Crafts of Kerela



Kerala, in many ways is the jewel of India and handicraft especailly is a nugget embedded into that jewel. The crafts of Kerala have one thing in common-they have all been perfected through the dedicated hands of the craftsmen who thrive on coconut groves and wealth of forest riches.

Unlike any other region of the land, the craft skills of Kerala are entirely indigenous. The craftsmen here can pick up the humblest and meanest bit of material and imbue it with magical mastery. One finds it very difficult to investigate successfully the alchemy of these finished products of décor and utility.


Endowed with a rich variety of fine quality tropical wood like the distinguished rose wood, the stately white cedar, the indestructible teak, and the luxuriant bamboo, it is but natural that the skill of the wood carver is Kerala's timeless tradition. It was the craft of royal preference as palaces were built entirely of wood. The temple structures today stand witness to the beauty and stability of this heritage. Currently this tradition has become a form of artistic expression visible in the form of figurines and household items. This heritage at first appeared in the form of deified images as stylized Buddhas, awe-inspiring Rama figures, the very human Krishna forms, and serene figures, which contrasted amicably with perfection of the dancing Shiva-Nataraja figures.

Together with these art objects produced with anatomical exactitude and ornamented with a veneer of intricate carving, there were secular and common life examples produced alongside, ranging in height from a tiny six centimeters to life-size carvings.

While the tones of rosewood wear a tinge of somberness, the lightness of cedar and the fragrance of sandalwood make for an entirely different genre of creativity. The bleached looks of cedar wood contrast against the darker tones of rosewood. Combining the light and dark shaded wood, the craftsmen form striking star-shaped tablemats, nut bowls, and bric-a-brac. The comparatively more malleable sandalwood is a craftsman's delight for each touch of his chisel and hook emits a pleasant fragrance.

The forests of Kerala are abound with the elephant species and for centuries the tamed pachyderm has been an essential part of the rituals in Kerala. Naturally, the craftsmen would not have ignored the immense possibilities of this subject matter and no craftsman worth his salt would not try his hand at carving an elephant or two. The mighty animal is impinged with appropriate grace and dignity and every muscle of its giant frame is reproduced faithfully in rosewood, sandalwood, cedar wood and teak. The animal's capers with its trunk raised, lowered, lifted, curled, or just at rest provide a variety of styles.

Metal Work

The temples of Kerala are not left untouched by the magic of Kerala art. The lamps that are lit each evening are a part of this scheme. Gleaming bell metal alloyed from a mixture of brass, tin and copper provide the raw substance for making tower-like lamps that rise tier upon tier throwing a most charming array of patterns as each layer is ignited with oil wicks. The temple bells are made as perfect coordinates.

Countryside Wonders

Moving from the temple precincts into the countryside, the craftsmen have found their source of inspiration from the most insidious sources. The wild grass, the leaves of the pineapple or whiffs of paddy straw have all become their creative concern. Even the banana plant, once it has fruited, is incarnated into another life form as banana fibre which is woven into floor coverings, each a square foot in size. They are then stitched together according to the size desired. Rice straw with its luminous golden hue is used to form a silken collage of native scenery on black silk. The screw pine mat, in its original state was used as an occasional floor mat or as sleeping mat for the afternoon siesta. Then the native penchant for innovation took a firmer grip and the yards of matting took a novel twist. They were hand embroidered and shaped into household linen, straw hats, and carry bags.

Innovations Unhindered

The quest for improvement and reorientation continues unabated even today. Instead of just a rosewood elephant, the pachyderm is now seen in caparisoned splendor, complete with ceremonial umbrella and howdah after the manner of the famed temple elephants of Thrissur. The poses of dancers in the classical art of Kathakali are now the subject matter of papier-mâché masks. The painted teakwood boxes traditionally used by dancing troupes to carry their costumes are now picked up avidly as center tables and storage boxes and the Nettor jewelry box in its unique conical shape, reinforced at the corners with brass edgings is now a popular curio.

Handicrafts Trade
Suggested Reading