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.

Chola Bronzes in Context2019-11-08T05:33:33-08:00

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.  

Hinduism in The Chola Empire2019-11-10T15:44:27-08:00
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