Three years ago, while working in Tamil Nadu, I came across a story that I determined to return to and photograph.
“What we do here is the work of God and that work is spread through our blood” says Radhakrishna Stapathy.
It is just after dawn and Stapathy squats cross-legged on a wooden block, a small hammer between his palms drawn to his forehead in prayer. In front of him, a large statue, freshly cast to which he will bring life by smoothing its metal through long hours of patient work.
Stapathy is an idol maker, a caster of statues, a master craftsman and one whose lineage can be traced backwards twenty three generations to the time that the great Chola Empire that ruled South India more than seven hundred years ago.
Swamimalai is a sleepy temple town deep in Tamil Nadu. Five hours drive from the bustling noisy city of Chennai (formerly Madras); it has a rhythm of a time that has been. Peasants winnow grain under the wheels of passing trucks and bend low in fields ankle deep in rich soil and bullock pull carts along dirt tracks.
This is the heartland of Tamil Dravidian culture and the landscape is linked organically to its religion with every field, every village, paying homage to a deity. A sacred geography links its towns where great palaces of temples provide, in the eyes of the faithful, a real home for the Gods.
The Stapathy studio, fronted by two (relatively) modern offices, is a dark and cavernous space that ironically resembles a temple itself. Men sit of the floors dressed in stained dhotis, deep in concentration, chipping and finishing statues and icons in the warm air filled with incense and the smell of the damp, cool earth under bare feet.
In the courtyard outside, three men mould clay around perfectly carved wax images that will melt on the introduction of molten metal. This ‘lost wax’ process was described by August Rodin as “the most perfect representation of rhythmic movement in art.”
The art of bronze casting can trace its origins from the Indus Valley civilization reaching its zenith during the Chola period in the Thanjavur delta during the 9th-11th centuries A.D.
At the end of the reign of Rajaraja, the greatest Chola king a magnificent temple was built in his capital, Tanjore. On its completion in 1010, the Cholas had donated 500 tons of gold, jewels and silver as well as sixty bronze images of deities to the new structure.
The temples at Tanjore, Chidambaram and Gangaikondacholisvaram are still dark, mysterious places alive with pilgrims prostrating themselves in cavernous halls before oiled black-stone images of gods and demons eerily lit by camphor lamps. They worship before the most famous incarnation of Shiva – Nataraja who elegantly dances the world into destruction and re-birth.
The Stapathy family were originally stonemasons but were called to Tanjore to learn the new art. It was discovered that that the fine silt from the nearby Kauvery River suited the moulding of the bronzes and the process has not changed since.
“Here is our culture,” says Stapathy and rows of half finished pieces peer from the shadows. All around, wax figures sit cool in great bowls of water: arms, legs, and heads like a battle hospital for Gods. Moulds of countless beings are stacked on dusty shelves around the walls. Later, at his house, across the street, Radakhrishna, now joined by his brother Srikanda, perform a puja at their family shrine honouring their ancestors. “It’s like this,” says Srikanda. “We need no training, a fish doesn’t need lessons of how to live in water: we are born for this work. And the work is good… orders are there and money is there”. Indeed, work is brisk and the brothers’ skills are in demand all across the Indian diaspora. Temples in London, California and Canada want idols crafted in the tradition of their fathers and pay handsomely for the privilege. There are other families that make idols “but” says Radhakhrishna, “none know the Sanskrit, none can make the prayers… we only are keeping the Chola king’s tradition.”
As the afternoon draws on, sweating men carefully pour molten metal into a mould held tight in the earth. Later, in a flurry of steam and almost divine heat, a statue will emerge beneath their hammers onto the workshop floor and, if the prayers have been performed properly, the process will produce an idol. Depending on its size it may take weeks to prepare for its ‘birth’ when its eyes are sculpted and its ‘Jeevan’ or life force will be breathed into it, it will, for a set time (depending on where it ‘lives’ and how faithfully it’s worshipped) become in a real sense, a God.
Dawn again, with the streets quiet, Radhakrishna pulls his skirt around him and steadies himself on his wooden seat. Still for a moment, he takes his chisel and checks his cutting line. He makes an incantation and the room is gently filled with the tap-tapping of a hammer. A noise that echoes across the room, across his family and across generations.
©Stuart Freedman 2010
In his recent book, the historian William Dalrymple devotes a chapter to the idol makers.