Regular use of stone for sculpture and architecture commenced from the Maurya period, (c.325—184 BC) particularly from the time of the great king Ashoka (269—232 BC). From then a happy blend of art and architecture became a conspicuous characteristic of Indian art.
Sculptural images of the Shunga period (c. 184—72 BC) are characterised by low relief, bicornate turbans on male figures, the symbolic representation of the Buddha and narratives of his life. The stupas of Bharhut, Sanchi and Bodh Gaya are the great monuments of the age. The yaksha/yakshi (demon/demoness) statues of the Maurya and Shunga periods represent the influence of folk cult and the excellence of the Indian sculptural tradition.
Two great schools of art evolved and flourished simultaneously in the Kushana period (1st—3rd century), one using the spotted red sandstone at Mathura, and the other using the schist stone in the larger territory of the Gandhara region now in Pakistan and Afghanistan. While the former carved the images of the deities of all the pantheons (Hindu, Buddhist and Jain) the latter concentrated on Buddhist icons. Both are credited to have evolved the Buddha image. There was a good deal of interaction between the two styles in the 2nd and 3rd century.
Indian art reached its zenith in the Gupta period with the noble experiment of harmonising rupa and bhava. The schools of Mathura and Sarnath (near Varanasi) played a vital role in this respect. While Mathura represented garments on the human form with rippled pleats, Sarnath favoured “wet” or body-clinging drapery. The serenity of the face and refined treatment of the body are the hallmarks of the age. The sculptures and wall paintings created during the same period under the Vakatakas at Ajanta and other places followed the same trends and are similarly superb.
The political disharmony in the post Gupta period gave rise to regional artistic off—shoots. While the classical features of the preceding age were retained to a great extent, the religious and artistic inclination of the period saw the emergence of ornamentation, as well as sub-deities, family deities (parivaradevatas) and deities with multiple arms and attributes. The notable stylistic periods were those of the Pratiharas (c.900—1000) in the north, the Rashtrakutas (c.753—973) and Chalukyas (c.550—642) in the Deccan and the Pallavas (c.600—750) in the south. The temple was the great source of sculpture.
Remarkable specimens in dark basalt stone came onto the scene particularly in eastern India under the patronage of Pala and Sena kings (c.10th-l3th century) who favoured both Brahmanism and Buddhism. These are slim and slender figures with plinth—like projections (rathas), lotus cushions, flanking acolytes, decorative motifs like the leogryph (simhashardula), lion’s face emitting strings of pearls (kirtimukha), geese (hamsa) and mythical crocodile (makara). Temples in Orissa were also studded with beautiful sculptures and decorative motifs.
The late medieval (11th—l3th century) sculptures are known for mechanical stylisation, pointed and linear clarity, meticulous details of ornaments and further elaboration of subsidiary deities. Divine figures are dominant and the female becomes the focal point in this period. Amorous and sometimes erotic postures also emerge. The temples of Khajuraho, Orissa, Halebid and Mount Abu are known for intricate carving. In the south, monumental gateways (gopurams) and the towers of the sanctums were decorated with hundreds of beautiful sculptures.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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