History History & Culture

Artisans — indispensable part of ancient society

A sculpture of Sembiyanmadevi in the Umamaheswara temple in Konerirajapuram, near Kumbakonam in Thanjavur.   | Photo Credit: B_VELANKANNI RAJ

The Rig Veda says that Tvasta made Indra’s thunderbolt. Sanskrit scholar Arthur Anthony Macdonell said that in Vedic literature, those who fashioned the world were various gods, but “where special professional skill seemed to be required in details, Tvasta, the divine carpenter is mentioned.” Every building site is believed to be presided over by the deity Vastospati, and in the Rig Veda, Vastospati is identified with Tvasta, wrote scholar Tarapada Bhattacharya, who also pointed out that the rituals followed in building operations, measurements, and rules for site selection were described in it. Sayanacharya, the 14th century commentator on the Rig Veda, explains a verse as referring to the method of making a piece of land slope towards the East. According to Bhattacharya, these Vedic concepts formed the nucleus of the later Vastuvidya texts.

Vivekanand Jha, in his paper presented at the Indian History Congress in 1973, said that Maitrayani Samhita of the Krishna Yajur Veda, has it that rathakaras are considered “high functionaries of the state called ratnins,” whose houses kings visited during Rajasuya yaga, held “to perform the ceremony of offering jewels to gods.” Indian silpa texts talk of Tvasta, Viswakarma and rathakara.

The Tiruvalangadu copper plate grant of Rajendra Chola of 11th century

The Tiruvalangadu copper plate grant of Rajendra Chola of 11th century   | Photo Credit: THE HINDU ARCHIVES

In Kadamba, Rashtrakuta and Ganga inscriptions, artisans are referred to as Viswakarmas, or Viswakarmacharyas, writes historian and archaeologist Dr. S. Settar. In the Alangudi inscription (1264 CE) in Tamil Nadu, artisans are referred to as rathakaras. The artisan community included goldsmiths, brass smiths, blacksmiths, carpenters and architects. Based on this five-fold classification, the artisan community is referred to as panchalas and panchanamuvaru, in Hoysala and Andhra inscriptions respectively.

Because the artisan community was thus involved in every aspect of life, their presence in a village was essential. An inscription in Kanagaanapalle, in Andhra, says that when artisans departed from 32 villages, because of an increase in taxes during the reign of Timmappa Nayaka (1533 CE), they were given a tax exemption, to bring them back.

Architects included four categories — the chief among them called sthapati, sutragrahin — who took care of measurements, vardhaki — the designer and takshaka, the carpenter. The architectural text Manasara says that all of them were well-versed in Vedic literature.

An 18th century copper plate bearing the images of Lord Nataraja and 43 different musical instruments

An 18th century copper plate bearing the images of Lord Nataraja and 43 different musical instruments   | Photo Credit: THE HINDU ARCHIVES

Suffix of honour

“In Karnataka, manchi, upadhyaya and voja suffixes were added to the names of sculptors as a mark of honour for their skills and learning,” says Dr. Sheelakant Pattar, who has studied Chalukyan inscriptions in detail. “The architect of the seventh century CE, Malegitti Sivalaya temple in Badami, was known as Aryamanchi Upadhyaya. So he has two suffixes of honour — manchi and upadhyaya. There is an inscription about Narasobba, architect of the Aihole temple:

Swasti jambudvipantare kaschit

Vaastu prasada tadgatah

Narasobba samo vidwan

Na bhuto na bhavishyati.

This inscription says that in Jambudvipa, none has equalled or can equal Narasobba in the art of temple construction!

There were women sculptors too in Karnataka. “There is an 11th century Uma Maheswara sculpture from Gadag, where the inscription on the pedestal says that the sculpture was made by Revakkabarasi, wife of Vavanarasa,” points out Dr. Rohitha Shastry of Mysore University.

Viswakarmas were also engravers of inscriptions on walls and copper plates. Kelleson Collyer writes that the style used by Hoysala artistes developed from the early Chalukyan script used in Badami, Aihole and Pattadakkal. “The letters were kutila, bent or crooked, since it made possible a decorative script, which could be intertwined with ornate designs and floral patterns,” writes Collyer. The engravers took pride in their calligraphy. Collyer cites the example of Mahakalabrahma, who inscribed for the Chalukya king Vikramaditya VI, in 1067 CE. Mahakalabrahma challenges other scribes thus — when he (Mahakalabrahma) can entwine the forms of elephants, lions and parrots with letters, a man must be insane to compete with him!

Pun on Krishna

In the Tiruvalangadu copper plates of Rajendra Chola, sculptors have penned a Sanskrit verse about their family. The inscription says: “Four sculptors born at Kanchipura, ornaments of the race of Hovya, wrote this eulogy (prasasti): the high-minded Aravamurta, who was born of Krishna, but was not of dark (Krishna) conduct; his two younger brothers, who bore the names Ranga and Damodara; and (his) son, the famous Purushottama, who was the bee at the lotus feet of (god) Purushottama (i.e., Vishnu). By these four persons, who were well-versed in the various forms of mechanical art, who had their birth at the great (city of) Kanchipura, who were wise and who were born in the Ovi family, this edict was clearly engraved.” The punning on the names Krishna and Purushottama shows that these Viswakarma engravers had knowledge of Sanskrit alankara Sastra. (Aravamurta is Aravamudu in Tamil).

There are portrait sculptures of artisans in temples, which they built. “Sembian Madevi converted the Konerirajapuram brick temple to stone, in memory of her husband Gandaraditya Chola (950-957 C.E). She gave the title Rajakesari Moovenda Velan to the sthapati Alathur Sathan Gunabhattan alias Arasana Sekaran, whose image is sculpted in the temple. The names of the artistes responsible for paintings in temples are rarely available. But in the Tiruvarur temple, we find the name of the painter — Oviyan Singaadanam, and his image,” says archaeologist K. Sridharan.

Dr. Vasudev Badiger,of Kannada University, Hampi, says: “The Malaguru inscription gives details about the extended family of architect Hoysalacharya, who did metal work, gold work, and was good at iconography and calligraphy. He was also a part of an artisan guild.”

A goldsmith’s touchstone with an inscription in Tamil Brahmi (3rd or 4th century C.E) has been found in Thailand. The inscription reads: “Perumpatankal, and Noboru Karashima said that Perumpatan was perhaps the title or name of the goldsmith who owned the touchstone (kal).”

Hereditary right

Artisan families seem to have had hereditary rights in temples, which extended to adopted sons too. Archaeologist Dr. L. Thyagarajan discovered an inscription in Valikandapuram, which says that Vali Achari, the blacksmith attached to the Siva temple, had no children. He adopted Chinaan Achari, son of Karuppan Achari, and the temple authorities transferred Vali Achari’s right to serve in the temple, to his adopted son.

The artisan who made the asva (horse) vahana for the Tirupputkuzhi temple, vowed never to make a similar one for any other temple. To honour him, even today, during the festival, the processional deity is taken out on the horse mount to the street where he lived.

Artisans figure as donors to temples too. A Mackenzie manuscript talks of the donations of goldsmiths to the Viswanatha temple in Kalpathi, Palghat.

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Printable version | Apr 11, 2021 4:12:29 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/society/history-and-culture/artisans-indispensable-part-of-ancient-society/article31356763.ece

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