In Hindu mythology Vishvakarman (also known as Vishakarma) is the creator-god and is the divine architect who created the universe. His depiction as a carpenter is evidence of the importance of working with wood in ancient India.
There is a rich and long tradition of architecture in India that has used wood for structural purposes as well as ornamentation. Some extraordinary examples have survived, including the superb 16th century wooden Padmanabhapuram Palace in Kerala, the intricately carved Pol houses of Ahmedabad dating back to the 17th century and the Rumtek Monastery in Sikkim built in the mid 18th century.
As well as the utilitarian usage of wood for domestic items and agricultural implements, India also has extensive and diverse tribal and folk art that uses wood to create figures, masks and other unique items like kavads, which are painted portable three dimensional shrines, used for storytelling, made in the village of Bassi in Rajasthan.
Depending on the local availability of wood, each region has developed its own distinct style and technique. For example, walnut woodcarving is unique to Kashmir due to the abundance of trees in the region and the artisans’ skills have evolved to expose the grain to the best advantage. Sandalwood carving is mentioned as far back as in the Ramayana, the ancient Indian epic, and carries a special spiritual significance. The fragrant wood is native to the forests of South India and the city of Mysore, in Karnataka, was the centre for the craft. Mysore is also known for Rosewood inlay, which flourished in the 18th century. Unique to Varanasi are the small gods and goddesses carved in the fine-grained kahema wood and then painted in intricate detail.
Many contemporary architects and designers in India are also working with wood. Bijoy Jain’s tropical Alibag home and Ini Chatterji’s dreamy Goan villa, are both wonderful examples of using local materials, traditional techniques and being sensitive to their environment. I also love the work being done in Mumbai by Farzin Adenwalla of Bombay Atelier, which draws upon Indian street culture bringing the ideas into contemporary furniture design; and Ayush Kasliwal, based in Jaipur, whose elegant contemporary furniture is inspired by traditional Indian objects.
My two favourite Indian wooden objects are the charkha (wooden spinning wheel), which has become the ultimate symbol of freedom and is celebrated on the Indian flag, and the charpoy (also charpai) bed. The latter is still found in villages across India.
“Visvakarma, Lord of the arts, master of a thousand handicrafts, carpenter of the gods and builder of their palaces divine, fashioner of every jewel, first craftsmen by whose art men live, and whom a great and deathless God, they continuously worship” Mahabharata: 1:2592
“The tradition of woodcarving in the Subcontinent is both rich and diverse. In various regions, woodcarving developed both as a craft and a form of art. The former owes its character to the oral knowledge repertoire of woodcarvers while the latter is rooted initially to religious symbolism and then expressive of design aesthetics. The diversity in approach, content and style has been an evidence of the fact that the Subcontinent hosted a number of sub-cultures, and each of them had its own design vocabulary and emphasis.” Naela Aamir