THERE is another kind of provision in Eastern society tending to secure the maintanance of standard in the crafts. I allude to the caste system—some aspects of which we must consider. Without here speaking of the origin and general significance of caste, it will suffice to say from our point of view that it represents a legal recognition of the natural division of society into functional groups. Theoretically, there are four casts only, the Brahman, or learned caste; the Kshttriya, or warriors and statesmen; the Vaishya, or traders, cultivators and craftsmen; and the sudra, craftsmen and servants. Much subdivision and multiplication of castes has taken place, so that there are large number of widely distributed, but self-contained communities in India, whose members do not inter-marry or eat together. Caste is hereditary, that is to say, every man is, and must remain, of the caste into which he is born, and this is true even if he should leave the special occupation which is the traditional work of his caste. There is a certain connection between the caste and the guild, that is to say, the trade guild consists usually of persons of the same ethnic and sectarian caste; but when the same trade is pursued by men of different castes, as sometimes, but not often, happens, the guild may include all without reference to caste. The craftsman has always his caste, but is not always associated with others into a guild; the guilds are mainly confined to the great polytechnic cities, while the village craftsman stands alone. Yet even he is not alone, for he is a member of a great fraternity, the caste; and how much this means to him, it would be difficult to exaggerate. It means at once his pride and his duty (dharma). Caste is a system of noblesse oblige; each man is born to his ordained work, through which alone he can spiritually progress. This religious conception of a man’s trade or profession as the heaven-ordained work of his caste, may best, perhaps, be likened to the honour of mediæval knighthood. For the priest, learning; for the king, excellence in kingcraft; for the craftsman, skill and faithfulness; for the servant, service. The way and the life are various, but progress is possible alone each in his own way: “Better is one’s own duty even without distinction, than the duty of another, even with excellence; in another’s duty danger lies.” And so it is that for each, culture comes in life itself, not as a thing separate from life.

Take the Vaisya for example; he is to be a grazier or a trader: he must, says Manu:

“Know the respective value of gems, of pearls, of coral, of metals, of woven stuffs, of perfume, and of condiments. He must be acquainted with the manner of sowing seeds, and of the good and bad qualities of fields, and he must perfectly know all measures and weights. Moreover, the excellence and defects of commodities, the advantages and disadvantages of different countries, the probable profit and loss on merchandise, and the means of properly rearing cattle. He must be acquainted with the proper wages of servants, with the various languages of men, with the manner of keeping goods, and the rules of purchase and sale. Let him exert himself to the utmost in order to increase his property in a righteous manner1, and let him zealously give food to all created beings.”

Thus each man had not only an economic, but a spiritual status in society; national righteousness is often described by saying that “each man lived according to the dharma of his caste, down even to the dancing girl who excelled in the duties of her calling also.”

The doctrine of Karma, the strongest, perhaps, of all sanctions for morality, has something to do also with craftsmanship. A man’s deeds follow him as a cart follows the ox; whatsoever a man does will react upon himself, sooner or later, in this life or another; as a man sows, so also shall he reap. These ideas are rather quaintly expressed in some of the technical books of the craftsmen. Here, for instance, are some verses from the Mayamataya, speaking of good and evil craftsmen, and their fate in this life and in lives to come:

“Builders that build houses thus, after their death, will be re-born in a royal family; painters, if they make images accordingly, in noble families; cunning and skilful builders, though they should die, are friends of mine, for as they do, they become rulers and nobles, such is the old saying of the sages. One who knows amiss his craft, taking hire wrongfully, the which wife and children eat and enjoy, bringing misfortune on the owner of the house, that builder will fall into hell and suffer—these sayings are in Mayamataya, what remedy can there be then, O builders? There are men who make images of Buddha, though knowing naught of their craft; put no faith in what they say. Builders and painters both, who know naught of their craft, when hire is given according to the work accomplished, take that money and (leaving their work) rush home therewith; though they get thousands, there is nothing even for a meal, they have not so much as a piece of cloth to wear, that is the reward of past births, as you know; dying, they fall into hell and suffer pain a hundred lacs of years; if they escape they will possess a deformed body, and live in great distress; when born as a man, it will be as a needy builder; the painter’s eyes will squint look ye, what livelihood can there be for him? Builders who know their business well will become Rājas lacking nought, so also cunning painters are meet to become nobles. Builders and painters taking money falsely from other men, thereby grow poor, so ancient sages have declared and shewn; doubt not this saying was in the Mayamataya book of sages lore; therefore, let builders and painters study Mayamataya: misfortunes ensuing in this world and the next are told of in its stanzas, behold how excellently.”

A few more words may be said as to the craftsman’s religious conception of his craft.2 I do not refer to the application of the craft to religious ends, but to the conception of its intrinsic religiousness. In “pagan” lands, there is no hard line drawn between the secular and the religious things in life; religion is not so much a formula, as a way of looking at things, and so all the work of life may be a sacrament, may be done as it were unto the Lord.3.

Hindu craftsmen in certain parts of India “worship”the implements of their labour at the Dasahrā festival. This Hindu custom has survived amongst some Muhammadan converts, e.g., the thavais of Northern India, who worship their tools at the Id al-gitr, making offerings of sweetmeats to them.4 In Gwalior, in the modern State workshops, the workmen prepare models of trains, machinery, etc., on which they have been engaged and pay honour to these at the Dasahrāfestival.

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 Grünwedel5:

“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.”6

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.7 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 Gāmanī 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 Rāja bestowed upon him a suit of clothes worth a thousand pieces, a splendid pair of slippers, and twelve thousand pieces of money.8

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 Mahārāja 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.”9

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.

Finally, I give an account of the ceremony of painting the eyes of an image, as performed in Ceylon as illustrating a gorgeous and beautiful episode in the craftsman’s life, and showing him in the performance of priestly functions. I omit many details, more fully related in my “Mediæval Sinhalese Art.” The ceremony, being the concluding episode in the construction or redecoration of a temple, often occupying several years, and an occasion graced by the presence of the patron of the work, in many cases the king himself, was an occasion of general rejoicing and festivity. Crowds of men and women from neighbouring villages, dressed in white cloths, and bringing offerings of arecanut flowers, money, or other gifts to offer to the new image, or to the artists, found acommodation in temporary booths. In other booths were those who sold provisions. A bana maduva, or preaching hall, would be erected, and there would be much reading of sutras or Buddhist sermons. There would be abundance of white flags, music and dancing, gossip and edification.

Sometimes there was no royal patron, but the vihāra was erected by the subscriptions and assistance of the villagers themselves, who dedicated, with royal permission, small parcels of land for its maintenance. In one such case we read that the eager villagers were in such a hurry for their consecration festival, that they borrowed images from another temple for the occasion, before their own were ready. But let us suppose the king had ordered the temple to be erected by the state craftsmen of the court and district. The night before the ceremony the king and officers of the court, and often the ladies of the royal household, arrived, and found accommodation in special pavilions.

Ceremonies began with the recitation of the Kosala Bimba Varnanava, a legend of the making of a sandalwood image of Buddha in his own time. Upon this followed the elaborate placing of eighty earthen pots, with offerings to Brahma and Vishnu, and the erection of altars to the regents of the eight points of the compass, with suitable offerings. Altars were also erected for the guardians of the door, whose images in ivory or wood had already been set on the jambs of the door of the image house, and an altar to the guardian of the site, the genius loci. These guardians of the temple are conceived of as pure and sweet natural powers, protectors of the shrine and guardians of the spiritual atmosphere about it. Within the temple an altar was erected to Gana Deviyō, and a rag figure prepared, afterwards to serve as a scapegoat to receive the first “glance”of the newly-painted eyes. All these arrangements were made by youths of the craftsman’s caste, dressed as Brahmans. Another man, wearing a red dress, made the offerings, recited mantrams, and circumambulated the temple sun-wise. Tom-tomming and other music was kept up continuously.

The final ceremony took place at five a.m., in memory of Buddha’s attainment of enlightenment at that hour so long ago in Kosala. The eyes of the image were painted by the king himself, or, in his absence, by the foreman craftsman in royal costume. The painter, accompanied by a second man, also robed, but less elaborately, and both with veiled heads, entered the temple, all others standing aloof. The second man carried the brushes, black paint, and a mirror. The latter was held before the image to receive its “glance.” A white cloth was spread by the village washerman for the painters to walk on as they passed from door to image. While the painter put in the eyes, or, in some cases, separate sclerotics of crystal or other material were affixed, the second man recited Sanskrit charms, and held up the mirror. The ceremony was repeated for each image of Buddha or of the gods. Immediately on its completion the painter veiled his eyes, and thus blindfolded was led out and away to a vessel of water already prepared. Here he purified himself by bathing his head, repeating the Indian formula of water-consecration, “Hail, O ye Ganges, Godavari, Sarasvati, Narmada, Indus, and Kaveri, come and hallow this water.” Then the painter cut the water with his sword, and the vessel was shattered. The painting of the eyes was deemed to be so sacramental, so great a mystery, that such purifications were needed to ensure immunity from evil that might fall upon the presumptuous mortal thus establishing a link ‘twixt heaven and earth. Returning to the vihāra, the doors were opened. By this time the grey dawn had passed into day, and the sun was up. The patron and the foreman stood together on the threshold facing the people. The craftsman, repeating Sanskrit charms, sprinkled the people with water. The patron and the people then made offerings to the temple and to the craftsmen. The offerings of money, cloths, etc., made during a certain number of days, were set apart as perquisites of the craftsmen, in addition to the special remunerations already agreed upon, for in the case of important work, such as temple building, making of images, etc., payments in goods or money were agreed upon, in addition to the mere provision of sustenance during the progress of the work.

After such offerings, the people entered the temple to lay flowers on the altar and admire the paintings, with cries of Sadhu. After the festival had lasted several days, the people and craftsmen dispersed to their homes, the latter completing their purification by a pirit service—the only direct part in the proceedings taken by Buddhist priests. Throughout the rest of the ceremony all priestly offices had been performed by the craftsmen themselves, acting as Brahman priests. The whole ceremony, though, here described in Ceylon, is essentially Hindu in character, and is typical of the sacerdotal functions of the Kammalar craftsmen. It is of necessity, from the nature of their work in making or repairing images, moreover, that the right of entry, otherwise belonging only to Brahmans, should be given to the craftsmen also, In some parts of Southern India they claim, and occasionally possess, a social prestige equal to that of Brāhmans. Otherwise, they would be classed as “good Sūdras,” whose touch does not defile. It is said in Manu: “The hand of a craftsman engaged in his art is always ceremonially pure.”

It is recorded in a Sinhalese grant of the early twentieth century that after such a ceremony as that described, the king (the last Kandyan king) appointed ecclesiastes for the temple service, and granted lands for its support, offering a palm leaf charter to the temple by laying it upon the altar.

Of the two manors dedicated, the king said that one was his mother’s, and she joined in the offering. Then the royal group walked round the temple, and the king, seeing a bare space of rock, ordered the charter to be cut on the stone, and this was done; and it is there still. About two months later the king and his mother and sister visited the vihāra again, and the vizier read aloud the stone inscription, which was compared by the king with the original charter, in the presence of the chief priests, and praising the stone-cutters, he ordered them to be paid from the treasury.

And so in the old days religious architecture was the stronghold and foundation of the arts and crafts, and both together were fostered by successive kings, of whom it is said in the chronicle that they “were one with the religion and the people“; but what was all that to the Georgian Christian Governor? What did he care for the religion, the music, or the art of a people so utterly alien to himself in culture and traditions? The royal craftsman found himself unsupported and unappreciated; and now, like so many other descendants of the Indian craftsmen, he is merely an agriculturist, perhaps even works on a tea estate, or he lives only to make brass trays and other pretty toys for passing tourists whose lives and manners he does not understand, and for whom, as he well knows by experience, any bungling is good enough, since they know nought of good or bad craftsmanship even in their own land, and still less in his.

And now, instead of the king going in the grey dawn with his mother and sister to be present at the consecration of a temple built by his minister and vizier, we see—the Governor, a mere five years’ visitor, ignorant even of the people’s language, much more so of their traditions and their ideals, as he goes with his English wife and her fashionable lady friends to open a bazaar in aid of the local missionary school for the daughters of Kandyan chiefs. Instead of the self-contained and independent village community, with its cultivated and forest lands, and its communal cultivation, there are the tea and rubber estates, and planters clamouring for a hut tax to induce the villager to work for them at profitable rates, rates profitable, that is, to the canny shareholder away in England and Scotland; instead of the king’s palace, we see the usual type of Government building, even uglier than in England, and a good deal more out of place; instead of the king’s craftsmen, we see the government clerks, slaving away for a ten cents bonus for every error detected in somebody’s accounts. O Sacred Efficiency, what things are done in thy name!

  • 1. Cf., the saying of the Tamil poetess Auvvai, “What is acquired without wrong-doing is wealth.”
  • 2. Appendix VI.
  • 3. In this connection, it is interesting to quote from so modern a work as Baha u’llah’s ‘ Words of Paradise” the following pronouncement: “It is incumbent on every one of you to engage in some employment such as arts, trades, and the like. We have made this, your occupation, identical with the worship of God, the True God” Compare with this conception of a man’s life-work the following modern teaching of the Soto School of Buddhists in Japan: “Not only the building of a bridge or the provision of a ferry-boat is a work of charity, but so are all forms of benefiting life, commercial and industrial.”—Rep. Third Int. Con. Religions, Oxford, 1908, I., pp. 324, 153.
  • 4. Arnold, Hindu Survivals among Indin Muslims, Rep. III. Int. Con. Relig., 1908, I., 319.
  • 5. “Mythologie des Buddhismus,” p. 102.
  • 6. Interesting, though unfortunately abbreviated, details of the ritual preparation of the painter or imager for his work are given by Foucher, ‘”L‘Iconographie Bouddhique de l’ Inde,’ II., pp. 7-14. The subject, however, belongs rather to the domains of art-philosophy and mysticism than to that of the craftsman, socially considered.
  • 7. Cf., Appendix VI.
  • 8. Mahāvamsa, Ch. XXX.
  • 9. Sir George Watt, “Indian Art at Delhi.”