A potter’s prayer to Ganesha

A potter’s prayer to GaneshaClay-idol makers and the tradition of the eco-friendly pacha-mann pillayar are on the wane

Kasturi amma’s Ganeshas are simple, earthy, eco-friendly and hand-made with love and bhakti. A month before Ganesh Chaturthi, 80-year-old Kasturi observesviratham and starts collecting mud and sand for making the Ganesha idols. “The clay is a mixture of half-a-dozen ingredients such as elephant poop, sieved river sand, karambai mann and sometimes hay. It takes a fortnight to get ready,” says Kasturi. Once the clay gets mixed into a homogenous paste, she sits day and night making the murtis. With her deft hands, Kasturi moulds, rolls and shapes the clay into two-feet-tall little Ganeshas. They all look plump, cute and perfect. “It’s difficult to get the trunk,” says Kasturi while swirling her fingers over a lump of clay to make the trunk. She quietly murmurs a prayer and closes her eyes in veneration and the trunk comes out just right. For over 40 years after the death of her potter husband, Kasturi and her son eldest son Srinivasan have kept tradition alive. Tucked inside a narrow lane off the Arapalayam road is their small house stacked with mud pots.

“Earlier we used to sell hundreds of idols. There were over 300 potter families in Arapalayam. The demand used to be so high that most times, we fell short of hands to cater to orders,” recalls Srinivasan. “This year, we have got orders for just 10 idols.” Once, it was the tradition to worship a pacha-mann pillayar which was later immersed into ponds or lakes. As the water bodies have dried up, the takers for the eco-friendly pure-clay idols have come down in the past few years. Potters also feel that the invasion of plaster-of-paris has taken away the charm of clay idols.
Idols made of clay are of two kinds – one in which the idol is baked and the other which is left to dry in the sun. While the baked idols are painted and used as a showcase item, the kaccha murtis are traditionally kept in pujas. In certain techniques, potters also mix hay dust instead of elephant dung and the idols made like that are called Sandu pillayar. “Only if the customer wants, we paint it with watercolours. Else, our idols are mostly in the colour of the earth,” says Kasturi. “The authorities call for eco-friendly idols every year, but sadly people only buy those big chemical-paint ones.”

The making of a two-feet-tall pacha-mann pillayar can take a week. It’s hand-built from the bottom without any mould. Kasturi finishes making the feet and legs first and leaves it for drying for a day or two. Then, she starts making the tummy and the body of the idol and proceeds step-wise. “Idol making is sacred. It involves a number of rituals and strict adherence to purity,” explains Mahalingam, another potter. “Only on the early morning before Chaturthi, the eyes of the idol are made.”

Most of Kasturi’s orders come from the kids in the area, who fondly call her paati. Groups of kids get together, pool in their pocket money to buy a small idol. “They usually ask for discounts and I give idols to them even at half the price,” says Kasturi, who sells the two-feet idols for Rs.200 and bigger ones for Rs.300 or Rs.400. Srinivasan has also made a six-feet idol for this year, which he has priced at Rs.5,000.
Clay-idol makers also rue the lack of mud and sand. Earlier, they used to collect sand from the Vaigai and the karambai mann was easily available in the kanmois surrounding Arapalayam. Half of those kanmois have vanished under encroachments and the others don’t have any mud left in their beds. “Now we buy clay from Thurvariman and Kochadai. The costs have gone up. It’s not a lucrative business. Yet I do it to keep up the tradition. I consider myself gifted to be able to make such beautifulmurtis of the Lord,” says Kasturi. “I only pray to Ganesha that we get more rains and our natural resources remain plentiful.”


A potter’s prayer to Ganesha