The chipping sounds rarely stop as chisel and hammer pummel the reluctantly yielding stone. It is more a form of erosion than carving, a slow pulverizing of the granite a few hundred molecules at a time. Millions and hundreds of millions of blows by the sculptors slowly reveal the design. It is a labor of love requiring a level of patience that few are capable of, and thus the rarity of it all. To onlookers, this seems an impossibly tedious task, but carvers say it brings a greater reward--after all, this is God's work. One single piece can take three or four men three long years to complete, and any serious mishap will put the work to waste.
Make no mistake, these artisans know their stone. While finishing work needs but a delicate etching of a fine-pointed chisel, basic shaping requires powerful blows that will cut open large boulders in minutes. The skilled silpis know the full range of the creative process, learned by most at their father's knee.
How a temple evolves from raw stone to finished art is a story of stones, chisels and the blacksmith's fire. The sthapati is the architect who designs and guides the transformation of raw granite into iconic statues and mighty temples, aided by an army of silpis or sculptors. Based on his precise design and markings, the silpis shape the stones to perfection.
The stones are then maneuvered, lifted, nudged together and finely fitted, the goal being the famed "paper joint," so tight the thinnest paper cannot find the space between them. Laden with the devotion their creators' impart, graced with the design of ancient wisdom, the stones merge, one by one, to create the massive temple structure. Alone they are marvelous works of art, but together they possess the power to contain God Himself, to be His body and His home.
This traditional knowledge, training and skill is passed from father to son, and each generation is initiated into this sacred art in childhood and youth. Iraivan Temple's Selvanathan Sthapati, who inherited this wealth of knowledge from his paternal uncle and father, relates, "I was brought up in a home filled with the sound of chisels and hammers. Even as a child I learned the skills by watching the moves at our pattarai (workshop). Early on, I began exploring the nuances and curves of traditional designs that would be my lifelong occupation, and my legacy."