Once a hub where royalty got their jewellery made, Vadasery in southern Tamil Nadu still hosts hundreds of artisans who struggle against the odds.
It is a crown truly fit for the gods. Alternate rows of emeralds, rubies and diamonds adorn it. S. Muthuswamy, a traditional goldsmith (achari) sits at his accountant's desk in Vadasery, a village that is now part of Nagercoil town in Tamil Nadu, where temple jewellery has been made for centuries.
The pride in Muthuswamy's face is unmistakeable as he holds out the photograph. “This crown was made for the presiding deity of the temple in Thiruvendipuram near Cuddalore. And this one for the Tiruvallur temple was modelled on the ancient crown of the Lord of Srirangam.” The mellow beauty of the gems and the workmanship are breathtaking. The jewellery made for the gods in the past was also probably made by the acharis for royalty and the temple dancers or devadasis in similar style, says archaeologist R. Nagaswamy.
Vadasery is where the chieftains of Ramnad and the Rajas of Chettinad headed three centuries ago when they needed to order dazzling gold jewellery as offerings to the gods. Rising prices of gold yanked it from the reach of many and so it began to be made in silver.
Temple jewellery, an essential part of the adornment of the Tamil bride, is also an integral part of the aharya or costume of a Bharatanatyam or Kuchipudi dancer. Since these are recreations of antique gold jewellery, with the increasing demand and appreciation of splendid pieces of the past, it is affordable for all those who wish to cherish a piece of tradition.
This is jewellery that touches a chord of aesthetic consciousness — of heavy necklaces glimpsed in dark, sacred interiors and gems that glitter in the mellow light of oil lamps. Within its gilded layers, it entraps history, memories and desire — the traditional choker you grew up seeing your grandmother wear or the swinging ear ornaments that transform the young girl into a mirror image of her mother when she was 16.
Today, “temple jewellery” made in Vadasery has come to mean jewellery made in silver covered with gold leaf or dipped in gold and generally follows the age-old method. But the deep red of cabochon rubies imported into Tamil Nadu, the soothing green of emeralds and the dull fire of uncut diamonds have been replaced by the glitter of imitation stones.
The jewellery of Tamil Nadu reveals the acme of the goldsmith's art. Nanditha Krishna in her book Arts and Crafts of Tamil Nadu describes in loving detail the resplendent beauty of the various pieces set with uncut gems and pearls that adorned a Tamil woman from the crown of her head to the toe. Nature and temple sculptures inspired the forms, and balance and proportion dictated the designs.
In Vadasery, many of these age-old designs are still fashioned.
“Temple jewellery is unique to Vadasery. It is the only place in the country where this is made. There are 52 families engaged in the craft in this village, 300 craftsmen in all,” says L. Balu, Assistant Director, Handicrafts, Office of the Development Commissioner (Handicrafts) in Nagercoil.
“The domestic market is good and there is also demand from Indians in countries such as Singapore, Australia, UK and the US,” says A. Kalkiraju of Sukra jewellery, Chennai, a leading outlet for temple jewellery. “But the workers do not produce to full capacity and the workmanship has become diluted.”
I make my way through lane after lane in the village to the tiled houses of the master craftsmen. Here in the pattarais (workshops) owned by them, the scenes are replicated. The old process of making the frames (now in silver), twisting the silver wire into designs, fixing the wax, embedding the stones in it and covering the silver with repeated layers of gold leaf, is still followed by the artisans. The old is recreated.
The mythical creature, the yali, the makara or crocodile, the swan, the parrot, the serpent, the mango, the gopuram or temple tower, the lotus, and the creeper feature in the elaborately made pieces — the heavy pendants; the vankis or arm bands; the red stone studded addigai or choker; the glittering mangoes that are strung together to form the manga malai; the thalai saman — ornaments that border the forehead with the accompanying pieces; the ear danglers, the jimikkis, the waist band or oddiyanam….
Ramachandran, a master craftsman along with his son Swaminathan heads a pattarai. Twenty-five artisans work for them. “Only silver strips are made by machine, everything is else done by hand,” says Ramachandran.
“If we have an artisans' outlet in Chennai, the workers will benefit,” says Swaminathan. “It will also help if the Government buys the jewellery from the artisans and sells it at their emporia.” According to Natarajan, president of the Vadasery Temple Jewellery Workers' Welfare Sangam, the workers are in dire straits. “Many are paid just Rs.100 a day; cooperative societies need to be formed.”
“We have obtained the Geographical Indication tag for the temple jewellery of Vadasery as has been done for Kanchipuram silk,” says Balu. “We provide designs and marketing facilities. The Department also has health insurance and welfare schemes in place. The first generation of women has entered the craft — they make silver foil. But merchants get the major profits. Since the work is intricate, many of the artisans suffer from poor eyesight and need to be provided with glasses.”
In another house, master craftsman M. Muthu Sivam produces trays of earrings and pendants. His father S. Monickam Achary was a national award winner. “Customers send us the pattern by email and we courier the pieces to them,” he says pointing to a gorgeous pendant of the five-headed serpent at the centre of which is a stone studded Krishna playing the flute. Most of the temple jewellery is made to order in Vadasery.
Not sought after
Krishnan is one of the thriving pattarai owners. He says that new workers do not want to enter the craft as the wages are low. “I was a hereditary achari. Now I'm off to paint a house,” adds Nagaraj, “as it pays me much more. And I don't want my son to enter this profession.”
Dance halls throughout the world reflect the radiance of the jewellery. But these artisans are battling it out in the dark. Power cuts for long hours add to their woes. The artisans complain of meagre credit, exploitation by middle men, unstable prices of raw materials, and cheap imitations made in other towns.
In the past, royals patronised the craft. Today patronage is needed from all sections — dancers, connoisseurs, the Government, and lovers of all things beautiful, say the craftsmen. Or in the future, as you set out for a wedding or a party, will you be able to reach out for the stone studded, chunky necklace that can be traced back to the Sangam age, to match the lustrous shade of your Kanjeevaram?