As I stood there in the near silence I heard an occasional bird call but there was something else.
I listened carefully and then my failing ears picked out a gentle tap tap tapping. It took me a moment but then I recognized what it was.
Mahabalipuram is a city of Idols. It is impossible not to notice. But today this reality came crashing in on me. Driving into Mahab from our house along the East Coast Road you cannot help but notice the massive six to eight foot tall granite figures standing within ten feet of the side of the road.
We have walked many of the streets of Mahab and driven out into the surrounding country and almost everywhere we go the piercing whine of electric grinders or the tap tap tapping of mallet on chisel chipping away stone can be heard, identifying the location of another stone carver working at his craft. ...
This week I decided to see if I could find the stone cutters shop located on the dirt road behind the Achiever Academy. I walked past the back of the school and just beyond I found an isolated building about 10 feet square. Beside the shop was a small shade tree and under the tree were several men. While I was still several yards away M. came out of the shop, smiling as he walked to greet me with his hand extended in a welcome common for the people here in Mahab.
I was pleased to find that the shop was near enough to the school that I could hear the kids at Achiever laughing, playing, and singing songs of praise throughout my entire visit. What influence might these children have on the workers and or customers at this shop?
As we walked together toward the shop, I noticed a man squatting down on a log, holding a stone figure with his toes and chipping the stone with a small steel chisel. He tapped the chisel with a wooden stick one inch square and eighteen inches long. M. told me he was working with green stone which must have been pretty soft as it fell away in front of the chisel in the form of a fine powder. It was this tap tap tapping that I heard from the window this morning.
M. invited me into the shop. I expected a high pressure sales pitch but not so. This man was proud of his work and would be glad to make a sale but I felt like I was visiting a new friend and learning about the work he did. The shop has one door and no windows. The interior of the shop was lined with shelves about four to five inches deep. Each shelf was filled with three to five inch, stone carvings standing side by side waiting for an invitation to go home with some shopper. Each individual shelf was full of the same or similar idols. M. explained that this shop was a cooperative with fifteen different artists displaying their work. Most all of the objects were of one Hindu deity or another. The most popular figure was Ganesh the Hindu god with the elephant head. M. also showed me a figure of Ardhanarishvara, a form of Shiva, that is half man and half woman separated down the middle.
I asked if they worked from some sort of pattern and M. pulled out a tablet with pictures of the various deities. As he showed me the many patterns he reminded me that neither he nor I knew the names of all the Gods. I hope I was polite when I told him that I know only one God.
The Hindu people surely have a sense of humor even in their religion. M. made a point of showing me a stone figure of Ganesh at a computer. This figure appeared to be a black stone with light colored etching to define and highlight. M. explained that this was in fact the same green stone. These figures are carved and sanded smooth then the stone is coated with oil to blacken it. When this is dried the artist comes back with a fine steel tool and etches away the black oiled surface to reveal the lighter lines of stone.
The shop also included some red granite figures including beautifully decorated, almost lacy, hollow balls. A version of these hollow balls were made in two pieces and could be used to hold a votive candle.
The shop quickly became oppressive to me without benefit of any ventilation except the open door. Stepping outside I watched the working crafts man. I asked how long it took to make a carving. In typical artistic style M. explained that the time to complete a project depended on the way the Artist felt toward the piece of stone. A mediocre carving might be made in two days. But if the artist felt there was something special about a stone he might take as long as two months to complete a masterpiece.
I tried to imagine how it must feel to devote your entire life spending each day, carving an object with your own hands into a figure resembling a picture from a book, and then somehow ascribing it with divine powers. It was too much for me.
I went back into the shop to select a gift that could remind me of this man who had taken time to help me try and understand a little of his life. The selection was slim for someone not wanting to buy an Idol. Even though I was careful to select a carving with only animals and a flower, to some of the people in India this too might have religious significance.
As I made my farewells and walked back toward school I found myself praying for M. Here was a wonderfully engaging man that spoke English fluently, caught up in the generational cycle of Idol making. I thought of the Prophets of old that had been sent to rid the land of Idols. How would one even begin to rid this city/country of Idols.
When I reached the corner that would have taken me back to school, I decided to take a little detour. Continuing East I made my way to a street that goes down to the beach. Susan and I have walked this street many times. But this morning I was on a mission. Along this three block stretch I counted and was amazed to discover twenty eight different studios or shops that featured stone carvings, most of which are Idols in the form of one or more of the countless Hindu Deities.
I stopped briefly to talk with another group of artists working with the same green stone. One of these artists was etching a black figure. He required no striker but was gouging the stone with a rounded chisel. The stone crumbled under the chisel to form light colored lines in the stone blackened by its oil coating. The largest figures were not over two feet tall and most would be four to six inches or smaller. A sharp contrast to the large Idols along the East Coast Road.
Driving home we counted the stone cutting shops along the way. These shops make massive granite figures which stand six to eight feet tall. Although it is hard to be sure, we counted more than twenty shops between leaving Mahab and pulling into the drive of our house some three kilo meters to the north. Each shop has one or more large Idols in various stages of completion and most have a large area strewn with chunks of granite or marble chipped off the stone Idols.
As an American in Mahabalapurm it is obvious to me that Idols dominate the economy of this village it’s less clear how it effects the culture but it seems profound.
My heart breaks as I consider the effect these idols have on the people here but then I wonder, if one of our friends here in Mahab came to visit me in America what would they say about my culture.
Many Indian homes have some form of worship center where one or more of the Hindu gods is enshrined. But what would an Indian observe from the way my living room is arranged? Would they think I worship my TV? Or would they find something else that might concern them?
A also wonder what the people of Mahab think of this industry that permeates their community? Do they see all the shrines? How often do they walk down the streets dedicated to tourism and see these Idols.
Once again we come to you with a specific prayer request. Please place the stone carver on your prayer list and also Achiever Academy. A first reaction was to think of closing the gaps in the wall surrounding Achiever Academy to protect the students from the forces that surround it. But walls of stone made by men cannot protect against Satan any more than the Idols of stone.
Only the power of Jesus Christ can protect these students in this community and that same power can radiate along with the children’s voices to bring hope and joy to the people of Mahab. Achiever Academy is planting seeds. Just as the parable says some will fall among thorns, some will fall on the packed earth of the path, some will fall on rocky ground but some will fall on fertile ground and yield one hundred fold. Matthew 13:8