Chola Bronzes: The Story of an Eternal Art

(Viewed 240 times since Oct 2021)

It is an undisputed fact that Tamil sculptors cast some of India’s most beautiful bronzes. One of the major South Indian dynasties, the Cholas who ruled over the Tamil-speaking land from the mid-ninth century to the thirteenth century contributed immensely to the art of sculpting in India. Chola sculptors created images in stone and metal of exceptional elegance and refinement. Icons of Hindu deities and saints, most of them laboriously carved from granite, were made to fill the deep plastered niches of Chola temple walls and gates. Bronze images, widely regarded as some of the world’s greatest metal sculptures, were also produced, especially in and around Tanjore. Many of these portable bronzes were carried in procession in elaborately carved wooden temple carts. A moment of genuine artistic coherence, the Chola period profoundly altered the course of South Indian art.

Bronze sculpture depicting the Hindu gods Shiva and Uma with their son Skanda, presumably 12th century.

Photo: John Lee, 2005. National Museum of Denmark, Retrieved from: https://en.natmus.dk

Here, let us have a look at some of the most significant and exceptional Chola Bronze sculptures that have been preserved over time and are still available at museums. The images shown are not the original ones, but the imitations of these curated by Exotic India from talented artists of Swamimalai, Tamil Nadu.

Shiva, the King of Dancers (Nataraja)

It must be undoubtedly the most famous of Chola bronzes that have received universal recognition.  This late Chola image depicts the great Hindu god Shiva as a cosmic dancer-one of the most comprehensive of his many manifestations. Dance has always been important in Indian culture: it is believed to represent the rhythm of life in its purest form. Sacred texts often refer to Lord Shiva as the King of Dancers. In some of his dances, Shiva directs his energy towards a specific end; but when he performs the cosmic dance depicted in this monumental bronze, Shiva reveals himself as the God who creates, sustains, veils, unveils and destroys his creation, the Universe.

It is difficult to assign Chola sculptures to a specific time and place. One of the Nataraja sculptures, preserved in the Virginia Museum, was probably cast in Tanjore about 1150-60, that is, during the reign of Raja Raja Chola II. It strongly resembles another Nataraja dated by R. Rangaswamy (an Indian historian, archaeologist and epigraphist who is known for his work on temple inscriptions and art history of Tamil Nadu) to 1160 and conserved in the temple at Darasuram founded by Rajaraja II. These two sculptures share many of the rather conventionalized features of later Chola bronzes: boxy faces and slightly heavy, tubular limbs that move, nonetheless with considerable grace.

Large Handmade Nataraja, Panchaloha bronze from Swamimalai

Vishnu

The majestic bronze of the Hindu god Vishnu was cast during the eleventh century in Tamil Nadu. Conforming to the iconographic conventions, Vishnu is shown here as standing on an open lotus. He is as straight as a post, for he is believed to be the axis of the universe. To demonstrate his superpowers and his absolute dominion over the four cardinal directions, i.e. the cosmos, Vishnu is shown here with four rather than two arms. Four armed images of Vishnu, like this sculpture, were one of the most popular icon types produced by Chola artists. This sculpture is one of the finest and is more than a visual description; it is, in fact, an eloquent evocation of God’s very presence. Vishnu is shown here in a state of total equilibrium, his various powers and potentialities perfectly balanced against each other. The lithe body, the exquisite hand gestures, sensitive modelling, and detailed casting give the sculpture a truly elegant grandeur. The deity’s serene, youthful face, compassionate but detached, reveals no transitory emotions, for Vishnu is eternal, existing beyond time.

Bhagwan Vishnu, Panchaloha Bronze from Swamimalai

Manikkavachaka

In addition to fashioning images of Hindu deities, Tamil metal sculptors also created bronzes depicting south Indian saints of the Vaishnava and Shaiva sects, known respectively as the Alvars (Those who dive deep) and the Nayanars (Leaders).

The striking bronze depicts the popular south Indian saint-singer Manikkavachaka standing on a lotus blossom that rests atop a plinth of architectural mouldings. His face is suffused with a gentle smile and his almost almond-shaped eyes are wide open and entranced. A longi (a piece of fabric) is wrapped around his waist. He is shown here as a youth holding a palm-leaf manuscript in his left hand upon which is inscribed Namashivaya and making a teaching gesture with his right. Sensuous but aloof from worldly allurement, this exceptional bronze shows Manikkavachaka filled with love for Shiva.

Handmade Manikkavacakar, Panchaloha Bronze from Swamimalai 

The sui generis nature of Chola bronze

Unlike north Indian images that were deeply carved steles, the Chola statues were conceived in the round, hence, their backs are finished better. Even though they were rarely viewed, the backs of bronze images are rendered with an emphasis on the plasticity of the form and attention to detail. The function of the Chola bronzes was also different from those in the north. During special religious festivals, they were used as processional images as surrogates for the more stationary images of the shrine Indeed, here one should also discuss a major difference between the Pallava tradition and the innovations introduced by the Cholas. The slender Chola figures are more intimate and much more richly detailed than those of their Pallava predecessors (fourth-ninth century); there is something introverted about Chola sculpture, a quality not encountered in the more outgoing images of the Pallavas. In its later phases in such places as Tanjore, Gangaikondacholapuram, and Chidambaram, - the Chola style attained a monumental dignity and grandeur. Surviving Pallava bronzes are few and all are of modest size, whereas the Chola period was one of frenetic activity in Bronze casting. Not only are Chola bronzes considerably large, but they reveal technical aplomb and aesthetic virtuosity only rarely paralleled elsewhere on the subcontinent.

Exotic India has a magnificent collection of bronze statues curated from authentic artists from Swamimalai and made from Panchaloha bronze using the lost wax or Madhuchista Vidhana process. Our vast collection is unparalleled in quality and quantity. The exquisite craftsmanship can be seen in the detailing of each sculpture whose perfection and beauty are sure to take you back to the Chola period.

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