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).
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
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.
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.