Pancabhuta as an Expression of the Self: Jan Brouwer

Dutch National and an Anthropologist who came to India to collaborate with the IGNCA to prepare a monograph on research methodology for the study of the inter-face between cognitive patterns and patterns of actual life styles of the ironsmiths in Karnataka.

This essay is specifically focussed on the Visvakarma caste of artisans of Karnataka comprising of ironsmiths, carpenters, braziers, founders, sculptors and goldsmiths. They see themselves as living replicas of the mythical lord Visvakarman. Their cultural heritage also contains printed reflections on their descendance which are of the greatest significance in presenting their ancestry and views as on intellectual and Brahminical continuity in a situation of distraction under the influence of rapid social, technological and economic change. Their cultural ideology stands in contrast to their daily life in as much as society appreciates their products is contrasted to society’s contempt for their way of making a living.

The Visvakarmas place themselves at par with ascetics in the ideal, transcendent order, but whereas the ascetics negate the world to reach their goal, the Visvakarmas create it, employing material, skill and tools as the mechanisms to do so. The Visvakarmas transcend the very world they have created and view the process of transformation, in which they are engaged, as a transcendent act.

The Visvakarmas of Karnataka consider themselves to be the descendants of the §Rg Vedic Lord Visvakarman. Their concept of this God of the Veda and classical literature forms the basis for their claim to be Brahmins or even superior to them. The descent of the Visvakarmas from Parabrahma is a theme in their oral tradition, as well as in their printed stories. The five functions of the five-headed Parabrahma or Visvabrahma is made explicit. The first Brahma, Manu, produced a knife necessary to separate the child born in the womb from his mother, the sword for protecting the world and the edge of the plough to obtain grain. His descendants are the ironsmiths. The second Brahma, Maya, gave protection and his descendants are the carpenters. The third Brahma, Tvashtri, began the creation of metallic vessels and other implements needed for the yajnashala and his descendants are the coppersmiths. The fourth Brahma, Silpi, was a sculpture. The fifth Brahma, Visvajna, made gold ornaments and his descendants are the goldsmiths.

Among the indigenous explanations of the ideal, the story of the Magnetic Fort (ayuskantakallukote katha) is widely known by the Visvakarma craftsmen all over Karnataka. In the story the primordial ironsmith created the first tools through a cyclic and violent act. He is thus pre-eminent in his own, violent, way. When he created the first tools, he was unharmed by the heat of the furnace. This suggests that his heat was equal to that of Kål∂.

On the basis of the Visvakarma kinship and affinity networks, the plains of Karnataka can be divided into three regions : northern, central and southern. The five crafts are distributed in such a way that no sub-caste has a monopoly over one craft. The distribution varies from region to region. In the actual situation of their crafts, as well as in their narratives, the artisans tell us about the origin and imagery of their tools. This imagery is part of the ritualization of the crafts to mark its disconnection from the world and to state the craft as a transcendental act. The carpenters, braziers, founders and sculptors consider their tools to be manifestations of Kål∂. The ironsmiths and goldsmiths, however, attach special ritual significance to five different tools, viz., the bellows, furnace, anvil, hammer and tongs. The bellows (tidi) are considered to be the lion vehicle (simhavahana) of the goddess Kål∂. The furnace (kulume) (with or without fire, benki) is said to be the goddess Kål∂ herself. The anvil (adigallu) is I‹vara or ›iva. The hammer (suttige) is ›iva’s drum (damaru). The ironsmiths consider the pair of tongs (ikkala) adi‹akti and the poker as the trident (tri‹ula). The goldsmiths consider the forceps as the trident.

Imagery of the tools is not only essential for understanding the Visvakarma ideology, and the spatial layouts of their workshops, but also for insight into the use of the five elements. For the ironsmith, the unused furnace represents the sky, while the working furnace expresses fire (benki), wind (gali) and earth (manu). The dynamic, creative process of manufacture is thus possible because of the collaboration of fire, wind and earth, while it gains completion by applying water (niru) as a cooling medium on the finished product.

When the carpenter completes his main product, – he applies black or blue paint to the joints of a bullock-cart or the chariot. In ancient days a black mixture based on different types of soil (earth) was used. The applicant is called sky. Fire is used for bending wood in certain types of work (e.g., bettada kurci). Earth is the basic material for making a polish; different soils are used to obtain various colours. Water and wind are also said to have destructive capacity : water to season or kill the wood, while wind may cause cracks in the wood.

The relationship between the ironsmith and fire seems to be similar to the one between the original Visvakarma and the original kinetic power. It may be noticed that in terms of ambiguity, the ironsmith is at par with both the goddess and fire. The ironsmith creates the tools, which are used for food production, as well as for warfare. The Goddess has similar dual nature : She is associated with fertility and war. Fire can therefore both purify and destroy.

Like the ironsmith, the coppersmith considers his unused furnace as sky. Water and earth together constitute the moulds for the low-wax casting. Wind and fire together cause heating of the mould.

Just like the carpenter, the sculptor does not have a furnace. However, he uses fire to heat ghee (clarified butter), which produces ‘black of the ghee’. This is applied with a brush on the finished stone idol of the sky.

Furnace of the goldsmith is an ordinary clay water vessel, placed upside down on a wooden plank. On the belly of the pot a heart-shaped hole is cut, through which the furnace can be operated. The furnace is replaced once a year in a replacement ceremony which last for about five days. The unused furnace is called sky. All the other elements are represented in the full furnace : earth is kept at its bottom. Through the blowpipe (wind) fire is kindled and water is used to control or extinguish the fire.

On the basis of the lay craftsmen’s views on the five elements, and taking into account the order of the original craftsmen, the five crafts are at once ranked from the gross to the subtle and from more destructive to less destructive, but also from one end to the centre, i.e., from ironsmith to coppersmith and from goldsmith to coppersmith in terms of destructiveness. There is yet another way of looking at the data : sky and wind are riveted to the globe and fire, water and earth are attached to the globe. Thus, from ironsmith to goldsmith the elements in destructive capacity are seen as being riveted to the globe.

The crafts – lexicon has thus added to our understanding of the Visvakarma views on the five elements. It classifies society in terms of death, and by abstraction, the self in terms of life. The five elements are not only used to explain the self on both the individual and collective (caste) levels, but also to overcome the central problem of discrepancy between claimed and conceded status, namely through the element

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