Tag Archives: aranmula

A Tour of Indian Foundries- Investment Casting

In this post today, I like to discuss a technical subject by standing in the shoes of a traveler. During my student life, I have never been in a race to become a top-scorer. However, it was Professor Mukunda’s enthusiastic teaching method, that ‘Material science and Metallurgy’ has been one subject that I topped the department (I like to show-off a bit, with those dark glasses emoticon). With an in-hand admission letter to one of the top universities to pursue a post-graduation in the subject, the lostlander deviated along the way, only to become a professional ‘Metallurgical Failure Mode Analyst’ much later in her career. If not for Prof.Mukunda, a seed of interest in the subject would have never been sown and I wouldn’t be writing about such an unconventional travel post, it seems.

Metallurgy is a science in which India has mastered from even before the world could imagine. The Vedas have a devoted section to teach these techniques. Prof.Mukunda’s favorite topic was ‘Metal casting with the lost wax technique’. His face beamed in joy every time he mentioned the intricacies that were achieved in the metal art thus created. “No two pieces that are exact replicas of each other can ever be created”, he stressed. We had foundry visits as part of our curriculum but that’s where we could only see sand, centrifugal and other forms of metal casting. Without having easy access, investment casting, also called as the ‘lost wax technique’ of metal casting was only left to our imagination. Many years after my graduation, I have been fortunate that I have been able to visit some of the amazing and traditional foundries in my country that practice the lost wax technique. These places have got them their individual ‘GI’ tags. Here is a walk through my foundry visits which I believe I should share with my fellow readers.

Idols of Swamimalai:

Swamimalai translates to the ‘Hill of the Lord’ that is named after an important temple in Tamil culture dedicated to Lord Murugan. This little town is famous beyond just this holy abode. One doesn’t need explanation at the mention of the bronze idols of the Cholas era. Apart from several of these antiques being prized possessions at museums across the globe, these treasures are among the highly traded commodities in the black market. These are ALL brought to form in Swamimalai. It is believed that the artisans of Swamimalai are a group of skilled men called as the Stapathis who have passed on their heritage of metal idol making, since the 12th century. The precision of composition and the measurements of these metal idols, mostly bronze are followed as per the ‘Agama Shastras’. This holy land of the alchemists was a part of my weeklong backpacking with my brother, back in Year-2015.

Work-in-progress at a foundry that makes Aranmula Kannadi
Clockwise from top left: 1. Raw material for mould making with the furnace and blower 2. The mould 3. Furnace 4. Metal sheet after moulding ready to be polished

Aranmula Kannadi:

An extremely important part of malayalee culture, this handcrafted mirror is a quintessential part of Kerala. I was told that on the day of ‘Vishu’ festival, after waking up in the morning- he/she should first see themselves in an Aranmula Kannadi placed alongside the ‘Canacona flowers and a lit oil lamp’ before anything else. ‘What is it about a mirror?’ a person unknown to the traditions of this land might ask. ‘These mirrors are not glass!’ These mirrors are super-polished metal surfaces that are capable of reflecting real images. A glass always reflects a secondary image (you can notice that there is a distance from the reflecting surface to the image formed) whereas, the metal surface reflects primary images (There is no additional distance between the object and the image).

Two images that give the comparison of reflection in a glass and a metal mirror (Aranmula kannadi)
Top: The secondary reflection in a glass mirror; Below: The primary reflection in a metal ‘Aranmula Kannadi’ mirror

These manually polished mirrors are created through investment casting whose composition remains to be a secret that is passed down through generations of just 1 family. The small group of these master craftsmen who are protecting their secret recipe of the Malayalee culture all reside around the Aranmula Parthasarthy temple in the state of Pathanamthitta. I had the esteemed opportunity of visiting one of these foundries when I sneaked out after working hours on one of my business trips in Year-2019.

Video of my visit to the mirror making foundry at Aranmula

Dokra art of Bastar:

This non-ferrous metal art is created by the forest dwelling tribes of Chhattisgarh. Historians believe that this art has evolved from what was used by the primitive tribes to create figurines of their local deities for worship and for jewellery purposes. The metals used were earlier collected directly from earth in the mineral rich area of Bastar, then smelted to separate the desired elements and mixed in intended proportions to form the final material for casting. This is an undocumented tribal technique that has been passed down through several centuries. Today, it is widely used for commercial purposes of decoration and gifting. It is now revered as a part of the tribal culture that represents the state of Chhattisgarh. I had an opportunity to visit one of these foundries and observed keenly the lifeless metal take form into art during my family’s five states’ road trip in Year-2020.

Work-in-progress at a foundry that makes Dokra art in Bastar
Dokra art at various stages of metal casting

Kola masks of Karkala:

Talking about all these foundries, I cannot be leaving my homestate behind. Although the folk art of metal mask making is slowly dying, these masks are an extremely important part of the culture of the Tulunad region. These bell metal masks are used in the spiritual performance of the ‘Bhoota Kola‘. Today, the art is used beyond mask making and can be seen in idols, lamps, bowls, utensils among other things used and sold extensively in Udupi district of Karnataka.

The lamps and idols of Nagamangala:

The contribution of the Hoysalas to the art and heritage of Karnataka cannot be justified with any number of words. Their intricacies and detailing in their work can be seen not only in the stone sculptures of their temples but also in their metal crafts. A few of the practitioners of the Hoysala style of metal casting have saved and passed on their knowledge to a few artisans who have made the town of Nagamangala their home. This thriving art can be seen in the traditional bronze lamps widely used across Karnataka and in the idols of various deities in this region. Although bronze is believed to be a godly material, other metals like tin, copper etc. too are cast into various articles using this technique.

This post is my small attempt towards promoting local art. I look forward to influence at least a few of my readers to learn more about the rich heritage of India and encourage local artisans in various ways possible. Do share your thoughts with me through the comments below.

Land where Art is Divine- Pathanamthitta

Dense canopy of trees, swaying coconut palms, houseboats cruising through the pristine backwaters, wooden canoes of the locals fishing in narrow canals- Well, does this paint a picture of Gods own country? When opportunity struck, I decided to give the usual things a miss and explore a region that is least spoken about in a typical tourist circuit in Kerala. I wanted to explore the land where art is considered divine and celebrated in all its form. I was heading towards Pathanamthitta.

My Itinerary:

Day 1: Leave from Bangalore to Kochi (by Flight); Drive from Kochi to Pathanamthitta. Visit Aranmula Parthasarthy temple (take a local foundry tour); Visit Thiruvalla Srivallabha temple (Watch a Kathakali performance in the temple);
Day 2: Gavi or Konni elephant camp, Charalkunnu, Kakki reservoir, Perunthenaruvi waterfalls, Kalloppara church, Paliakkara church and Niranam church. Return to Bengaluru.

The details:

First thing I did while approaching Pathanamthitta was lowering all the windows of my car, to breathe in some clean air. With almost two third of the district comprising of forest cover, it is no wonder that Pathanamthitta is the least polluted city in India. The remaining one third is a combination of the city and plantations. We were heading to the homestay we had booked, not very far from the city centre. It was nestled in what the locals call as a residential area that was far from imagination of a city soul. The narrow roads were flanked by rubber, tapioca and banana plantations for most stretch and marsh lands for the rest. Bunches of jackfruits hung down from tall trees among several other tropical trees like litchi, rambutan etc. that had the fruit lover in me all drooling. My stay was at a traditional Kerala house nestled amidst a huge garden. Its wooden portico with clay tiled roof had me fancy struck.

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Enroute to the homestay

Surprisingly for me, Pathanamthitta hosts some of the largest annual religious congregations in the world. The Sabarimala yatra and Maramon convention are next only to the Haj. Giving a pass to the famous backwaters of Kerala, I had driven this far to explore its vibrant and divine culture and art. My plan for the first day was to visit two of the 108 Divyadesams, both located in Pathanamthitta. I had arrived at the Aranmula Parthasarthy temple, particularly for a tour of a foundry that makes the historical ‘Aranmula Kannadi’ (Click to watch the video).

This GI tagged handicraft is culturally important in the state of Kerala. The know-how of making it is endemic to Aranmula and limited to the descendants of only one family who now live around this temple. Unlike the familiar glass mirrors, these are finely polished metal sheets. Watching these men toiling in their workshop to bring an alloy to life, which is integral in all Malayali celebrations was like living a dream for me.

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Left: moulded metal sheet before polishing; Right: Polished & finished mirror

A short drive away from there was my next destination: Thiruvalla Srivallabha temple. With its ancient wooden architecture, this beautiful temple sprawls on a huge area. Here, the prayers are offered five times a day and the last prayer was specifically that interested me the most to visit here. Kathakali is performed inside the temple premises everyday as a form of prayer to put the deity to sleep. I was like a little child in wonderland who lost track of time watching this performance that went late into the night.

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A traditional Kathakali setup at the Kochi international airport

An early morning drive to Gavi or Konni elephant camp is what I was recommended for finding a piece of nature. Charalkunnu, Kakki reservoir, Perunthenaruvi waterfalls are few of the other nearby places that tourists usually visit. But I decided against it all and while away some time exploring the neighbourhood of my homestay before checkout. It was as calm and peaceful as anywhere else. While sipping a cup of Kattan chai, I was reminded of my previous trip to Alleppey. Hundreds of wooden canoes measuring over 100 feet, long enough to be called snake boats, gather from across Kerala to compete for the coveted title. Each boat carries at least hundred oarsmen, all singing the Vanchipattu in chorus. Breathing the heavy air filled with anxiety of the spectators, it was a lifetime experience. Like Alleppey, Aranmula too hosts one of the largest boat races in Kerala. The Aranmula race is held on the last day of Onam as a celebration of Lord Krishna crossing river Pampa.

Boat Race finals (22)
The oarsmen ‘”Women” from Alleppey

I had planned my return route to Kochi such that I could cover some of the interesting landmarks along the way. The first stop was at Kalloppara, where an ancient Hindu inscription exists inside a church. I had read about how two faiths co-exist under the same roof that houses a Bhagavati temple and a Mary’s church. But my drive through the streets of a residential area ended at a bridge that connected Kalloppara. It had collapsed during the floods that ravaged Kerala last year. Having three rivers flowing through it, Pathanamthitta was one of the worst affected.

I hit the main road again and headed to Thiruvalla. Since it was dark the previous night, I was there again to have a look at the famed mural paintings on the altar of the Paliakkara Church. The church at Paliakkara and Niranam (my next destination) both have their history dating back to the arrival of St.Thomas in India in 54.A.D. This trip was all about an amalgamation of art and tradition. Be it wildlife, religion, architecture, history, art or culture, I believe Pathanamthitta has something for everyone.

(P.S.: I’m against the idea of taking photos inside any place of worship, as a form of respect to its sanctity. Hence, I do not have any pictures from the interiors of any place of worship)

Fact File:

  • How to reach: The nearest airports are at Kochi and Trivandrum. Kottayam and Alleppey are the nearest Railway stations. KSRTC buses and taxis are available from these places to reach Pathanamthitta by road.
  • Get around: local buses are quite frequent; Taxis can be easily availed.
  • Best time to visit: September to May (Anytime apart from monsoon)
  • Stay: Luxury hotels are sparse. Cheap and Budget hotels are available in plenty considering the pilgrims who come here for Sabarimala yatra. Homestays are available to experience the true essence of Kerala.
  • Must do: Attend a Kathakali performance, visit a mirror foundry, Bathe elephants at Konni.