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 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.
Mantra Sacred Sculpture is the husband and wife team of Terry and Shailja Curell. From the moment we discovered Chola Bronzes fifteen years ago, this sublime art form has been our life’s artistic and spiritual inspiration.We travelled throughout south India, visiting temples and workshops, hungry to learn all we could before starting a small online gallery, Kaalita. Despite the logistical issues, we developed a loyal client base by bringing our clients and their special Chola sculpture together. However, as the years passed, we were faced with insurmountable quality issues from our traditional sources and reluctantly suspended our enterprise. Now, under a new name, we once again offer our clients the same dedication to craftsmanship and client satisfaction.
A thousand years ago, Chola bronzesmiths created masterpieces whose sensual elegance was secondary to their religious function of facilitating a visual connection, Darshan, between the Divinity and worshipper. Shailja and I believe such powerful art deserves the highest level of artistic and technical excellence.
We bring a similar commitment to our client relationships as well, so whether your sculpture will be the focal point of your spiritual life, or simply a striking garden feature, we offer one-on-one consultation guiding you through the acquisition process. Whether you purchase or not, we hope you’ll browse our Reference Library to learn more about this extraordinary art form.
Our initial offering is found in Our Gallery, select pieces we’d sourced directly from traditional south Indian workshops – the photographs don’t do their patina justice. And if we don’t have what you want on hand, we offer a custom order option.
Testimonials: Here’s a link to comments received from our clients.
Ethics: Anyone mixing commerce with objects of a spiritual nature must come to terms with the ethical issues. Be assured, Shailja and I are sensitive to the fact that many of our sculptures are destined to become the object of our client’s spiritual practice. We are fully aware that our pieces represent the heritage of an ancient spiritual tradition.
Antiques: Should you wish to purchase an antique Chola Bronze, we will refer you to a specialist dealer. We choose not to deal in antique Chola Bronzes when India’s sacred sculpture is stolen and smuggled on an industrial scale. As collector’s appreciation of Chola Bronzes has grown, prices at auction for originals with a solid provenance are fetching in the millions. While reputable auction houses are usually diligent when confirming provenance, many thousands of Chola originals are still being stolen to order from village temples and shrines where they have sat unguarded for centuries. UNESCO estimates that over 50,000 objects, most of them spiritual in nature, have been lost. Sadly, enforcement at the source remains largely ineffectual. As an alternative to the risks involved in purchasing an antique Chola original, we offer the option of a custom order.
Temple Sculpture: Should you wish to acquire a sculpture for temple worship, we feel it ought to be cast by one of the few remaining Indian sthapathy still adhering to the centuries-old traditions of their forefathers. As worldwide demand for Chola Bronzes mushrooms many village workshops have chosen quantity over quality, yet there remain a few old-school sthapathys who remain true to the spiritual traditions of the ancient past.
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