Sandalwood is of great religious importance and is an extremely expensive material for carving artifacts. Karnataka has a huge forest-belt and sandal wood carvers are found in Bangalore, Mysore, Shimoga, Sorab in the foothills to Sirsi, and Honavar and Kumta on the coast. Sandal wood is of two types: Sigandha which is close grained and yellowish-brown in colour and used for carving and Nagagandha which is darkish-brown in colour and from which oil is extracted.
Indian Sandalwood is one of the most sacred herbs of Ayurveda. Sandalwood powder and essential oil are renowned for their many medicinal and spiritual uses. But the wood itself can be used in creating wonders in much different ways. Sandalwood is native to Karnataka and its abundance there has led to extensive usage and beautiful products coming out of it. Earlier used to create only deities, boxes have become a specialty of this region. The distinctive aroma of Sandalwood and large boxes covered with carvings of mythological scenes is what sets this apart from all other woodwork.
The art of sandalwood carving has been practiced in Karnataka for at least a thousand years, and Karnataka is world famous for its exquisitely carved figurines with intricate details. Sandalwood artisans are concentrated in Shimoga, Mysore, Uttara Kannada and Bangalore districts of Karnataka. The spell-binding figurines in this golden coloured wood are embellished with designs inspired by nature. The soft aromatic wood can be delicately carved with ease to create elegant masterpieces.
The objects made of sandalwood are the most famous among the other wooden artifacts for its intricate carving and its sweet fragrance. Such things are considered to be the most expensive. Availability of sandalwood in abundance in the forests of Mysore and around has made this region the most flourishing for this trade. Besides Mysore; Tirupati, Madurai and Coimbatore in Tamil Nadu; Jaipur, Delhi and Varanasi are the other centre for this attractive workmanship.
The instruments employed by the sandalwood carvers are extremely simple, viz., a saw, plane, mallet hone or fine-grained hard stone, an assortment of various shapes and sizes of chisels and a few engraving tools some extremely minute and delicate. The operation is started by drawing the pattern intended to be produced on the smooth and white washed sandal wood or on a piece of paper pasted over its surface. Then it is engraved or outlined in every detail; the interspaces between the lines are next cut away, thus leaving the pattern in low relief; lastly the design itself is carved out in the minutest detail keeping the intricacies and subtle light and shade effects, every desired curve, expression and texture is fully portrayed.
Sandalwood carving is an ancient tradition and has been a part of Indian culture and heritage and finds mention in the Ramayana. The fragrant wood is used by Hindus and Buddhists in certain rituals as incense. It is one of the scents besides rose oil that is used during rituals in Islam. It is practiced by a community of craftsmen called the Gudigars who specialize in the art of carving sandalwood, ivory and stone. Having migrated from Goa during the Portuguese invasion, the Gudigars settled in Uttara Kannada (north) and Mysore regions.
The hard yellow wood is used for carving into combs, beads and religious artifacts. Sandalwood (Santalum album), is a small evergreen tree native to regions in Karnataka, Tamil Nadu and Kerala. The wood is used to carve idols, and the roots are rich in oil which is used for medicinal purposes. The most valuable part of the tree is the scented heartwood. Sandalwood carving is distinct in comparison to other woods as it is a softer aromatic wood that allows intricate carving required for making idols. The types of carving done on sandalwood are relief, chipping, incising and piercing. The chisels used are different from those generally used for other woods. The products carved consist of idols of gods and goddesses and boxes with interlacing foliage and scroll-like patterns interspersed with animal or bird figurines that are characteristic of Karnataka. The idols are carved in the round on a pedestal or against a background. They are used in shrines at home and worshiped.