Ananda K. Coomaraswamy



There is a God of the arts and crafts, whose name is Visvakarma, who is described as the ‘lord of the arts, the carpenter of the gods, the fashioner of all ornaments, who formed the celestial chariots of the deities, on whose craft men subsist, and whom, a great and immortal god, they continually worship.’ The Indian craftsmen, or, at least, the most important guild or caste of craftsmen, claim to be descended from the five sons of this deity, of whom one was a blacksmith, the second a carpenter, the third a founder, the fourth a mason, and the fifth a goldsmith; and the followers of these crafts in Southern India form still one compact community.

We find some curious and suggestive mystical ideas, not without practical applications, associated with the personality of the craftsman. His work is regarded rather as a sacred mystery, as a sacrament, than as a secular “trade”. In illustration of this I quote an extract from the Srimahavajrabhairavatantra, translated from the German version of Grünwedel*:

“The painter must be a good man, no sluggard, not given to anger, holy, learned, self-controlled, devout and charitable, free from avarice - such should be his character. The hand of such a painter may paint on Sura-cloth. Would he attain to success, then enters the gift of the Sura into him. He should draw his design in secrecy, after having laid the cloth quite flat. He may paint if besides the painter only a sadhaka be present, but not if a man of the world be looking on.”

The Indian craftsman conceives of his art, not as the accumulated skill of ages, but as originating in the divine skill of Visvakarma, and revealed by him. Beauty, rhythm, proportion, idea have an absolute existence on an ideal plane, where all who seek may find. The reality of things exists in the mind, not in the detail of their appearance to the eye. Their inward inspiration upon which the Indian artist is taught to rely, appearing like the still small voice of a god, that god was conceived of as Visvakarma. He may be thought of as that part of divinity which is conditioned by a special relation to artistic expression; or in another way, as the sum total of consciousness, the group soul of the individual craftsmen of all times and places. Thus, king Duttha Gamani having enquired of a master bricklayer in what form he proposed to build the monument required, it is stated that “at that instant Visvakarma inspired him. The bricklayer, filling a golden dish with water, and taking some water in the palm of his hand, dashed it against the water in the dish; a great globule, like a ball of crystal, rose to the surface; and he said, ‘I will construct it in this form.’” It is added that the delighted raja bestowed upon him a suit of clothes worth a thousand pieces, a splendid pair of slippers, and twelve thousand pieces of money.

All this is an expression of a religious conception of life, and we see the working of such ideas in actual practice. A few years ago a reproduction was made of a room in a palace belonging to the Maharaja of Bhavnagar. The head carpenter was ordered to follow the ancient rules of his craft. As the work progressed, he observed that the finger of God was pointing the way, and that accordingly mistakes were impossible. In support of this, he quoted the ancient rules of his craft.

“The breadth of the room should be divided into twenty-four parts, of which fourteen in the middle and two at each end should be left blank, while the remaining two portions should each form windows or jalis. The space between the plinth and upper floor should be divided into nine parts, of which one should be taken up by the base of the pillar, six parts by the column, one by the capital, and one by the beam over it. He then added that should any departure be made from these rules, the ruin of the architect and death of the owner were sure to follow.”

The science of house building, says the Brihat Samhita, “has come down to us from the Rishis (sages), who obtained it from Brahma.”

Can we wonder that a beautiful and dignified architecture is wrought in such a wise, and can such conceptions fail to produce serenity and dignity in life itself? Under such conditions, the craftsman is not an individual expressing individual whims, but a part of the universe, giving expression to ideals of eternal beauty and unchanging laws, even as do the trees and flowers whose natural and less ordered beauty is no less God-given. The old-fashioned Eastern craftsman speaks with more than a touch of scorn of those who “draw after their own vain imagining”, and there is much to justify his view.



* Mythologie des Buddhismus," p. 102

This is an excerpt from The Indian Craftsman, Chapter V: Religious Ideas in Craftsmanship

Published by Probsthain & Co., London, 1909




FREE TRADE AND PROTECTION by Ananda Coomaraswamy