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 has been 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 read, 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.
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).
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.
Devadasis on a recently discovered mural inside the Brihadisvara temple.
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.
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 certifed pure bronze alloys to ensure a level of technical quality the likes of which Chola bronzesmiths could only dream.
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. If a Mantra client wishes to have a custom order cast using this ancient formula, we have that capability.
Note 2 – A bronze cast using panchaloha is 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). Unfortunately, panchaloha lost its cachet when the term started being used to market almost any metal object from India associated with spirituality.