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
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.
Chola Bronzes in ContextTerry Curell2019-11-08T05:33:33-08:00
Pitha; Hindu deities are subject not to our laws of physics but to their own set of cosmic laws, and therefore their feet must never touch the earth. Should our world and theirs connect in physical manner would be catastrophic – for us, not for them. In iconography, therefore, this separation of their world and ours means it’s necessary to have a pedestal (pitha) for them to stand or sit upon. Their pithas are sacred by association and their shape and arrangement have symbological meanings of their own, beyond those of the deity sitting or standing upon it.
Perhaps the most auspicious of the pithas is the padmapitha, or lotus pedestal (above). Recognizable by the stylized lotus petals, it represents how everything, mortal and divine, is born out of purity.
When a pitha has a single, clearly defined segment, it indicates a single aspect of the god depicted, while a double indicates two or more characteristics. These are Bhadrapitha and unique to the pithas of the Great Gods and Goddesses.
Some pithas feature holes or rings in the pitha (see above), meant to accommodate carrying poles. Larger sculptures were created to be carried aloft in processions, either as part of a daily ritual or festivals.
Prabha; Sometimes, an arch, or nimbus, may encircle the icon. When it represents the Earth, it is elaborately decorated with stylized leaves from the sacred tree representing cosmic power. In the case of Shiva as Nataraja, the prabha symbolizes the cosmos. Sometimes a mask (Kirttimukha, or Face of Glory) will be at the prabha’s peak, providing divine protection.
Hindu Gods and Goddesses exist on a higher plane in a formless state, however, if a puja ritual preparing the icon to receive the deity is carried out correctly, and if the worshipper has a pure heart, the god or goddess may descend into the lifeless sculpture animating it with a small fraction of its of divine essence. This is an act of grace on the part of deity and enables direct and reciprocal connection by touch or sight. Should this connection occur the worshipper experiences a moment of ecstasy – Darshan. The term is also applied to the sight of a particularly revered object or person, such as one’s guru.
Darshan is not a ritual to be undertaken lightly. There are apocryphal tales of unwitting bystanders incinerated by a god’s gaze the moment the deity entered the icon.
Darshan – To See and Be SeenTerry Curell2019-11-07T16:31:55-08:00
Many indignities will have been heaped upon your sculpture as part of its creation process and Pranapratishtha symbolically transitions your sculpture from lifeless metal to a sacred icon. When performed in a temple the rites are elaborate and lengthy, although we hope you find a simple home ritual will be sufficient.
Your icon will arrive in synthetic packing material, wrapped in silk and its eyes covered. Natural silk forms a barrier between the image and its synthetic packing material, while a blindfold’s purpose will become clear later. As you unpack and install your piece, the ritual starts with performing puja, accompanied by a mantra such as the Gayatri (this particular version, performed by Deva Premal, is our personal favourite). In the spirit of ancient tradition, you may wish to treat your sculpture as an honoured guest arriving after a long journey, by offering refreshment and flowers after placing the image’s face towards the east, marking the sunrise. This could be followed by Nyasa, the touching of different parts of the image signifying the presence of various gods as sensory organs; Indra as hand, Brahma as heart, Surya as eyes, and so on, all accompanied by a mantra such as the Gayatri. The final ritual is chaksunmilan, the ‘opening of the eyes’ when you’ll remove the blindfold. Your sculpture is now considered consecrated.
Pranapratishtha, The Consecration RitualTerry Curell2019-11-08T05:40:41-08:00
The aesthetic achievements of the Chola bronzesmiths are plain to see, yet the sophistication of their casting process is also impressive.
A thousand years ago, Chola craftsmen had reached a level of technical sophistication equalled only today using state of the art materials and techniques. As a result, the beauty of their Chola Bronzes remain undimmed by time, a remarkable achievement given that many museum pieces have been buried for hundreds of years (note 1).
Chola Bronzes were, and are to this day, created using the traditional lost wax, or cire perdu, process, a technique which has been used for thousands of years. The process begins by modelling a maquette, or full size model, of the figure in wax mixed with resin from the Oriental Plane tree and ground nut oil (four parts wax, four parts resin and one part oil). The wax figure is then coated with three consecutive layers of clay; the first coat is very fine and thin, about 3 mm, made from silt collected from the banks of the Kaveri River mixed with finely ground burnt coconut husks and cow dung, the second layer is field clay mixed with sand, and the third layer a mix of coarse sand and clay. After drying in the sun for a few days and wrapped in wire for reinforcement, the wax/clay is heated over hot coals until the wax figure melts, or lost, out of the mould. Molten copper alloy is then poured into the void and solidifies as it cools. Breaking the clay open reveals the rough casting, but destroys the mould, rendering each bronze icon entirely unique.
With all the resources of the empire at their disposal Chola bronzesmiths developed significant improvements to the lost wax process and their descendants kept this arcane knowledge a closely guarded secret for almost a thousand years. Recent laboratory analyses, however, has revealed the formula for their alloy (note 2). In addition to the usual copper and tin, the presence of iron, silver and gold ensured their formula conformed to the Shilpa Shastra’s accepted definition of panchaloha, literally ‘five’ ‘metal,’ the auspicious bronze alloy used to create sacred icons (note 3).
Anyone who has ever experienced a Chola Bronze knows the bronzesmiths who created them were master craftsmen, however, they were limited by their technology. Theirs is a very impressive achievement when they were using river mud, beeswax, charcoal and cow dung. Today we have the advantage of computer-controlled, electric furnaces and certified pure bronze alloys to ensure a technical quality Chola bronzesmiths could only dream of achieving.
There is an undeniable charm to knowing your sculpture was created the old traditional way, but we feel any sculpture associated with gods and goddesses ought to be of the highest possible aesthetic and technical quality. Even if they are never used in spiritual practice, Chola Bronzes are by definition, sacred sculpture and deserve an appropriate level of care in their creation.
Note 1 – After the collapse of the Chola Dynasty, south India was spared the degree of depredation Mughal invaders inflicted upon Hindu temples and art in north India. 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 the north. 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 were offended by these voluptuously sensual bronzes and many were melted down into cannon. 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 and therefore spiritually without value. While a precious few are reconsecrated and returned to their temples, most are acquired by museums or private collectors through legal channel – or otherwise.
Note 2 – in 2015, a metallurgical analysis of 130 original Chola Bronzes revealed that secret recipe to be; 82% copper, 7.7% lead, 7.1% tin, 0.51% iron, 0.16 % silver and 0.01% gold, as well as traces of several other elements. Reference; “Tamil Chola Bronzes and Swamimalai Legacy: Metal Sources and Archaeotechnology” by Sharada Srinivasan, Ph.D. The Journal of The Minerals, Metals & Materials Society (TMS) August 2016, Volume 68, Issue 8, pp 2207–2221.
Note 3 – A bronze cast using panchaloha was considered auspicious because, in the words of the renowned Chola expert, Dr. R. Nagaswamy, “In the south five metals were used, with copper being the base. These five metals, called panchaloha, were symbolically associated with the five basic elements, earth, water, fire, air, and ether. According to tradition, all physical bodies, including humans’, are composed of these five elements in different proportions. The sacred metal image, being the body of the Divine on earth, is thus also made up of the five elements that are represented by the metals.” (Nagaswamy, Timeless Delight, p. 13).
It is no longer possible in the West for panchaloha to be used when reproducing Chola icons due to its Pb (lead) content. Environmental, as well as health and safety concerns for foundry workers, must take precedence. Caution; Pb (lead) remains a major element for casting reproductions overseas. If you currently have Indian-sourced sculptures in your home please ensure your wax coating covers the entire surface and reapply it annually.