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The Visvakarma Worldview
Jan Brouwer

This is the first outcome of a study which focuses on the interface between the as yet unexplored field between worldview and patterns of thinking on the one hand, and life-styles and environmental situations on the other.

For all practical purposes, the study was split into a pilot study and a main research project. The pilot study, which is nearly completed, approached the main topic with the pan-Indian concept of pancabhuta as its leading theme. This caused a critical view of existing research tools, concepts and their original bedding, the academic disciplinary divisions, dimensions and discourses of analytical write-ups. In short, it raised a fundamental issue of methodology.1

This project explores a rather limited aspect of Indian reality, namely, the much neglected worldview and lifestyle of the “makers of the world” or the craftsmen called Visvakarmas in Karnataka. Indigenous thought is marked by dichotomous as well as comprehensive abstract categorisations, a lack of one-to-one identifications, as well as a lack of multiple exclusiveness. It follows that our approach should be multi-disciplinary and multi-dimensional.

The multi-disciplinary character of the approach means that narratives and speech is left to be studied by narratologists or folklorists, and material and social discourse not to sociologists or indologists. Such divisions are artificial speech and narratives are sensitively embedded in the material and social discourse.

This study is convential insofar as I study a single, relatively small community: the artisans of the Visvakarma caste in Karnataka (South India). However, at the same time the focus is on the ideological, historical, economical, and political relationship between them and the others.
To sum up, the project’s argument is twofold:

(i) to help the respondents, in this case the Visvakarma artisans, to become more knowledgeable agents themselves and not to displace their knowledge in favour of so-called updated technology befitting the market forces or a welfare state, this reducing the indigenous comprehensive sphere of (technological) knowledge;

(ii) to consider Visvakarma speech, narratives and material expressions of thought neither as random selections from various local tool boxes nor concoctions of the ignorant.

Having presented the argument and outline of approach, I shall now proceed with a few words on our sources, focus, and analysis. I take my inspiration from structural anthropology, semiotics and empirical sociology, while recognising the analytical distinction between the informants’ ideal and actual situation. It has to be acknowledged that there is an arbitrary relationship between the informants’ interpretation of their ideal and the abstraction of their actual situation.

The Analysis of Three Sources

The method of analysis considers narratives and the material culture, i.e., myths, the crafts, its tools, workshops and products as systems of communication. They are messages, modes of signification or forms (vide: Barthes, 1989 (1972): 117-142).2 Thought can be expressed in speech, myth or material, each of which has its own historical limits and conditions of use. The same type of analysis can be applied to each mode. A furnace is a furnace; a furnace in the smith’s narrative is no longer quite a furnace as a it as a furnace which is the womb of the Goddess. It is decorated and adapted to a certain type of usage. Narrative and material carry a message which cannot possibly evolve from their own ‘nature’ for anyone can be arbitrarily endowed with meaning. It is given a particular signification irrespective of the mode of representation. For the Visvakarmas, the furnace is a manifestation of the Goddess. It signifies the Goddess, or more precisely, for the smith the furnace is deified. The furnace (signifier) expresses the Goddess (signified). However, on the analytical level the furnace is loaded with the Goddess: the furnace and the Goddess existed before they united and forming the sign: it is a meaning. Following Barthes, I call the signifier of this order (i.e., the secondary order of speech, myth and material (in contrast to the primary order of language (langue), the form and the signifed the concept (Barthes, 1989:126). There are functional implications such as that of the part to the whole of the furnace and the anvil, or furnace, anvil and the workshop and craftsman.

In the narratives, into the queen, maid, prostitute, river, princes, first drained off contingency, the female figure will attract the attention: the cosmos which is composed of a male and female constituent part. The queen, as form has a shallow, isolated and impoverished meaning; as the concept of the female principle, it is tied to the totality of the cosmos.

The fundamental character of spoken, mythical or material concept is appropriated: the female figures precisely concern a given form of the Visvakarma. The concept can have many signifiers: queen, maid, prostitute, daughter of a king, river, furnace, tools, which actualise the agreement of the predicate. The repetition of the concept, through different forms, allows us to decipher the narratives or material, which aims at the discovery of the meaning. The concepts are constituent elements of the texts or contexts (workshops, crafts) and the concepts have to be named.

The manifest meaning of a narrative, etc., is what the narrators say about it, e.g., it explains the origin of the caste, the existence of sub-castes, their degenerated condition today. In other words the legitimating function of the myth, etc. has its manifest meaning. The manifest meaning is, however, distorted by the concept, because the form of the narrative is already constituted by a linguistic meaning. The signifier has two aspects: the full meaning (queen, prostitute, furnace, etc.,) and one empty (female constituent part of the cosmos). The furnace is a furnace, but also a manifestation of the Goddess. There is alteration gathered up in the concept. The method of deciphering requires switching from the position of audience to that of anthropologist.

In language the sign is arbitrary: nothing compels the acoustic image furnace (naturally to mean the concept furnace (De Saussure, 1966: (1931)). The sign here is unmotivated. In narratives and material, however, the choice can never be fully arbitrary and has to contain some analogy. There is always partiality in the analogy of the meaning and the concept. The form drops many analogous features and keeps only a few: the hollowness of womb and furnace: the product which comes out of it; the colour (black) of furnace and the Goddess (Kali). Moreover, a complete image could exclude the myth. The images work with flaws as to lend credibility to it. In the Fort Store,3 the guilty figure is not identified; in the myth on the origin of tools,4 the source of fire is not given; in the workshop, the water is not named. Finally, the motivation is chosen. From the vast repertoire of divine characters, in this case, Kali and Siva are chosen as signifiers.

For the Visvakarmas these expressions of thought are fundamental, and their narratives and materials are reason.

In the case of the crafts lexicon, the adurubasha will not be considered on the level of primary order of language, but on the secondary order of speech, narrative and material.5

As for the historical reconstruction of the artisans’ terms of migration and settlement, their relationship with the environment (both ecological and economical), the analysis of the crafts lexicon considers the linguistic background of the terms, their usage and their speakers.

As regards the cognitive aspects of the artisans, the same approach as outlined above will be applied. At this stage of the data collection, I can only indicate or be tentative and conclusions cannot yet be drawn. Therefore, let me illustrate the approach. I postulate a relation between two terms, a signifier and/or signified. The relationship is one of equivalence as both objects belong to different categories. For example, in the crafts lexicon pudi stands for ‘gold’. In Kannada pudi means ‘powder’. In the crafts lexicon, bilipudi stands for toddy. Bill (K) ‘white’ and pudi (K) ‘powder’. We have thus identified the signifiers, viz., gold and toddy for one signified pudi. The reference here is to solid gold which in common parlance is a symbol for life. From earlier work (Brouwer, 1987), we know that solid gold is used to make ornaments to be used on the liminalities of the body, i.e., the liminalities of life. Ethnography is full of examples, including my own (Brouwer, 1988:124) where toddy (palmwine) (which is a white liquid) is offered to the Goddess Yellamma. She is — as her name indicates — the Goddess of the border. In other words, toddy marks the border of (village) life. Thus, we have here the analogy between the two signifiers and the signified. It provokes two questions which cannot yet be answered. Which term does the lexicon give for liquid gold? What can we say about the opposition between bilipudi ‘white powder’ (toddy) and karipudi ‘black powder’ (arrack)? The technical difference between toddy and arrack may be relevant here. Toddy is a natural product and arrack is a cultural product. The signification of the earlier analogy is life. The conclu-sion could be that the Visvakarma view life or the living state as the natural one in contrast to death or the dying state which is seen as cultural. Further research should reveal different signifiers for the signified kari ‘black’ and those for death or dying state.

It thus seems that the crafts lexicon is a multi-ordered semiological system. That which is a sign in the system becomes a mere signifier in the next.

The analysis of the connections between the different orders of the system will reveal the Visvakarma view of Self and Society in its most basic way.

A subsequent feed-back to the analysis of narratives and materials will then explain the logic of the cognitive choices. At the same time, the analysis may reveal whether the concept of pancabhuta plays a determining role in the cognition of the artisans, and if so, how.

As De Saussure (1931/1966) has demonstrated, language is an exemplary semiological system. It is of the first order, while narratives and materials is a second order semiological system, for it is constructed from a semiological chain existed before. The crafts lexicon falls into this category of systems, but it itself is multi-ordered.

The Five Elements

The Five Elements — sky (ether), water, fire, wind and earth — are called in Sanskrit akasa, ap, tejas, vayu and prithvi and in Kannada: akasa, niru, benki, gali and manu. In Visvakarma scholarly interpretation of the Visvakarma ideology, both in writing and spoken, the authors/scholars use the Sanskrit terms. The Visvakarma craftsmen, both in speech and narratives, use the Kannada terms. Among the lay Visvakarmas, mostly craftsmen, the knowledge of pancabhuta as a concept is rare, but certainly not absent. On this level, the use of the Kannada terms, or the lack of completeness of this knowledge, probably indicate absence of knowledge of the Sanskrit literature (as far as the concept is concerned) and could thus be an original knowledge. On this level, the concept is often materially expressed either directly or through a variety of signifiers. In other words, the craftsmen many know the expression and the code, but not the interpretation.

On the level of Visvakarma scholars, the knowledge of the concept may be original or taken from the (brahminical) Sanskrit literature. Thus, on this level, the originality does not lie in the concept itself or in the interpretation perse, but in the interpretation and the concept’s signifiers in a particular (cultural) ideological or narrative context. Here, the point cannot be the difference between Great Tradition and Little Tradition, or between brahminical and non-brahminical theory, but the concept as a tool to express Visvakarma ideology. In contrast to the lay level of craftsmen, the material expression is absent here and replaced by interpretation. However, the signifiers of the two levels are not always the same.

Ethnographical Perspectives

The Scholarly Views

According to Visvakarma scholarly interpretation, each archetypical craftsman is associated with one of the Five Elements as given in Table 1:

Table 1
The Five Elements and Five Craftsmen according to Scholars

01 Manu ironsmith prithvi Earth
02 Maya carpenter ap Water
03 Tvashtr coppersmith tejas Fire
04 Silpi sculptor vayu Wind
05 Visvajna goldsmith akasa Sky

However, each Element is intrinsically connected with each other inasmuch as half in each belong to the self same substance and the other half being made of the other Element at the rate of 1/8 of each of the other Elements.

Furthermore, according to the same sources, the Five Elements are associated with series of external and internal objects. Only a few of these associations are known to me now: earth includes ether, heaven direction, mid-directions; water includes herbs, greenary; ether, soul; fire includes wind, sun, moon, (nine) stars.

Following Visvakarma exegesis, an evolution is presented thus: from aum came akasa, from akasa the vayu; from vayu the agni, from ap the form and prithvi, while at every stage there is an addition of guna to particularise the Element, viz., sound to ether; touch related to wind; form related to fire, the essence rasa related to water, and smell related to earth. The information regarding the properties, associations and relations of the Elements seems far from complete.

The scholarly view is also found in so-called handbills, which are schematic representations of Visvakarma ideology. They are available at certain Visvakarma mathas or at major festivals of Visvakarma sponsored temples and shrines. As regards the Five Elements the scholarly view corresponds with the handbills in one respect, viz., the association of each archetypical craftsman with one of the Five Elements.

The data given above thus present two problems:

(i) In the scholarly interpretation, the ideal Visvakarma represents a totality of five crafts and five elements. This single body thus consists of Five Elements. Concomitantly the single bodily image represents five different crafts each of which is associated with one element. Apparently, the Visvakarmas are aware of this problem for one of their swamijis has particularised the elements for each craft. However, to understand this complex interpretation, it is necessary to decipher the codes of the entire handbill. Needless to say it is beyond the scope of this paper to elaborate this, but I shall engage myself in this analysis in the monograph to be prepared as final report of the project.

(ii) The scholarly exegesis demonstrate an equality of all the five craftsmen and an equality, the actual crafts in the world are significantly different from one another in terms of autonomy, completeness and use of violence. At the same time the craftsmen’s interpretation of the Five Elements in their crafts show a qualitative difference. A similar discrepancy between ideal and actual situation has been found in the Visvakarma material and social discourses.7

The Lay Views
In the actual situation of the crafts, the three smiths (iron, copper, gold) hold a similar view on the presence of the Five Elements in their crafts as given in Tables 2 and 3:

Table 2
The Five Elements and the Three Smiths

Crafts Elements (ironsmith/coppersmith/goldsmith)
akasa “the static, cold, empty, unused furnace”
niru “to control the fire”
benki “to heat the metal”
gali “to kindle the fire”
manu “to make the furnace”

Table 3
The Carpenter’s and Sculptor’s View on the Five Elements

Crafts Elements Carpenter Sculptor
akasa blue/black paint black ghee
niru to season wood to select stone
benki to make paste to bend wood to make ghee
menu to destruct wood to destruct stone
manu to use at base for making polishing powder to protect stone

Although the above views (Tables 2 and 3) are true statements, they relate to a certain abstract level. On a lower abstract level a more refined picture emerges. In ironsmithy, the earth (manu) is stated “to rust the iron”; in carpentry the earth is not only used to prepare the applicant, but also to preserve wood in underground holes; in coppersmithy the earth is not only the furnace, but also the clay of which the moulds are made.

The craftsman’s information on the Five Elements provides at least one important clue to the understanding of the Five Elements in the handbill. In Table 4 the two relevant sets of data are put together.

Table 4
Five Elements, Five Crafts and the Craftsman’s View

Craft B W C S G
handbill earth Wind fire water Sky
B = Ironsmith
S = Sculptor
W = Carpenter
G = Goldsmith
C = Coppersmith

In other words the elements are associated with the crafts in the handbill in such a way that the bhuta is that particular element which is a danger to the particular craft: (i) the earth causes the iron to rust; (ii) the wind kills the wood; (iii) the fire destroys the holy alloy; (iv) the water cracks the stone; and more subtle, (v) the empty furnace is destructive for the goldsmith. Thus, the Five Elements of the handbill have to be read in their destructive capacity. Further, research on the handbill is needed to discover the codes of the creative capacity of the elements.

In the following section I shall place the concept of pancabhuta in the wider context of the Visvakarma artisans.

Pancabhuta: Self and Society

In the foregoing sections, we have seen how the Visvakarmas classify themselves (body), their crafts (assets and process) and the relationships between themselves (archetypical craftsmen and elements) in terms of the Five Elements. The question thus arises whether they also classify the rest of the world in the same terms. To answer this question one has to consider the crafts lexicon or “secret language” of the Visvakarmas.

The crafts lexicon covers at least the following areas:

(i) categorical terms : such as place, time, good, bad, pure, impure, right, left, gift etc.;

(ii) craft-related terms : such as those for raw-materials, tools, assets, processes of manufacture and delivery of products etc.;

(iii) terms referring to people : such as names of castes, sub-castes, tribes, ancestors etc., and

(iv) terms relating to customs : such as those for non-vegetarian food, alcoholic drinks, matrimony etc.

All members of a craftsman’s family know the lexicon albeit in different degrees and as per different categories, for example, the male members know more craft related terms, while the female members know more terms related to customs and habits. Those who have left the craft for modern occupations have either a very limited knowledge of it or no knowledge of it all. The goldsmiths seem to have more elaborate lexicon than the ironsmiths.

Discussing the clan names of Indian castes, Levi-Strauss concludes that “we have here groups conceived in terms of a cultural model” (1976:120). His description shows that many Indian tribes are human groups conceived in terms of a natural model, for clan names are plants and animals and many Indian castes are human groups conceived in terms of a cultural model, for clan names are manufactured objects. The Visvakarma seem to fall in line with the other castes, but not completely. Although it is too early for any definite statement, there are some clues in the crafts for lexicon which suggest that the Visvakarmas conceive society not in terms of a cultural model for none of the other castes are named by manufactured objects. Instead the others are conceived in temporal terms, notably a few directly related to death. In this list there are, however, a few exceptions, viz., Bestas, Idigas, Muslims and Vaishnavas are named after an animal, timber or parts of trees respectively. The Bestas are a Scheduled Tribe, the Muslims are not Hindus and the Vaishnavas are not Shaivas. Thus, from the Visvakarma point of view, outsiders in relation to the castes are classified by terms from the natural order. The Idigas are no exception here for they are Telugu caste Hindus. They are toddy tappers and named by a term for firewood. Thus, among the terms of the natural order, it is a particular kind which purposes to (be) destroyed, i.e., not to live. In other words, Society is conceived of as a cultural order and its outsiders in terms of a natural order.

The Visvakarmas conceive themselves in terms taken from their crafts. In other words, in terms of a cultural order. But they are all manufactured objects and spatial terms. Here too is one interesting exception; the ironsmith. In this list he is named as a bird (a herom). The exception of this list too is named by a term from the natural order.

Thus the Visvakarmas view society in temporal terms and themselves in spatial terms, while exceptions to this classification are named in terms of the natural order. Terms of the cultural order such as manufactured objects are not used in the names for others. Where death is amply represented in the terms for society, life is not represented in the terms for self. But the self is represented by the concept of the Five Elements.


* The data on which this chapter is based, were collected during six months of fieldwork for a pilot study on the ironsmiths of Karnataka commissioned by the Indira Gandhi National Centre for Arts, New Delhi. I am grateful to this Institution for their continuous support.

1. The basic ideal of the present case study (pilot study) and research project is to understand the informants’ capacity to order his own world. This means to recognize Indian realities in terms of its own concepts. In other words, our search is one for indigenous categories, which eventually may lead to an indigenous science with Indian perceptions and kinds of analytic relations.

2. The analysis I propose here is basically inspired by the semiotic approach to myths presented by Barthes as early as 1972.

3. In the Fort Story, all Visvakarmas, pure and united lived in a solid, magnetic fort, which could not be destroyed by anything. However, the fort is besieged resulting in a mixed marriage, a fire and escapes, and the origin of endogamous sub-castes (different and new descent lines). For an extensive analysis of this story, see Brouwer, 1987b, 1988.

4. The origin and imagery of tools and workshops have recently been discussed in a paper presented to the seminar on “Sources for History of Science and Technology”, Jawaharlal Nehru Centre for Advanced Scientific Research, Indian Institute of Science, Bangalore, January 6-12, 1992 (Brouwer, forthcoming).

5. What I have called the Crafts Lexicon is named by the Visvakarmas adurubasha. When the informants speak English, they talk about their “secret language”. However, the name for this language or code has two connotations. Aduru means ‘deceit’ as well as ‘iron-ore’. Basha means `language’. It may thus be translated as ‘language of deceit’ or ‘language of the ironsmiths’. Whether it is a language or only a lexicon is difficult to say at this stage of data collection.

6. Heesterman was one of the first to recognize three Indian traditions since at least the late eighteenth century. The Scriptural Tradition of the Sanskrit literature and the domain of the Traditional Practices were now juxtaposed by the tradition of the Modern State first in its colonial and later in its sovereign form (see: Heesterman, 1985).

7. The handbills elaborate the ideal by association of each archetypical craftsmen with a large number of attributes among which the Five Elements (See Brouwer, 1978b and forthcoming).

8. The material discourse considers the crafts in isolation. Distinguishing the spiritual from the temporal plan, it leads to the discovery of a complementary opposition of two categories of crafts. To mark the crafts’ disconnection from the world, the participants view the crafts processes as transcendent acts and have ‘ritualised’ or ‘universalised’ the raw materials, processes of manufacture and the finished products. Where their ideal concept of the universe consists of a male and female constituent part, the flaw is here visible by the introduction of the concept of neutrality and the two types of craftsmen — the specialist and the generalist. The unavoidable use of external agents in the world are then either accepted as necessary connections or denied by making them incidental.

In the social discourse, the ideal caste as a unitary concept, leads to the dichotomy of caste in the world. The complementary opposition of two categories of caste is expressed in both spatial and temporal terms. The existence of various and different Visvakarma sub-castes demonstrates a discontinuity between caste and sub-castes of the world are then traversed by a neutral, mercantile realisation to which the ideal also breaks down. Vis-a-vis society, two types of sub-castes emerge: separate or single craft and comprehensive or multi-craft.


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