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Shila, shilpa, devata: invoking the divine in South Indian sculpture.

A stone, shila, that once rested in a quarry is transformed into a sculpture, shilpa, through the skilful interventions of a sculptor, shilpi. This holds true for cultures past and present, distant and near. When intended to form an image of a deity, such a stone is required to undergo several ritualistic procedures before it is deemed fit for worship in some cultures. Historical records testify to the antiquity of such practices in ancient Babylonia, Egypt, Assyria, and Sumer. (1) In India, the ritualistic visualization and consecration of divine images is a long-standing and well-established practice. Though most painstakingly detailed in medieval Hindu treatises, (2) such practices are observed in Jain and Buddhist contexts also. (3) While textual sources and art-historical evidence reveal aspects of past practices, ethnographic studies have shed light on the ways in which these have continued to the present. (4) In southern India, which is the focus of our attention here, such a tradition is extant.

Protagonists and Practices

Three main protagonists participate in the ritual enactments that transform an ordinary stone into the image of a temple deity--the yajamana or patron, who is of privileged social status and provides the material resources; the learned brahmin, of high social stature, who acts as the officiating priest; and the Vishvakarma sculptor, whose art and traditional knowledge give visual form to the divine. The Vishvakarmas consider themselves to be descendants of the divine artificer, Vishvakarman, although society accords them a low status.

Image-making and consecration practices suggest three significant and interrelated aspects of enquiry. First, these can yield valuable insights into the ways in which a particular culture relates the tangible aspects of human experience to the realm of the religious and intangible. Second, the nature of transactions between the different participants reveals the ways in which rituals formalize social interrelationships. The third important aspect concerns the manner in which the art of image-making simultaneously addresses aesthetic concerns, expresses metaphysical concepts, negotiates social relationships, and innovates to survive as a living tradition.

Selecting the Appropriate Stone

It is not every stone that can gain the divine privilege. At an auspicious date and time, the sculptor undertakes a journey to the quarry to gather stone, shila sangraha, of appropriate qualities, lakshana. (5) Depending on the deity to be carved, a male, female, or neuter stone is chosen and separated from the quarry with the help of appropriate tools. From textual descriptions, it appears that the "gender" of the stone relates to its density as gauged from the sound generated on striking. Similar prescriptions are given for the stone's colour and age. This is the stage at which the sculptor, in the likeness of the archetypal Vishvakarman, begins the process of (re)creation by drawing from nature, which is Vishvakarman's creation. As the stone is believed to be imbued with spirits, appeasement of these spirits is important to ensure their peaceful departure. Only then can the proposed divinity, whose image is to be carved, be invited to inhere in the image. In practice, these appeasement rites are performed by the sculptor, although texts overplay the role of the priest. The sculptor is expected to have a mental image, dhyana, of the deity's form from this stage. In this, he is preconditioned by the living tradition of sculpting and by his familiarity with the verses codified in the treatises. These verses give detailed verbal descriptions of the deity's form and thus provide the visual framework within which the sculptor exercises discretion and creativity.

The "Art" of Visualizing Rituals

The quarried stone now arrives at the sculptor's workshop for image-making, bimba nirmanam. Before the sculptor can begin working on the stone, a ritual cleansing of the stone takes place along with offerings. Visualization is achieved through measured interventions as per the traditional science of icons--iconometry and iconography-which ensure the simultaneous fulfilment of aesthetic, social, and metaphysical obligations. The dimensions of the icon, for example, are decided on the basis of calculations, ayadi, that are a combined function of the stars, naksbatras, relating to the patron's name and birth, as well as those of the deity and the site of installation. (6) This numerical value is then standardized for the particular image and site. Having prepared the basic grid, the details of the visual aspects of the particular deity to be invoked, pratima lakshanam, are now delineated in the form of a drawing, which is then transferred to the stone matrix. The sculptor refers to the verbal descriptions or dhyana of the concerned deity as assimilated by tradition and recorded in the treatises. The proportionate rendition of the parts of the body is achieved through the talamana system. A dwarf image such as of Ganesha follows the pancha-tala (five-part) mode, while a standing Vishnu is likely to be of nava or dosha tolas (nine or ten parts). These sum up the process by which aspects of a limitless, transcendent, and immanent divine presence are limited in a visual form. Such an exercise enables the worshipper to comprehend partial aspects of an otherwise unfathomable divinity. The Shoivogamas, for example, mention three important stages in the visual manifestation of Shiva-nishkala (undifferentiated aspect) represented by the linga, sakala (differentiated partial aspects) imaged as anthropomorphic forms, and mishra (mixed) which take the form of mukhalingas (combined aniconic and anthropomorphic-facial Shiva images). (7)

Once the detailed form of the chosen deity has been plotted on the stone matrix, it is time for the sculptor to evoke his tools, The chisel, hammer, standardized scale, compass, and other tools enable the sculptor to assume the role of the creator in fashioning the image of the god. Worship of the tools is hence an important ritual. Thus empowered, the sculptor commences carving of the image. Rough cutting is done by apprentices; subtle details are worked out by the master-sculptor.

Delivery and Installation

On completion of carving (except for the carving of eyes), the image is delivered to the site with processional rites to mark the journey to its final destination. On arrival, it is once again ritually received, immersed in water, etc., and then installed with other ritual enactments. Installation or pmtishtbo involves a series of symbolic rites such as the creation of a charged diagram or yantra by the sculptor to welcome divine power, recitation of mantras by the priest, burial of nine gems within the pedestal or ratna-nyasa, and securing firm establishment or bandhana of the image on the pedestal.

Enlivening the Image

Of utmost significance, the opening of the eyes, netronmilanam, marks the enlivening of the image with divine power and is meant to take place within the temple's sanctum. (8) The eyebrows or bhru-rekha, eyelids or pakshma-rekha, eyeballs or krishna-mandala-rekha, and pupils or jyotir-mandala-rekha are carved or "opened" with a golden needle and graced with milk and honey to the recitation of the netra (eye) mantra. A series of auspicious sights (cow, virgin, mirror, etc.) are arranged to be shown to the deity who now dwells in the image. In practice, eye-opening is the most contested rite, with the brahmin priest asserting mantra-recitation and other sanctum rites to be his sole privilege and the Vishvakarma sculptor claiming the act of carving or "opening" the eye as his domain. Conflict resolution may take place through the interventions of the yajarnanay who also appropriates the religious merit for image installation; or, the brahmin and Vishvakarma may work out a compromise between themselves. Once consecrated, the image is ready for worship.

Thus visualized, validated, formalized, and empowered through rituals that span the socio-cultural and religious realms, the stone takes life as the consecrated deity of the site.


(1) Sidney Smith, "The Babylonian Ritual for the Consecration and Induction of a Divine Statue", Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society of Great Britain and Ireland 1, 1925, pp. 37-60.

(2) The treatises consulted here include the following: Isanasivagurudevapaddhati of Isdnasivagurudeva (Uttardrdha, Vol. IV), ed. T. Ganapati Sastri, Delhi-Varanasi, 1988; Mayamatam, Vol. II, ed. Bruno Dagens, Delhi, 1994; Kdmikdgama (Purvabhdga), ed. C. Swaminatha Sivacharya, Madras, 1975; Kdsyapasilpam, ed. V.G.K. Apte, Anandasrama Sanskrit Granthavali No. 95, 1926, Rauravagama, Vol. II, Kriydpdday ed. N.R. Bhatt, Pondicherry, 1972.

(3) Donald K. Swearer, Becoming the Buddha: The Ritual of Image Consecration in Thailand, Princeton, 2004.

(4) An important ethno-archaeological study is Jan Brouwer's The Makers of the World: Caste, Craft and Mind of South Indian Artisans, Delhi, 1995.

(5) The textual injunctions for image-making are detailed in the following chapters of the relevant treatises: Mayamatam 33, Isanasivagurudevapaddhati 36, Kdmikdgama 68, Kdsyapasilpam 49, and Rauravagama 35. Textual and ethno-archaeological data reveal broad correspondence, but there is room for practical adaptations to circumstances. See Samuel K. Parker, "Ritual as a Mode of Production: Ethnoarchaeology and Creative Practice in Hindu Temple Arts", South Asian Studies 26,1, 2010, pp. 31-57. Also, S. Settar, Kdsyapa-silpa-sdld: a workshop of traditional sculptors, IGNCA-Bangalore (unpublished preliminary report), 2008.

(6) Parker 2010, p. 36. See note 5.

(7) Richard H. Davis, Ritual in an Oscillating Universe: Worshipping Siva in Medieval India, Princeton, 1991, pp. 112-36.

(8) These rituals are detailed in the Rauravagama 35 and Kdmikdgama 68.
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Title Annotation:ANCILLARIES
Author:Dhar, Parul Pandya
Publication:Marg, A Magazine of the Arts
Article Type:Essay
Geographic Code:9INDI
Date:Dec 1, 2011
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