The quaint town of Arumbavur located in Veppanthattai taluk of Perambalur district is renowned for the five-hundred-year-old craft of wood carving. In the earlier days, the sthapathis used to travel from temple to temple creating masterpieces like the ratha (chariot), utensils, statues and other iconography as per the tenets of Shilpa Shastra. Many of these original pieces of art are still in use and seen in the temples in the districts of Perambalur, Ariyalur, Trichy, Salem, Villupuram, Cuddalore, Thanjavur and Madurai.
A cluster of artisans settled down in Arumbavur around 250 years ago and established a flourishing cottage industry making wooden statues, utilitarian products, miniature pieces, replicas of carvings seen in the near by temples and temple rathas. These artisans use logs of Siridam or Poo Vaagai (Indian Siris), Ma maram (Mango), Mavilangam (Lingam tree), Oti (Indian Ash tree), Rosewood, Vembu (Neem tree), Illupai maram (Mahua), Vengai (Malabar kino), Athi (Fig tree) and teak to make their sculptures.
The carvings are often inspired by the richly embellished sculptures and architectural motifs seen in the old temples. Idols of Lord Ganesha, Goddess Saraswati, Lord Krishna, Lord Shiva, Goddess Parvathi, Lord Karthikeya, hamsa, kamadhenu, floral motifs, processions, Dasavatara panels, Goddess Lakshmi in her many forms, door panels for puja rooms and houses, decorative figures, bas relief work, puja mandap and tables, chairs and cots are crafted by these artisans and sold across the world.
The artisans prefer to use the locally available wood of Vengai, Mavilangam, Athi and Ma maram. The artisans first determine the size of the wood block needed to make the chosen design. The wood piece is cut and then seasoned by natural processes. A layout of the design is drawn on the cut piece using chalk.
The wood is chiselled along the layout. The rough carving is smoothened using smaller chisels and finer details are carved out. The sculpture is polished with sandpaper and painted with natural colours or lacquer or given an antique finish. Enamel paints are used sometimes which are preceded by a limestone coating. The statues are generally around 1 to 12 feet in height.
All the artisans strictly adhere to the doctrines laid down in the Shilpa Shastra from the first step of procuring the wood, treating the wood, carving the wood, finishing the sculpture and adding the finer details. They rely only on traditional instruments in different sizes to carve the wood. Multiple craftsmen are employed at different stages of carving based on their strength.
The most exquisite piece created by these highly skilled craftsmen is the temple ratha. The base of the ratha is divided into three sections with the first named as earthly life. This division sees carvings of the king, queen, dancing girls and erotica. The second is celestial life having carvings of devathas, gandharvas and others. The third section is the divine life with carvings of Lord Shiva, Lord Ganesha, Lord Karthikeya, Divine Mother and others. The base of the car has demons carved to it with turtles placed above that and Adi Shesha resting on these two.
The weight of this decorated ratha is balanced by wooden logs at the base. It is quite common to have five such logs to support this weighty structure. The vimana above the garbha griha is designed based on the thickness and number of wheels and thereby these rathas get classified as a eka ratha, tripada (three-fourths) and ardha (half).
The exemplary sthapathis of Arumbavur have handcrafted more than 400 temple rathas and 5000 temple vahanas for various temples across India. This ancient craft received the Geographical Indication Tag (GI) in 2020.
Written by Lakshmi Subramanian
* Photos are only symbolic (Taken from public domain/internet and any copyright infringement is unintentional and regrettable)