At Swamimalai’s idol workshops, ancient techniques, rituals and beliefs practiced since the 13th century remain untouched by the passage of time.

The centuries peel away in the workshop of D. Srikanda Sthapathy in Swamimalai: men who look like they could belong in a bygone era sit around a traditional mitham sculpting the bodies, fingers and faces of gods according to the shilpa sasthiram, passed on from father to son since the 13th century.

While the cobwebs cling to the past, tube lights, fans and the occasional blare of a mobile ringtone bring you back to present-day Swamimalai, home to the direct descendants of Kunjaramalla Rajaraja Perunthatchan. “He is the sthapathy who oversaw the casting of all the bronze images within the Brihadeeshwara Temple built by Rajaraja Chola in 1010 A.D.,” says Srikanda Sthapathy, who along with his two brothers runs the workshop their father, Devasenapathi Sthapathy, instituted 60 years ago.

Originally stone sculptors from Gingee near Vellore, the sthapathies were trained in the Chola kingdom to make bronze images using the lost wax method. When the Thanjavur Big Temple and the Gangaikondacholapuram Temple were completed, Agoraveerapathira Sthapathy came to Swamimalai, where he found the clay made from the fine silt in the Cauvery’s bend was exceptionally suitable for the making of moulds. He and his group of sthapathies settled here, and their descendants continue to make the famed Chola bronzes.

Seated in the front office, where every inch of the wall is covered by framed photos of award-winning moments and VIP visits, the sthapathy explains the process: “An equal mix of paraffin wax and resin fused with groundnut oil make the wax, which is exposed to heat and made into hard and soft wax slabs. It is on these wax slabs that the models of the gods are carved out according to fundamental proportions laid down by the shilpa sasthiram.”

Once the model is ready, it is covered with the special clay and dried in the sun, often supported by steel wires. “Next it is heated to melt the wax inside, which flows out through runners at the bottom, creating the hollow mould,” he says.

In the place where every idol is born, the wall of heat near the charcoal furnaces in the ground drowns out the symphony of metal chiseling metal. “The panchaloha (five-metal alloy) containing 82 per cent of copper, 15 per cent of brass and three per cent of lead and traces of gold and silver is fused into a molten lava here,” he says, pointing towards two profusely sweating men poking around the furnace with long-stemmed ladles. “The fire burns with green edges because of the copper,” he adds.

The divine birth

The mould is buried nearby and molten metal poured into it from graphite crucibles. “This stage is akin to the creation of life - though we have made all the efforts, the way the metal spreads through the mould and solidifies is completely out of our hands,” he says. Once the metal has cooled, the mould is hammered away and the prototype of the image emerges in all its leaden dullness.

“From here begins the arduous finishing process, which involves chiseling, filing, smoothing, engraving and polishing, and it could easily take up to six weeks,” says Srikanda. If there are air bubbles or breaks in the casting, the artists start all over again because what is divine cannot have defects.

In popular realms

It was the international Festival of India events that showed the world that authentic Chola bronzes were still being made in the same way for centuries, says Srikanda. With the Indian government’s patronage, the artists taught their skills even to those outside their community through training institutes. Today, Srikanda’s workshops are attended by several foreigners as well.

A few years back, the workshop at Swamimalai was featured in Michael Wood’s BBC documentary The Story of India, and in William Darymple’s book, Nine Lives. “I didn’t realise the import of these interviews back then, but today people from all over the world come looking for us to check if we are for real.”

King Saraboji apparently collected the palm leaf manuscripts written by Srikanda Sthapathy’s ancestors and housed them in the Thanjavur Saraswathi Mahal Library. They contain important ritualistic aspects of making bronze images: the admartha slokas (chanted while initiating the process) and the dhyana slokas (chanted while working on the image). It is according to the specifications in these slokas, he says, that a sthapathy envisions the divine form and its accessories. “Our profession is by itself a form of meditation for we cannot sculpt the gods without streamlining our thoughts with utmost discipline.”

The image they painstakingly fashion, he says, ceases to be their creation once its eyes are opened. “No piece of art is complete until the eyes are drawn or carved, and beyond the eye opening ceremony, the image becomes as much a deity to the sthapathy as it is to the devotee.”

In a photo album, Srikanda Sthapathy shows some of their largest images, many of which are now principal deities in Hindu temples in the U.S.A., Europe, Singapore, Mauritius and Sri Lanka. “The biggest image we have made is a 12 foot Nataraja (Asia’s biggest) for an ashram in Kerala, while we have made the processional and principal deities for several important temples within the state.”

Securing their work

Their technique is now patented to put an end to duplication, and Srikanda Sthapathy feels their profession is secure. Though the export of bronze images is subjected to scrutiny, he thinks that’s completely justified. “In the past several original images have been smuggled to other countries, but today you cannot export without the Non-Antiquity Certificate issued by the Archeological Survey of India and the Handicraft Certificate issued by the Handicrafts Board,” he says.

His life is impacted by his work in important ways, he says. “Though we create the gods, our own lives become shorter.” The dust near the furnace and casting area causes wheezing, many of the artists wear spectacles, and the immense stress on their hands leaves them sore, he says. “We have changed our lifestyles now…we do yoga and exercise these days.”