Circular Cultures Series: Lost Wax Casting

Lost wax casting, also known as cire-perdue, process attained after a thorough modification over centuries and is believed to be more than 5000 years old. Without any major change, Lot-wax process has been consistently similar not only in India but also across the world. Only variations can be iconography or the material used. Whereas material varies as per geographic location and availability.

In a polytheistic belief system like India’s where numerous dev-ta exist and are worshipped by human seeking safety and prosperity, it is interesting to point out that the imagination and therefore manifestation of formless energy as provider and protector has so much similarity to human form itself. This not only reflects the philosophical viewpoint of seeing higher-self and therefore the core idea of spirituality but also highlights the culturally embedded cyclic idea of creation and rebirth in the process adopted for making of these idols.

The history of metals and their shaping is as ancient as the history of civilization. The lost wax casting technique is a method of metal casting, in which hot metal is poured into a wax model, which is ‘lost’ during the process and the wax is retrieved to be used again.

Evidence of the technique can be tracked in the iconic “Dancing Girl” bronze sculpture, made in 2500 BCE in Mohenjo-Daro, to its extensive use during the rule of the Chola dynasty of Southern India (c. 850 CE - 1250 CE). Also, during the medieval period, Chamba valley was an important political and artistic centre, therefore attracted masters from the region including Kashmir valley to adapt the technique for their unique detailing and craftsmanship of Mohra icons. Accounting above mentioned traditional adaptations along with examples of the folk style of Tikamgarh and tribal dhokra style of Chota-Nagpur region adds to make the technique popular and unique in its every adaptation. The technique revolutionized the production and utilization of ritualistic and utility items. It enabled to conveniently take idols out of temples for ritual processions and empowered craftsperson to cast complex designs with intricate detailing.

The extensive use of such rigorous but efficient method is in itself a reflection of the ancient cultural values prevailing in those times. The process being circular in nature justifies its continued use till present times. 'Maduchchista vidhana' refers to 'lost wax' casting technique as per Rig Veda. With a detailed description of the method, Shilpa-Sastra further elaborately suggests the tools, techniques and even composition of alloys used to cast both sacred icons and utensils using Lost-wax bronze casting. Metalworking has always been deeply infused with religion and therefore 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.

A science that finds reference in the Rig Veda and the Shilpa Shastras, this age-old method spells precision, technique, aesthetics and circular use of materials.

Process: The casting process starts by preparation of the wax model of the figurine. Agama Shastra is used for reference for the size and structure of the figure. That includes using a ribbon of coconut tree for Measurements and folded to different lengths in proportion to the various parts of the figure. Locally acquired bee wax is mixed with resin and groundnut oil. The wax is then used to make the figure and intricate details are added onto it. Once the wax model is dried, it is covered with fine loam or alluvial soil and allowed to dry naturally. Orifices are then made on the mold for pouring the molten metal and draining of the molten wax and gases formed during casting. After completely dried, another layer of clay mixed with cow dung, charcoal, paddy husk and sand is applied and dried under sunlight for 3 days. Further, the mould is reinforced with metal wires so that it doesn’t break while casting. The dried mold is then set on fire for melting the wax inside and the molten wax is retrieved in a vessel for reuse. The reused metals (generally includes damaged idols, temple bells, old utensils, sheet cutouts etc.) is filled in crucibles and placed in a furnace for melting. Once the molten wax completely drained, the mold is placed to a new pit for stability. Molten reused metal is poured into the mold and allowed to cool for 12-24 hours. Then mold is broken open and the casting obtained is further finished to perfection.

The time-consuming process and intricate detailing achieved makes it valuable and in addition to that, the composition of alloy ensures protection from deterioration and therefore longer life. If damaged the idols can be repaired conveniently or can also be cast again by repeating the same process.

About the Authors

Vikas Dargan (LinkedIn) is an Architect and a cultural professional with three years of experience of working towards craft revival and rural livelihood generation.

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