Artisans of Tamil Nadu

I love Tamil Nadu (TN) for multiple reasons; the incredible highways are one of them. The roads are wide, free of obstacles (random two-wheelers, humans, cows criss-crossing), and the long stretches of the perfectly tarred roads don’t seem to end ๐Ÿ›ฃ๏ธ. If you enjoy driving on highways like I do, add TN to your road trip bucket list.

The excellent highway is not the only reason you need to visit TN. For most people, Tamil Nadu equals temples and food. Food and temples are a massive part of Tamil Nadu’s itinerary, but TN is beyond that. Culture, art, and history, are other compelling reasons to visit Tamil Nadu.

Over the last few years, as a family, we made a few road trips in TN, and this blog post is a collection photographs and the small little interaction I had with people during these trips.

Almost every region in TN has a cluster of smaller villages specializing in a particular art form. For instance, Koranattu Karupur, a village near Kumbakonam, has at least 100+ families specializing in making ‘Navaratri golu dolls.’ Each house is like a mini museum + workshop. All the family members are committed to the same craft as they take on different responsibilities.

Making of Navaratri golu dolls

Each doll is handmade, and it takes enormous time and effort to make one to perfection. There are doll sets with hundreds of tiny pieces that, when assembled in a particular way, depict a theme or a mythological scene.

Despite the 100s and 1000s of dolls, these artisans bond with each piece they make. I still remember when my daughter randomly selected a doll from a batch of dolls; the family refused to sell that as it had a minor, unnoticeable blemish at the edge of the doll.

Talk about craftsmanship and ethics ๐Ÿ™‚

We took a short 20 kms drive from Koranattu Karupur to go to Swamimalai, a little town with artisans specializing in making bronze statues. The art of making these bronze statues dates back to the Cholas.

Swamimalai is dotted with these small bronze boutiques. We visited a few of these boutiques to interact with artisans to understand how these statues are made.

But my timing was a little off. It was lunchtime, and I was itching to have the Vendakkai Kara Kuzhambu at a nearby mess. My ‘YouTube food research’, had suggested that the mess gets packed by lunch hour, and that added to my anxiety. ๐Ÿ˜ฌ But the folks at the boutique figured I was hungry, and instead of losing me to the mess, they decided to give me some tea and Parle G to nibble on, hoping I’d stay and give them some business.

As I sipped on my sugary tea, at the far end, I saw a few people working with bee wax. I shamelessly stood there, trying to figure what they were doing. Eventually, they decided to invite me for a chat ๐Ÿ˜ƒ

It was the master sculptor demonstrating certain aspects of statue-making to his young students. The master sculptor was kind enough to ignore my interruption and asked one of his students to help me understand how these beautiful bronze statues are made.

The technique is known as the ‘lost wax casting,’ and I’d suggest you read about this, it is quite interesting.

Like the golu dolls, each statue takes several days to finish. At the end of the 30 min bronze statue-making crash course, I asked the master sculptor about the statue he is most proud of. After pausing for a few seconds, he spoke about the 2-meter Nataraja statue he created using a single cast, which is now permanently displayed at CERN, Geneva, Switzerland ๐Ÿคฏ

Eventually, I bought a bronze statue of a monkey to frequently remind me of human evolution and also had my meals at the nearby mess to my heart’s content ๐Ÿ™‚

Around the same belt, you also have the silk weavers of Thirubuvanam! I’m just amazed at the diversity of artisans in this 50 kms radius. I can’t fathom what the rest of India has to offer.

I’m no expert in handloom silk weaving or silk sarees, but then I learned that the silk weavers of Thirubuvaman, Arani, and Kanchipuram are all equally skilled, but the silks sarees of Kanchipuram steal the show. Perhapse, Kanchipuram’s proximity to Chennai and the linkage to the rest of the world via the Chennai’s port helped popularize Kanchipuram sarees.

I guess the Kanchipuram silk weavers hit the geographic lottery, and this once again established my belief in how luck plays a vital role in our lives and how we choose to ignore luck and credit ourselves for all outcomes in life ๐Ÿ™‚

But let me not digress.

If you ever happen to step inside these weaving houses, please spend a few minutes to see how complex these mechanical machines are.

Silk weaver

These machines almost occupy the entire room, and it is a delight to watch these master weavers work their way around these gigantic machines.

All these artisans have been working on the same craft for generations, preserving their artistic traditions, and passing on their knowledge from one generation to the other. However, the newer generation migrates to larger cities for better financial prospects, and the continuity of these traditions becomes uncertain.

You see, we are almost obligated to support local artisans and craftsmen. When you travel, spend time with these folks, understand their art, and most importantly, don’t hesitate to spend your money to buy stuff from them. I’d even go to the extent of suggesting not to bargain to save a few 100s here and there. It is ok to overpay at times ๐Ÿ™‚

This is one of the easiest ways to support them and keep the local art movement alive for the next few generations.

And, of course, the real artisan for me is that human who can brew a perfect cup of filter coffee. Luckily, you can find them at every corner of Kumbakonam and fortunately, these artisans are not endangered ๐Ÿ™‚

Kumbakonam Degree Coffee in the making

You drive 150 km south of Kumbakonam; you will reach Karaikudi, also called, ‘Chettinad.’ Chettinad is a cluster of 70 villages and former home to Chettiars, bankers by profession during the British era. The Chettiar bankers had established deep connections across South East Asia and Europe and financed all trades along the Silk Route. Chettiars brought back the banking wealth to Chettinad, and their hyper-large mansions were adorned with the finest things money could buy.

A grand Chettiar mansion stretching from one street to another

As the British era collapsed, so did the banking business of the Chettiars, and their influence on trade and commerce slowly disappeared, as did their personal wealth.

A local community banker making his book entry

Today, for most people, Chettinad equals spicy chicken and paniyaram with complete ignorance of the bygone glorious history of Chettinad ๐Ÿ˜”

We stayed in a relatively small Chettinad village called ‘ Kanadukathan.’ Nothing much happens in the village. It is a slow and easy life at Kanadukathan. You can cover the entire village in a casual evening stroll, and every alternate building is a massive Chettiar mansion.

Post lunch dealing

The cuteness of this village can easily persuade you to stay back a few days and generally do nothing. I’d suggest you do that if your schedule permits ๐Ÿ™‚

A village astrologer

A few kilometers away from Kanadukathan is Athangudi, popular for its colorful handmade tiles. While the Chettiars decorated their mansions with carefully selected artifacts bought from around the world, they ensured that the floor was decorated with the colorful Athangudi tiles. Perhaps this was their way of encouraging the local artisans.

Athangudi tile making

Each tile is handmade, and no two designs are the same.

We continued our trip south with a stop over at Madurai. We drove to Danushkodi via the legendary ‘Pamban Bridge.’ The sight of Indian Railways train zipping past the ocean bridge was a sight to behold. Such a magnificent engineering feat!

Pamban Bridge

For me, Pamban Bridge, although an engineering marvel, is a piece of art.

While I’ve focused mainly on artisans, the temples of Tamil Nadu, its aura, and its rich history of 100s of years is a topic for another day. I’m so glad TN is easily accessible by road from Bengaluru.

I know I will be driving back to this incredible state soon.

Here are a few more pictures from the TN road trip. Do scroll through, click to enlarge, and see it on a large screen ๐Ÿ™‚

I hope you like them, do let me know.

Meanwhile, I’ll endlessly scroll through Google Maps to figure the next TN destination ๐Ÿ™‚

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4 responses to “Artisans of Tamil Nadu”

  1. I want to take a moment and appreciate your scenic writing skills. The photographs are a story on their own but your personal story weaving touch makes it a wonderful experience as a reader. Have you ever taken up a writing course? Do you have any writer whose style inspires you?

    1. Thanks for the kind words, Akshatha. Nope, I’ve not taken up a writing course ๐Ÿ™‚

  2. murthy jayaraman Avatar
    murthy jayaraman

    You are taking us along with your narrative.. It gives us a complete visuals .. We used to go Thirubhuvanam for buying Sarees for marriages in our family.. My parents belongs to Tanjore dist.. ( Now it is divided to so many districts).. Each temple has a nice story in that district..Nice one.. well written.. Best wishes for your next trip!!Beautifully captured all the relevant pictures.. ( except vendaikkai kaara kozhambu..๐Ÿ˜‚)

    1. Thanks for the kind words, Murthy sir! TN is just so beautiful. By the way, I was too busy when the vendaikkai kaara kozhambu was served; food photography for next time ๐Ÿ˜…

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