Metal Working in India - Lost Wax Casting

tiger votive
Tiger Votive
Bankura, West Bengal, India
1984
cast brass
MAC 2007-01-138
Donated by Robert F. Bussabarger

Metal holds an important position in both religious and everyday life for the Indian people. The Silpastrastras (art text about metal working) goes into great detail about the composition of alloys used to cast both sacred icons and mundane utensils. Panchaloha (an alloy of five metals — copper, gold, silver, lead, and zinc) is widely used to cast icons and idols for worship because of its auspicious nature.

Metal working is deeply infused with religion. In fact, before an artisan even begins a project he prays for guidance to Tvastram, the son of Visvakarma, who worked with copper, brass, and other metal alloys. Even in the household, metals have religious significance, from icons in the family temples to cooking utensils. Hindu religion forbids the use of copper for cooking; thus in a Hindu kitchen we could find primarily brass tools, whereas a Muslim kitchen would boast mainly tinned copper.

Lost Wax

Dhokra metal casting is one of the oldest traditional techniques of metal casting in India that uses the lost wax casting method. One of the earliest known Indian lost wax artifacts is the Dancing Girl of Mohenjor Daro, which dates to 2500 B.C. Dhokra metal casting has been practiced in india for over 4,000 years and is still used today, though with the introduction of more modern metal working and founding techniques it is quickly fading away.

Technique

The basic process for lost wax casting consists of a clay core that is approximately the shape of the desired final image. The clay core is then covered by a layer of wax composed of pure bee’s wax, resin from the tree Damara orientalis, and nut oil. The wax is then carved and shaped into a detailed model for the final image. The model is then covered by layers of clay, which takes the negative form of the wax on the inside thus becoming a mold for the metal that will be poured inside it. Drain ducts are left for the wax, which melts away when the clay is cooked. The wax is then replaced by the molten metal, which is poured in and hardens between the core and the inner surface of the mold. The metal fills the mold and takes the same shape as the wax. The outer layer of clay is then chipped off and the metal icon is polished and finished as desired.

Lost Wax Casting Process

lost wax method illustration

Ganesh votive

Ganesh Votive

(Ganesh, son of Shiva and Parvati)
Bankura, West Bengal, India
1961
cast brass
MAC 2007-01-155
Donated by Robert F. Bussabarger

Nandi statue

Statue of Nandi (Shiva’s vessel)

Madhya Pradesh, Bastar, India
cast brass
MAC 2007-01-144
Donated by Robert F. Bussabarger

elephant votive

Young elephant votive

Cankura, West Bengal, India
cast brass
MAC 2007-01-310
Donated by Robert F. Bussabarger

Geography

Dhokra Damar tribes are the traditional metalsmiths of West Bengal. Their technique of lost wax casting is named after their tribe, hence Dhokra metal casting. The tribe extends from Bihar to West Bengal and Orissa; members are distant cousins of the Madhya Pradesh Dhokras. A few hundred years ago the Dhokras of Central and Eastern India traveled south as far as Kerla and north as far as Rajasthan.

There are two main processes of lost wax casting: solid casting, which is predominant in the south of India, and hollow casting, which is more common in Central and Eastern India. As the names imply, solid casting does not use a clay core but instead a solid piece of wax to create the mold; hollow casting is the more traditional method and uses the clay core.

India map showing states

References

Links

Useful Books

  • Bussabarger, Robert F., and Betty Robins. The Everyday Art of India. New York: Dover Publishing, 1968.
  • Reeves, Ruth. Cire Perdue Casting in India. 1962, Crafts Museum. New Delhi.
  • Krishnan, M. V. Cire Perdue Casting in India, 1st ed. 1976, Kanak Publications. New Delhi

Text, illustrations and photos by Chiara Della Cava, summer 2007


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