Swamimalai is a small temple town located close to Kumbakonam in the state of Tamil Nadu. Besides the popular temple here, this town is also known for the art of making bronze figurine. The Cholas, who ruled the Tamil Nadu province over thousand years ago highly patronized this metallic art form and one can sure to find exquisitely crafted “Chola Bronze” in museums and private collections around the world. Swamimalai where the tradition is continued to this day has few workshops where one can visit and have a look at the process involved. The finished products are exported too and may carry a high price-tag.
Following is a quick run-through as I observed at Devasena Pattrai –
The figure is first made by hand or in a mould, using a mixture of paraffin wax and the resin from vateria indica tree (Kungilium in Tamil) as the material. Then, riverside mud is applied on the top and left to dry in the sun. The dried figure is burnt in a kiln when the wax gets melted and flows out, leaving just the mud-shell. The wax quantity is measured to determine the required bronze, which is ten times of the measured melted wax. The figure is then buried in earth, upside down with just exposing a hole at the bottom to pour in the molten metal, bronze. After a while, it is taken out and the upper clay is taken off to leave the metal figure.
Finishing touches are given using various tools, like chisel and polish-paper to give the final figure its sheen.
With the passage of time, the metal may get darker and needs polishing
A large sculpture may take anything between weeks to one or more years. The life-size horse that was being made when I visited was running (no pun intended) over a year and the cost might end up to Rs. 25 laks or so as was told.
Many do visit Swamimalai only as a pilgrimage and unfortunately are not even aware of this continuing century old tradition and craft that is right adjacent to the temple they visit.