Stone Carving



The beautiful temples that dot the South Indian state of Tamil Nadu have lent the state the sobriquet of "land of temples". The glory of Tamil temple architecture reaches its pinnacle in the Meenakshi temple at Madurai. The temple with its profusion of sculpture and magnificent proportions, the thousand-pillared mandapas and the pillars of stone, towering gopurams (gateway) and larger-than-life-sized reliefs speak highly of the architectural skills of the Tamil sculptors.

The sculptors fine sense of balance and skill is also displayed in the other temples of the state. At Chidambaram, one finds beautiful panels depicting the 108 karanas of the Natya Shastra while Kanchipuram houses a number of the temples starting from the earliest Pallava times to the Nayak period and even later. The artistic achievements of the Tamil sculptors are also displayed at the grand Ekambareshwara Temple and the Varadaraaja Temple.

The granite carving in Tamil Nadu is confined to the area around Mamallapuram (also Mahabalipuram) and Chingleput. This may be attributed to the fact that the government has set up the Mamallapuram School of Sculpture here. Just as in bronze, the 20th-century sculpture has not yet evolved an idiom of its own and many of the carvings are copies of the earlier periods.

The quality of the material is an extremely important part of the sculptural process. Just as the Shilpa Shastra set out the measurements and techniques of sculpting, the sculptors here have also gone into a detail regarding the quality of stone, its maturity, texture, colour and other things.

The artists out here work with the indigenous varieties of the stone available in the state, as it is extremely durable for construction purposes. Also the homogeneity of the stone is important for the stability and durability of the final form.

The stones are selected carefully for their texture and the lie of the stone (or the direction of the growth). This lie also defines the quarrying technique employed.

The dynamiting of rocks is not recommended when the stone is supposed to be used for sculpture. Dynamiting forms cracks on the stone thereby making it unfit for use. The stone is cut by moving a series of wedges about 5 to 7.5 cm deep. These wedges are driven carefully with heavy 4 kg hammers, resulting in the rocks breaking apart with clean edges.

A good stone is supposed to have no flaws, whether kalanga or stains, rekha or patch, bindu or spot. The themes for most of the sculptures have always been religious in nature. Much of the elaboration has a strong basis in the mythology and Puranic tradition of India. There is an elaborate use of symbolism to convey the meaning of abstract truths.

After the sculptural work is complete, a ceremony called as nayanon-milan is held. In this ceremony, the image is invested with sight, life and breath, thus making it a virtual living force. Only then is the image ceremoniously placed in the Garbhagriha or sanctum sanctorum.

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