Friday, April 01, 2016

Unusual Occupation - Brass Lamps from Nachiyar Kovil

Brass lamps from Nachiyar Kovil

According to Hindu legend  Lord Vishnu was of the view that during Kali Yuga , Men would have to listen to women. Hence he decided that he would first set an example and listen to the Goddess here at Nachiyar Kovil. Vishnu is located slightly by the side and Goddess Nachiyar, his consort has the prominent position inside the sanctum.  During all festive occasions, the first rights are reserved for Nachiyar, who moves ahead, while Lord Vishnu follows her. Even the food is first served to Nachiyar and then to Lord Vishnu 

Nachiyar Kovil is one of those rare temples where the Goddess has the prime spot and enjoys prominence. 

Perhaps, hoping that a little bit of 'Nachiyar' effect will rub off on their daughters, every bride when setting up her home is usually gifted with a pair of Nachiyar Kovil kuthuvillakku - lamp by her parents. It comes as a part of the Bridal dowry. 

A lamp is a necessary object in any Hindu family kept in the alcove where the figurines and photographs of deities are kept.  The lamp is lit every morning and evening by the lady of the house. 

The temple town of Kumbakonam, thirty kilometers from Thanjavur the capital of Chola dynasty that ruled in the 10th century is today famous for its ancient temples built during that period. Irrigated by the Cauvery River that flows from Thalacauvery in Karnataka into the southern state of Tamilnadu through many tributaries and rivulets along the plains.  Acres and acres of Banana plantations and paddy fields make this fertile delta the rice granary of the south of India.  For many generations civilizations have lived, thrived and prospered in this fertile land.  The rulers built grand temples with imposing architecture that attracts tourists and pilgrims from all over. The temple of Nachiyar is one among them. 

As the civilizations thrived they also evolved many arts and crafts that over a period of time became unique to this area.  The Brass lamp from Nachiyar Kovil is one among them.    The signature Swan over the top of the lamp which in itself is intricately carved is the product for which the local artisans of Nachiyar Kovil have obtained a GI registry tag.  (Geographical indication). 

The GI tag is an equivalent of a patent that is accorded not to an individual but to a community that belong to an area from which the craft has originated.

As we move along the state highway following the signs for Kumbakonam and then Nachiyar Kovil, the town emerges dotted with a bus stand, tea shops, vegetable market all around its main attraction, the ancient temple of Nachiyar, the consort of Sri Vishnu. But what marks this otherwise non decrepit south Indian temple town are a series of small shops along both sides of the street adjacent of each other that advertise themselves on their name boards as 'metal marts'. 

Sambanda metal marts is one of them. At the entrance of the shop a teenage girl is sitting sticking stickers on what may have been a bulk order for lamps to some wholesaler from a big town or city. The brass lamps are polished and spotless. However one can see little flakes of brownish black soil crumbling from the insides of the carved structure when these are getting packed into boxes.
We ask for our contact whom we had called the day before. He had promised to show us the workshop where these designs are moulded.  The last time we were here it was an Amavasya, the new-moon day and therefore all the workshops had a holiday as is the local custom in these areas.

We step inside Sambanda metal mart and are led into a bigger hall beyond which is a courtyard.  The hall is lined with hundreds of brass items.  There are brass lamps of different sizes, designs and patterns for as far as the eyes could see.  Apart from the Brass lamps there are other figurines made of brass. There are two huge adult size figurines of Krishna in brass. There are also two huge life size lions in Brass which is all the more intriguing.

Mr. Sambandam has been fetched to meet us by the girl who was sitting at the entrance of the shop and he arrives and asks us to have seat across the table in the room besides the hall which presumably is his office. A table fan is set up so that we get some cool breeze having travelled all the way in this sultry weather. 

Soon we realize that there is a power cut and the table fan does not work.  I am here to actually buy a pair of Nachiyar kovil brass lamps, I say, but of more interest to me is to spend the day and go around to see the ‘pattarai’ the workshop where these are made, I let Mr. Sambandam know. 

'A day would never be enough to see it all. You would need to spend a week or two to go around and see the different designs, patterns and art work that happens over here.  Nachiyar Kovil is famous because it is here that we make them. For about ten kilometer radius in and around Nachiyar Kovil is where the workshops are spread out, he says. 

The alluvial deposits from the river sand mixed with fine clay is the basic ingredient required for us to mould molten metal into designs before they are baked in a heat furnace and then cooled down. Wherever along the river there is alluvial soil deposits available you would see the workshops set up.

 'It is beside the point that there is less water and more sand these days in the Cauvery River', he says with a smirk.

On a side note, the dispute for the rights on the water that flows in the River Cauvery is a highly political one that creates major shutdowns and some minor wars between the states of Karnataka and Tamilnadu in South India.  Karnataka the state north of Tamilnadu, from where the River Cauvery originates has along the way built dams and irrigation canals that inundate the agricultural land for that state.  In the years when there is abundant monsoon all the excess water from the hills of Karnataka flows down and is regulated and let out into Tamilnadu to avoid ‘floods’ in karnataka. In the years when the monsoon is not exactly as per expectations the water inflow into Tamil nadu is always a bone of contention between the politicians of the two states. When very little water flows down southwards into the Cauvery the farmers of the delta face a lot of uncertainty with their crops and a lot of bad blood flows between the political parties of both the states.  The major political parties in Tamilnadu fight elections and try to garner vote banks promising Cauvery water to the farmers of this delta.  But with failing monsoons and building of large dams, the water wars between the two states has always been a bone of contention to judge the ruling party on its deliverables. 

To an extent you could gauge Sambandam’s political leanings based on his smirk and the comment about the spate of the Cauvery River. 

His shop is a small one on the verandah of his ancestral house on the main road that leads to Nachiyar Kovil.  But one cannot judge the size of his business by the size of the shop. He is a wholesaler who gets orders from other wholesalers in various cities and small towns throughout India where the Brass lamps and other brass artifacts are then transported.  Every once in a while an order could come in for huge brass lamps, figurines of various deities or the bells for the construction or resurrection of a temple.  These are orders that are mot mass made and require specialized workshops where the original design is modified according to size and then moulded.

He tells us with some pride that  the largest bronze oil lamp in the world is the one at the Koothattukulam Town Church (St Jude’s Shrine) in Kerala. This 1001 wicks bronze lamp has been manufactured (6640 kg weight, nine tier, 24.5 foot height) in Tamil Nadu. This is the biggest bronze oil lamp in the world. Between four and five in the morning, and from five to nine in the evening, all the 1001 oil wicks are lit sustained by the contributions from the devotees at the church.

Samdandam calls upon his young nephew Shiva to take us to the ‘Pattarai’ the workshop where the blacksmiths are moulding the metal.  In the workshop on this particular day the artisans are carving out the intricate designs on the upper portions of pieces of brass lamps.  In the inner rooms there are others who are picking up clay and making the mould of a lamp design in clay which looks like a reverse image when seen through a mirror. The hollow pitch created through this clay design will be bored with a hole from where the molten brass liquid will be poured before the mould is set for baking and then cooling off. 

Once it has cooled off the clay design is broken off to obtain a brass design of the part which would go into making the lamp. It is these particles of dried clay that the girl was wiping off the Brass lamps when we first set foot into Sambandam metal mart. 

Only one lamp can be made using this traditional method using a single clay mould.  Over the last thirty to forty years the labour intensive clay mould has been replaced by the introduction of the box type mould. It has increased the production of the number of lamps that can be made in a given time frame.   However purists  feel that the wooden box method has reduced the fine quality and the finesse that came from hand making every clay mould individually. A wooden box made up of two equal halves is filled with river sand and the impression of the lamp or an ornamental figurine is obtained.  This helps make many clay moulds of one single design rather than handcrafting each and every mould.  Molten bell metal is then poured into the box filled with sand.  The metal is cooled and a rough cast is obtained.

The lamp usually consists of our parts – base (keezhbagam), stem (kandam), oil container (Thanguli) and the apex or Prabhai which comes is various designs.  The four or five separate parts are made using different wooden boxes which form the base design. They are then fitted together to make up the lamp.
The rough projections and the measurements are corrected by cutting and filing and the product is put through a lathe.  It is then shaped, with the delicate taps of the chisel. This is the work of the artisan who gives his own creative touches in the form of delicate and intricately engraved designs of flowers, leaves and other creative patterns.   

The ancient Indian scripture the Vastu Shastra (Indian equivalent of feng shui) talks about the features, classification and production of temple lamps which has been followed generation after generation by the lamp makers in places like Nachiyar Kovil.

In the vicinity of Nachiyar Kovil alone there are nearly 400 families that are engaged in the craft. As we pass one of the workshops there are thatched houses where women are engaged in making the clay moulds and drying them out in the sun.  A design is usually given to them in the form of a wooden box where it is engraved. The women collect the clay and the soil from the river bed and mix it with optimal moisture to make the clay moulds of the lamps. This would then be taken to the workshop just a few houses away where the men working in the furnace would pour the molten bell metal from the hot furnace into the mould and then they are cooled.

Village after village for about a ten kilometer radius from Nachiyar Kovil that reside on the banks of the river where the river sand and  clay are available are engaged in this occupation. As for the workers who are engaged in the various processes that go into making of the Nachiyar Kovil brass lamps, a certain government diktat ensures they get a little above the prescribed minimum wages . Along with other subsidies available from the government, the poorest of the poor prefer to remain engaged with this occupation. They get paid around the minimum wages for a day’s work.  But more often than not an entire family is engaged in the occupation and the work is divided amongst the members of the family.

Like with most products, while the artisans who actually make them, struggle to make a living, these lamps find themselves selling at exorbitant prices in art exhibitions and in upmarket malls all over the country and abroad.  A long chain of middlemen engaged in the handicrafts business form a strong cartel in the running and marketing of these businesses. Caught in the grip of these middlemen these skilled craftsmen find it difficult to keep afloat.

On the opposite side of the road to Sambandam metal mart is Rathna metal works and beside it is Ramakrishna metal works.  These are run by relatives of Sambandam. Most families are connected to each other by marriage or blood relations. Both Rathna metal works and Ramakrishna metal works  have a basic online presence that helps one connect at least indirectly to actual artisans making the Brass lamps from Nachiyar Kovil thus eliminating a long chain of urban middlemen.   

We ask Shiva who has been a quiet guide taking us around the workshops and introducing us to the men working in the furnace and the women in thatched houses making the clay moulds. An adolescent boy of seventeen, Shiva has given his 12th standard, high school exam and is eagerly awaiting the results.  He hopes to join one of the private engineering colleges away from home and with some luck he aspires to become a software engineer.   

Why would he not want to take over his father and uncle’s occupation? I ask.  He says there is nothing much to it and there are too many people to look after their businesses. 

If nothing else works he would come back to this, he says in a resigned manner.


  1. Fascinating! I am really enjoying this theme and your stories so far, and learning a lot from them. I love the bird pattern. It reminds me of some decorations I have seen in my archaeology studies.

    @TarkabarkaHolgy from
    The Multicolored Diary

  2. Wonderful piece.. Sad to see that the art fetches the price yet the artists who create them never get the right share

  3. Wonderful piece.. Sad to see that the art fetches the price yet the artists who create them never get the right share

  4. It is such a shame that the true artists receive peanuts while the greedy hounds exploit them to reap the profits. I have heard this from other countries also. With that being said, amazing work and artistry and they can be proud of what they do.

  5. Anonymous2:09 AM

    What a wonderful theme. I'm going to learn tons. I love hearing the stories of real peoples lives. It's no different here re art. People who introduce buyers to artists have to make a living too. If you don't want to market your own work you can choose to find and pay someone to do it for you. We're just less likely to be expecting a cut if it's informal. I must say I probably fall into the give my art away category.

  6. Lovely, I never knew about the artistry and handiwork that goes into the making of the kuthuvalluku! Still glad you have highlighted and taken us through this world where such a beautiful thing is created. Waiting for C!
    @KalaRavi16 from

  7. This Challenge is fun in that we can travel the globe, meet new people, and discover culture we did not know existed. Thanks for posting.

  8. Any reference to Kumbakonam without mentioning ‘Venkatramana café’ is sacrilege! Addition of myth is interesting – may be girl’s parents believe she would have the ‘only word’ in her marital home just like Nachiyar.

  9. The same with many other handicrafts/textiles - no recognition/money for the actual artisan while the middlemen grow their stash! Very disheartening that. It keeps the next generation from embracing their forefathers'/foremothers' professions. I hope that will change someday soon and we'll be able to wholeheartedly celebrate the traditions and the huge array of absolutely exquisite handicrafts India has, nothing like it anywhere else in the world!

    Great job for B!


  10. thanks for mentioning us i dont even know who you are just please vist our store in he next time when you were in nachiyar koil
    rathna metal mart


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