He may have been a seventh standard school dropout, but his designs are now architectural marvels. The Vivekananda Rock Memorial in Kanyakumari, the Valluvar Kottam in Chennai and many temples stand testimony to his skills.
Hailing from a family of traditional sculptors, Swaminatha Karuppiah Achary naturally has a love for temple architecture. Having lost his father early in life, he came into the custody of his uncles, Chellakannu Achary and Vaidyanatha Achary. He joined them in renovating the Ainootreeswarar Temple in Mathur and learnt the nuances of the art.
“It was like gurukul learning,” he says. “During the morning, I used to work for them at the construction site and in the evening attended theory classes. The urge to succeed in life, at times, forced me to sit the whole night to learn by heart the sutras in the Shilpa Shastra.”
Soon, he became the trusted lieutenant of Vaidyanatha Achary and married his second daughter. He assisted his uncle in constructing the Gandhi Mandapam in Adyar, Chennai, the Dambala Kamam Temple in Sri Lanka, and many other edifices.
His first independent assignment was the construction of Guru Dhakshinamoorthy Temple in Tiruvarur.
“Temple construction is pure science,” says Mr. S.K. Achary. “The art of stone carving as also the building craft has a very long tradition. If temples built by the Pallavas, Pandyas, Cholas and Vijayanagara kings stand to this day, it is because of the genius of the sthapatis who designed and executed these magnificent edifices. Ancient temples are well constructed to stand any natural disaster. They are also a potential shelter for people,” he adds.
From foundation to stone selection, he strictly follows the Shilpa Shastra. “As a temple is a place where hundreds of people gather at a time, the positioning of the sanctum santorum, vimana and praharams assumes significance. The sanctum santorum and the vimana are positioned in such a way that they attract a lot of positive energy. Once inside a temple one can feel the positive vibration,” he says.
Mr. S.K. Achary is very particular about the selection of stones. He ascertains the quality of a stone, he says, just by looking at its layers and patches, and by listening to the sound it emits when it is tapped.
The shastras classify stones into three categories: purush (masculine), sthree (feminine) and napamsaham (neuter). Usually, purush and sthree type stones qualify for ornamental work. “We use these stones for idol making, whereas the napamsaham stone has a lot of layers and is also more elastic in nature. Hence, we use this type of stone for flooring and foundation work.”
To check the durability of the stone, he says, “We cut open the stone and put a drop of water on it. If the stone does not absorb water, it is a good quality stone. If the stone absorbs water like a blotting paper, the stone is of poor quality.”
Once he thoroughly understood temple architecture and stone culture, he took up the construction of Sri Ramana Maharishi's Samadhi Mandapam in Tiruvannamalai. During that time, he also got a call from Eknath Ranade, the organising secretary of the Vivekananda Rock Memorial Committee.
“Though I was well experienced by that time, the new assignment posed a different challenge to me. It was not like a temple construction. I had to go for a different design that befits Swami Vivekananda's personality. Along with the memorial, Shripada Mandapam and a meditation hall were also constructed. Stones for construction purposes were quarried partly from Ambassamudram and partly from a nearby quarry in Kanyakumari,” he recalls.
Built in traditional and contemporary styles, the Rock Memorial has columns adorned with intricate stone carvings. “The most difficult task was to find skilled labour needed for the project. Since the number of skilled artisans capable of working on granite stone is very limited, I struggled hard to locate them. Finally, months of talent search yielded good result as I found able people from Karaikudi and nearby areas.”
Impressed by his talent, the then Chief Minister Karunanidhi appointed Mr. S.K.Achary as the Sthapati for constructing Valluvar Kottam in Nungambakkam, Chennai.
“Mr. Karunanidhi wanted me to design a replica of the Tiruvarur temple car and insisted that it should be bigger than the original. The chariot is 106 feet tall. Each wheel is a monolithic stone measuring 11 feet in diameter with two feet width. The stones were quarried from Tiruvannamalai.”
His exemplary work earned him the post of Principal Sthapati in the Tirumala Tirupati Devasthanam.
In his eighties now, after an illustrious career, this sculptor still feels he has a great deal to do. He is humbled by the fact that Vivekananda Rock Memorial and Valluvar Kottam are now major tourist attractions in the State. With vision as clear as ever, he looks ahead to his next assignment.
•The Vivekananda Rock Memorial took six years to complete.
•Work started with just six skilled artisans and the number soon rose to 400.
•While the corner foliage designs of Mukha Mandapam are in the Pallava architecture style, the carvings in the lower portion of the mandapam, the Prastaram, are in Ajanta style.
•The ceiling is filled with stucco lotus carvings.
•The flooring of the Mukha Mandapam is made of polished red and blue granite.
•The columns and beams were polished in the traditional manner, scrubbed with crushed tempered steel powder applied with a steel rod. Fine granite dust and shellac were then applied to obtain mirror-like perfection.