ECSAS 2023 – Turin 26-29 July

Secrecy, Stories, & Sculpture: Swamimalai as a site of religious and artistic self-making


Balaswaminathan Sowparnika - Concordia University, Religions and Cultures, Montreal, Canada


28 – South Asian sacred spots: Nodal Points in Webs of Connections


This paper explores the pilgrimage town of Swamimalai, Tamilnadu as a nexus of religion, arts, and commerce, by juxtaposing the quotidian practices of residents with the thalavaralaru. Being one of the six abodes of the Tamil god Murugan, and because of its proximity to hundreds of Chola and Nayak era Brahminical temples in the Thanjavur district, Swamimalai is an easily accessible and popular pilgrimage destination. Swamimalai is also the residence of a community of bronzecasters who claim lineage from the medieval architects of the Chola temples, belonging to the artisan caste, Vishwakarma. An erstwhile itinerant community, Vishwakarma claimed Swamimalai as their permanent home after discovering the  astonishing quality of the clay found at the banks of the Kaveri river, an integral material for bronzecasting. These narratives construct Swamimalai as an idyllic village of religiosity and artistic tradition, but ground realities reveal this as a “charter myth” (Cohn 1977, Inden 1990) that lends itself to touristic evangelizing. Just as the thalavaralaaru of Swamimalai is centered on a “secret” that isn’t, and Swamimalai itself is a “malai” (mountain) that isn’t, the sculptor community in Swamimalai presents an artisanal utopia that isn’t. In this paper, I demonstrate how the narratives of the place commingle with the sociological realities of artisanal life in Swamimalai, to produce it as a self-aware and self-aggrandizing site for religious and artistic veneration.