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‘Mata Shilpi, Pita Shastram’ - On Traditional Craftsmen

In the Samarangana Sutradhara, a treatise on architecture, the author, King Bhoja of Dhara, who ruled over Malwa in the first part of the eleventh century, says “He, who begins to work as an architect (sthapati) without knowing the science of architecture (vastushastra) and proud of false knowledge must be put to death by the king as one who runs the kingdom, dead before his time, his ghost will wander on this wide earth. He who though is well versed in the traditional science but is not skilled in the work will faint in the time of action like a timid man on the battle-field. He, who is expert only in his workmanship, but unable to understand the meaning of the traditional science, will like a blind man be misled by anyone. Even so, he who knows the traditional science and its meaning and masters the craft, is not as yet the perfect architect. For immediate intuition, a readiness of judgment in contingencies, and the ability to fuse them into the requirements of the whole, are the distinctions of a true Sthapati. It is then, that the builder himself, once his work is completed, is struck by wonder and exclaims "Oh, how was it that I built it!” ~ Kramrisch, Stella, from “The Hindu Temple'' (1946)

The artisans, engineers and designers of Indian classical construction were part of the Vishwakarma community that bears mention in the traditional texts including the Vedas. Trained in the Vastu Shilpa Shastra, they have taken care of the art and design requirements for all constructed space such as temples, houses, tanks and ponds, arms and military equipment, vessels and jewelry. In fact, Viswakarma is considered the divine architect-sculptor of the entire universe and is called out explicitly in the vedas and puranas. Represented iconographically as an old man surrounded by his five sons or as a five faced figure, he is seen bearing a water pot (kamandala), scriptures (shastra), a cord (sutra) and  rule (dhanda) for measurements on each hand. 

Even though there are regional variations across India, the methodology exhibited by the traditional architectural schools of Dravida, Vesara and Nagara all demonstrate similar methodology, work ethics, measurements and handling of materials. They all pay their allegiance to Vishwakarma as their chief divine preceptor. The panchamer or panca shilpis are his sons, and represent the clan or subgroups that the community has traditionally organized themselves into to focus on achieving mastery over a particular skill. There were originally tribes called Manu, Maya, Tvashtar, Shilpi and Arka (or Vishvajna) and not qualified into the chatur varna vyavastha.

While I have seen small variations in their responsibilities in different books, typically, Manu is represented by blacksmiths. Maya is the carpenter (of fame is the Mayasura who built the assembly hall of Indraprastha for the Pandavas and is also father to Mandodari). Tvashtar is the bronze metal worker who is said to have fashioned the trident of Shiva, discus of Vishnu and the vajra of Indra. A Silpi is the sculptor who is a master of stone sculpting. An Arka or Vishvajna is a master smith who works with gold and silver.

Following the Gurukula tradition, their training begins at an early age overseen by a teacher who they commune with. It was the responsibility of a craftsman to pass on his knowledge to his children along with other students he takes on and ensure their well rounded education. Their scholarship is multidisciplinary incorporating mathematics, fine arts, languages, astronomy, engineering and material sciences. In addition they are expected to be competent in their understanding of the religious texts and symbolism of not just Hinduism, but also Jainism and Buddhism. There was great emphasis on the character of the proteges before they graduated. Manu Samhita says that they should be “perfect in body, righteous, kind, free from malice and jealousy”, “joyous, truth speaking, with senses under control, concentrated in mind, free from greed, carelessness, disease and the seven vices “ and “having firm friends and having crossed the ocean of the science of Vastu”.

(Picture: Taken by the Author at the Kauai's Hindu Monastry, Kauai)

“A shilpi should not only have a comprehensive grounding in the shilpa shastra, excellent technical skills, and a great appreciation of the art forms, it is also imperative that he has extensive knowledge and understanding of philosophies and belief systems, a flawless personal lifestyle, and is deeply religious and devout” - V Ganapathi, Indian Sculpture and Iconography

Astronomy was key to their learning because Vaastu shastra was almost considered an application of the subject. Varahamira, the Indian astronomer in his book ‘Brihat-Samhita’ has an entire chapter devoted to architecture. The moment a land was taken into possession, the right and auspicious alignment of the stars and planets was incorporated for all key milestones in the construction from preparing and inseminating the land to the consecration of the idol in the sanctum-sanctorum. The temple was a representation of the macrocosm and the vaastu-purusha-mandala or the square mandala with sixty four cells or koshtas had portions allocated to several celestial bodies.

Skilled workers of the Viswakarma community organized themselves into craft guilds, often patronized by chieftains and kings, and were led by a Master Craftsman or Sthapathi for each establishment. He is the designer, architect and engineer who directs, and coordinates activities of all the others. In order to be able to lead effectively, he is expected to have expertise in traditional religious texts or Shastras, Sanskrit, Jyotisha, mathematics, engineering, and artistic departments including carpentry, stone masonry and gold smithy. 

Called Rupa Dhyanam, the artists had to memorize the entire sculptural instructions along with their relative dimensions by rote. They should be able to visualize the image in their minds before they could transmit it to any medium. The Agamas were the source of these rhythmic lessons which required the fluency of Sanskrit as part of their education. As an example, the prathima lakshanam of the Nrtamurti or Nataraja that captures the entire figure of Shiva in a dancing posture includes its features, stance, ornaments, weapons and consorts can be found in texts like the Shilparatna, Anshubedagama and Kamikagama. The craftsmen are required to recite these much like school children learn nursery rhymes or teenagers recall pop music lyrics. The complexity depends on the idol in question and there can be multiple variations to the same key deity. For example, there sixteen types of Ganapathy alone and several variations of Shiva like Dakshinamurthy, Chandesamurthy, Tripurasamharamurthy etc.

Rupa Dhyanam of Ganesha from Anshubeda Agama

(Courtesy: Gopinatha Rao, Elements of Indian Iconography)

A sutragrahin or surveyor is next in the hierarchy and is typically a protegee of the Sthapathi. While he has knowledge of all the arts, he mainly focuses on the proportions in marking and drafting. The vertical and horizontal dimensions (mana and unmana) of the entire structure and individual portions are his domain. This is critical, not just to the stability but also the aesthetics and he works closely with the other artisans so that the final assembly is close to the plan envisioned. The sculptor or Takshaka sculpts the idols or carves the wooden features such as the doors. Typically the designs are laid out by the Sthapathi who may draw a rough outline with a charcoal stick on the material directly, but the Takshaka is given enough room to use their creativity within the framework. Finally the builder or Vardhaki puts all the pieces together and does the required masonry to bring the temple up.

A Sthapathi works closely with a Sthanika or Sthapaka who is a priest or administrative chief until the temple comes up and is ready to function. A popular saying among the craftsmen is ‘Mata Shilpi, Pita Shastram’, where a Shilpi is accorded the stature of a mother, while the priest acquires the role of a father and together they foster their creation into a live space. The Sthanika lays the groundwork for the worship procedures dictated by the Agama shastras that would be performed after the consecration and establishment of the temple. Since worship in the temples are more formalized, he leads an organization of assistant priests and supporting staff.

The art of temple construction and sculpting has a lot of associated grammar to achieve pristine beauty and dimensions that would invoke a sense of devotion, beauty and awe (ramya) on its onlookers. It is not just the physicality of the image, but the intention of the artist as he works on it that was accorded prime importance. When crafting the divine idol at the garbha gruha they undertake austerities spanning multiple days directing all their energy and focus and even chant when working.

Unfortunately, their contributions have been overlooked and they are losing their progeny to other professions which pay better. Some are returning to their traditional calling, but unless we as a society don’t honor them, we are going to lose the legacy of several thousand years.

When you visit a temple next, before rushing to pay homage to the devatas inside, look up at the Gopuram or entrance and silently salute these unknown artists, their science, their lineage and their divine preceptor, Vishwakarma.

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