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.
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.
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.
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
Just as Chola Bronzes and other sacred figurative sculptures are highly symbolic in nature, Chola temples were also subject to the iconographic dictates of the Shilpa Shastras. Just as a bronze sculpture is believed to represent the deity in physical form (in certain specific circumstances), temples are believed to house the presence of the Divine in the world. If the universe is the body of the Divine on a macrocosmic scale then the temple is the body of the Divine in a microcosmic scale and therefore the temple’s major features correspond to features of the human body.
Chola temples were, and are, where worshippers interact with gods in their material form, either in their most ancient form as an abstract (aniconic) symbol, such as Lingam and Yoni, or figurative, such as a stone or bronze sculptural icon. If a major temple was dedicated to Shiva – as most in south India were – the central form of God might be a Lingam/Yoni in the inner sanctum (karuvarai), while a modest village shrine makes do with a simple Lingam or crude stone icon (mulamurti). A Vaishnava temple, on the other hand, would have a figurative image of Vishnu. Temples in South India dedicated to Shakti, the Divine Goddess, were less common, although they would again feature an anthropomorphic image of a specific manifestation such as Uma or Kali (note 1). South India temples dedicated to Shiva outnumber those dedicated to Vishnu roughly two to one, while temples dedicated to Shakti, the Great Goddess, are relatively few. Though each temple may be dedicated to a particular god or goddess, in the larger temples icons of the major gods are found throughout the temple building and grounds, each with their own shrines and sacred sculpture, allowing the devotee to perform puja to more than one god in a single visit.
Brihadisvara Temple, with the Nandi Mandapam
Architecturally, the temples of south India differ from their northern counterparts in three distinct ways;
They are usually enclosed by within a compound wall, with the front wall having an entrance gateway (gopuram) in its centre
The central tower (vimana) over the karuvarai is pyramid-shaped with flat sides as opposed to the bulging sides of its northern cousins. A cupola-like structure (shikhara) is placed on top.
A covered assembly hall (mandapa) used for music and dancing in front of the inner sanctum. A large temple may have several.
A tank (kalyani) is usually found in the compound and used for ritual purposes.
Temples dedicated to Shiva will have a pavilion (Nandi Mandapam) for a murti, or sculpture, of Nandi, Shiva’s bull vahana (vehicle), which will be facing his master.
The external walls of the temple are segmented by pilasters and feature niches housing sacred sculpture.
Early shrines were created anywhere having a special spiritual meaning for the people, serving as a focus for worshipping nature spirits, such as trees or Lingam shaped rocks, or springs, even anthills, the home of snakes, or nagas. Temple tradition may have started with early cave sanctuaries, themselves symbolic ‘womb chambers’, indicative of the creative power of the gods, particularly Shakti. Perhaps a simple wall would be built to define the sacred ground surrounding the shrine, and as time went on a shelter of wood or brick in time evolved to what eventually became the grand temple complexes built by the Chola kings and queens (note 3) and serving royal residence, seat of government and setting for the sacred arts. Chola temples have been in continuous use since they were created a thousand years ago, having been spared the worst of the Mughal invasions which had destroyed so many north Indian temples. Many of the original bronze icons still in place and are still being worshipped with the same mantras and rituals, and entering these temples today one feels an almost palpable presence of the worship performed in these soot-blackened chambers for the past thousand years.
Note 1 – In south India, the Mother Goddess is no less powerful, however, Shakti is expressed through manifestations such as Uma (Shiva’s consort), Lakshmi and Bhu Devi (Vishnu’s wives), Kali or Mari Amma, as Durga is known in south India.
Note 2 – Such shrines are still scattered throughout India, reflecting the animist beliefs of pre-Vedic times.
Note 3 – The trend towards grand temple complexes began when Tantric values regarding puja became popular, starting around the 5th century. Tantrism also accelerated the belief in personal devotion to one’s chosen deity, a concept known as Bhakti.
Note 4 -Brihadisvara, the grandest of all Chola temple complexes was built in only seven years by Rajaraja Chola 1. Construction began in 1003 AD and at the time of its completion was one of the tallest buildings in the world at 63 metres (208 feet). It is a UNESCO Living Chola Temple.
“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 IconographyTerry Curell2019-11-08T05:28:22-08:00