Panchaloha idols the living God

Shreenesh Raman

Wax Mould of Lord Vinayaka
Pic Courtesty: Google Images

Earth, Fire, Space, Water, Air are basic elements of Panchaloha idols sharing commonalities with any living being on earth. The small temple town of Swamimalai famous for Lord Muruga’s temple is home to India’s famous master craftsmen working on Pachaloha idols.

Panchaloha idols made of Gold, Silver, Copper, Iron and lead were distributed to various temples in the erstwhile Chera, Chola and Pandya kingdoms. However after metals became a trading commodity Gold and silver lost its place to alternatives like Tin and Zinc. Based on the Hindu text of Shilpa Sastra (Treatises of Art), each and every idol is crafted with due dedication and ample time.

In Swamimalai, many master craftsmen belonging to Cholan sculptor’s race are present even today practicing the niche and time consuming art as a profession, says Mohanraj Sthapathy. Early kingdoms were rich in culture and heritage, especially the Cholan kings started making things with grandeur.

According to Mohanraj Sthapathy a master craftsman from Swamimalai, the centre is famous for the art of temple architecture and statue making since Maurya period. Raja Raja Chola’s grandmother Chembiyanmadevi, spearheaded the panchaloha statue making in a massive manner after the Pallava kings. According to historical reference, she asked master craftsmen to make statues light weight in order to make them as ‘Urchava Murti’.

Belonging to a 16th generation sculptors from the Nayak periods, the craftsmen in Swamimalai possess great skills on temple building and statue making. According to legend, it is said that craftsmen in Swamimalai belong to the 32nd generation of Cholan sculptors. The availability of a specific alluvial soil makes Swamimalai a suitable spot for panchaloha idol making. Sculptors were not able to find alluvial soil neither in Kumbakonam nor in Thiruvaiyaru.

Panchaloha idols are made of lost wax process also known as Maduchchhista vidhānam in Sanskrit and Cire Perdue in French. Wax required for making the model or pattern of the icon is prepared by mixing Paraffin wax, resin from the tree Damara Orientalis, and ground nut oil to make hard wax. However a softer version used in making detailed parts are made by mixing pure bee’s wax making it lighter and soft.

Later the wax model is covered with the alluvial soil extracted from Cauvery River from the banks as a first layer. A coating of River clay is given to maintain the temperature of the model mold with a funnel like opening on top of the clay mold. Later, artisans heat the wax and clay mold upto 800 degree Celsius in an open ground oven. The heat melts the wax inside and collected in a vessel containing water for reuse, says Mohanraj Sthapathy.

Later the red hot mold is buried in the ground and placed rigidly, the mixture of five metals are then poured into the clay mold. Artisans take enough care to fill the molten metal does not cover more than half in order to make way for air and bubble particles to escape from inside. Later the mold is left to cool for couple of days depending on the size. Sculptors later excavate the idols and break the clay mold starting from the head of the statue as described in the Shilpa Sastra, he said.

Ancient Traits
Even today many sculptors are living in temple centres like Mahabalipuram, Kanchipuram, Madurai, and Gengee due to their historical importance. Almost all the migrated sculptors’ family history traces back to Swamimalai, he said and added that family tree chart is still preserved of all sculptors from Nayak period.
The sculpting techniques used in Swamimalai is very unique and ancient, reference of lost wax mold process dates back to Aryan civilization in Indus Valley, says Naranaswamy, a master sculptor in Thanjavur royal palace and a researcher of sculptors in Tamil University.

The habit of making bronze staute flourished during Maurya period in Northern part of India, giving a comparison between North Indian and south Indian sculptors, said Narayanswamy . Idols made in South India especially in Swamimalai brings out the euphoric and lively feel, on the other hand idols of north Indian origin presents a human figure with closed eyes, citing the Buddha statues of Asoka period.

Medicinal Values
Not just the amalgamation of precious metals, the statues are also famous for their cosmic effect exposed. It is still an unrecognized theory that only Panchaloha idols have the effect to store and emit positive cosmos after the chants of Mantras’.  When performed abhishekam on the panchaloha idols, the milk or water used in Abhishekam contains particles of lead and copper creating medical resistance in human body, pointed out Narayanswamy.

Divine work
It is believed that every idol is a living god, according to Shilpa Sastra every craftsmen starts his work in a pious manner after performing rituals to the god. Since the idols will be donning a divine status in temples, sculptors take utmost care and derive the best out of their creativity.

A sad situation is prevailing these days, with people coming to idols sculptors after fixing the date of Kumbabhishekam. Sculptors consider every idol as baby taken out of mother’s womb. Time constraints will lead to seriously loss of concentration and efficiency, pointed out Mohanraj. The temple construction work is not an easy job and people approaching sculptors must give ample time to concentrate on the idol creating a history in the form of idol is not an easy task said Narayanaswamy.


  1. Thank you sir, for your in-depth insight on the dying art. But I would like to add that there are many Panchaloga Idol makers who make it according to Shilpa shastras in Kumbakonam who are desecndants from Chola dynasty sculptors. You did not mention that!

  2. Lost wax procedure of making Pancha Loha Idols is the Propitious method !