In two years India will have a monument to rival the Statue of Liberty in New York: a 133-foot stone masterpiece of Saint Tiruvalluvar will be installed at Kanya Kumari, the tip of India where the Indian Ocean, Bay of Bengal and Arabian sea meet. The weaver saint is revered for his Tirukural, 1,330 verses of wisdom written 2,200 years ago.
The US$105 million project is expected to be completed in 1995, four and one half years after V. Ganapati Sthapati won a four-way design competition to build the all-stone monument for the Tamil Nadu state government.
The sculpture will be a testimony to the stone carver's art, featuring stone doors moving on stone hinges, free-swinging stone chains, stone bells that ring resonately, delicate stone lattices and more to amaze visitors. The best stone-workers of South India have been assembled-over 200 at three sites-all intent to demonstrate the vitality of their ancient craft, unfortunately now in slow decline.
The statue will rise out of the ocean next to the Vivekananda Rock Memorial, a quarter-mile off-shore. This famous site is revered in ancient myths as the place where Goddess Parvati did tapas to please Lord Siva and in modern times where in 1892 Swami Vivekananda meditated for three days before receiving a vision of his mission to the West. The statue will be on the 200-foot in diameter "Minor Rock," 100 yards closer to shore than the memorial. Assembly begins next year.
"How long will the statue stand?" asked Tamil Nadu's chief minister. "The Tirukural has 1,330 verses," replied Ganapati Sthapati with emotion in his voice. "Equal to that the statue will be intact 1,330 years."
Tiruvalluvar's gaze from Minor Rock at Cape Comarin will take in the entirety of Mother India, from the Kanya Kumari temple right up to the Himalayas, blessing the land. While America's Statue of Liberty is a monument to political freedom and social promise, Tiruvalluvar will stand as a silent stone statement of political wisdom, social duty and the spiritual promise of dharma. About 1.5 million pilgrims yearly visit the memorial on "this last bit of Indian rock," as Swami Vivekananda called it. Once the statue is installed, the number is expected to dramatically increase. In addition to the memorial and temple, Kanya Kumari has a shrine dedicated to Adi Sankara, whose pilgrimage to the cape in the ninth century inspired his work Soundaryalahari. Mahatma Gandhi wrote from here in 1937, "I am in front of the sea where three waters meet and furnish a sight unequalled in the world, for this is not port of call for vessels. Like the Goddess, the waters around are virgin." The Mahatma's ashes were immersed in this confluence of oceans in 1948. A statue of Tiruvalluvar at this auspicious place was either proposed or endorsed in the 1970's by Eknath Ranade, who spearheaded the building of the Vivekananda Rock Memorial. He had wanted to take on the project along with the Rock Memorial. The original plans called for a statue 30-feet high on a 40-foot pedestal located on Minor Rock. A proposal, eventually revised and enlarged, was made in the early 70's to the chief minister of Tamil Nadu, M. Karunanidhi, and passed on to the succeeding administration of Mr. M. G. Ramachandran, then again of Karunanidhi-under whom construction was actually begun-and is now being carried to completion by the present government of Ms. Jayalalitha Jayaram. There has been no opposition to the statue, although a proposal to build a causeway from the land to the rocks was dropped because of protests that it would take the thrill out of approaching the memorial by open boat across the choppy, shark-infested sea (which Vivekananda swam through, lacking the few cents for boat fare).
In its final form, the Tiruvalluvar monument will be 133 feet high-a 95-foot statue on top of a 38-foot pedestal. According to Ganapati Sthapati, the pedestal's 38 feet represent the 38 chapters of Tirukural on dharma or righteousness; the statue's 95 feet represent the remaining 95 chapters on artha (wealth) and kama (pleasure). Righteousness, the statue's pedestal, so conceived the designer, "shall be the fundamental principle in seeking after wealth and pleasure."
"It is really my good fortune to do this project," Sthapati told Hinduism Today, "I take it as a sacred task. For me, work is worship." In 1976 Sthapati completed another monument to Tiruvalluvar, the Valluvar Kottam in Madras. The three acre park features the 1,330 verses inscribed on polished granite slabs, plus a 106-foot stone and concrete replica of a temple chariot, which enshrines an image of Tiruvalluvar. It is a very popular pilgrimage destination.
In accordance with tradition, Sthapati explained, the face length of the statue is taken as the unit of "spatial rhythm." The whole body from foot to crown is nine times the face length, a measure called nava tala. The hair lock is five feet high, one-half the face length, making a total height of 95 feet. This is considered the ideal human proportions. The right hand of the image has three fingers stretched upwards to indicate the three subjects of the verses righteousness, wealth and pleasure, while the left hand is holding a ten-foot long palm leaf manuscript of the Tirukural. "The serenity of the countenance of the statue," writes the Sthapati, "expresses Valluvar's inherent human love, which is further reflected in the mild, graceful flexion of the body."
The pedestal and statue are made of hundreds of individual stones, none weighing more than five tons. To reduce the weight, the statue is hollow inside, a method of construction which Sthapati had used for a Buddha statue he was commissioned to build in Bihar a few years ago. One can ascend an inner staircase and look out the eye holes of the statue, but this staircase will not be open to the public. General visitors can reach the base of the statue for circumambulation by climbing staircases inside the pedestal. There will be numerous demonstrations of the stone carver's art. In addition to the stone lattices, bells, chains, doors and hinges, there will be unique statuary, such as a stone lion with a loose stone ball in its mouth-which cannot be removed for it was carved in place! There will be musical pillars which ring with the different notes of the scales. A stone sunshade will project out seven feet from a pillar. To make the shade, ten tons of stone will have been reduced to one ton, in places only an inch and a half thick. "What is normally only possible in wood has been rendered in stone," explained Sthapati. There is a statue of the fabulous creature yali with a serpent head, elephant trunk, tiger legs and tail.
Work is underway at three sites in Tamil Nadu. The pedestal is being carved at Ambasamudram and Kanyakumari. The statue is just being started at Sholanganallur, near Madras. It is the statue work which is the most technically demanding. For every course Sthapati must make a brick and mortar replica of each individual stone at his workplace in Madras. These replicas are then transported to Sholanganallur where they are duplicated in granite. Work is proceeding apace at Minor Rock to level it off at 30 feet above the sea. This is being done by the Tamil Nadu State Construction Corporation of Madras using both the old methods of hammer and chisel, and by putting a newly developed powder into cracks in the rock. When wetted, the powder expands with great force and breaks the rock. Unfortunately the method is not too speedy. Dynamite has been rejected for it causes fissures deep into the rock, which weaken it. Sthapati related to Hinduism Today that he had tried to make innovations in the stone craft he had learned from his ancestors, such as the introduction of dynamite, cutting and polishing machines and modern steel for the chisels. In each case he went back to the old methods and materials as the most suitable. Though thoroughly capable in modern engineering and construction methods, he is one of the great exponents of the traditional art; this statue is a statement of what that art can achieve.
The statue will be assembled on the rock, and again following the ancient methods, with the single addition of a few modern pulley blocks capable of lifting the five-ton stones. After the first few courses of stone are laid, a stone retaining wall is built around the entire pedestal. Sand is poured into the center of the pedestal as well as the area between the pedestal and the retaining wall. Then the next courses are put in place, again the retaining wall is raised and sand poured in. This method, which was used to build the tall gopurams and vimanas of the ancient temples, is continued right up to the top of the statue. Finally the retaining wall is dismantled layer by layer, and the sand removed from both inside and outside to reveal the completed statue and pedestal. Only fifty workers will be engaged on the rock at a time, and boats will ferry the stones and other materials over as they are needed. "Assembly and joint work is the most difficult job," said Sthapati. "Taking all the heavy stones from the shore to the rock site and lifting manually is most tiring, most difficult, most challenging."
Tests and evaluations by experts predict that the statue can withstand whatever the elements can throw at it in the way of typhoons and high seas. The salt air is a problem; salt is largely responsible for the on-going deterioration of the sandstone Lord Jagannath Temple at Puri in Orissa State. Fortunately the granite of the Tiruvalluvar statue is much less subject to deterioration. Still maintenance is required to periodically wash the insides of the statue of salt. Seasonal rains will keep the outside clean, allowing Saint Tiruvalluvar to stand the promised 1,330 years.
How the Tiruvalluvar Statue Measures Up
1. Human being, 6 feet.
2. Jain Saint Gomatesvara, Mysore, India. Stone, 57 feet, carved 984ce.
3. The Taj Mahal, India. Stone, 130 feet, built 1643ce.
4. Saint Tiruvalluvar, Kanya Kumari, India.
Stone, 133 feet, built 1995.
5. Boeing 727 jet airliner.
Metal, length 133 feet, wing span 108 feet.
6. Statue of Liberty, New York, USA.
Metal, statue only (shown), 151 feet,
(pedestal 154 feet high, total 305 feet), built 1886ce.
7. Leaning Tower of Pisa, Italy.
Stone, 185 feet, built 1174ce.