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Vahanam/Temple Chariots of Tamil Nadu

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Vahanam/Temple Chariots of Tamil Nadu

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The finest wooden carving are in the temples of Tamil Nadu and the piece-de-resistance are the processional chariots for the deities; these include numerous mounts/ vahanas and small pillared shrines/ rathams for the deities. The temple woodcarvers and carpenters belong to the Kammaalar caste. Patronage of the traditional crafts demanding fine detailing has petered down, so the number of craftsmen practicing the art have decreased.

Temple chariots vary in size and can have 1-8 meters of intricate carving, consisting of multiple set-in panels of deities, mythical animals like yaalis and makaras, real animals, ganas, dancers, and decorative floral motifs. The carvings are detailed and stylised in high-relief and are very sensitively carved. The temple car is like a huge vimana resting on 4-8 massive wheels; it serves as a shrine and platform for the temple deity. The effects are very grand as elaborately decorated colourful cloth panels are tied to the wooden structure.

The temple car carries the uthsavam or festival deity on the highest platform, crowned with jewels and garlanded with flowers. With the deity on the wooden base are a large painted wooden charioteer, two painted wooden guardians and two prancing white horses. The fully decorated temple car is pulled with thick ropes by devotees through the streets of the village or town during a special festival, once a year. Ten days preceding the Tamil New Year (14 April), the deity is taken out daily in a procession on the mounts : singam (lion), kaamadhenu (winged cow), annapakshi (mythical bird), vimaana (flying chariot), vrishabham (bull), horse, smaller temple car, ratha and the pushpalaka (a type of open shrine). Temples also have wooden elephant and cobra mounts which are painted and embossed with brass-plating, silver-plating or silver-with -gold, for the procession of the deity at festivals. The plating is done by the carpenter himself.

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