There is an abundance of inscriptional and literary evidence pointing towards the high status of Shudra communities in pre-colonial India. Yet, academicians have never acknowledged, much less revised their erroneous theories to accommodate for the same.
Once upon a time, admittedly a long time ago, Indian artisans could chisel into a monolithic stone top-down, in three dimensions and work it like it was a slab of butter. Not so long ago they could still do the same with hardwood and metal. Today, the construction site that sends cement dust and welding fumes into your house, and breaks into your domestic peace with its high-pitched noise has some of the women folk from these same communities carting lumber and bricks on their heads; while their malnourished, emaciated kids sleep inside makeshift cradles made of torn sarees, waiting for the next contractor to hopefully give their parents better wages.
How did their plight come about? The mainstream political rhetoric nonchalantly insinuates that the privileged ‘upper’ castes’ have been responsible not just for these, but for all other Hindu poor who suffer similarly, stripping them of their rightful place in a hierarchical system, In this brief essay, we try to investigate where the major fault lines of the dominant theories lie - theories that seem to be stubbornly impervious to a huge body of evidence falsifying them.
Our investigation in the previous article led us to the conclusion that blaming all problems in the modern Indian society on caste while negating the accomplishments and self-esteem of Shudras of the past is made possible by reducing them to a handful of modern menial professions like manual scavenging. Therefore, for the sake of this series, we are choosing to focus on the Vishwakarma community primarily because it is a large community spread all over the country and whose history is verily the account of most other Shudra castes. It is a community comprising of stonemasons, carpenters, goldsmiths, blacksmiths, and weavers. The self-ascribed categories display slight variations over regions but most myths mention the above five categories consistently.
We find that as far as the Vishwakarma are concerned, it has been a long and steep fall from glory and pride that began in the Islamic era with the destruction of the temple economy, accelerated in the British colonial times due to changing revenue system, inhuman taxation, and oppressive land laws, and finally hit rock bottom in independent India under the watch of a corrupt and inefficient nanny state. But there is another fall situated in the mythic past that precedes the present one, which has been similarly ignored in the dominant academic discourse on caste.
Vedic connection omitted from translations
Unlike the most politically exploited - and therefore, famous - section of the Rigveda, whose principles we have touched upon in a previous article, the Vishwakarma Suktam is conspicuous by its absence in scholarly and academic theories. It is intriguing, to say the least, that while the metaphor of Purusha, originally intended to convey profound metaphysical truths, has been virtually torn apart by a process of puerile historicization, the story of Vishwakarma as laid out in the Rigveda has completely escaped such scrutiny. This despite, or perhaps because of, its relevance to how numerous Shudra communities place themselves in the intricate web that is the traditional Indian society.
The fact is that in the original Sanskrit Rigveda, the selfsame mandala (no. 10), which has the much talked about Purusha-sukta also has not one, but two Suktas dedicated to Vishwakarma. Successive Suktas also follow his genealogy, and his sons or Prajapatis, are also mentioned several times within the root text of Hinduism itself. This “rediscovery” of an extant sukta as yet not commonly translated gives rise to a new set of questions in our minds.
Where is the glitch in the continuity? Is there an excessive reliance by the authors we are studying, on English language secondary sources? Do serial citations from the same pool of 'known' researchers and 'popular' papers create this skew of perceptions, that then lead to bias or assumption? On further examination, we discovered that an overwhelming number of translations of Rigveda handed down to us are mere compendiums or anthologies. What is omitted will never be known to the foreign language speaking Hindu regardless of their religiosity and devotion.
Now, this raises the question as to why certain sections were left untranslated, not by just one but a series of colonial translators. Admittedly, there can be no definitive answers but we can arrive at a reasonable explanation of this trend if we contextualize this choice with the motives of colonial scholarship. More than a century ago, Dharampal wrote,1
British interest was not centered on the people, their knowledge, or education, or the lack of it. Rather, their interest in ancient texts served their purpose: that of making the people conform to what was chosen for them from such texts and their new interpretations. Their other interest (till 1813, this was only amongst a section of the British) was in the Christianization of those who were considered ready for such conversions (or, in the British phraseology of the period, for receiving ‘the blessings of Christian light and moral improvements’). These conversions were also expected to serve a more political purpose, in as much as it was felt that it could establish some affinity of outlook between the ruled and the rulers.
Further, Dharampal noted,1
The more practical and immediate purposes of governance (following Adam Ferguson) led to the writing of works on Hindu and Muslim law, investigations into the rights of property and the revenues of various areas, and to assist all this, to a cultivation of Sanskrit and Persian amongst some of the British themselves. Acquaintance with these languages was felt necessary so as to enable the British to discover better, or to discard, choose, or select what suited their purpose most. To achieve such a purpose in India, and to assist evangelical exhortation and propaganda for extending Christian ‘light’ and ‘knowledge’ to the people, preparation of the grammars of various Indian languages became urgent. The task, according to William Wilberforce, called for ‘the circulation of the holy scriptures in the native languages’ with a view to the general diffusion of Christianity, so that the Indians would, in short, become Christians, if I may so express myself, without knowing it.
That this was the purpose with which the collation of the Rigveda happened can also be seen in Ambedkar’s work where tabulation of the single words like Arya or Dasyu is carried out without considerations to context or metaphor. Did the Shudras have a God? Was he/she mentioned in the Vedas? If so, how were the Vedas treating the God of the Shudras? These are questions that would naturally occur to anyone trying to make sense of what it meant for a Shudra to be him/herself. Thus the omission described above is a case of distortion being introduced by discarding what does not suit the political purpose of the translators. At any rate, their monotheistic worldview would find it difficult to accommodate different gods for different professions/communities and it would be easier to ignore such occurrences than explain them.
Implications of omission
Which foreign and Indian language translations have omitted what sukta from which mandala and what is the distortion in the philosophy caused by it, deserves an independent multilingual scholarly effort. Here we are only considering what the lack of translations of two important suktas can mean.
There are at least more than a hundred or so temples of Vishwakarma scattered all across the Indian subcontinent. Their prevalence in old industrial towns like Bellary, Kashi, and Jaipur is noteworthy. Quite clearly, there is a contrast between the deity’s conspicuous absence from scholarly literature and the network of ‘sacred geography’ dedicated to him that extends beyond the political boundaries of the Indian nation all the way to Southeast Asia. The blinding rate of extinction of traditional knowledge systems due to a disruption in oral transmission from one generation to another reveals the vulnerability of carefully preserved memory in the information age. Techniques of these evaporating knowledge bases can be documented for posterity.
Skill and proficiency need mastering and a conducive system in which the object or commodity can be created. Even when a conducive system can be mimicked, skill sets once lost are truly hard to recreate. To add to the civilizational trauma are half-baked academic conjectures passed off as theories like ‘Brahmanical’ appropriation of tribal gods. Thus the Vedic origins of Vishwakarma, which are already ignored by academics run the risk of being entirely forgotten much like how the red dye that was specifically known as Indian dye can no longer be made. Researchers like George Varghese already ridicule members of the community, stomping on their already battered self-esteem only because the Vishwakarma are ill-equipped to fight the battle of 'respectable citations', and 'known body of work' that will give them back their legitimacy.2
This brings us to the Pauranika stories of their origin, which may be dismissed by motivated scholars as Brahmanical conspiracies but nevertheless provide a crucial view of the Shudras’ place in pre-colonial Hindu society.
What later literary and inscriptional records tell us
The Brahmavaivarta Purana describes the origin of Shudras as their deity’s fall from grace. As per this account, Vishwakarma descends to the earthly plane due to a curse by an Apsaras. He goes to have nine illegitimate sons - garland-maker, blacksmith, potter, metalworker, conch-shell carver, weaver, architect (Sutradhara), painter (Citrakara), and goldsmith. These become the archetypes for the later occupational categories. Similarly, the Vishwakarma Puranam, probably dating to the 18th century CE, says that Brahma and Vishwakarma, who were themselves created by Vishnu and Shiva respectively together built the Universe. Vishwakarma has five faces, each symbolizing one of the five principal crafts. The text also goes on to describe Vishwakarma wearing the sacred thread “similar to what the Brahmins wear around their shoulder”, thus betraying the claim of the community’s own Brahminical status.
With the scripturally sanctioned self-image of being descendants of the creator of the Universe himself, it is easy to surmise that the Vishwakarmas were a proud people whose contributions to the Hindu civilization remain literally unparalleled. Indeed there seems to be no parallel in world history to the transgenerational art created by Indian craftsmen, as seen in the grand temples of the south that survived the Islamic onslaught. The larger temples were built by more than one generation of architects, with the son starting from where the father stopped. Ironically, it was the glory of building architectural wonders that was passed from one generation to the next as opposed to the curse of being ‘low-born’ as the western academic tropes seem to portray.
|Rajim stone inscription by Durgahastin||Durgahastin is pious (sadhu)|
|Inscription from Badami states by Sri Chandra Kirtiya Bhatta. (Karnataka)||The artist made the sculpture of Durgadevi. The nomenclature acharya or achari or bhatta belongs to the brahmins, but still here the artisans who are sudras have used brahmins surnames.|
|Inscription from Ayyangaripalem by Maindarama (Guntur, Andhra Pradesh)||One of the earliest eulogies relating to craftsmen - refers to the architect of the Jalpesa, called Maindarama as "Kalgarabharnaacharya'' (an ornament to sculpture) of the fourth (sudra) caste and the jewel of the Vishwakarma Kula.|
|Dharmaraja ratha (7th and 8th century CE, Mahabalipuram)||Kevataperumtachchan payyam izhipan- greatest takshak (carpenter). Another craftsman kunamalla is referred to as a strong wielder of the sledgehammer. SalaMukhiyan - the chief toolsman. The records end with craftsman paying their obeisance to Tiruvorriyur Abhachar. Tiruvorriyyur is sixty km from mahabalipuram and was apparently the place where the chief architect was located.|
|Pallava inscription (9th century CE) by Parameshwaram, who is son of Chanundacharya.||Indicates that the craft was passed on by hereditary and the craftsmen often lived at the same place for generations|
|Three pandya copper plate (946 CE)|
|First copper plate by Nirupasekhara Perumkollan Nakkan||The record says that the engraver came from the family that had served under the Pandya kings for generations. His father composed the Tamil Prashasti in the record. Then comes the peculiar phrase that this sculpture was carved in the "Himalayan peak'. If this is taken literally, it would mean that the craftsmen were remarkably mobile.|
|Second inscription by Tamilbharanan Srivallabha Pandimaraya||It must be noted that Tamilabharanan is, in fact, a title meaning 'Jewel among Tamilians' conferred to this blacksmith. The records say that he came from a family of blacksmiths who had made the axe of Parashuram and were the descendants of Manu.|
|Third inscription by Marttandan||Marttandan who not only engraved the Prashasti but also composed it, the Mahasbhaiyar--that is Brahmadeya assembly head granted land of 3 Pulan and some other privileges to the craftsman.|
|Inscription from Virapandya (951 CE, Ambasamudram)||Ambasamudramam is in Tirunelveli. This inscription has the same information as below.|
|The record of Koparakesari Parantaka (Tiruperumber, Tirucherapalli)||This inscription refers not only to Kollam (blacksmith ) and Tachchan (carpenter) but also Kusavan (potter) as obtaining land grants which were tax-free.|
|Uttama Chola (10th century CE, Kanchipuram Temple)||Details of the four streets assigned to the Saliya weavers and their power of supervision, along the merchants, over the other caste artisans in matters of revenue collection and the temple services.|
|Chandella inscription by Padma (Kalanjara, Uttar Pradesh)||This inscription refers to Padma who was king's favourite artist.|
|Inscription from 31st year of Rajaraja Chola 1 (Tiruvilinalimalai, Tanjore)||Inscription refers to the grants of a house site and some surrounding lands to a Tachcha-achari (carpenter) for executing repairs in the shrines of Ninru Aruliya Nayinar.|
|Brahadisvara Temple (1011 CE)||Employment of various categories of smiths in permanent capacity and their participation in the urbanisation.|
|Chola inscription (Brahadisvara Temple)||Refers to some secret procedure by craftsmen 'mantrpoorvamaga cheydal' (esoteric methods), used in the making of copper brass gold vessels, lamps, plates etc.|
|Chingleput inscription (1018 CE)||This is an elaborate Prashasti on craftsmen by the craftsman. It records the family and lineage and an important man in this family line described as "bee at the lotus feet'' of Vishnu. It also shows their poetic skills through the use of 'alankars'.|
|Chalukya inscription of Someswara by Aloja, son of Mudda Bammoja and grandson of Jattoja (Dharwad)||Indicates that sculpting was hereditary and the craftsmen lived in same place for generation.|
|Chebrolu inscription (1118 CE)||The inscription states that smiths belong to the Vishwakarma kula.|
|Nadindla inscription (1141 CE)||The inscription states that smiths belong to the Vishwakarma kula.|
|Tiruvarur inscription (12th century CE)||This inscription describes the Vishwakarma as makers of weapons. The same records smiths as well-versed in archery. There are references to soldier smiths who died in a cattle raid. Smith manufactured chariots - Rathakars were the ones who made the chariots, they had knowledge of Vastu shastras and alone possessed the ability to assess horses in terms of their endurance in wars.|
|Tiruvarur record (12th century CE)||This record describes the Shiladosha Parikshaka, the one who identifies stone and their defects.|
|Macherla inscription (1111 CE, Palnad Taluq, Guntur)||The inscription states the smiths are the descendants from Vishwakarma who was the son of Brahma. He is also said to be the father-in-law of Surya, converting the rays of Sun into divine weapons like the discus of Vishnu. The inscription also says that the Vishwakarma smith made images of gods, used knowledge of geometry (from the Sanskrit yamitro) in Vastu shastra or the science of sculpture.|
|Tiruvarur inscription (1123 CE, Tanjavur)||This inscription concerns with a land grant to the temple by the king. It was engraved by 'the greatest of masons, our temple achari'.|
|Tiruvarur inscription||Tiruvarur inscription describes Sthapati as Vastu tatvajna ( that is one who has the knowledge of the science of architecture). He was referred to as Nimitha Shakuna (studying portents), Jyotirgyana Prabodhakah (astrological), and Ganitgyah (mathematical knowledge related to the construction of temple).|
|Macherla inscription (1177 CE, Palnad Taluq, Guntur)||This inscription links the Vishwakarma to Brahma, the divine creator.|
|Sundrapandya Chaturvedimanglam (1258 CE, Coimbatore)||Refers to the setting of villages with Vellalar and other functionaries which include the smiths, barber, barber, potter, watchman, drummer, and priest.|
|Rajasikamaninallur by Village craftsman (13th century CE, Chidambaram)||Regarding the village craftsman, inscriptional evidence indicates that they were paid in terms of small piece of land as a service grant or in terms of a share of usufruct.|
|Tellapur inscription (1417 CE)||The inscriptions states that smiths belong to the Vishwakarma kula.|
|Inscription from Andhra pradesh by Boya tribal community Tipanna ((1529 CE, Cuddapah)||A certain degree of social flux as the craftsman here is non-Vishwakarma.|
|Karnataka inscirptions||It shows that community of minters of coins were powerful enough to make donations withour consulting other Vishwkarma contituents. They also began to act as money lenders.|
|Record from Avinasi (Coimbatore)||This inscription registers the permanent appointments of two artisans in Avinasisvara temple to attend the dasakriya (ten kinds of repair) and to receive in return a service grant called Tachchakani.|
The preceding table is a compilation of inscriptional records from various places and times. These inscriptions were written by the architects and artists themselves, recording their great contributions to history and quite unambiguously substantiating the claim that far from being oppressed, they were showing off to posterity their privilege, power, and unparalleled skill. Last we checked, there are no such inscriptions found in the North American plantations or the Arab world of ‘slaves’, describing themselves as proud descendants of the creator of the Universe and claiming credit for architectural and artistic accomplishments, if any.
There are more surprises that inscriptional and literary records throw at us. For example, the Saiddhantikas of Mattamayura (9th to 11th centuries CE) built monasteries and temples from the west coast to Magadha have laid down their teaching in a detailed textbook of the craft, the Isanasivagurudevapaddhati. Another Chandella inscription from Kalanjara refers to one Stotakachari of Visvamitra gotra and Hammigade house, who is described as "supreme lord of Lankadvipapura ... versed in all shastras, sought after to construct ornamental buildings and upper storeys, adorned with all qualities of head..., distinguished in giving advice." The Vishwakarma Puranam says that Vishwakarma wrote the 'Mayanool', which is the science of architecture, containing among other things the indigenous hand measurement systems (Kadam, Ma, Yojan, etc) and details of complex mathematical and astrological calculations in the construction of a building.
Since colonial times the strategy has been to discredit these indigenous knowledge systems as “primitive”, “pseudo-scientific” or brought along and enforced by previous invaders, namely the Aryans on one hand while appropriating from them and fostering the image of an illiterate, uncivilised, and impoverished populace being salvaged through the civilizing mission of the colonizer and his religion. Yoga, Tantra, Ayurveda, the dyes, metallurgy, mathematics - the examples are too numerous to cite.
All this explicitly contradicts the image of oppressed ‘Dalits’ that has been uniformly imposed on all so-called scheduled castes and tribes because that is the only rationale offered for caste-based reservations in modern India. As is clear from the above, not only were the Vishwakarma literate, that is able to read and write, inscribe and compose in Sanskrit where other 'higher castes' could not, they were also well-versed with complex subjects that required interdisciplinary knowledge. This busts another popular myth that occupations were watertight compartments held static by the decree of Brahmins. As R.N. Mishra notes:
It thus turns out that silpis, especially architects and sculptors, had perhaps managed to secure the ranks of vastavyas, karanikas, and kayasthas, which originally were (non-caste-specific) bureaucratic positions in the state. Similarly, the vastavyas, karanikas, etc. had also made inroads into the exclusive art-related territory of silpis.
The affluence and authority of the Shudra artisans afforded them the luxury of deciding their own code of conduct, often leading to power struggles with other groups such as the Brahmins. It is in this light that the many injunctions against shudras trespassing into traditionally Brahmin territory of social functions must be seen. Thus, condemnation of Silpis in certain Dharmashastras as “thieves” and “unfit for heaven”, which often goes hand in hand with a grudging acceptance of their mastery in craft and knowledge of shastras, is an exasperated cry by the Brahmins of the day of having to part with social status with a wealthier and more powerful section of society. Edicts that prohibit harming the artisan's hands and severe punishment for the same also exist and are documented in our research but are hardly cited. When read in conjunction with Manu’s laws against incursions into “brahminical “ professions, it is clear that the rules are to keep mutual trespassing into professional boundaries at bay, and not one “dominant” caste subjugating the other as has been mischievously portrayed. It is interesting how the myth of Vishwakarma’s fall from grace legitimizes the pursuit of artistic excellence by the Silpi as his path back to glory and the rediscovery of his innate divinity. Even Manusmriti recognizes that the hand of a craftsman engaged in his work is always ritually pure.
The modern fall
The original fall of the Shudras was a mythical fall that gave them a sense of meaning, purpose and collective identity. The modern fall took away all of that and gave them a permanent sense of victimhood that could be bartered for crumbs thrown at them by the government, weaponizing their caste identities to create fault-lines that are exploited by transnational vested interest groups to destabilize Indian society as a part of religious expansionism and/or geo-political strategy. Caste thus became an unqualified evil that needed to be “annihilated” at all costs.
The modern fall started with the collapse of the temple economy. The Britishers, realising that temples were money-minting machines, forced the local rulers to hand over temple control to them. This was done by perfectly legal means most often by a sleight of hand not very different from the infamous 'Doctrine of Lapse' by which the British East India Company annexed numerous Indian princely states. This was not unlike how the apache lands on the other side of the planet were usurped by the invading Europeans.
The second factor contributing to the fall was the change in land laws and taxation. Most professions were seasonal and ritualistic in nature. The taxes made sure that land yields needed more focus than before and the secondary professions took a back seat. This caused a huge disruption in the intergenerational transfer of knowledge and skills.
Thirdly, when the princely states merged into the new democratic country in 1947, the assured generational purses for artists and craftsmen were either stopped abruptly or made dependent on haphazard classification of the profession by the state and probable handouts, if at all one qualified. The patronage of the arts was gone and with it, the prestige of the crafts and the status of the craftsmen. The ‘secularisation’ of religious art had been underway since the Mughal times. What were sacred dancing, sculpting, architectural and painting traditions were soon employed by courts, where the Kings substituted the Gods. But with the radical traumatic changes in the system introduced in independent India, groups of artisans were plunged into a flux never witnessed in history before. Each one fended for themselves in any way they could. For example, the kalawantins from goa migrated to a newly mushrooming film industry and became iconic singers, composers, dancers and actresses - Lata Mangeshkar, Kishori Amonkar, to name a few. Those that were not so lucky had to take to prostitution or were forced into it.
The goldsmiths were as proficient in catering to the humans as to the Gods, and could hold on to the craft as the commodity and value of the smithing did not undergo too radical a change. The Blacksmiths were absorbed by the new icon of modernity - the Railways and the Automobile industries. The really independent minded still survive as small time entrepreneurs that solder broken appliances or set up shop of racks, pots and pans. Today the famed and centuries old indigo dyeing of Ilkal is on the verge of extinction. The generation that practiced the craft every day, and were thus supremely competent at the job of producing it is standing on its last leg as it were.
Those with modern degrees that finish in three to five years now employ, as menial workers (karigars, kamgaars etc.), those that come from the unbroken traditions that required ten to fourteen years to master. From a flourishing plethora of commodities, we now produce substandard architecture, toxic dyes, synthetic plastic commodities that mimic an aesthetic that is neither our own nor suited to our geographical climates, nor has the same economy of raw material any respect for nature as these traditional systems had. For instance, the Parasara Madhaviyam, a fifteenth century text attributed to Madhava, the minister of the Vijayanagara King Krishnadeva Raya, has the following advice for the farmers:
loha sahitena langala mukhena, praninaha
Chinnabhinnam bhavantiti matsyavadat papadhikyam uktam
With the use of an iron-tipped plough (by the farmer)
more creatures are killed and greater sin incurred than the killings of (hundreds of) fish.
As Vijaya Ramaswamy explains in her paper, this advice is as much a moral injunction as it is a sound agricultural practice that keeps the top soil healthy and fertile. She further remarks,6
Hamilton Buchanan writing about Ragi cultivation in the Serigapatnam region in the eighteenth century estimated the average seed;yield ratio to be as much as 1:40. This is in striking contrast to the European figure for the same period which range between 1:4 to 1:6.
In conclusion, we have been able to map that traditional knowledge was orally and hereditarily transmitted but not all oral knowledge systems were Brahminical. Acharyas and gurus came from all castes, were revered by kings and populace alike, and in some cases had celebratory iconic status in the society that they served. By reviewing the so-called Brahminical schemes of knowledge while ignoring, mutilating, and sometimes outlawing what they thought was ‘heathen’, the Britishers managed to create a fissure in the fabric of a well-knit society. A fissure, so deep and nefarious, that agitators with caste tickets today would want to bring down temples or stop other people from visiting by citing the temple as a brahminical symbol of oppression, the same temple that their forefathers once proudly erected.
- Dharampal (1983); The Beautiful Tree: Indigenous Indian Education in the Eighteenth Century
- Varghese, George K. (2003); Globalisation Traumas and New Social Imaginary: Visvakarma Community of Kerala
- Ramaswamy, Vijaya (2004); Vishwakarma Craftsmen in Early Medieval Peninsular India
- Kramrisch, Stella (1958); Traditions of the Indian Craftsman
- Mishra, R.N. (2011); Silpis in Ancient India: Beyond their Ascribed Locus in Ancient Society
- Ramaswamy, Vijaya (2012); Metal Crafts in Peninsular Indian History; Textile technology in Medieval India with Special Reference to the Peninsula