For centuries, Mathura and Varanasi remained at the center stage of development. Both these places reached near perfection in stone carving, while maintaining their own distinctive style. In the 3rd century B.C., the imperial court of Ashoka provided a great boost to the art of stone carving. The stupas and cave temples of this period are perhaps the earliest surviving stone structures. The red sandstone of Chunar has been lavishly used in the stone sculptures, which were found in excavations of the Mathura and Agra areas dating back to the Mauryan era.
Stone As The Epitome Of Strength And Beauty
The fascination for stone has transcended all times and ages. Whether it is ornate inlay with onyx black marble or finely latticed soapstone, the appeal of the stone has been immutable. Both Hindu and Muslim rulers of India patronized this art. The craft in Uttar Pradesh reached artistic heights of excellence during the Mughal period when Taj Mahal was created.
Nothing epitomizes best the ethos of Varanasi and Agra than their stone carvings. From intricate architectural masterpieces, perfectly chiseled stoneware to classy tabletops with inlay work, every item is a piece of exclusive artwork.
A Hub Of Stone Carving On Sandstone
Uttar Pradesh is still a rich hub of stone carvings on sandstone. The traces of royal fascination for stone are still visible in the intricately carved forts and palaces. Now the focus has shifted to exploring a variety of other stones and articles. Art lovers can source architectural objects to suit indoor parts of modern homes, such as carved pillars, railings and fireplaces. Present day craftsmen find small gifts and souvenirs like candle stands, ashtrays, jewelry boxes, and Taj replicas more in demand.
The most prominent decorative items are artistic statues of Indian Gods and Goddesses with finely carved facial expressions. In this land of the Buddha, even today students of stone carving start with his statues, trying to perfect complex hand gestures and facial expressions reflecting different mudras.
The artwork on stone is a combination of carving, inlaying engraving, sculpture and undercut (art of making multi layered decorative items out of one single piece of stone, hollowed from inside). Designs are made by cutting the stone and varying fine patterns on it. In fact, stonecutters and sculptors work hand in hand. The base material of work is marble, gorara soapstone and occasionally cuddapah. Marble is brought from the quarries of Makarana, Rajasthan. The choicest work from Agra can be seen in black and white marble from Rajasthan, or Alabaster of Italy, with semi precious materials such as Cornelian, Malachite, Lapis Lazuli, Mother of Pearl, Onyx Agate and Shazar laid into it. Use of inexpensive shells instead of semi precious stone make for reasonably priced gift items. The famous inlay work of Agra reflects the mosaic work used in Taj Mahal and Fatehpur Sikri. At present, this work is limited and enjoys an exclusive foreign demand.
Cutting The Stone
Before machines were introduced, stonecutters and carvers had only the hammer and chisel at their disposal. The artisans of yesteryears also had to hunt for the right type of stone, and learn the art of quarrying. The markets are well developed now and traders sell cut size sand stone and soapstone, as well as expensive stones like granite and marble. While practices in most part of Varanasi are still old fashioned, artisans in Agra use mechanized tools.
In the alleys and by-lanes of Agra, artisans can be seen operating country made machines for cutting, grinding, buffing and polishing of stone. In spite of the use of these simple machines, it requires a very skillful manipulation of chisel and hammer to bring out curvilinear patterns and designs. Grinding and polishing is a multi stage process, using graded grit of hard stone, followed by continuous rubbing with pigments and wax.
There are two categories of artisans- Sadakars and Pachikars. While basic cutting and carving aided by machines is done by skilled Sadakars, exclusive inlay work, requiring the expertise similar to cutting and polishing of jewelry stones using chisels and grinding stones is done by experienced Pachikars.
Stone Work Of Varanasi
The stone work of Varanasi is very different from other places. Instead of hard marble, carving is done on a soft stone called gorara - a stone brought from the Hamirpur and Mahoba areas. The uniqueness of gorara is its unpredictable range of colors. On polishing, mottled gorara brings out a hue of shades varying from gray to bright pink, green to black. Due to its softness, only small pieces of gorara are available, thereby, limiting the size of its end products. Bowls and servicing dishes are popular products.
To truly indulge in stone craft, one must stroll through the maze of narrow lanes in the Sonia and Kalimohal areas of Varanasi, and Gokulpura in Agra. It could be a delightful discovery trip for curio collectors. About 4,000 artisans, the living force behind this age-old tradition, can be found creating wonders from stone in these areas.
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