Chola sculptors portrayed gods and goddesses within a defined iconographic tradition, however, within that tradition was the freedom to aspire to capturing the beauty of the ideal human body.
In the time of the Cholas, temple and administration activity took place within the same complex (note 1). The artists lived and worked at court and ideal human beauty was all around them. In a sense, when you look upon the sensual bronze forms of beautiful gods and goddesses you are also seeing dancers, courtiers, and aristocrats of the royal Chola court.
Their homeland is, of course, deep in the tropics, rendering any practical considerations for clothing unnecessary. For royalty, divine or mortal, it was the quality of the fabrics and jewels which set them apart and above.
Both sexes, both mortal and divine, wore similar garments and decorated their bodies with alankara in gold and jewels. The basic clothing was fine cotton or silk arranged around the hips and legs in various ways (see the Glossary for more information). The wearing of gold jewellery, precious stones and pearls was an important indicator of status, and remains a priority even today in Indian culture. Bodies were decorated in gold and precious stones. Nudity was deemed natural and it was only lack of adornment which was considered vulgar (note 2).
For dieties and royalty, headgear (makuta) conveyed subtle information regarding status. Crowns could be either worn separately, or hair could be arranged to resemble a crown with the addition of gold and jewels (jatamakuta). For example, Uma’s hair often in braided dreadlocks, the style of an ascetic, and bound with jewels arranged to look like a crown (jatabandha) while Lakshmi and Saraswati wear kiritamakuta, actual golden crowns. Unbound hair, such as Kali’s, denote wildness, even danger.
The adornment on the Chola Bronzes you see in museums and galleries is sculptural, whereas when they are seen in temples and in processions they will be almost completely covered in fine fabrics, jewels and flower garlands. The former are inert metal objects, breathtakingly beautiful, yes,but they fulfill no spiritual purpose other than inferred. The latter are metaphors in bronze, ritually consecrated and ready for their transformation into the bodies of gods and goddesses.
Note – 1 The sculptors were an integral part of that life and often trained as dancers and musicians to give them a more well-rounded arts background.
Note 2 – The arrival of British colonialism values changed all that, for women certainly. You may be interested to know that in south India the sari had been worn until the 18th century without a blouse (ravike or choli). When support was needed, a breastband (kuchabanda) was worn, sometimes with the assistance of a necklace (mala).
The natural state of Hindu gods and goddesses is formless. They exist on a heavenly plane, however, they will take physical form from time to time to facilitate puja, mystically descending into an image of itself. When a sculptor creates such an image (murti), its form depends upon what the image’s function is to be, but it also must be pleasing to the god or goddess. Apparently it pleases them to be portrayed as young,beautiful, idealized human figures (note 1).
When a worshipper looks upon a murti, they are able to identify them by their body language, hand gestures (mudras) and adornment, though perhaps the clearest indicators are the attributes (ayodha) they hold in their hands. These ayodha confirm the deity’s identity and also communicate their unique divine powers and qualities. When a deity wishes to indicate more than two of these characteristics, more than two hands are required to hold them.
Due to subtle differences in how the deity’s legends are interpreted, their attributes may differ from region to region. For example, while Shiva‘s attributes in the north include a trishula (trident) and a naga (cobra), in the south he holds a mrga (deer), and a parasu (axe).
Note – 1 Gods and goddesses are only portrayed otherwise to make a point. For example, one of Kali’s qualities is that of a wild and fierce demon-killer, therefore images of her in that form reflect those qualities.
As appreciation of Chola Bronzes has grown among museums and collectors, prices at auction for originals with a solid provenance are fetching millions. Chola Bronzes in their hundreds, perhaps thousands, were buried during the Mughal invasions of the 14th century and when they are re-discovered, come onto the open market through legal channels, or otherwise. While reputable auction houses vet the provenance of Chola originals, many thousands are being stolen to order from village temples and shrines where they have sat unguarded, their custodians unaware of their icon’s material value in the secular world.
In recent years there have been several high profile cases involving major art dealers discovered dealing in stolen Chola Bronzes. Their clients, otherwise reputable museums and galleries, obliged to return to India pieces purchased in good faith. Meanwhile enforcement at the source remains largely ineffectual.
Shailja and I hope museum quality reproductions such as ours will go in some small way towards satisfying collectors so originals may continue being venerated in their temples where they belong. The quality of our pieces creates a problem, however, when it’s not uncommon for fine art reproductions such as ours to be surreptitiously exchanged for temple originals. To preclude our pieces being used in this nefarious trade we subtly cast into the rear of the base the Mantra name, unalterable evidence of their provenance as 21st century Chola Bronzes.
Gods Forsaken – The Illegal Trade in India’s Sacred ArtTerry Curell2019-11-08T10:24:51-08:00
Bhakti could be described as loving of one’s chosen god or goddess the way a lover loves their beloved, a parent loves their child, or a friend loves another friend. Bhakti is a deeply personal spiritual intimacy on the part of the devotee, and open to everyone regardless of gender or caste. Bhakti as a devotional practice was never exclusively Hindu but also important in Buddhist and Jain traditions, having spread to Sufism, Christianity and Sikhism as well (note 1).
As a Hindu devotional philosophy and a means to achieve moksha (note 2), Bhakti has been known for millennia but didn’t really become popular until the early medieval period around 600 AD. At that time, seemingly out of nowhere, itinerant poet-saints began wandering from temple to temple throughout south India chanting deeply personal, and at times frankly erotic, hymns praising their chosen gods and goddesses. When focussed upon Vishnu and/or his avatar, Krishna they were known as these poets were known as Alvars, when praising Shiva they were Nayanars, and when the focus was upon one of the Divine Goddesses they were Shaktics.
Prior to the rise of Bhakti, Hindu worship was primarily a function of an ancient Vedic sacrifice ritual carried out by Brahmin priests deep inside the temples. Devotions were a quid pro quo type of ceremony where the worshipper, through the priests, would offer something of value, such as food or flowers or cash, to the deity in exchange for a gift or their blessing. Bhakti offered a much more personal alternative for the worshipper, a direct connection to God, without the need for either priests or structured ritual. Temple worship remains an important element of Hindu practice, however it is the personal devotion of Bhakti through which most Hindus offer their prayers, whether through a simple puja ceremony at home or a quick invocation to a postcard of Ganesh on the dashboard of their autorickshaw.
Note 1 – personal devotion to the Buddha may have been common practice from Buddhism’s earliest days (500 BC) though Bhakti as a term is Hindu in origin.
Note 2 – the two other paths to achieve moksha are; a) Vedic ritual and knowledge, and b) Yogic meditation and contemplation on the nature of Brahman.
Bhakti – The Love of GodTerry Curell2019-11-07T16:24:22-08:00
The languid gaze. The elegant gesture. The whisper of silk. The goddess serenely voluptuous. The god lithe and supple. Chola Bronzes are among the world’s finest sacred sculpture, with an undeniable vitality as though they are about to take a breath.
A first impression is over in a heartbeat, but if you take the time to look deeper perhaps you may begin to see them as their Chola creators intended – metaphors in bronze of an absolute divine beauty.
Shailja and I wrote this Reference Library to help you gain a wider understanding of the spiritual context of this extraordinary sacred art. Whether you are casually browsing or searching for something specific, if you don’t find the information you need, just ask and we’ll help you find what you need.
We don’t make any claims to scholarship for this material. It was written from our personal perspective and just as it is for the other billion or so Hindu believers, we have chosen what it is true from the almost limitless array of truths Hinduism offers. You may not agree with everything you find here, but one of Hinduism’s wonderful qualities is inclusiveness and acceptance and we hope you’ll accept our Reference Library in the spirit with which it is offered.
Lakshmi (note 1) is the Shakti aspect of Vishnu and resplendent goddess of wealth and happiness. When expressing the universal principle of beauty, Lakshmi is known as Sri (note 2). Lakshmi not only represents material wealth but also for abundance in courage, knowledge, strength, victory, children, education, etc. Wealth in all its forms is important for the preservation and happiness of life on earth and in her role as nourisher, preserver and provider, Lakshmi bestows her blessings according to the worshipper’s past karma and degree of devotion. Her worshippers are expected to adhere to a strict code of conduct and maintain utmost purity to earn her grace. In Tantric worship, she is worshipped with Mantras and yantras (mystic diagrams).
As Vishnu’s Shakti aspect, Lakshmi provides the primal creative energy (Prakriti) to his consciousness (Purusha). He is the word, she is the meaning. He is the thought, while she is the action. Whenever Vishnu incarnates on earth in human form, Lakshmi incarnates along with him as they restore dharma to the world. She incarnated as Padma when Vishnu incarnated upon the earth as Vamana, as Dharani when he incarnated as Parasurama, as Sita when he incarnated as Rama and as Rukmini when he incarnated as Krishna.
Lakshmi is traditionally depicted sitting on an open eight petaled lotus, representing the enlightened and pure mind, as she holds lotus flowers in her two hands and holding the other two hands in Abhaya (assurance) and varada (bestowing) mudras (gestures) (note 3). Her complexion varies from pink to golden yellow or white. She is usually associated with water, illustrated by elephants standing on either side of her emptying pitchers through their raised trunks. Sometimes she is shown in the company of Vishnu and sometimes alone, showering gold coins upon her devotees. In the company of Vishnu, she is Samanya Lakshmi with lotuses in both hands with two hands and when alone, she is Varalakshmi with four arms and hands with four hands, holding a lotus, a conch, a pot of nectar and fruit respectively. As an aspect of Mari Amma (Durga), Lakshmi is also depicted with four additional hands, each carrying a bow, an arrow, a mace and a discus.
Note 1 – translates as “She of the Hundred Thousands”.
Note 2 – Lakshmi and Sri in Vedic times were separate goddesses but amalgamated with the passage of time.
Note 3 – the lotus is Lakshmi’s primary attribute and inextricably linked as both represent immaculate purity and enlightenment. The lotus grows out of mud (samsara) but rises to the surface and opens to the sun (enlightenment). A closed lotus bud represents potential while an open flower symbolizes actualization.
Lakshmi – Goddess of Abundance and Good FortuneTerry Curell2019-11-19T14:12:59-08:00
Brahma (not to be confused with similar terms; Brahman and brahmin) created good and evil, night and day, and gods, demons, ancestors and humans from formless Brahman. It is said the universe was created when Brahma awoke and opened his eyes and will end when he goes back to sleep at the end of his day – a period of 4.32 million human years – the universe will end. Brahma is an abstract metaphysical ideal of a god, and lacks the earthy dramatic myths and legends of other deities, although he does feature in other god’s mythology. He is the bestower of boons upon various demons, boons which invariably create problems requiring divine intervention (and new opportunities) for other gods and goddesses to add to their legends. Brahma is thought to be aloof and unapproachable and isn’t worshipped with the devotional ardour of Shiva, Shakti or Vishnu. It is believed his work is done, and it is the various manifestations of Shiva, Vishnu and Shakti which have the power to power to affect our lives. On the next turn of the Wheel of Time, however, after the weary universe is destroyed by Shiva Nataraja, it is a reborn Brahma who will create the world anew. While his image is venerated somewhere in most major temples, only a handful of the half a million or so temples in India are dedicated solely to Brahma.
Brahma is believed to have created The Vedas, dispersing them in the four cardinal directions from his four mouths, although most of the credit ought to go to his wife, Saraswati, Goddess of Wisdom and Knowledge.
Brahma is typically depicted in iconography as standing, his weight evenly upon both feet (samabhanga). He has four faces whose mouths disperse The Vedas in the four cardinal directions and four arms. In one hand he holds The Vedas, in the second he holds rosary beads (mala) symbolizing time, in the third he holds a ladle (sruva or shruk) symbolizing the means to feed a sacrificial fire, and in fourth a water jug (kamandalu) symbolizing the means from where all creation originates. In paintings, he is often depicted with the white beard of a sage. His vehicle (vahana) is a swan or goose.
Of the entire body of Hindu sacred texts, The Vedas alone are Sruti, ‘that which was heard.’ Embedded within The Vedas are essential treatises on the nature of Atman, our soul, and its relationship to Brahman, the Ultimate Reality.
Tradition tells of forest-dwelling sages (rishis) who developed a level of consciousness that enabled them to ‘hear’ in their hearts the truths of the universe, hence That Which is Heard. The rishis interpreted these truths to create The Vedas, the core of Hindu belief.
Another origin myth says Brahma created The Vedas whole, spreading them throughout the four directions of the cosmos from the four mouths of his four faces (note 1).
However they came to be, The Vedas are consist of four texts, passed down orally from Brahmin father to son before being transcribed into written Sanskrit some 3500 years ago (notes 2 and 3). As Sruti, The Veda’s four books of hymns, rituals, mantras, theology, are deemed scripture and therefore fixed.
Rig Veda is the oldest of the four and a collection of over 1,000 hymns over 10,000 verses, most of which praise one or another of the Vedic gods, such as Agni, Indra, Varuna, etc. Some of the Rig’s verses remain in use today for rites such as mantras, prayers, funerals and weddings. Some scholars believe some of these prayers and rituals are pre-historic; the Agni fire sacrifice being one (note 4).
Sama Veda is the basis for hymns sung using specific melodies derived from the Rig Veda.
Yajur Veda is a compilation of ritual mantras believed to have psychological and spiritual powers. Mantras are used in ritual and spiritual practice to carry the thoughts and prayers of devotees to the gods and goddesses.
Athar Veda, sometimes called ‘The Veda of magic formulas,’ a compilation of hymns describing esoteric knowledge of things like the treatment of ailments, the making of and defence against spells, domestic rituals such as rites of passage, as well as more in-depth theosophic treatises.
As documents written by mortals, The Vedas have been subject to endless examination, and these observations are set down as the Samhitas, Brahmanas, Aranyakas, as well as early and late Upanishads, and all are deemed sacred by association with The Vedas.
While it is The Vedas, which are the foundation of Hindu belief and practice, it is the early Upanishads which elevate its core values. They were extracted from The Vedas over time and continue to evolve to the present day, where they are widely known as the Vedanta. In turn, the philosophical aspects of the Vedanta are discussed at length in the Brahma Sutra, which delves further into the concept of Brahman and Atman, critiques of other dharmic options such as Buddhism and Jainism, advice on achieving moksha through intense meditation and the benefits of spiritual knowledge.
In south India, The Vedas (Sanskrit for knowledge) are known as Marai (Tamil for ‘hidden, secret, mystery’) and the core of Hindu belief interpreted from a uniquely Tamil perspective. The worship of Shiva and Vishnu, in particular, bear the hallmarks of ancient pre-Vedic beliefs, possibly due to Harappan origins. South India was spared the turmoil of successive invasions such as those suffered in the north, so the old Vedic beliefs remain cohesive.
In pre-Vedic south India, the elemental forces affecting people’s lives were little understood. Mysterious natural events, such as monsoon rains and disease, were appeased through ritual sacrifice and over time the supernatural powers which oversaw these events took physical form as the gods and goddesses of the Hindu pantheon. Deities were believed responsible for almost any event beyond the control of individuals and ritual offerings of prayer, flowers and symbolic food items to the gods and goddesses remain fundamental to the practice of Hinduism.
Over a span of centuries ancient Tamil beliefs, practices and mythology were being absorbed into Vedic beliefs and practices, but that process was interrupted in the 8th century AD when a devotional revolution took place in south India as the Bhakti movement was born. Wandering Tamil poet-saints singing passionate devotional hymns to Shiva, Vishnu and Shakti ignited a new, intimate, personal mode of worship independent of ritual, gender or caste and its focus on a personal connection between worshipper and deity remains the standard practice throughout Hinduism. Temple worship with priestly intermediaries is common, but Bhakti is the preferred mode of worship for daily puja rituals.
Over 600 years, these hymns and poems were compiled as sacred texts, the Triumurai for those devoted to Shiva, and the Naalayira Divya Prabhandham, dedicated to Vishnu. They were composed in the Tamil language rather than the Vedic Sanskrit, and their passionate devotional hymns and poetic descriptions of the deities became a guide and reference, not just for Hindu scholars, musicians and dancers, but to Chola bronzesmiths as well.
Note 1 – It is said that Brahma created the seers solely to hear The Vedas and share them with humankind.
Note 2 – As facilitators of temple ritual, young Brahmins were, and are, required to memorize the Vedic hymns and mantras they will perform throughout their lives with subtle nuances of intonation and rhythm. Fastidious cross-checks ensure virtually no errors occur as this sacred knowledge is passed down through generations, and this oral tradition remains strong even today, with one Brahmin family in south India reportedly having passed The Vedas down without error for 3000 years.
Note 3 – Exactly when The Vedas were written down is unknown and likely to remain so. Contemporary Hindu nationalists in India claim The Vedas pre-date any other world religion, but because memory and speech leave no trace, that assertion is impossible to confirm. What no historian disputes, however, is Hinduism’s place as the world’s oldest living religion.
Note 4 – When Shailja and I married, the ceremony involved a series of sacrificial rites in Sanskrit around the temple’s sacred fire, all features of Vedic rituals.
The Vedas – That Which was HeardTerry Curell2019-11-07T09:38:55-08:00
The roots of Hinduism may go back as far as 9000 BC to the first indigenous civilizations in the Indus Valley, but as they say, the specifics are “lost in the mists of time.” Very little is known of pre-Vedic indigenous spiritual life in India, but scholars believe they were centred – just as they were for virtually every other indigenous culture – upon natural and cosmic forces such as storms, fire and the sun. These forces were eventually given names and superhuman character traits which would ultimately be absorbed into Vedic worship, as gods with physical form and specific characteristic and responsibilities such as Rudra, Agni and Surya. Much later, elements of Rudra’s characteristics would evolve to become those of Shiva, while Rudra’s importance would wane. Other Vedic gods represented more abstract qualities such as friendship (Mitra) and statecraft (Indra). A similar process applied to many other deities as well. The inclusive nature of Hinduism ensures ancient pre-Vedic beliefs live on as nature spirits, such as yakshas, which still guard springs and trees, while the homes of cobra-like deities, or nagas, such as anthills will often receive offerings of food and flowers (note 1).
While most scholars agree The Vedas would become the authoritative spiritual source of Hinduism (note 2), there is an ongoing debate over whether they originated with the religious beliefs of Aryans or Indus Valley civilizations. The Aryans were multi-ethnic, Sanskrit speaking, tribal nomads from what is now Iran, who moved into the Indus Valley around 4000 BP. The indigenous Indus Valley civilizations, on the other hand, were agriculturists with sophisticated civil engineering technology and extensive sea-going trade networks (note 3). While their writings have yet to be decoded, they likely spoke a Dravidian dialect, which may have formed the basis for the Tamil language (note 4). Aryan religious beliefs were based on ritual sacrifice to deities embodying natural forces such as storms, rain and rivers (Rudra), fire (Agni), and the sun (Surya). Vedic foundations of Hinduism are possibly a synthesis of Aryan and Harappan, beliefs and may have included yogic meditation and the concepts of Shiva and Shakti. The Vedas, in the form of hymns and poems, were passed down orally for thousands of years before being written in Sanskrit between 3700 and 2500 BP. Meanwhile, Aryan hierarchal social structure (varna) grew out of Vedic religious practice and later came to be known as the caste system (note 5).
The period from 1000 BC to 500 AD saw the peak of Vedic spiritual influence in India. As its ritual and practice grew more sophisticated, scholars and sages continued to expand Vedic thought in three further volumes of writings; Samaveda, Yajurveda, and Atharvaveda. These texts introduced the concept of samsara, the cycle of birth and death, while later Upanishads developed the concept of Atman, the deep inner essence within the individual, and moksha, union with the Ultimate Soul; Brahman. The Vedas now offered an alternative to temple rituals, and it was now possible to worship a personal manifestation of Brahman.
Traditionally, access to The Vedas and performance of their rituals was the exclusive right of the literate upper caste. Brahmin control over access to God led to widespread spiritual dissatisfaction, and the masses began to believe the ritual performance was of less importance than the ritual’s meaning to the individual. A movement (Sramana) gained popularity, which encouraged an internalized spiritual path through personal ascetism, setting the stage around 2600 BP for the birth of Buddhism (note 6) and Jainism (note 7). Buddhism rejected Vedic ritual, seeking moksha through meditation, while Jains rejected the concept of both Brahman and Atman altogether, finding moksha through strict austerity, and by 400 BC, both religions had gained ground on Hinduism. It was reported by a Chinese diplomat that in Kanchipuram, (south India) alone, there were 100 monasteries and 10,000 monks. This was not to last, however, as Hinduism would eventually absorb many Buddhist and Jain principles and practices, and by 1200 AD, Buddhism was on the fringes of south Indian spiritual life.
Devotional practice in south India reflected the passionate nature of the Tamil people and proved to be fertile ground for a renewed burst of spiritual energy known as Bhakti. Beginning about 1400 600 AD ascetic Tamil poets wandered south India, reciting poems and singing devotional hymns of unparalleled beauty and passion, praising Shiva, Vishnu, Krishna and Devi, the Mother Goddess. These poet-saints espoused a goal of mystical union with God bypassing the Brahmin controlled Vedic temple rituals with its divisions of caste and gender.
Eight hundred years ago the poetess-saint Mahadeviyakka wrote of her devotion to Shiva in terms not unlike that of a lover to their beloved;
“He bartered my heart, looted my flesh,
claimed as tribute my pleasure, took over all of me.
I’m the woman of love,
for my lord, white as jasmine.”
In the time of the Cholas, most Hindus wouldn’t disagree The Vedas were Hinduism’s spiritual source, though outside of Brahmin priests, very few would live their lives strictly according to Vedic precepts. The majority of popular Hindu practice is ritual worship to one or more or all the gods. Bhakti may be confined to one or two personal Gods, but a worshipper would be quite comfortable, for example, calling upon Ganesha to remove an obstacle in their lives in one moment and in the next to to beseech Boga Shakti to grant them a grandchild. Then as now, when devotees visit a large temple, for instance, they traditionally follow a circuit around the outside the main temple structure offering puja to stone icons, or mulamurti, installed in niches along the walls before they enter the inner temple. Hinduism’s innumerable deities are not deities in their own right but are manifestations of Brahman, The Ultimate Truth and Reality. Each god or goddess is a lens through which the worshipper is offered a brief glimpse of Brahman; therefore, there is no contradiction for a Saivite, for example, to offer devotion to Vishnu or a Devi or a sacred rock at their village well.
Note 1 – When the primary source of domestic water for so many rural Indians is a well or spring, and when a recent survey of doctors in India showed 46,000 deaths a year by snake bite, perhaps it is understandable that people would like to stay on the right side of yakshas and nagas.
Note 2 – It’s essential to bear in mind The Vedas were created by human beings rather than the literal word of a Creator Deity. They are, therefore, open to interpretation and have been for thousands of years, resulting in a truly vast body of sacred literature, added to and amended up to the present day.
Note 3 – The Harappans were the first in the Indian sub-continent to cast bronze sculpture in about 2500 BC.
Note 4 – Around 1700 BC, the Harappans migrated into south India after the collapse of their Indus Valley Civilisation following a 200-year drought.
Note 5 – Despite the efforts of today’s Indian government to eliminate the caste system, it is so ingrained by 4,000 years of Indian culture that such efforts have been mostly ineffectual. By the way, the word caste comes from the Portuguese word for colour.
Note 6 – The decline of Buddhism in India had more to do with the attraction of participation in social and cultural life rather than the Buddhist doctrine of renouncing and retreating from the world. Today in India, Buddhism is enjoying a modest rise in popularity, primarily due to the conflict of modern human rights values with a patriarchal Vedic caste system.
Note 7 – Jainism, with its extreme austerity, has never enjoyed mainstream popularity, though its beliefs have had a disproportionate effect upon Buddhism and Hinduism.
The History of HinduismTerry Curell2019-11-07T15:44:34-08:00