These four icons, each cast independently though meant to compose a group and thereby a theme: Rama Durbar or Rama holding his court, celebrated both in arts and worship tradition now for centuries, represent Lord Rama, his consort Sita, his younger brother Lakshmana and monkey god Hanuman, his most dedicated follower. Cast in bronze, an alloy toughened to diamond’s hardness but wax-like softened in the hands of artisans of Swamimalai, a small town near Chennai in Tamilnadu, sustaining the centuries old tradition of great South Indian bronzes, these statues reveal a gold ornament’s precision, minuteness of details and overall sophistication rarely seen in any art medium. With every millimeter of space in these all four images conceived with a jeweler’s eye and executed by an ivory carver’s hands, breathe a kind of divine aura and the beauty par excellence. There reflects in the level of perfection and in their classicism that these tiny images are endowed with a rare skill that the craftsmen could have matured over centuries after generations of them pursuing the art. A centre of bronze casting with rare distinction, no other art centre in India standing equal, Swamimalai still pursues the great tradition nurtured through ages under many ruling dynasties.
Mythically Rama was Lord Vishnu’s seventh incarnation that occurred for killing Ravana, the Lanka’s atrocious demon king. According to the Ramayana, one of the India’s earliest classics by sage Valmiki, Rama was the eldest son of Dasharatha, the king of Ayodhya, and hence his heir apparent, though sabotaged by one of his step-mothers, Kekeyi, Rama was not only deprived of Ayodhya’s throne but was sent instead to fourteen years exile. When yet adolescent he was married to Sita, the daughter of the Mithila king Janaka. Though third in the order of birth, Lakshmana opted to accompany Rama during his exile and hence has in the story of Rama a place of rare distinction. Hanuman, Rama’s ardent devotee, was one of the ministers of Sugriva, the monkey king of Kishkindha. After Sita was abducted by Ravana from Panchavati, Rama wandering in her search and reached Kishkindha where he met Hanuman. He led Rama to Sugriva who dethroned by his brother Bali was hiding at the Kishkindha mountain. Under a friendship treaty Rama restored to Sugriva his lost kingdom by killing Bali and in return Sugriva put his entire army of monkeys into Rama’s service, primarily to search Sita.
On the clue that Lanka’s demon king Ravana had abducted Sita Hanuman not only waded across the sea and reached Lanka but also located her there in Ravana’s Ashoka-vatika. By the time Rama defeated and killed Ravana and the war ended, the fourteen years period of his exile had come to close. He along with Sita, Lakshmana, Hanuman and others reached Ayodhya and was duly enthroned. During the coronation rituals and afterwards in the court with Rama there sat on the throne under Indian convention Sita while Lakshmana stood on his right and Hanuman close to his feet. His other two brothers had their places on Sita’s left. In the entire visual tradition : sculptures or painting, this grouping of Rama, his consort Sita, brothers and Hanuman is seen as ‘Rama-durbar’ : the Court of Rama. In temples dedicated to Rama the deity enshrines in his royal form : a Durbar in full regalia with at least Sita and Lakshmana with him and Hanuman in attendance. Sometimes there are also his other two brothers. This grouping of at least four : Rama, Sita, Lakshmana and Hanuman, is usually called Rama-durbar.
Rendered in the style of classical South Indian Chola bronzes, the same kind of iconography, style of ensembles, adornments and even body posture, the images of Rama, Sita and Lakshmana are cast as standing on two-tiered pedestals : the base, a tapering square and a circular lotus ‘pitha’ over it, while the fourth, Hanuman, as seated with the knee of one of the legs laid on the ground and other raised upwards. The image of Hanuman has been installed on a simple square pedestal. The image of Rama is taller to those of Lakshmana and Sita. Both Rama and Lakshmana are holding in the left hands, the bows, and in their right, arrows, though the Rama’s is larger and heavier. His crown is also taller and distinct from other two. That of Hanuman is more like a helmet. Sita’s crown pursues a different form perhaps revealing its feminine character. The figures of Rama, Sita and Lakshmana are draped in ‘antariyas’ – lower wears, and are elaborately bejeweled while that of Hanuman is in loincloth and with a few routine ornaments.
This description by Prof. P.C. Jain and Dr. Daljeet. Prof. Jain specializes on the aesthetics of literature and is the author of numerous books on Indian art and culture. Dr. Daljeet is the curator of the Miniature Painting Gallery, National Museum, New Delhi. They have both collaborated together on a number of books.