Chola overview, including its history, religious beliefs, and the role of Chola Bronzes in spiritual practice.

Adornment

Adornment

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). 

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Chola Bronzes in Context

Chola Bronzes in Context

In the ninth century, the Chola imperial dynasty emerged from the fertile coastal plains of south India and became the dominant political, cultural, religious, and artistic force in the region for the next four hundred years. With his land borders secure and a fleet of trading ships filling his coffers, the dynasty’s enlightened founder, Rajaraja Chola, began construction of almost 300 majestic temples to project the power, wealth, and piety of the Chola dynasty. These temples were the spiritual and cultural centers of the Chola Empire and marked the beginning of a golden age where music, dance, poetry, architecture and sculpture flourished as never before and rarely since. The aesthetic and technical sophistication the Cholas achieved remains the standard for sacred art.

Imagine yourself a thousand years ago in south India. You and your family are citizens of the Chola Empire. The land is rich and fertile; the empire wealthy and secure. Chola merchants trade all over southeast Asia as far as China and as far west as the Persian Gulf. Your markets are filled with silks and spices and exotic goods, while travellers from all over the world pass by your door. You and your family are blessed by God, protected by your king, and tonight is special.

Chanting hymns of praise, priests in the temple have ritually fed and bathed bronze images of your gods and goddesses in milk, butter, honey, and sugar, rinsed them with holy water from the Kaveri River, anointed them with fragrant sandalwood paste and draped them in new silk, garlands of jasmine, hibiscus and marigold, and lustrous pearls, gold and jewels. You and your family have been preparing yourselves as well. Everyone is freshly bathed and dressed in their finest. The moon is full and high, the streets lit with torches and decorated with banners, flags and tree branches. The fragrance of incense is in the air.

In the distance, you hear the deep beating of drums and a cacophony of horns and bells. Your children are hopping up and down with excitement as a caparisoned and lavishly decorated elephant carrying a banner in its trunk plods into view. Chanting hymns and dancing, beautiful men and women from the temple pass you by. Coming into view now are palanquins bearing your God, nearly hidden beneath silk and flowers and gold, the bearers straining under the weight. Your heart pounds in your chest, your palms are pressed together in Anjali, the gesture of greeting and respect. As the palanquin draws near, you raise your eyes and look upon the face of your God. You make eye contact, and in doing so, the God blesses you. Your heart is full, illuminated by divine grace; a moment known as Darshan.

The visual language of symbols, either abstract such as a lingam or literal as a Chola Bronze, enables us to focus our devotions. Chola bronzesmiths were inspired to create figurative icons in bronze to whom worshippers could approach and offer prayer. And isn’t that the purpose of any religious art, from the Lascaux cave paintings to Michelangelo’s Pieta? Unique to the genre of sacred art, however, is the extraordinary ability of Chola bronzesmiths to capture both the sensual beauty and spiritual grace of the gods and goddesses they represent.  

Chola Bronzes in museums, private collections and here on our website, were never meant to be seen unadorned. It was only after consecration, purification, and adornment with silks, jewels, and flowers, that the bronze figure was ritually transfigured into a living, breathing, seeing divinity; a transformation central to the spiritual importance of Chola bronzes. So when you are drawn to an unadorned Chola bronze, imagine that same figure in a torchlight procession on a hot summer night long ago, swathed in silk, jewels, and flowers as chanting fills the air.

Or perhaps you envision a quiet corner at home, where your Mantra Sacred Sculpture fills your home with its spiritual presence and sensual beauty. Listen to a mantra, light candles, and lay some flowers, then reflect on the ancient spiritual power your sculpture represents. Perhaps you may even hear some faint echo of a procession a thousand years ago.

Note 1; The temples and several of the bronzes commissioned by Rajaraja Chola continue to fulfill their role as objects of devotion today. The best known of these being the Thillai Temple Nataraja of Chidambaram, the former Chola capital.

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Hinduism in The Chola Empire

Hinduism in The Chola Empire

When Vedic Hinduism reached south India around 2400 BP, the indigenous Tamil culture was fully established. Both traditions were rooted in common animist origins, and Vedic gods blended with their Tamil counterparts almost seamlessly. For example, the pastoral god Murugan, “the red god seated on the blue peacock who is ever young and resplendent,” merged with the north Indian Skanda and retains a large following even today. Murugan’s mother, the fierce war goddess, Korravai, united with Kali. Mayon, a black rural divinity, shares many of the same characteristics as Krishna Gopala. Lalita, “Beautiful Goddess of The Three Cities,” is the Tamil equivalent of Lakshmi.

A thousand years later, in the centuries leading up to the time of the Cholas, dissatisfaction with Vedic tradition was feeding widespread frustration among ordinary worshippers. Deep within the temple’s inner sanctums, the priests and a select few of the royal elite would have direct contact with the gods while the lesser castes waited in the entrance hall. This worship by proxy left the population spiritually unsatisfied, but change was in the air. Seemingly out of nowhere came the Alvars and Nayanars, itinerant poet-saints, male and female, high caste and low, who wandered through south India singing passionate devotional hymns to Shiva, Vishnu and Shakti. This new personal connection with God sparked a devotional revolution known as Bhakti. It’s ardent, unstructured emotional style of worship contrasted sharply with the old Vedic temple rituals and the Tamil people wholeheartedly embraced these poet-saints and this new devotional style (note 2). They rejected not only the idea of salvation through Brahmin controlled ritual but Vedic divisions of gender and caste. Bhakti spread beyond the Chola borders and into India and eventually throughout Asia, where it remains the dominant form of worship. As the movement spread, Bhakti freed not just Hindus but Buddhists and Jains to perform their devotions when, where, and how they chose. Their relationship with God was now personal and far more gratifying. Chola craftsmen, too, found inspiration in the hymns and poems of the saints, creating in bronze the vitality, grace and beauty the poets had created in words.

“Youth who shines as a ruby,
In a cluster of emeralds!
Being who enters my heart,
Stirring memory!
Come to me in my sleep,
Be my friend,
Give me refuge in your grace,
O dweller in Avatuturai!”
Saint Appar

As often occurred when orthodox Hinduism is confronted with a powerful new spiritual energy, it absorbed key practices into itself. And when the Chola kings also fell under the spell of Bhakti, Brahmin priests eased their restriction on access to the gods and royal craftsmen were directed to re-create the temple’s stone-carved deities in bronze, portable images which could be carried in procession about the temple within view of worshippers. Over time these bronze figures began to acquire the persona of both divine and earthly kingship. The deity would have a sacred bedroom, where it would be awoken, bathed, offered food and drink (puja), adorned in sumptuous silks, jewels and fragrances before being carried in procession. The deity would preside over daily rituals and ceremonies, and in the evening would be ritually ‘put to bed.’ For annual festivals, these processional bronzes (utsavamurti) are carried by bearers or atop wheeled vehicles, outside the temple grounds to great fanfare (note 2). Such processions continue today, and the sensory onslaught has to be experienced to be appreciated.

Note 1; Four thousand of these hymns, the Naalayira Divya Prabhandham, were collected from all over south India and within the four thousand, eleven hundred verses, the Tiruvaymoli, came to be known as the Tamil Vedas (note 2) and deemed every bit as authoritative as The Vedas from the north. The hymns were passed down orally through generations before being committed by scholars to pen and palm leaf.

Note 2; An extreme example may be the processional vehicles carrying Jagannath, an image of Krishna. A fresh one is constructed every year and is a massive 45 feet high and 35 feet wide and long. 

A photograph showing a processional car carrying a devotional image.  

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The Chola Empire

The Chola Empire

From time to time, when circumstances align just right, a golden age of peace and prosperity is born and a thousand years ago in south India, the Chola Empire was such a society. Once Rajaraja Chola I had created his commercial and military empire he directed his energy and treasury towards building scores of beautiful temple complexes, filling them with the beauty and power of paintings, music, dance…and the extraordinary Chola Bronzes.

Little is known about the Cholas before they became the dominant power in what is now the state of Tamil Nadu, but that changed when a new king took ascended the Chola throne. In the year 848, Vijayalaya led his armies on what was to become one hundred and fifty years of Chola military conquest. His infantry, cavalry, archers and war elephants defeated old rivals to the north, south and west; while later, his son and grandson’s navies secured the eastern seaboard before turning their attentions upon Lanka, the Maldive Islands, Burma, Malaya, Sumatra and the Srivijaya Empire of present-day Indonesia. Rather than foreign territorial expansion, the aim of this expensive aggression was control of seagoing trade. As a result, Chola traders came to dominate trade in the area as surely as Chola navies dominated the seas (note 1). Trade was the source of Chola prosperity, with exports of cotton, spices and gems, and importing and re-exporting luxury goods from as far away as Tang Dynasty China and the Abbasid Caliphate in Baghdad. With the borders secure and trade filing his coffers, Rajaraja Chola I built Brihadisvara Temple, the tallest and grandest temple ever seen in India up to that time in Tanjavur, his capital (note 2).

Chola map

When Rajaraja Chola built Brihadisvara, it was as much a political statement as it was an act of devotion. It reinforced the political principle of divine rule, blurring the line between sovereign and god. Brihadisvara was a symbol of royal prestige, an exercise of power which also rewarded Rajaraja with temple honour (mariyatai) for his role in facilitating worship. Sembiyan Mahadevi, Rajaraja’s aunt and enthusiastic patron of the arts, left dozens of masterpieces in many cities, towns and villages, including magnificent temples in Konerirajapuram, Vriddachalam and Tiruvalangadu. Such ritual gift-giving (dana) was an ancient Hindu tradition and redistributed wealth by encouraging community works such as temples, tanks, gardens and wells. Each temple was endowed with great riches in the form of gold, jewellery, textiles and bronze sculptures as well as meeting the cost of providing food, incense and lamps, ensuring the temple functioned in perpetuity. Ordinary citizens also benefitted from mariyatai as it conferred status, honour and prestige in the community. At its dedication in 1010, Rajaraja gifted twenty-two of its sixty bronze icons, as well as a set of lavish jewellery to adorn each of them. We know this because these endowments were written in stone on the temple walls, as well as an accounting of the other temple expenses such as repairs, dancers (or devadasi), musicians, poets, painters, jewellers and of course, sculptors and bronze-smiths.

Chola drawings

Devadasis on a recently discovered mural inside the Brihadisvara temple.

Chola drawings

Rajaraja the first with his guru.

By the late 13th century the Chola Dynasty had run its course, but its spiritual and artistic legacy lives on through their temples and sacred sculpture. The presence of Hinduism throughout southeast Asia today is due in no small part to Chola seagoing merchants, while the practice of Hinduism itself was given an infusion of fresh Chola ideas, chief among them Bhakti, the belief that anyone could approach God without the necessity of priestly ritual, which to this day is the dominant spiritual practice for Hindus worldwide. For art lovers around the world, of course, the Chola’s greatest gift is their extraordinary bronzes.

After the collapse of the Chola Dynasty, south India was spared the degree of depredation Muslim invaders inflicted upon Hindu temples and art in north India (note 3). When the Mughals arrived in the former Chola homeland in 1311, their touch was relatively light, and they stayed for only a hundred years rather than the thousand years in north India. The brevity of Mughal occupation ensured Vedic Hinduism in south India remained relatively untouched, and its temples remain as they were built a millennia or more ago. Light touch or not the Mughals – based in Madurai – were offended by icons they saw as voluptuously sensual, and many bronzes were looted and melted down into cannon by the invaders. Fortunately for us, however, temple priests of the time secretly buried their icons underground or hid them deep in their vaults. From time to time, a hoard is found, but the pieces are considered unconsecrated; without spiritual value. While a few bronzes are reconsecrated and returned to their temples, most are acquired by museums or private collectors through legal channels – or otherwise.

Note 1 – The Hindu beliefs of Chola traders also found a warm reception throughout southeast Asia and the spread of Hinduism throughout the region was rapid, extensive and long-lasting. Angkor Wat, for instance, in modern-day Cambodia is a Hindu temple.

Note 2 – Brihadisvara has been in constant use since its completion in 1010 and been designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Note 3 – Today it’s very hard to find a large Hindu temple in the northern Indian sacred cities of Varanasi or Mathura older than 400 years.

Note 2 – Brihadisvara has been in constant use since its completion in 1010 and in 1987 was designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Note 3 – Today it’s difficult to find a large Hindu temple in north India, the former Mughal Empire, older than 400 years.

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Chola Bronze Iconography

Chola Bronze Iconography

“Without a form how can God be meditated upon? If God is without form, where will the mind fix itself? When there is nothing for the mind to attach itself to, it will slip away from meditation or glide into a state of slumber. Therefore the wise will meditate on some form, remembering, however, that the form is a superimposition and not a reality.”

Vishnu Samhita Ch 29, V 55-7

When Brahman (God) is without form, the form which enables Hindus to focus their devotions is either an abstract aniconic form such as a lingam, yoni or yantra; or figurative – such as a Chola Bronze.

Lingam and Yoni; The aniconic pillarlike form of the lingam predates figurative imagery to a time when symbols alone were used to represent divinity (note 1). In the Saivite and Shaktic traditions, the lingam is Shiva’s column of light at the center of the world, rooted in the dark netherworld, breaking through the surface of the earth and reaching towards the infinite cosmos. The yoni (tr; womb, origin, source) is the female, regenerative equivalent of the lingam and represents the Divine Feminine principle of Shakti. The lingam and yoni together represent the regenerative power of the universe through the union of male (Prakriti) and female (Purusha) natural, divine power.

Yantra; A Yantra (tr; machine) is a geometric shape, often drawn on the floor with powder, specific to a particular deity and worshipped as that deity. Yantras predate Vedic belief by many thousands of years and closely associated with Shakti worship. Yantras are charged with the power of a Mantra and direct mantric energy towards the deity. While Yantras and Mandalas are similar in appearance and both are metaphysical devices created to aid meditation practice, Yantras are specific to a deity, or the home of a deity, while Mandalas represent the cosmos as a whole.

An ancient tradition in south India is the kolam, an auspicious geometric pattern similar to the yantra and mandala. The kolam is applied to the ground outside the entrance to private homes and are refreshed each morning. Kolam are believed to repel evil and welcome Lakshmi, Goddess of Abundance and Good Fortune.

Figurative Sculpture; In Hindu mythology, it is believed gods and goddesses exist on a higher plane in a formless state and leave this state only when a physical body is required to perform a heroic deed, or when a worshipper requires a material focus for worship. If certain rituals are performed the god’s spirit may mystically descend and enter into a sculpture created in its human form (murti). For the time it takes to perform puja, the bronze figure becomes the god or goddess. Doing so is an act of grace on the part of the deity and having a physical form enables the god to bestow a blessing upon the worshipper with a gesture or eye contact (Darshan). and it is the clean, simple, visual vocabulary of iconography which makes it possible.

The challenge for Chola artists was to craft sculpture worthy of the gods. As a material metaphor of a divine entity, it must be aesthetically and technically perfect and when royal patronage put all the resources of the empire at the artist’s disposal, the iconic Chola Bronzes were created. The artists worked within the temple complex and in most cases, were also trained in music and dance. Then as now, dance brought to life the god’s stories, not only through body language (bhangas and hastas) but subtle hand gestures (mudras) as well (note 2). A dancer tells the god’s story with their body, the sculptor tells it in bronze.

For those new to the idea of gods and goddesses as sexual beings, the sensuality of Chola Bronzes can be unsettling. Prudery was unknown to the Cholas, indeed to most pre-colonial Indians, who believed the body’s senses were a gift from the gods. The intense sensual stimulation of sex was the greatest of those gifts and connection with one’s beloved while making love was believed to be spiritually akin to the feeling of connection between worshipper and deity during the ritual of Darshan. In addition, the ecstasy of sexual release was deemed similar to Darshan’s moment of bliss when the worshipper and divinity became visually connected.

As Chola artists created their sculptures, they were guided by the firm hand of sacred texts, the Shilpa Sastras. Every aesthetic and technical detail was followed to the letter (note 3). The units of measurement are the angula, or a finger width, and the tala, the distance from the chin to the forehead. Twelve angulas equal one tala. The artist creates a figure using an ancient system where the head is one tala high; the neck is four angulas, the torso three talas, and so on. The figure’s eyes, for example, are to be shaped like a small fish or lotus petal; the eyebrow like an archer’s bow; the lips shaped like lotus blossoms; the chin like a mango stone; and the arms like an elephant’s trunk or, in the case of a woman’s arms, long and tapered like a perfectly formed edible root. The male torso should resemble the frontal view of a bull’s head or the chest of a lion. The female should have full breasts, a narrow waist like a drum (damaru), and generous hips, all symbolizing nature’s abundance and the female procreative powers. Goddesses are slightly shorter in stature and slender, while in a grouping of deities, lesser gods and juveniles are proportionally smaller.

As they blend characteristics of both the divine and the human, a Hindu god’s body appears soft, without muscle definition, because it is filled not with blood, muscle and bone, but with prana, the sacred breath of life and evokes the serene otherworldliness of spiritual beings who have passed beyond the physicality of the human body. The way the gods stand or sit or hold their hands conveys messages to the beholder of assurance, blessing or protection. Multiple arms and hands hold symbolic attributes such as flowers or weapons, all conveying information as to the deity’s qualities or responsibilities. The head of an animal, such as a boar or an elephant, places the deity in myth and legend. But tradition – and the Shilpa Sastras – specify these figures must also blend supernatural characteristics with the ideal beauty of earth-born men and women and the artists need to look no further than the royal court around them for inspiration. They would be surrounded by beautiful, youthful, semi-nude men and women, adorned in fine silks and lavish jewellery (note 4). For royalty, divine or mortal, the wearing of jewels and silk sets them apart and above. In a tropical environment, minimal clothing was natural and only lack of adornment (alankara) was considered vulgar.

Note 1 – The lingam is the central fixed point in Creation and any figurative forms are deemed secondary. For example, while the galleries and outer courtyards of a Saivite temple may contain multiple images of Shiva in his various aspects (Nataraja, Tripuravijaya, etc.) the centre of temple worship in the innermost sanctum is the Lingam.

Note 2 – Bharatanatyam is India’s oldest classical dance form and in the Chola period was known as Sathir. Noted for its fixed upper torso, with legs bent or knees splayed, intricate footwork and sophisticated vocabulary of body postures (hastas), gestures (mudras), eye and facial expressions, Bharatanatyam is an interpretive narration of mythical legends and spiritual ideas. For a top contemporary dancer see; http://arushimudgal.com/video-ardhnarishwar.html

Note 3 – The Shilpa Shastras formalized how Chola bronzesmiths related the perfection of the natural world to the perfection of the gods. In addition to the creation of their iconic bronzes, the Shilpa Shastras also directed the arts of painting, temple architecture, mural carving, jewellery making, music, dance, poetry, medicine, carpentry, even the erotic arts.

Note 4 – Chola Bronzes worshipped in temples are never seen unadorned except by their attendant priests. Except for their faces and perhaps their hands, their bodies are hidden beneath garlands, silks and jewellery. 

Chola Bronze Iconography2019-11-08T05:28:22-08:00
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