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.