ANAMIKA

'(The Blog) With No Name', perhaps best described as a stream of notes and thoughts - 'remembered, recovered and (sometimes) invented'.

Thursday, September 24, 2009

The Cosmic Architect

Mythology credits lord Vishwakarma as the creator of a whole host of divine weapons - from Vishnu's discus to Indra's 'Vajra' - apart from having designed the city of Gods and much else. Amar Chitra Katha refers to him as the 'cosmic architect'. But, despite all that, Vishwakarma is no major deity - his status in the power hierarchy of divine beings borders on insignificance; this state of affairs is actually quite consistent with the rather pervasive traditional Indian tendency to look down upon any activity which results in Production (in the Marxist sense).

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A few days back, I saw on Calcutta streets, large numbers of an unusual religious icon being sold. It showed a stout, moustachioed male figure with something like 20-30 arms, seated atop an elephant (this description may be somewhat inaccurate since I did not get to inspect the picture properly)(*). Soon thereafter, I was told that those were pictures of Vishwakarma, a grand puja in whose honor would happen the next day. It was quite a pleasant surprise, him being thus honored.

I discussed the icon further with a better-informed person, who said: "You may wonder why a God is shown with a 'mooch'. That is actually accurate, although unfashionable. the Devas did have moustaches; facial hair represents the 'rajasik' attribute. Only Siva and Vishnu are really clean-shaven, because they transcend all attributes."

Note: It is indeed true that Siva, even in his 'wildest' forms, is almost always shown clean-shaven. An exception that comes to mind is the left-facing figure among the trinity depicted in the famous elephanta 'Mahesamurti' - a stylish moustache is clearly visible there. Then there is, of course, the Mangesh (or 'Manguesh' as the Portuguese called him) of Goa who has, arguably, the most impressive moustache among all divinities, Indian or International.

It is generally believed that Hindu iconography derives from Mahayana Buddhist art. The latter always appear to show Buddha without facial hair (although some Gandharan Bodhisatvas are moustachioed princes). This clean-shaven model of the Master might have been influenced by Greek images of the eternally-youthful god Apollo.

Most online pictures of Vishwakarma show him as a Brahma-esque figure (white beard, four-armed (only one head though), accompanied by a swan). His face is also quite reminiscent of popular icons of 'Jhulelal' or 'Maharaja Agrasen'. He usually appears enthroned in majesty, but is occasionally shown riding an elephant (the only representation I saw on Calcutta streets); and sometimes he is shown at work, lovingly sculpting the earth itself with hammer and chisel.

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In the Southern Indian states, 'Vishwakarma' is the communal name associated with several castes traditionally concerned with manufacturing - in Kerala, it refers to the goldsmiths, in Karnataka to carpenters. Strangely, these castes were not considered 'upper' although they did skill-intensive and value-adding work. As what looks like a a strange sort of 'concession', the carpenters in Kerala-Karnataka and the goldsmiths of Andhra were traditionally referred to as 'ashari'/'achar'/'achari' - all derivates of 'acharya' (approximately 'master') used mainly to refer to (Brahmin) teachers. The weavers, stone carvers, blacksmiths ... were not accorded such (tokenistic?) honors, despite their professions too being highly skill-oriented.

A telling example of the ambivalence of caste-practices vis-a-vis artisans was how Kerala temples would close their doors to the craftsmen who would have moulded the hallowed idol, once it was Vedically consecrated.

We may also note here that at least in Kerala, artist communities which used to make traditional murals were actually considered 'upper' and could enter temples and work on their walls.

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The Vedic god Twashtr is often identified with Vishwakarma. In post-Vedic mythology, Twashtr is a strange character: he creates the demon Vritra to destroy Indra; he also gives Indra the lethal Vajra, for use in the showdown *against* Vritra (that in some versions, Vritra is Indra's elder brother makes the story even knottier!).

Most Gods had their uniquely signatured 'Astras' - lethal, precision-guided weapons, often of mass destruction, often possessing magical powers. Usually, these astras closely match the nature of the presiding God - 'Agneyastra' causes a firestorm, 'Varunastra', a deluge and 'Vayavyastra', a raging tornado. However, the Twashtr-astra stands remarkably apart from the rest. When shot into a rival army, it would cause them to attack one-another, mistaking colleagues for arch-enemies. At Kurukshetra, Arjuna deploys this weapon and annihilates the 'Narayani-sainya' (a formidable regiment of warriors hand-picked and trained by Krishna and fighting for the Kauravas) by simply getting them to kill one another!

(*) - Later, I got to examine a few more Vishwakarma icons - apart from the usual 'mooch' and the elephant, the god also has an elaborate aureole surrounding him, and in this aureole is seen floating an entire arsenal of tools - knives and hammers to water-pumps and lathes!