Stone Carving has been an ancient craft in Kanyakumari district due to the patronage of religious architecture and sculpture by the ruling dynasties of South India.
The skills of carving idols in granite are unique in Tamil Nadu as the carving tradition is still true to translating the scared scriptures.
In Kanyakumari, the 133 ft tall statue of Thiruvalluvar, the saint poet was sculpted by Dr. V. Ganapati Sthapati from Mahabalipuram.
Black and Red granite are locally available and are used in carving tombstones, letters and gravestones, idols of deities and grinding stones.
Type of Granite used are Karuppu Kal (black), Vellai Kal (white), Pacchai Kal (green).
Stone carving of idols is closer to the Kerala style since the region was once part of the Travancore state and patronage was and still is , primarily from Kerala temples. The idols for worship are carved in adherence to the specifications in ancient scriptures. Granite stone is carved into idols following the rules of the Shilpa Shastra. Granite is referred to and is believed to be the ‘uyirottamkal (a living stone)’, hence its traditional value is echoed in the Pallava sculptures in the rock-cut caves and monoliths that surround these guilds.
The stone is first leveled. The figure is drawn with a mixture of red oxide and water by the master craftsman, before carving.
The stone idol is polished by rubbing with sandpaper or carborundum stone. Coconut or Castor Oil is applied on the idol,giving it the characteristic black color and a smoother surface. The idol is consecrated with ‘opening of the eye’ or carving the expresssion in the eyes that is done after the initial puja (worship).
Soapstone (Maavu Kal) is also used to carve small figures. The stones are polished to retain their natural color. Soapstone sculpture was developed as a training scheme of the government and was headed by the craftsmen who relocated from Modayur in North Arcot district of Tamil Nadu. This stone is obtained from quarries in Tiruvannamalai and Salem district of Tamil Nadu. Soapstone is a softer material than Granite and facilitates easy carving.
As the idols are of lower value, the process consists of rough cutting the stone to required size without markings or drawing. The sculpture is then carved spontaneously without measurements. Creative forms have been introduced by the design influence from the international community of Auroville in Tamil Nadu.
Granite Stone sculpture were mainly used for carving the idols for temples. However, in recent times they are fashioned as decorative items for the tourist market as well.
Most of the craftsmen owing a pattarai (workshop), in Mahabalipuram have settled here after completing their training from Government college of Traditional Architecture and Sculpture in Mahabalipuram, a town that has over 500 caves. They have a flourishing trade in sculpture due to a large influx of tourists that has led to the availability of skilled craftsmen in this region.
I visited Mahabalipuram and Pondicherry in early December and watching the artisans working on these stone was a beauty to witness.
Credits: Handmade in India