South Indian Bronzes- Masterpieces of Indian Art

During the Chola  period (10th to 11th centuries CE), Tamil Nadu became the  centre for crafting magnificent bronze sculptures of deities. Dr. R. Nagaswamy,  former director of archaeology in Tamil Nadu, has researched this art and  helped to unearth several masterpieces. He supervised excavations in temple  towns to discover priceless bronzes and fought in international courts to  return smuggled ones back to the temples.   He has unique anecdotes about the idols made in various metals - gold,  silver, copper, brass and most common, bronze. He was consultant to the Indira  Gandhi National Centre for the Arts, New Delhi, for rediscovering the magic of  the Brihadishwara temple in Tanjore, Tamil Nadu.

Temples are the abodes of gods,” says Dr.  Nagaswamy, “They require two kinds of images.   Those which are fixed permanently in the sanctum and the sub-shrines are  called Achala Bimba or immovable reflections of divinity.  Each temple also requires transportable idols  for worship or festive processions.   These are called Chala Bimbas, or moveable reflections of divinity. The  latter are used in festive rituals and processions. These events are described  in detail in the ancient Agamas, which are records of temple architecture and  the exact manner of consecrating deities and worshipping them.  The Agamas are books which describe every  possible detail of handling icons and conserving them. These books are also the  fonts of Vastu Shastra, the science which has gained immense popularity today.

“Bronze and other metal icons of Tamil Nadu  mostly belong to the Chola and Pallava eras of history between the 6th and 11th  century A.D.  The Pallava dynasty built  temples across the verdant landscape of Tamil Nadu, but these were small and  their spires rose to heights of 20 to 60 ft.   Thus, their bronzes of Shiva, Vishnu, Parvati, Lakshmi, Kartikeya and  Ganesha were also small in consonance with the rules of the Agamas.  The Cholas, who were true empire builders,  built huge temple complexes and their icons were also proportionately larger  and more perfectly designed.  Bronzes and  other metal icons of the Chola era were either cast hollow or were solid.

“The greatest temple builder of the Chola dynasty  was Rajaraja, the powerful warrior king.   He built the Brihadeeshwara temple in Tanjore which is 200 ft tall.  Rajaraja called this temple the Dakshinameru  or the golden mountain of the south and covered the entire spire of the temple  in gold (to see pictures link below). For centuries, bronze iconography  flourished in and around this temple. According to the records and inscriptions  in the temple, that a total of 85 idols of Shiva as Nataraja, Tripurantaka and  Kalyansundara as well as some icons of Vishnu were housed in this temple.  However, there are only a few available  today. Sembian Mahadevi, a senior Chola queen who ruled this territory, was  also a great promoter of the iconography of Shiva and Vishnu and many exquisite  bronzes were made during her rule.  The  facial expressions, the ornamentation, the grace of posture, the proportions of  limbs and the spiritual significance of these bronzes are incomparable.

“Many other great temples came to be built in  the Chola period.  Rajendra, the great conqueror  from this dynasty, expanded his empire to Bengal and built the Gangaikonda  Cholapuram temple, based on the laws of the Agamas, to celebrate his victory  over the Gangetic Plain.  His queen Lokadevi  also built her own temple 11 km away.  It  is recorded that the workers, managers and administrators in this temple were  all women.  Women, judging from the  records the queen has left behind, were given high positions and equal status  in the Chola era.

“The art of making bronzes reached its zenith  during the Chola era between the 10th and 11th centuries.  These are unique art creations which have  attracted connoisseurs from all over the world.   Many have been sold by art thieves, many have been smuggled out of the  temples or even the country and many have landed in museums or private  collections. I have also seen that many icons lie buried according the rites in  the Agamas in times of war with the invading Islamic armies who came from the  north.  The icons were hidden in secret  vaults under sand brought from rivers for conservation. I was myself fortunate  to go underground in one such temple to find a treasure of idols which have now  been housed in temples or museums. Since it was customary to bury them during  floods, famines, enemy attacks and scourges, it is possible that even today,  there are treasures of bronzes lying underground, waiting to be discovered by  us and given the glorious place they deserve in our lives.”

The Cholas – perhaps Peninsular India’s most  powerful dynasty – came to power in the late 9th century A.D. and until the  late 13th century, ruled most parts of peninsular India and even parts  of Indonesia’s Java island. Their capital was Thanjavur (Tanjore), a city  founded by Vijalaya who captured the city in 850 A D. His son, Rajendra I (1012  to 1044 A D) and their maritime ventures created ties with Burma, China and  Malaysia across the sea. However, successive Chola rulers are known more for  what they built rather than their conquests. During their rule poetry, theatre,  music and dance flourished as arts. The magnificent temples commissioned by  them were marvels of architecture with perfectly carved sculptures and icons of  deities as well as human beings. With their rule, bronze-casting became a huge  art in South India – the masterpiece of all time being the icon of the Nataraja  or dancing Shiva in golden-spired Chidambaram temple.

See  pictures of –
Brihadesvara Temple  
Chidambaram Temple

Shiva Nataraja in Geneva

Bronzes, Shiva and Uma 14th century

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