The Sons of Visvakarma

Craft, Handloom, Art, Micro-history, Art History

The Sons of Visvakarma

Jaitly, Jaya

The concept of god is understood by Hindu society arises from a deep metaphysical understanding of the cosmos and the link of every living being with the other in a chain of dependence and sustenance. The cyclical nature of life’s processes, the internalization of the search for answers to the fundamental questions of life, the belief that eternal well- being springs from sources and resources within us, all merge with the idea that ultimately, god dwells within each one of us. It is therefore postulated that the search for the god ‘outside’ must proceed in tandem with the search for the god ‘within’ and that self-realization is the path to godliness. The understanding of the power of various forces in the universe begins within one’s own inner consciousness – the “third eye”- to reach deeper meanings and elevated states of evolution. It also embodies within it the idea that the causes and results of one’s own actions define our lives and the prayer for strength and protection by the divine is in effect the attempt by a person to effectively assemble strength that lies within him in order to reach a more sublime state of existence. No religion could at once be more practical and yet more metaphysical.

Most other religions have facets of evangelism, which decree specific modes of prayer and a place of worship. These are subjected to alternative, individual forms of expression. Modes of worship are also defined. They proceed from the premise that an external entity, god in whatever form with whatever name, is the supreme and supernatural being, who wields power over us and beyond us and our control. Their theories emanate from a position of certainty. What is decreed is so, and has to be accepted as such. Despite these shaky foundations, some of these religions proselytize, launch wars or crusades and campaign to strengthen their hold on followers. Hinduism, on the other hand, accepts that the knowledge or consciousness of the existence of god stems from the mind of man and therefore the search for god has to be within man’s mind and spirit. This search has to encompass not just the individual but also his relationship with every from of life and nature. Even personality traits, health solutions and dietary disciplines take into account mans’ links with air, water, gases, the earth and other elements that form part of the cosmos. The quintessential formulation is therefore that god is everywhere. It arises naturally from this that any place can be sanctified, and any artifact, action or set of actions, can become symbols or instruments towards the invocation of that sacredness.

These fundamental Hindu concepts are often obliterated under the cacophony of temple bells, loud chants and invocations calling out to a particular deity ensconced within the precincts of a temple. It is significant to remember that temples of this nature are administered by the community of priests who flourished and dominated society by creating a vertical hierarchy through the caste system. The categorization of groups and the division of society into castes and sub-castes placed the priests, Brahmans, and the warrior groups, kshatriyas, on a higher pedestal than the vaisyas and shudras. The shudras worked with their hands. The hallowed precincts of the temple were further purified and mystified by the priests. The shudras were categorized as ‘impure’ and not worthy of entering these temples or socializing on an equal basis with the upper castes or the savarnas. The shudras were thus more closely aligned to the adi groups, the indigenous dwellers who practiced an animist form of religion particularly through the production of artifacts required by the tribals. Cultural sharing and the consequent socialization through the marketplace created multiple layers of practices outside the precincts of temples.

Tribes in India form three separate ethnic groupings, Dravidian, Central Asian and Mongoloid, all of which carry with them a varied set of influences. In any case, tribes that practiced a nomadic existence would have no use for the permanency of temple-like structures to house their gods. Similarly, those who lived in and by the forests revered nature and animist forms, as did some Dravidian groups who worshipped snakes and created temples in forest areas where they could be protected and revered. For those whose very existence was based on the fertility of the soil, the leaves and berries of the trees that surrounded them, and whose thirst was quenched in the myriad rivulets and unsullied streams and mighty rivers from which men and beasts shared nature’s bounty, god was all around them. Not for them the gods with human visages and many arms. The tree, a mound of earth, a stone and a pond were the gods that sustained their beings. Votive offerings were crafted by their women or by the shudras, termed ‘Scheduled Castes’ in the Hindu social system, signifying the Mother goddess, the tree, the sun, the moon, water or the wind. These offerings were believed to imbibe the qualities of which they too were a part. Placing votive offerings near a tree or floating them away in a stream after praying for some boon created an ambience in consonance with their belief – that the entire universe is a temple, or the temporal abode of the gods who were a part of their own destinies. Apart from these practices the Hindu pantheon, with its religious epics and its over thirty thousand gods, permeates the cultural and spiritual life of more and more societal groups, impinging and encroaching upon their beliefs and practices through a largely tension-free overlap. Some tribes have their own version of the religious epic Ramayana, with different songs and music from the normally familiar texts, but there will be no temple in their midst dedicated to the god Rama of the Hindu castes. The Scheduled Castes who make votive figure for tribal communities living around them adopt some of their cultural practices particularly those connected with harvest time celebrations. Their interactions at the marketplace paved the way for a deeper bond in which they shared a common reverence for animist’s representations.

After the harvest of September-October, most parts of India engage in a period of festivity. During this time Hindus worship the God Vishwakarma who is described as the great architect of the gods, the god of the arts and artisans, the charioteer of the gods, the builder of the grand city of Lanka, described vividly in the Ramayana. He is also described as the divine kite maker and the divine engineer. He is the celestial artisan worshipped by artisans, craftspeople and motor mechanics alike on one day in the year, which they devote to the honouring of all tools, machinery and implements used by them. In mills, factories, goldsmith units and the workplaces of blacksmiths, potters and other craftsmen it is an occasion to pay obeisance to the higher ideals for which they work. They re-dedicate themselves to striving for excellence in craftsmanship. On the day of Vishwakarma Puja they pledge to constantly create something of utility and value and seek inspiration from the Divine Artisan. They bow their heads with reverence to the god who guides their hands and their skills. Their workplace becomes a temple of worship and their implements the instruments that assist them in their quest for excellence.

While god was placed in temples for the upper castes, for the tiller of land or the simple craftsman who belonged to other castes, some of which were considered ‘impure’, his god was that power which nourished his land or guided his hands while they fashioned his artifacts. For the simpler folk in the caste hierarchy, Varuna, the water god served the farmer, while Vishwakarma, the celestial architect/carpenter/craftsman/protected the artisan classes. The result of the adaptability of such gods to exist outside the premises of temple premises was an interesting one. It made a deity like Vishwakarma universally acceptable to all castes and creeds, bringing about cultural harmony and unity amongst the artisan and other sections of society.

Vishwakarma’s five sons, according to the Vedas, followed in his footsteps. Manu was an ironsmith, Maya a woodcrafter and Tvasta a metal smith handling brass, copper and alloy. Silpi, which means crafts, was a stone carver and Visvajna a jeweler who worked with gold and silver. Godliness descended through the Kammalars in South India who claim origin from the divine Vishwakarma. Just as the natya shastras lay down the religious precepts surrounding dance, the shilpa shastras define both technical and religious guidelines to achieve excellence in craftsmanship. The ritual of starting the process with invocations at an appointed, auspicious hour, following the strict scientific formulations of preparing and mixing ingredients, collectively become a form of worship. The meditative and highly concentrated quality of mind required focusing and linking the creative processes of the mind and hands, achieving the quality of prayer and designating work as worship.

Despite the importance of the Hindu pantheon and the world of Vishwakarma and his descendants, small communities all over India invoke their own gods and goddesses and do so in space that is appointed by tradition. Men and women both within the Hindu caste structure and tribal and other communities who fall outside the caste system, bring their deities on to walls, pieces of baked clay, pieces of cloth or on to carved wooden poles that are placed near their homesteads for protection and blessing. Nothing restricts them except the ritualistic formulations laid down by their ancestors and sanctified by their own local traditions.

The adi-Andhra potter community living in Aruvacode village in Nilambur District in Kerala places a simple iron pillar set into the ground in a small clearing within their village. The pillar has small protrusions from all sides shaped as receptacles for oil and a wick. This simple pole with small tongues of flame flickering from all sides in the darkening evening is their temple, their holy spot, and the place where they assemble for community discussions related to the fate of their pottery or the problems of the marketplace that forced their womenfolk to turn to prostitution for a living. Both the deliberations and their prayers emerge out of the same gravity and the decisions taken there acquire a soundness sanctified by their deity.

A little known and rapidly disappearing practice found in pockets of Haryana, a small state close to Delhi increasingly influenced by urban development processes despite its largely farming population. This is the creation of the female deity Sanjhi Mata, by women folk. The Sanjhi or Jhanji deity is worshipped during Navratra, the nine-day festival following the moonless amavas day of asauj in September/October. The female deity represents the nine main devis, goddesses, of Hindu tradition. They are Lakshmi, Kali, Parvati, Ambica, Vaishno, Gauri, Saraswati, Ramba and Jagdamba. The creation of the deity is a collective process of craftsmanship that garners the goodwill of the entire village community. Preparations for the Sanjhi begin a week before the Dussehra festival. Earth, cow dung, terracotta, lime, turmeric colouring and clothes to dress the goddess are collected. A fresh coating of mud and cow dung is given to an outer wall of the house. Star-shaped medallions, small dots of clay on inch long sticks, rectangles, squares and triangles are formed with clay and dried in the sun. The triangles and square are used to form the main body of the figure, which is filled with the star-shaped pieces. Arms, hands, legs and feet are filled in and details of the faces are molded on to an oval form. Accessories such as a crescent moon, the sun, hand fans, a cooking stove, animals and birds, shoes, ornaments and birds are placed at random around the female form, which is then adorned in all the finery of the area. The dress includes the long skirt, a blouse, ornamental fabric that forms the veil and finally the indhi, a doughnut-shaped piece placed on the head by village women to rest a water pot. At one level the image is the deity that represents nine goddesses, and at another, a manifestation of each one of the women who so lovingly spend many days crafting it. For nine days women and girls offer prayers to the deity. On the day before Dussehra, a small day figure of her “little brother” is added as a sign that he has come to take her. On the morning of Dussehra she is “fed”, and taken off the wall, which is then painted over. The facial portion of the clay deity is placed in a pot while the remaining pieces are immersed in running water to the chanting of prayers. The pots are carried on the heads of the women of each household to the nearby water tank in procession to the singing of songs. The men of the village lead the way, clearing the path with sticks. Each woman floats her pot with the face of the goddess in it, accompanied by prayers for its safe crossing to the other side. This signifies victory and achievement in their lives ahead. The women then collect a small amount of grain from their homes and carry it to the local grocer who exchanges it for sweets. These are distributed equally to everyone in the village, to spread good will and the blessings of Sanjhi Mata. When they return home, the tiny clay form of the “little brother” is placed where the Sanjhi Mata once was, until the next Dussehra festival. The entire process demonstrates how the lovingly crafted image on the wall of the simple dwellings of the people, the spread of benediction and an integration of the community irrespective of caste or creed brings “godliness” and the power of prayer into every home.

The word Sanjhi appears again, as the name of a paper cutting craft that creates stencils of the god Krishna and his consort Radha in the idyllic environs of the Brindavan forests in Uttar Pradesh in North India. The practitioners of this rare craft were originally jewelry makers who honored idols in the temples by making wall hangings and paper ornaments for them. This evolved into a ritualistic practice of creating a mud platform before the image of the God in the temple. By filling the cut out areas with powder colours the artisans would create stenciled pictures depicting any special festival at hand. These images are offered for worship at the external area of the temple. A further evolution of this form of worship is the celebration of Holi with a new ritual using Sanjhi craft. This festival is celebrated with particular joy in Brindavan as is associated with the god Krishna whose many stories revolve around the playing of Holi. Sanjhi artists elaborately cut stencil figures with fine scissors and paper or a flattened tree bark recreating various pastoral and ras leela scenes from the stories of Krishna and Radha. These are placed on a piece of cloth. Powders in bright pink, parrot green, yellow, deep blue and purple are sprinkled on them in selective portions. When the stencil is removed an exquisitely coloured but ephemeral picture emerges. This picture is surrounded by oil lamps and worshipped. It is then consigned to the holy River Jamuna where the many-hued powders and the small piece of cloth carrying prayers finally mingle with the oceans.

Vishwakarma, the divine artisan thus uses his sons, the descendants of artisan traditions, to fulfill every kind of creative activity from ritual to craftsmanship, with both imagination and spirituality, so that the entire community they serve is bound together. The artisan becomes the unifier and creator of order through form and design, as a medium of the deity himself.

The invocation of other deities outside the Vedic pantheon by no means implies that they are not the sons of Vishwakarma, The Divine Artisan recognizes them in an all-embracing way, being all-pervasive and omnipotent, blessing, guiding and protecting all artisans as he reveals himself through their craft. For instance, the Divine Artisan forms no part of the life-view of tribes such as the Warlis of Maharashtra or the Rathwas of Gujarat. Here, instead of being the medium of the deity as within the Hindu view, the Rathwas invoke their deities through ritualistic community art, in which either the narrator or through community song, the presence of the deities is invoked and acquires significance and power. The artist merely paints the pictures, but additional rituals sanctify the space and call forth the blessings of the deity. Their tribal home, their art, the pre-selected wall space used for the painting, the ritual of painting itself, painters and the all combine to become an integral part of the sanctified space.

For many communities within the Hindu caste system, not only is the practice of craft considered to be the manner in which the deity manifests itself but also any person can serve and honor the deity through a process of craftsmanship. Ritual practices are most often carried out by the women of a household by crafting figures of deities or painting stylized representations of their divine power at strategic places in the home or workplace such as the door way, stairs or kitchen area. Among the rituals involving sowing and harvesting, Harela in the hilly state of Uttaranchal in North India is considered the most impotent for its people. Clay images of gods and goddesses in three-dimensional form are fashioned and painted over by the women and girls of the household to propitiate the gods for their well-being. These are dikhre. A popular dikhre depicts the marriage of the god Shiva with Parvati. Five varieties of grain are mixed together and sprouted in a vessel. The seedlings are placed in soil brought from the field into the kitchen. After the process of nurturing and ‘harvesting’ it is over, the flour is made into round fried bread, which is partaken of by the Brahmin community. The soil is then placed on the roof of the house as an auspicious ritual to ensure a good crop and also placed on the keystone of the door. Festivity and craft integrate into a fine mesh. In other areas of the same state, wall paintings using colors and designs associated with specific deities, bring the attributes of various gods and goddesses into a schematic formation consisting of geometry and symbolism. When these are painted, the gods are said to enter the house and bless its inhabitants.

Craft activities in India are myriad and go far beyond the purely economic needs of the crafts people. The crafts persons’ interpretation of his craft and his religion will vary, but the essential sentiment is one of devotion and dedication to a higher cause. Spirituality is an intrinsic aspect in their lives even while they are expressed with utmost simplicity and down-to-earth ways. The gods, in turn, dwell through the hands of those who craft objects for prayer or daily use. They enter the households of those who invoke them through art and craft, and accept as a form of prayer the skilled and careful efforts of crafts people to achieve the Ideal Form, i.e. divinity, through the skilled work of their hands.

First Published in “Gods beyond Temples”




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