The temple town of Nagercoil (derives its name from the Tamil words Nagaraja Koyil meaning Temple of the Serpent King) has been a prominent trade centre for spices (Nagercoil cloves) and rice for centuries. Nagercoil located in Kanyakumari district was a part of the erstwhile Travancore kingdom for more than 700 years and the architecture seen in this town has elements of the style favoured by the Cholas, Pandyas and Cheras.
According to the locals, temple jewellery began to take a definitive shape during the reign of the Cholas somewhere in the 9th century. The Cholas are known for their grand temple structures and the handcrafted jewellery used to adorn the Gods and Goddesses seated in the temples.
Later on, it is believed that the kings and chieftains of Ramanathapuram district purchased a set of gold ornaments studded with diamonds to be offered in a temple in Chettinad. The designs during those times had opulent large patterns which is seen in the temples at Srirangam in Trichy and Suchindram. This jewellery thus came to be called as temple jewellery.
Temple jewellery in the earlier days were made from the finest gold and set with brilliant diamonds, rubies, emeralds, pavalam (coral) and other precious stones. These days, the designs are made in either gold or silver and set with synthetic stones. These are often worn by Bharatanatyam dancers and those who like to wear pieces reminiscent of the glorious Sangam period.
Vadasery, a tiny village on the outskirts of Nagercoil is renowned for their handmade temple jewellery. There are over 200 jewellery units employing more than 700 artisans in this small sleepy village.
The raw materials to make this jewellery are silver, gold leaf, wax and synthetic stones which are procured from Chennai and Tiruchengode. The design is first drawn on paper and a silver sheet is cut to the shape of the design. Then, a silver tape is curled and vertically welded on to the surface of the pre-cut silver sheet. Beeswax is mixed with a fine powder of a locally available stone called kittakal. The mixture is heated and poured into the cavities. The sides and rear portion of the ornament is electroplated in gold to give it a glittering finish. The stones are set in these cavities as per the design.
The gold leaf is fixed carefully on the exposed wax in between the silver line and the stone using a small preheated kathir (a small chisel like tool curved at the tip) so that the wax is completely sealed with the gold leaf. Once the gold leaf is firmly fixed on the surface, the stones are seen clearly in all their glory.
This process is both tedious and labour-intensive and requires many artisans who are highly skilled to take up each part of the design process from its conception to its finish. These days one will see a preference for dark reddish maroon or dark green coloured stones called kuchu kal that are retrieved from the river bed to make the recreations of the original pieces.
Temple jewellery can be either made in synthetic stones or precious and semi-precious stones and include coronets and ornaments made for special offerings in temples. These can be heavy with stones embedded in gold foil or can be very light with more silver and gold work and lesser stones. Makara, naga, yali, swan, parrot and mango are some of the most popular designs created and decorated with red, blue, green and white stones.
The temple jewellery of Nagercoil was awarded the Geographical Indication Tag (GI) in 2018 for its timeless elegance and exemplary craftsmanship.
Written by Lakshmi Subramanian
* Photos are only symbolic (Taken from public domain/internet and any copyright infringement is unintentional and regrettable)