Following the chimes of a chisel | Milaap

Following the chimes of a chisel

When my friend from Chennai texted "Swamimalai is famous for Lord Muruga's temple and I want to visit it" I could never have imagined how the visit would turn out. The next weekend, both of us boarded a train at 8 AM from Trichy on January 16 and headed for Swamimalai. It is a small, picturesque village in Kumbakonam district, Tamil Nadu.  

As soon as the train stopped at Swamimalai station an ornate building caught my eye. Without discussion, I and my friend began walking towards it. As we got closer, we heard rhythmic metallic chiming and clanking sounds from inside. The entrance to the building announced '1896 Tanjore Village'.

The '1896 Tanjore Village'

Entering the 'village' was like stepping through a portal and walking into another world. We were in a gated community with old-fashioned façades and antique artifacts spread out everywhere.
One of the archaic houses at   '1892 village'

We were curious about the chiming sounds from a tall building in the center but our eyes were drawn by the beautiful artefacts that seemed to resonate with the each clang we heard in the background.

As we got closer to the building, we asked a passerby and asked him what the tall building was. “That is the ‘Mint Palace' and the metallic sounds are the sthapatis (sculptors) at work. Swamimalai has a lot of sthapatis,” he smiled enigmatically. There were tulsi plants all around.

 Some of the  artefacts at '1892 village'

My friend told me that the 'Mint Palace' was a building in Chennai which was pulled down a decade back due to government restrictions. It wasn't possible.

The Mint Palace

Turned out, both the passerby and my friend were right. The sign outside the building said `Welcome to the Mint Palace'. Inside, was decked with antique paintings and statues.

The Mint Palace

Then, we met someone who interpreted the place for us – Steve Borgia. He could talk at length about every work of art in the building. He told us that we were in the 'Steve Borgia Indian Heritage Museum' and three villages were joined to create the Tanjore Village.

The people of these villages were sculptors. “There are about fifty sculpture houses here and each of them has five sculptors," he explained.

Paintings inside Steve Borgia's museum

When we asked them if the Mint Palace was a replica of the one in Chennai he was surprised and said, “This is the Mint Palace! It was moved block-by-block and reconstructed at Swamimalai.”

My friend, who was stunned, asked him "Who was your architect?”

He explained that the sthapatis were the ones who put this place together. Master sculptor Selva Ganesh and his team had set up the place. “Follow the metallic sounds if you want to meet him,” he said.

The antique 'queen's table' at the museum.

We had finally discovered the source of the tinkling sounds.

The Sculpture House - the source of the Sound

We entered a thatched roof chamber and saw three sculptors, each busy working on a statue with their chisels. Selva Ganesh was sitting amongst them, in a corner busy with his work.

Selva Ganesh busy with his work

I asked him about ‘The Mint Palace' and he looked up and said, "All sculptors are architects but the converse is not true." We started talking and he spoke about the effort each sculptor puts in to create artefacts that are then sent to temples and palaces.

Making statues an elaborate process

Selva Ganesh told me that every sculpture needed to be made twice. An outer shell is created during the 'negative mould process'. The mould is made of wet clay and its edges are painted with rubber or wax.

Then, the positive mould process follows and molten bronze is poured into the shell through a funnel. Once the metal solidifies the sculptor begins to file and carve out a finer piece. Different chisels are used for different kinds of shaping. The process, he says, typically takes two months.

Lord Nataraja after the positive mould process 

Sculpture Making - an art and a science

Selva Ganesh pointed out a statue at the entrance of the sculpture house. “This is Arthanareeshwara – half Shiva and half Parvathi and it took 25 years for my great-grandfather to create this."

He went on to explain that it was made of two metals - Lord Shiva was cast in copper and Lord Parvathi was in bronze. “To attain perfection in casting, the statue had to be recast 17 times. This is the deity we pray to every day before starting work," he says.

Lord Arthanareeshwara

From his explanation, I realized that sculpture making was both an art and a science, involving a lot of fabrication and working with metals. These sculptors do a 3-year program from a university at Mahabalipuram to get their degree.

Being a Sculptor

"We are the people who need to make idols that will inspire a devotee to touch the faith in him," he says. So, he says, sculptors need to lead a life of discipline. The sculptors here begin work at 4 AM, before sunrise and strike their last chisel at sunset, every day. Also, they follow the strict vegetarian diet.

As I was leaving, Selva Ganesh told me that sculptors here did not have a platform to directly get in touch with buyers. Agents become middle-men who eat up any revenue made.
I was there till 6 PM that day and saw him strike the chisel the final time for the day. We headed back to Mint Palace. Steve Borgia was still there and asked us if we wanted to stay back overnight at the Palace.

The next day, I and my friend were waiting on the Swamimalai railway platform to board the 8 AM train back to Trichy. Again, metallic chimes filled the morning air and Mint Palace glowed in the sun. It is a sound that I will cherish for a long time.