Tuesday, November 01, 2005

The Golden Era of Temple Jewellery

Theories abound on the origin of the style of jewellery known today as Temple Jewellery. While the designs are very much part of our lives, especially in the case of Bharatanatyam dancers, there’s little known about how this style evolved over the years. 

To explore the subject further, I spoke to two interesting women, both eminent in their respective fields, and having a strong association with temple jewellery.

Dr. Usha R. Bala Krishnan is an art-historian, whose expertise encompasses all areas of Indian art. She has co-authored ‘Dance of the Peacock: Jewellery Traditions of India’, has documented the jewels that formerly belonged to the Nizams of Hyderabad and also written a book, ‘Jewels of the Nizams’ about it. She is currently working on several projects and publications related to jewellery, design, arts and crafts and lifestyles in ancient and contemporary India.

Noted Bharatnatyam exponent, Chitra Visweswaran, a much-honoured artiste, has also been conferred among others, the titles of Padma Shri and Kalaimamani. Chitra’s wealth of knowledge on different aspects of dance came through during a discussion on temple jewellery, a style that is worn, even today, by dancers during performances. 

THE TEMPLE :
“Life revolved around temples in the olden days. The temple was at the heart of society and much of the classical dance that we know of today, especially Bharatanatyam evolved in temples”, says Chitra. “In the temple, along with dance itself, other arts and crafts also evolved. The making of musical instruments became an industry thanks to their use by accompanists during dance recitals. New forms of weaving took shape to cater to the demand for sarees and subsequently, dance costumes. Gold smiths created a distinct form of jewellery, also known as Kemp set, which dancers wore during performances. As it had been given form under the auspices of the temple, this style was called Temple Jewellery. It is also said that the style and craftmanship came about in order to create jewellery to adorn deities in temples. Subsequently, the royalty adopted it and it was then passed on to the devadasis who wore the type for their dance performances.”

Usha believes that in days of yore, temple treasuries stored all the jewellery gifted to the deity by the king and the affluent. She says, “These jewels used to be gifted to the deities by the king and the affluent. The goldsmiths and jewellers who made this type, were attached to the temple treasury. When there were invasions, temple treasuries were also targeted as they were extensions of the royal treasury, in a way.”

Usha adds an interesting tidbit, “There are inscriptions in the Brihadeshwara temple at Thanjavur, listing all the jewels given by Raja Raja Chola and his sister. There were over 60 pieces, listed along with their weight, quality and the type of materials used.” 

THE PATTANS AND ASARIS: 
Usha, being the expert in the field, also adds, “This style of jewellery is also called Vadasari after a place near Nagercoil, where the Pattans and Asaris (goldsmiths and jewelers) honed the technique. The craftsmen used Cabuchon (cushion-shaped) rubies. The rubies used, were procured from Burma with whom India traded extensively in those days.”

Chitra says, “The best Temple Jewellery was made in Nagercoil or by craftsmen from Nagercoil. It was originally made in gold and encrusted with rubies, uncut diamonds and sometimes, even emeralds.” She further sheds light on lesser-known aspects of the jewellery, enumerating their significance beyond mere adornment. “The quality of the gold was of importance, as pure gold is known to foster the well being of the wearer. These pieces were not just meant as ornamentation, but had deeper significance.” 

THE SYMBOLISM: 
 Chitra elaborates, “For example, the suryan and chandran that are worn on either side of the head on top, are symbolic of invoking the blessings of the sun and moon, respectively. The rakkodi, worn on top of the head, had migraine-curing properties. If the earlobe was pierced at a particular point and good gold ear jewellery was worn, it was known to provide good eyesight. The nose ring or nose stud had cancer-retardatory properties. “ she added.

However, Usha believes that there is no significance to designs per se. “There were some pieces of jewellery that were made only for the temple deity, like the kavacham (armour), kireetam (crown) and other accoutrements like the padukas (footwear) and the vel (spear). Some old texts specify that temple rituals should be performed on the deities when they are bedecked, or with aabharanas. The idea was to make it a resplendent sight to behold.”

As for its use in dance, the significance is more so today than ever before. Imagine a performance space in the temple of yore, lit only by torches and oil lamps. Today, although lighting is much more advanced, the audience body is larger, thereby adding distance between the performer and the audience. Both then and now, there is a great need for the dancer to look riveting so that a bond is formed between her and the audience. The setting, size and material used in the jewellery, has to ensure that it complements and adds lustre to the performance. The different types of stones used, were intended to highlight and offset each other, as otherwise, the jewellery with only gold would appear without depth during a performance.

Bharata’s Natya Shastra lists the type of jewellery to be worn by a Bharatanatyam Dancer. The jewellery was designed to be similar to those worn by the aristocratic classes of those times.

The same craftsman made the jewellery for both the deities and the people, hence, the designs became fairly common. 

TODAY’S WORKMANSHIP:Usha says, “Unfortunately, there seem to be no remnant pieces in the original craftsmanship for reference. Nor are there any catalogs.” Chitra adds that dancers today, who have original Temple Jewellery made in gold, must be possessing pieces that are probably over a hundred years old.

Over the years, availability of the material and affordability of the jewellery became a major factor. Hence, two types of temple jewellery emerged. One was made in silver and covered with gold leaf. The other was dipped in gold. The original designs continue to be popular, and some jewellery outlets customize the design, making pieces more delicate, to better suit the aesthetics of women today. 

The bigger jewellery outlets continue to sell the old designs in gold, although some specific pieces are bought only on special occasions like weddings. Like the oddiyanam and the thalai saamaan. However, pieces like these are freely available for hire for specific occasions, making it much more affordable.

Pic by author
An edited version of this article was published in the November 2005 issue of Eve's Touch.