The Vishwakarma community, also known as the Vishwabrahmin, are a social group of India, sometimes described as a caste. The community comprises five sub-groups—carpenters, blacksmiths, bronze smiths, goldsmiths and stonemasons—who believe that they are descendants of Vishvakarma, a Hindu deity.
The communal name of Vishwakarma is of fairly recent usage. The British Raj misunderstood the Indian caste system as being an inflexible concept based on varna, ignoring all evidence of caste creation and disintegration caused by processes of social fission and fusion. This flawed interpretation, formed in part by heeding the work of Brahmin scholars, resulted in many communities aspiring to official recognition of a higher social status than was traditional, based on claims of descent from elite groups such as the Brahmins or Kshatriyas. Among the changes that occurred during this period, the census administrator John Henry Hutton recorded in 1931 a caste called the Vishwakarma, which was an administrative creation defined as a community of artisans who were geographically disparate but shared fairly similar occupations. Like the similarly-created Yadavs, who were an administrative grouping of grazers, herders and dairymen, the Vishwakarma comprised numerous previously diverse castes.
The community prefer the new name, which has evidential support in 12th-century inscriptions that refer to smiths and sculptors belonging to the Vishwakarma kula, although Vijaya Ramaswamy notes that "... the Vishwakarma community is obviously cutting across caste lines" and "... comprises five socially and economically differentiated jatis". Prior to the Raj period, these communities were referred to by names such as Kammalar in present-day Tamil Nadu and Kerala, Panchalar in Karnataka, and Panchanamuvaru in Andhra Pradesh, while there are also medieval inscriptions that refer to them as the Rathakara and Kammala-Rathakarar.
The community claims descent from the god Vishwakarma, who is considered by Hindus to be the divine architect or engineer of the universe. He had five children — Manu, Maya, Tvastar, Shilpi and Visvajna — and these are believed by the Vishwakarma community to have been the forebears of their five sub-groups, being respectively the gotras (clans) of blacksmiths, carpenters, bell metalworkers (metal casters), stonemasons and goldsmiths. It is not known whether these five subgroups historically practiced endogamy, which is a frequently-found feature of the Indian caste system.
The origin myths of the Vishwakarma community were first consolidated in the early 18th century, during the British colonial rule. These myths were compiled in form of Vishwakarma Puranam, whose original manuscript is undated, but was most probably created in the mid-17th or 18th century. According to a popular myth recorded in the Vishwakarma Puranam, the five children of the god Vishwakarma served the gods as artisans, and possessed the ability to create things by simply imagining them. They had conserved their veerya by being celibates, and lived in a fort on the coast of Ilangapuri (Sri Lanka). The fort was made of lodestone, and the enemy weapons thrown at it were stuck to its walls, rendering it invincible. Their chief enemy was Karunakaran, a vassal of the Chola emperor. In order to defeat the Vishwakarmas, Karunakaran planted many beautiful women (Brahmin women according to some versions of the legend) in the fort. These women married the Vishwakarmas, thus destroying their spiritual power, and learned the secret that a certain type of poisonous grass could be used to burn up the fort. Using this secret, the enemy blew up the fort, and the Vishwakarmas were scattered in various areas, where they were forced to work as artisans and craftsmen for mortal humans.
While many sources refer to the five sub-groups of the Vishwakarma as artisans, Ramaswamy believes that the Vishwakarma of the medieval period should be distinguished as craftsmen, arguing that "... while every craftsman was an artisan, every artisan was not a craftsman". Ramaswamy notes that the socio-economic and geographic stability of a medieval village-based maker of ploughs differed considerably from that of the various people who banded together as Vishwakarma and lived a relatively itinerant lifestyle that was dependent on the "temple economy" that waxed and waned as dynasties such as the Vijayanagar Empire were formed and disintegrated. The latter group, who did work in proximity to each other while constructing and embellishing temples, had opportunities for socio-economic advancement but also bore the risks of withdrawal of patronage and changes in religious focus.
Position in society
The Vishwakarma have held a higher social status for many years, and believe that the trades which they traditionally follow are superior to the work of a manual labourer because they require artistic and scientific skills as well as those of the hand. According to George Varghese, their claim to high status is "one of the mainstays of Vishwakarma identity" in what is otherwise a fragmented, incoherent community that has often suffered from internal differences of opinion.
Their claim has been voiced by Edava Somanathan, a member of the community and its only historian in the written word. Somanathan's works, according to Varghese, "... are written from a pro-community perspective. Therefore, there are a lot of exaggerations and anti-brahmin tirades in Kerala". Somanathan argues that the artisanal groups were a part of the Indus Valley Civilisation, pre-dating the arrival of Brahmins and their caste-based division of society. He claims remarkable achievements are evidenced in both the arts and sciences during that egalitarian pre-Brahmin era, including the construction of aeroplanes.
This claim to Brahmin status is not generally accepted outside the community, despite their assumption of some high-caste traits, such as wearing the sacred thread, and the Brahminisation of their rituals. For example, the sociologist M. N. Srinivas, who developed the concept of sanskritisation, juxtaposed the success of the Lingayat caste in achieving advancement within Karnataka society by such means with the failure of the Vishwakarma to achieve the same. Their position as a left-hand caste has not aided their ambition. They have been included in the list of Other Backward Classes in some states of North India.
The Tamil Vishwakarmas are locally known as Kammalar, although they prefer to be known as Vishwakarma. They are divided into the Kannar (brass-workers), Kollar (blacksmiths), Tattar (goldsmiths), Tatchar (carpenters) and Kartatchar (sculptor).
The Vishwakarma caste of south Karnataka is composed of several sub-castes: Kulachar, Uttaradi (goldsmiths), Matachar (founders), Muulekammaras, and Chikkamanes. Sub-castes do intermarry, and have a hierarchy among themselves.
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We also find that census helped to create new castes such as 'Yadava' and Vishwakarma or Jangida by merging the diverse castes spread over different geographical areas but with a common occupation. For example, Yadava was created by combining Ahirs, Goalas, Gopis, Idaiyans and some other castes of milkmen and graziers. Similarly, several artisan castes such as carpenters, smiths and goldsmiths were grouped under the common denomination of Vishwakarma or Jangida(subscription required)
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