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Artistic Carving in Varanasi

I believe that traveling serves as the remedy to temporarily escape our routine lives and explore both the familiar and unfamiliar. Whenever I find the opportunity, I take breaks to explore new destinations or revisit places I’ve always yearned to see. Unlike many, my vacations are never laid back; in fact, I savor every minute to make the most of my travels.

Last month, I had the privilege of visiting Varanasi, famously known as the “City of Temples.” Despite not being a particularly religious person, my primary goal in visiting was to observe the daily life of the city’s locals and visitors. Amidst the bustling and narrow streets filled with chaos, a deep of peace envelops you when you arrive at the banks of the Ganga River.

I had previously heard captivating stories about the crafts originating from this city, and during my visit, I had the opportunity to meet the family of a renowned craft artisan residing near Lalghat. I plan to share the fascinating details of this craft and my experience in an upcoming blog post once I receive some insights from the artisan’s family.

Now, let’s come back to the topic at hand. Did you know that Varanasi is renowned for its exquisite wooden toys?

I have encountered beautiful woodcarvings in the old city of Ahmedabad, Kashmir and admired the charming wooden toys in Channapatnam. However, witnessing the wooden craftsmanship in Varanasi was truly a feast for the eyes.

Varanasi’s wooden toys have held a distinguished reputation for ages. Craftsmen in Varanasi began crafting wood with intricate precision, especially after the ban on ivory. The fine-grained kahema wood allows them to carve it with the same level of intricacy as ivory. This wood is light in color, doesn’t splinter easily, and can be polished to achieve a glossy finish. Woodcarvers are using Eucalyptus nowadays. Stacks of wooden logs can be seen stored outside the houses of the wood-carvers. They reside in Ramnagar, across the Ganges, and many of them come from a lineage of ivory carvers who once served in the royal court.

Unique to Varanasi are the tiny wooden deities, meticulously carved and painted in astonishing detail. These deities are carved from a single piece of wood. Additionally, craftsmen fashion half-inch wooden birds and animals, often sold in sets. The toys feature vibrant colors and were initially created for sale to pilgrims. The miniature birds and animals are crafted by slicing profiles from a single wooden piece.

The painting of these toys is carried out by members of the Prajapati community. A layer of “safeda” (chalk) is applied before the painting process begins. Even the tiniest of toys receive intricate painting, preserving a folk-like aesthetic. Given Varanasi’s status as a pilgrimage hub, these toys predominantly depict Hindu deities from mythology. Certain toys like the wooden “sugga” (parrot) and “charkhi” (spinning wheel) are fixtures on marriage altars. “Mandwa ka sugga” is presented to newlyweds. The ceremonial parrot is adorned with turmeric (yellow), alta (red), and green colors.

These culturally themed toys showcase various aspects of society, daily life, and rural Indian professions that were prevalent in ancient times. In contrast, modern toys are typically three-dimensional and created through turning, featuring contemporary patterns.

Banarasi artisans employ wood turning and lacquering techniques to craft their products with remarkable skill. These processes are performed using a lathe, with lacquering involving friction application and surface finishing. The finished products are entirely natural, polished, and colored with lacquer made from organic resin. Each of these products bears a unique imprint, reflecting the emotions and expertise of its artisan.

Check out these informational links on the Wooden toys of Varanasi:

During my trip, I also had the opportunity to visit Sarnath. Besides admiring the Ashoka Pillar and the Dhamek Stupa, I was truly captivated by the exquisite stone carving work on display. While I had previously witnessed stone carvings in Tamil Nadu, Varanasi’s stone carving art is remarkably distinct, setting it apart from other states in India. The artisans in Varanasi prefer working with soft stone, locally known as Gorara (Soapstone). These stones are sourced from mines in Chunar and Shivpuri, Madhya Pradesh.

One of the most remarkable qualities of this stone is its wide range of available colors and its ease of carving. In the early stages of stone carving, artists used tusks and sandalwood as their primary medium. However, due to government regulations and constraints, they had to seek alternatives. The nearby soapstone mines became the experimental ground for these artists, where they replicated their designs previously carved on tusks. The results were highly successful, leading to a shift towards using soapstone.

Artisans favor clean, evenly shaded stones for carving to ensure that the variations in pigmentation or veining do not affect the quality of their work. As their stone carving techniques evolved, so did their use of tools. This progress allowed for more innovative carving methods, such as undercutting, which is particularly famous in northern India. One of the most celebrated products of this style is the undercut elephant. A skilled artist can complete an undercut elephant measuring two to three inches in just two hours. Varanasi stands out as a major center for stone carving in Uttar Pradesh.

Craftsmen, when working with “sajjar pathar” (soft stone), first study the natural patterns inherent in the chosen stone. They then meticulously shape it using chisels and hammers. Water is frequently sprinkled to prevent excessive heat generation. Smoothing is achieved through rubbing with sandpaper or a file.

To create a figure, the craftsman marks the desired dimensions on a stone slab and removes any excess material with a hammer. Larger stone pieces are vertically cut into smaller slabs, and rough sketches are made on them. The final figure is then extracted from the slab using a saw. This slab is gradually transformed into the desired figure using hammers and chisels, with minor carvings done using a pointed chisel. Further smoothing is achieved with a hammer and chisel. Before carving, the stone is soaked in boiling water overnight and chemically treated, resulting in a smoother and whiter surface. The finishing touches involve polishing with sand or carborundum pieces. Some of the carved artifacts are painted, while others are adorned with mirrors, brass fittings, and more.

In the process of carving an image, the stone carver begins by sketching a rough outline on the stone block. To prevent the tools from overheating due to friction during constant chiseling, craftsmen regularly sprinkle water on the stone. The final finishing touches involve sandpapering, polishing with multani-mitti (clay), oiling, and cloth.

An initial outline is drawn on the hard or soft stone, which is already cut to the appropriate size. After the outline is incised to indicate the shape, the final figure is revealed by removing the unwanted portions. With harder stones, this is accomplished by chiseling out the excess material, while softer stones require scraping with a sharp, flat-edged iron tool.

The outcomes of this craft are not only exceptionally beautiful but also astonishing due to the precise designs, which often feature net-like carvings both above and inside the model. These models are finely detailed and hollowed from within. The creation of these intricate decorative pieces requires exceptional skill.

Check out these informational links on the stone carving of Varanasi:

I enjoy collecting souvenirs from the places I travel to, and I picked up these items in Sarnath. I encourage you to discover the local crafts in the cities you visit; it’s a wonderful way to enhance your travel experiences and create lasting memories.

*Click on the images to know the source.

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