COURTESY PERUMAL STHAPAT
Bringing Gods to Earth Through Stone
The story of Perumal Sthapati, one of India’s finest stone carvers, exemplifies an age-old Hindu tradition experiencing a resurgence in the 21st century
BY R. KESAV MALLIA, TELANGANA
ON DECEMBER 12, 2005, IN NEW DELHI, Perumal Sthapati was presented the coveted National Award for Master Craftsmanship by Abdul Kalam, the then President of India. The award was established in 1965 to honor the country’s top craftsmen and weavers in multiple specialties through a national competition each year. Perumal’s winning entry was a spectacular dual image with Vishwakarma Siva on one side and Gayatri on the other, carved in green granite that he labored on for nine months.
Perumal was born in Thrissur, Kerala, in 1954 and grew up in Thenkasi, Tamil Nadu. His father, a stone carver by the name of Sundaram Acharya, passed away when Perumal was just fifteen, leaving the family in poverty. Perumal left his native village to work in Mamallapuram (previously called Mahabalipuram), the ancient seaside “stone town” just south of Chennai. Mamallapuram was bustling with activity. South India’s greatest traditional architect, V. Ganapati Sthapati, was bringing scores of carvers to the town to meet the growing demand for temple stone carvings. He immediately spotted the innate talent of the 19-year-old Perumal. “You stay here with me,” he told the boy, and took him under his personal tutelage.
Perumal recounts those days: “I could read my guru’s heart, his taste, his mind and expectations. He was a clever taskmaster, yet surprisingly lovable. I was a bit afraid of him. He could smell even the slightest error. Ever since I joined him, I had no time for any other activities or entertainment. Today, when I carve a statue, I have a secure feeling that my guru is standing beside me and guiding me in every bit of my chipping.” The two worked together until Ganapati Sthapati’s passing in 2011, when Perumal became one of the trustees of his guru’s Vaastu Vedic Research Foundation in Mamallapuram.
A Life’s Work
Perumal Sthapati has been carving for the last 40 years. To date he has sculpted over 80 murtis of Vinayaka, 50 of Venkateswara and many other Deities as well. He is fully booked, with orders a year in advance.
In May, 2014, when Hinduism Today interviewed Perumal in his workshop at the Foundation in Mamallapuram, he was placing the finishing touches on two murtis destined for Malaysia, a four-foot-tall Ganesha and a five-foot-tall Venkateswara.
Much of his best work has gone overseas. His murtis of the Gods now reside at the Lakshmi Narayana Temple in London, in Batu Caves and the Mariamman Temple in Malaysia, in Singapore’s Murugan and Bhadrakali temples and in Chicago, Fiji and New Jersey. For a temple in St. Louis, Missouri, he created some 20 murtis. For Sri Lanka he sculpted an eight-foot-tall sitting Buddha. His reclining Vishnu is enshrined in the Siva-Vishnu Temple in Maryland.
Master Carver and Family Man: Perumal works on an exquisite murti of Lord Ganesha; with author Kesav Mallia and Perumal’s two sons Krishnamurthy, wife Kamakshi and daughter Pranavi, son Mallia with wife Leelavathy and son Tarun
Many works are in progress. A dozen three-foot-tall murtis will go to a Sai Baba temple in Madurai, Tamil Nadu. A four-foot Murugan, a Ganesha, a Shanmuga and Mayura are destined for a Murugan temple in Sri Lanka. A large Venkateswara murti like the one at the Tirupati Temple in Andhra Pradesh is being sculpted for a temple at Bengaluru.
Talking about his process, Perumal explains, “When I am asked to carve a Ganesha murti, I get totally merged into the carving of Ganesha and become Ganesha Himself. I normally do not work with a limited time frame but rather carve the Ganesha until I am fully satisfied with it. Internal visualization is important. Only then can you bring out the mental impressions in you and carve them physically on the stone.”
Stone carving is time consuming. A five-foot Dwarapalaka (guard at the door) will take six months. A three-foot-tall murti may take three months. The eight-foot-tall standing Vishnu for a temple in Hyderabad took a full year. Five years were spent on the 18-foot Ranganathar in reclining pose.
In the 1990s Perumal assisted with the ornamental carving designs for the Iraivan Temple commissioned by Satguru Sivaya Subramuniyaswami (founder of Hinduism Today) for his Kauai ashram. Perumal recalls, “I was involved for over a year at the beginning. I worked on the first few of the intricate ornamental carvings. I showed the other shilpis how to carve them and then did some follow-up. I have a lot of affection and bhakti towards Gurudeva, Sivaya Subramuniyaswami. After Rajaraja Chola [1000 ce], Gurudeva is the only one who is carving a totally hand-made granite temple. Gurudeva allows us to work carefully on all the intricate designs. He insisted on quality and wanted to bring the intricate works of stone to the West. Most people these days do not have the patience, money and time as he had to wait 12 to 15 years to complete a temple.”
At the age of 60, Perumal Sthapati remains one-pointedly focused on his work. Still healthy and fit, he rises at 5am, walks for one hour, then has breakfast and reaches his workplace in a two-wheeler at 8am. He returns home at 7pm. “I have no desire to retire; when at home in the late evening hours, I will always be thinking about my next day’s work. If the murti does not shape up as I want, then I will be very sad and frustrated.” When asked about his hobbies, Perumal chuckles, “No hobbies, except stone carving. All I want is that people will appreciate my work after I die.”
COURTESY PERUMA STHAPATI
Works in stone: The Gayatri side of his award-winning Vishwakarma/Gayatri sculpture in green granite; using charcoal as a marker, Sthapati makes a full scale drawing, one of the primary skill sets of his trade; working on the 10-foot-tall Ananta Padmanabha (sleeping Vishnu)
India’s “Statue of Liberation”
Two memorials stand on islands off the coast at India’s southernmost point. At left in the photo below is the Vivekananda Rock Memorial, dedicated in 1970. In 1892, Swami Vivekananda, at the time a wandering monk, swam over 1,000 feet to this island whereafter he meditated for three days and had a vision of his life’s mission. At right is the 133-foot-tall granite statue of Saint Tiruvalluvar. He lived over 2,000 years ago and wrote the Tirukural, a work of 1,330 couplets about religion, friendship, vegetarianism, moral living, business and government. Perumal Sthapati worked on the Tiruvalluvar project for ten years, right from its inception. His particular responsibilities were the 19-foot-tall face (pictured below) and the equally enormous hands and feet. Hundreds of workers and sculptors were engaged in the project. Stones were carved at a worksite on the nearby shore, then taken by boat out to the small island. Each stone, some weighing thousands of pounds, was then lifted into place with ropes and pulleys fixed to a scaffold of strong palm trees. This is the biggest statue in Tamil Nadu. India’s version of the American Statue of Liberty, it is endearingly known as the Statue of Liberation.
COURTESY PERUMAL STHAPAT