Chola Art and Architecture: Brilliant Bronze Sculptures and Magnificent Stone Temples

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Chola Art and Architecture: Brilliant Bronze Sculptures and Magnificent Stone Temples

 


The Chola Dynasty marks the ninth to the thirteenth century in Indian history. During the centuries prior, the Cholas were one of the three powerful ruling families in South India. It is unknown precisely when the Chola family began rising in power and influence. However, by the middle of the ninth century, the Chola family had asserted and secured its position as the ruling family, dominating the region. From then on, the Cholas built a vast empire that would eventually last for four centuries.

The Cholas were commanding warriors, wielding mighty military and political power. At the height of their power, during the eleventh century, the Chola empire ruled the greater part of South India, all the way to Sri Lanka and the Maldive Islands. Their diplomatic influence stretched all the way to present-day Myanmar, Malaysia, and China. However, in addition to their military and political influence, they also had a vast and significant influence on culture and the arts.

 

South Indian Bronzes

The domination of the Cholas was not left on the battlefield. The family members were leading patrons of the arts and as such, they also dominated the region culturally. If there’s one thing about the culture that is clearly evident to this day, it is that the people of the Chola dynasty were highly educated, literate, and also artistic. While amassing great wealth through their conquests and as the Chola empire expanded, the family chose to use this wealth in building enduring stone temples and impeccable bronze sculptures.

During the tenth century, Queen Sembiyan Mahadevi began the building of large stone temples. At the time of her reign, highly crafted pieces of bronze works were also widely produced and were usually formed in the image of Hindu gods and goddesses. Being devout Hindus, the Cholas commissioned these exquisite and intricate bronze sculptures of gods and goddesses to be cast and then placed in numerous Hindu temples.

60" Super Large Standing Mahishasura-Mardini (Devi Durga) | Handmade | Madhuchista Vidhana (Lost-Wax) | Panchaloha Bronze from Swamimalai

Bronze sculptures during the Chola period were crafted using what is referred to artistically as Cire Perdue or in Sanskrit, Madhu Uchchishtta Vidhana. This is also known as lost-wax casting. This technique involves the combination of beeswax, a kind of camphor called kungilium, and a little oil then kneading the mixed substance well. Once kneaded, the mixture is then used to precisely sculpt the specific figure and all its intricate features. This wax model is subsequently coated with clay. The clay-covered model is then dried and placed in an oven, where the wax either melts out of it or evaporates.

 

South India Under The Cholas

The next step in creating Chola bronze sculptures is melting Pancha Loham, which is a metal alloy of bronze. The bronze alloy is poured into the clay mould, which is now empty of the wax. Once the bronze completely fills the mould, including all the small crevices and intricate designs, it is left to settle, harden, and then cool. Once the process is complete, the clay mould is then broken off, leaving only the bronze sculpture. The last steps involve the application of finer details, the cleaning, and the removal of any markings or blemishes from the sculpture. Lastly, the bronze sculpture is then smoothened and then polished before it is displayed and likely placed inside a temple. Due to this elaborate process, each bronze sculpture is entirely unique. No bronze sculpture from the Chola period can be exactly replicated, making it truly one of a kind and priceless.

 

48" Large Nataraja | Handmade | Madhuchista Vidhana (Lost-Wax) | Panchaloha Bronze from Swamimalai

Many of these sculptures that were created were not only large but also featured holes at the bottom. This allowed for wooden poles to be fitted to them in order for the sculptures to be lifted and carried outside of the temples for special occasions and religious festivals. The public would then line a processional route as the heavily adorned sculpture of the deity was carried along.

 One of the most famous bronze sculptures from that time is that of Nataraja or Adavallar, which represents Shiva as the Lord of the cosmic dance of creation and destruction. As a result of this, the bronze image of Shiva as the Lord of the dance became the most iconic religious image and even served as a political symbol. Another result is that with the proliferation of bronze sculptures during that time, the Chola dynasty is, to this day, renowned for bronze works.

 

Chola Marvels on Historical Perspectives

Aside from one of a kind bronze sculptures, during the Chola Dynasty, King Rajaraja Chola, Queen Sambiyan Mahadevi’s grandson, also constructed the great Bhrihadishvara temple in Gangaikonda Cholapuram, which is also known as the Tanjore temple. It is dedicated to Shiva and was the largest Hindu temple of that time. Until today, modern engineers are amazed by its construction and architecture.

 During the Chola dynasty, monumental temples and powerful pieces of art that were largely influenced or inspired by Hinduism were created throughout the empire. The Bhrihadishvara temple, along with the Tiruvalisvaram temple, is among the most brilliant testaments to the magnificence of Chola architecture. Not only were they large in scale, but they were built using hard rock and granite while featuring carvings and other architectural designs. These magnificent temples seem to defy the engineering and construction capabilities of that time in history. In creating massive stone temples, the architects that were commissioned during the Chola dynasty were heavily influenced by the style of the Pallava dynasty that preceded it. Similarly, the Chola artists and artisans were inspired by the contemporary art of that time. They took this inspiration and used it as a starting point to further elevate Chola art and architecture.

 

World Heritage Series- The Great Chola Temples

In addition to religious temples, Chola architecture also includes hospitals, public utility buildings, and palaces. Many of these buildings were built throughout the Chola dynasty. An example of one of these is the golden palace built by Prince Aditya Karikala for his father King Sundara Chola. Unfortunately, many of the buildings established during the Chola rule were built using timber and bricks. As such, they have sadly not stood the test of time.

It is evident that the ruling Chola family greatly valued their religious life, along with their political and military ambitions, and utilized the arts to further establish their encompassing power and influence. Throughout the Chola dynasty, there was a constant improvement, advancement and refinement of art and architecture. While the Cholas ruled for a handful of centuries, their artistic influence and cultural contribution have stood the test of time and continue to endure to this day.

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