Swamimali's fascinating Bronze idol making, a legacy of Chola Dynasty

The sthapathi, or the community of artisans in Swamimalai, Tamil Nadu, are the practitioners of an ancient craft that began under the Chola dynasty. They craft exquisite bronze statues of religious and cultural significance using the lost wax technique. The Swamimalai bronzes have come a long way since the times of the Cholas and now have a Geographical Indicator (GI) tag to give them a stronger formal identity.

Swamimalai idol, Dancing ShivaAsiainch.org

Swamimalai idol, God Vishnu

Bronte icon, Swamimalai, Pinrest.com

Location map. Swamimalai, TNcdn.exoticindia.com

Then And Now 

The Chola kingdom was the dominant force of  southern India for about four hundred years. Those kings were great patrons of the arts and crafts and were instrumental in creating a haven for architecture, sculpture, and painting artisans. The construction of their temples brought carpenters, sculptors, goldsmiths, stone masons, and others from across the country, who then settled in Swamimalai, in the Thanjavur district. The sthapathi began making bronze statues, as they were privy to the complex nature of metal statue making. The current community claims descent from Agora Veerapathira Sthapathy, and there are, as of now, about three hundred families who are in the business of casting bronze for statues.

Bronze idols -Nanagraha Amazon.com

Tools Of The Trade

Special instruments are used for casting bronze, and some continue to be what the sthapathis’ ancestors created, while some have been modified over time. The leaf strip, a ribbon of the coconut tree leaf, cut to the length of the model and folded to different sizes in proportion to the model, is still used to take the measurements of the statue. The spatula is used to shape the wax model, and the knife is used to carve the wax. To bring sharpness to the relief features, a scraper is used, and then a soldering iron comes into play to even out the edges of the wax. The well-known tools of the sculptor, the hammer and chisel, are used to get rid of the unwanted metal from the casting. Engraving tools, files, and forceps are used to further carve the statue, turning it into the breathtaking beauty it was intended to be.

Processed To Polished Perfection

The process of casting always begins with the making of the wax model based on the measurements given in the Agama Shastra. The wax itself is a mixture of beeswax, resin, and groundnut oil. Once the wax model is dry, a layer of loam or alluvial soil is applied to it, and the statue is left to dry once more. Later, at strategic points in the statue, holes are drilled so that molten metal can be poured into them, and the melting wax and associated vapors can have a way out. Once it is cool, the second layer of clay and sand is applied and sun-dried for a couple of days. This mold is now bound with metal wires to avoid breakage when it is set on fire to melt the wax collected as it leaves the mold. Once this is accomplished, the bronze is poured into the mold via the holes which have been created earlier in the process. The pouring of the metal is done when the mold is still hot from the process of losing the wax, as otherwise, the cool mold will break due to the heat of the metal. Once cool, the mold is broken, the details are chiselled in, and the statue is polished to a shine with emery paper.

The Final Avatar

Traditionally, the statues were religious, such as those of the gods from the Hindu pantheon. However, this trend shows no signs of abating as statues with cultural significance, especially those with connections to the legends, such as those of heroes from the Ramayana and Mahabharata, are in great demand. Due to the granting of the GI tag, the craftspeople of Swamimalai can rest assured that the consumer is not buying a counterfeit. This is especially true for those who live away from India and want to take back an original craft of the land with them.

Source: https://www.outlooktraveller.com/explore/culture/the-gi-tagged-swamimalai-bronze-statues-of-tamil-nadu