay mould. 

In the fourth and final step, the clay mould is cracked open and the hardened metal idol inside is chiselled carefully for finer detail like dress and ornaments. Any uneven surfaces are smoothed, rubbed with fine-grade emery paper and polished with specialized tools on the high metallic sheen.

The pedestal for the idols is also modeled in wax and crafted and affixed to the main idol separately.

Conclusion

India has a long and illustrious tradition of bronze casting and metal work dating as far back as the Indus Valley Civilization. Metal artifacts, over four millennia old, were excavated from Mohenjodaro and the other Indus Valley sites like Harappa, Ropar and Lothal. Perhaps the most famous of them is the bronze dancing girl, a unique piece constructed by lost-wax casting, the cire-perdue - the same technique used in Swamimalai many millennia later - where a duplicate metal object is cast from an original piece that is lost during the process of crafting. Many other bronze icons and statuettes of Hindu, Buddhist and Jain deities have since been excavated and dated from many other regions all over the Indian subcontinent.

Bastar Bronzes: Tribal Religion and Art

The bronze-work in India can be divided into three geographical regions. First are the lands in the North of the subcontinent, between the Vindhya Hills and River Narmada. Second region extends south of the River Narmada to the basins of the Tungabhadra River. The third and the most famous of these are the lands that lie between Tungabhadra and Cape Comorin, the southern tip of the Indian peninsula. These southernmost regions are historically renowned for stone carving and bronze casting, both of which flourished under the patronage of dynasties like Pallavas, Cholas, and Pandyas.

The Swamimalai is one of the regions where this ancient heritage was preserved through a passing down of these unique skills and knowledge by successive generations of sthapathis. 

All the icons crafted by the Swamimalai sthapathis religiously follow the strictures laid down by the dhyana slokas from Shilpa Shastra. Each of the idols are solid metal, individually crafted, and exhibit high levels of fine detailing. The alluvial soil of Swamimalai region used for the mould is special in that it never develops cracks during this entire process enabling a smooth and pristine finish to the metal. Because of the use of the ancient method of madhuchishtavidhana (lost-wax method) the original wax cast is lost during the crafting and no duplication is possible. A fact that renders the Swamimalai artifacts truly unique and one of the most sought after metal icons in the modern world.

To view our Hand-picked Collection of Bronze Sculptures, Clike here

 

References

  1. Hereditary Bronze Casters of South India
  2. Chola Bronze Casting - Swamimalai, Tamilnadu
  3. Standing Devi Lakshmi Of A Lifelike Quality
  4. The Graciously Adorned, Smiling Tribhanga Murari
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  • very very interesting
    Chiara Biasini August 30, 2021
  • Great achievements of casting technology
    Murthy Basapur August 27, 2021
  • Very good article and excellent research. Precise,Informative and very clear. Thank you.
    Dr Radha Kumar August 27, 2021
  • Namaskar, thank you for this information, is very valuable. Krisnananda Shivana/Https://lavalldelespiritualitat.wordpress.com
    Krisnananda Shivana August 27, 2021
  • As usual, India amazes me. This explanation of the bronze casting traditions is so complex and in depth and ramifications. I come away delighted and inspired. My collection of Lord Ganesh images filled my Santa Fe, N.M. home and gardens. They were always a source of daily strenth and inspiration.
    Gordon Micunis August 26, 2021
  • Fabulous! 🙏🏽
    Phyllis Leewilliams August 26, 2021
  • Having developed a love of Indian bronze sculptures since my first visit to India in the late 70's, I found it very Interesting to hear about the traditional and time-honored practices associated with the ancient Indian art of bronze sculpting. Thank You.
    Bruce Adams August 26, 2021
  • Well researched and interesting article. The language is flawless, simple and lucid. The author may as well mention the addresses of a few trustworthy artists or outlets.
    Dr. Uday K. Misra August 18, 2021