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.
Mantras, (tr: mind instrument) are central to the ritual traditions of Hinduism. They are syllables, words, phrases or sentences having sacred power when repeatedly chanted, whispered or thought, usually in Sanskrit. The literal meaning of a mantra’s content is of less importance than its vibrational quality and is usually used in combination with an action of some sort, such as when making a ritual offering or when meditating to clear the mind of day to day clutter, allowing it to focus and concentrate. Should a specific mantra be gifted from a guru to a student it is empowered or brought to life in much the same way an icon is empowered when inhabited by a deity.
Mantra’s origins are Tantric and therefore strongly associated with the Shaktic energy permeating all planes of existence from the most sacred and subtle to our own base earthly level. Tantrics believe the Mantra itself is divine as if it were a deity in its own right.
The ultimate Mantra is, of course, the syllable OM (pronounced ahh–uhh–mm), which is identified with Brahman, the Ultimate Soul.
If the colour white contains every colour in the spectrum, then OM contains every sound in the cosmos’ vibrational spectrum. It is believed that once our vibration matches that of the cosmos (Brahmanda), slowly repeating OM clears the mind and connects us to the cosmos. OM is considered to be the essence of The Vedas distilled into one syllable and found in virtually all Vedic rituals from daily pujas to Vedic temple sacrifice. OM is also sacred to Buddhists and Sikhs.
Other mantras are prayers, such as the timeless Gayatri Mantra which is so important to Hindu belief it is embodied as the goddess, Gayatri. For many Hindus the Gayatri Mantra may be the only Sanskrit prayer they know;
Aum Bhuh Bhuvah Svah Tat Savitur Varenyam Bhargo Devasya Dheemahi Dhiyo Yo Nah Prachodayat
“O thou existence Absolute, Creator of the three dimensions,
We contemplate upon thy divine light. May He stimulate our intellect and bestow upon us true knowledge.”
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 ContextTerry Curell2019-11-08T05:33:33-08:00
The term Tantra is a term applied today to a broad range of exotic and erotic secular activities ranging from fitness yoga to couple’s therapy to pole dancing. Therefore it’s no surprise Tantra has an enthusiastic, though not particularly well-informed following worldwide. It’s safe to say few neo-Tantrists are aware of Tantrism’s deep significance to Indian spiritual practice, particularly the concept of personal connection with one’s chosen deity, or Bhakti. Puja, mudra, Mantra, chakra, mandala, temple architecture and even Chola Bronzes themselves all owe their existence to Tantric belief and practice.
As a matter of semantics, Tantra (tr; loom, warp, weave) is a term referring not so much to beliefs and practice as it does sacred text. These manuscripts were first transcribed from an ancient oral tradition late in the fifth century as the Agamas and Samhitas (note 1). Considered by Tantrikas as superior to orthodox Vedic Hindu and Buddhist scripture, they transcended association with either religious belief. Tantra takes the form of a conversation between the first yogi (Adiyogi) and their disciple. Depending upon their affiliation, some Hindu Tantrikas believe the guru is Shakti (note 2), Shiva or Vishnu. For instance, in Shakti Tantrism, it is Shakti manifesting as Kali who is the guru and Shiva is the disciple, while within Saivite Tantrism, it is Shiva sharing the wisdom of Tantra with Shakti. Buddhist Tantrikas (Vajrayanists), on the other hand, do not believe God manifests as deities; therefore, their Tantra offers a path to enlightenment through the primordial union of the male principle of compassion and the female principal of compassion. The metaphor for this union in iconography is male and female deities in a face to face sexual position with the female sitting within the crossed legs of the male, depicted in an icon known as Yab-Yam.
Fifteen hundred years ago, Tantrism introduced the revolutionary concept of The Divine Within, the idea that God was not a separate entity, but existed within us all (note 3). Traditional orthodox Hindu worship comprises lengthy Vedic rituals directed towards an abstract manifestation of Brahman, the Ultimate Reality. The formless Brahman manifested in physical form as gods and goddesses such as Shiva, Kali, Vishnu, Krishna, Ganesha and others of the Hindu pantheon, however, the deity was always an ‘other,’ to be approached and worshipped as an unworthy supplicant as it was deemed presumptuous for a mortal to attempt a personal connection with a deity. On the other hand, Tantra believed divinity lay within us, lying dormant until energized through elaborate and lengthy ritual purification and preparation. To orthodox Hinduism, this concept was radical and tested the limits of inclusivity. Therefore, Tantric knowledge remained a closely guarded secret known only to the most evolved gurus, and passed down orally to initiates after years of disciplined study and yogic practice (guruparaṃparā).
The Tantric process of awakening the divinity within began with ritual purification of the body through its symbolic destruction. The deity was then awakened with sacred chants (Mantras), hand gestures (mudras) and the creation of sacred diagrams (yantras or mandalas). The newly awakened deity would then be ritually worshipped. It was believed an elaborate hierarchy of the cosmos was reflected like a mirror within the devotee’s body, particularly male (Purusha) and female (Prakriti) polarity, manifesting as the fearsome couple, Shiva Bhairava and Kali (note 4). Their union within the body was primarily visualized while in a deep meditative state; however, some sects believed only actual sex would lead to liberation (moksha). This sacred union was visualized through intense meditation upon Shakti as the flow of the female cosmic life force (prana) (note 4) from its source at the base of the spine (kundalini) upward through channels (nadi) through energy centres (chakras) (note 5) to the so-called “thousand-petaled lotus” (sahasrara) at the crown of the head, resulting in an intense feeling of spiritual, mental, emotional and physical well-being. The devotional ritual concluded with external worship (puja) of Maha Devi, the Great Goddess, a ritual involving all the senses; sight (an image of the deity), sound (bells and chants), smell (flower and incense offerings), touch (the application of fragrant oils or paste to the image), and taste (offerings of food and sweets). Tantric puja, particularly, became standard practice in all forms of Hinduism, Buddhism and Jainism by the sixth century (note 6). This new personal style of devotion revolutionized Hindu worship and came to be known as Bhakti.
The adoption of Tantric-style personal devotion led to the creation of temples, and within them, icons in stone and later in bronze became puja’s focus. Before the emergence of Tantrism, worship took place out in the open, in caves or other primitive shelters. The creation of temples and icons led in turn to these sacred images to be venerated as living beings in rituals resembling those accorded Chola monarchs. Sacred dance within the temples (Bharatnatyam) used the Tantric visual language of hand gestures (mudra) and body positions (asanas). By the time of the Cholas, these temples had evolved to become centres of secular power as well as holy communities of priests, musicians, dancers (note 7), poets, umbrella holders, cleaners and other support staff. The line between the secular and the spiritual began to blur further as sacred icons began assuming the roles of royalty in rites and processions, while conversely, the icons began to appear with the adornment (alankara) and clothing styles of their royal patrons. Icons, temples and puja are now fundamental elements of Indian spiritual devotion, and all have their genesis in Tantric traditions.
By the tenth century, Tantrism was widely and openly practiced throughout the subcontinent, however, some of its more controversial beliefs and practices were viewed with fear, suspicion, and in some cases, abhorrence. The intent of Tantrism’s more esoteric and secretive rituals was to consciously break ancient Vedic taboos, for instance by the ritual consumption of meat, alcohol and body fluids of various types (note 10), adulterous sexual offerings to Kali (note 11), possession and exorcism rites, all flouted Hindu prohibitions and hidden from public scrutiny. Tantric knowledge had always been a sacred trust, kept in strict secrecy and passed down orally from guru to disciple after years of preparation and purification (guruparaṃparā). When transcribed, the more dangerous rituals were written in a type of loose code to ensure their content would be understood only by initiates. The nature of this aspect of Tantric practice and the lengths to which its adherents went to preserve its secrets ensured Tantrism achieved notoriety and mystique spanning centuries.
But Tantrism was much more than taboo-breaking attacks upon the old Vedic Hinduism. Modern values were expressed a thousand years ago as respect and equality for all and veneration of the Divine Feminine. While none of these beliefs endeared Tantrism to orthodox Hinduism or Buddhism, tolerance (note 12) and inclusiveness (note 13) were, and are, hallmarks of India’s cultural and religious values and, even though Tantric practice stretched these values to their limit, it did not break them. As long as its practitioners were discrete and its rituals were out of the public eye, Tantrism was tolerated, though never openly encouraged. This uneasy relationship remained unchanged until Muslim invaders arrived in the 13th century when Tantrism was ruthlessly suppressed, it’s followers slain and its manuscripts destroyed. South India was spared the worst of these depredations, however (note 14), and over time Tantra’s less controversial beliefs and practices were absorbed into Hindu practice. Muslim invaders never got over the Himalayas, and Buddhist Tantra survived for a time in Tibet, but a pogrom by occupying Chinese troops in the early 1950’s effectively put an end to Tantrism. Today very little formal Tantric knowledge is known, creating an environment where the term Tantra is freely exploited by self-styled gurus.
Tantric belief also laid the foundation of yogic practice. It believes that with proper meditation, mudras and asanas, divine creative energy (Shakti) flows as prana within the human body. Energy centres (chakras) in the body are aligned along the spine, and when prana flows between the chakras through channels (nadis), the spiritual, mental, emotional and physical well-being of the mind and body is maintained and balanced.
Note 1 – The term Tantrism is Western in origin and born of misconception and assumptions from non-Hindu scholars. To practitioners, it was simply the warp and weave of the fabric of their spiritual belief and practice. Tantra and sutra are terms which are also used interchangeably, tantra being the cloth and sutra being the sewing of that cloth. When referring to Tantra here, I use the past tense because, for all intents and purposes, Tantra as a defined system of belief and practice is a spent force. The Tantric spirit lives on, however, through its profound influence upon religious life throughout Asia.
Note 2 – Tantra’s core belief is Shakti as the dynamic creative energy of God. The male principle is cognitive, the female is dynamic, and both are co-equal and interdependent.
Note 3 – Hinduism, particularly as practiced during the Chola period, embraced stimulation of the senses as gifts from the gods. The Cholas saw little difference between the ecstatic bliss of sexual union with one’s beloved and the spiritual union between the worshipper and beloved deity. Both resulted in a mystical, blissful, out of body experience.
Note 4 – Prana and Shakti’s force of life are considered by many to be one and the same, hence the powerful connection between Tantra and Shakti.
Note 5 – Chakras are aligned along the spine and associated with colours, elements, planets or occult powers. Chakras draw in prana by spinning around their axes and holding it in their respective sphere to maintain and balance the spiritual, mental, emotional and physical well-being of the mind and body.
Note 6 – The adoption of Tantric ritual, and particularly puja, was given further impetus when the first poet-saints (nayanars and alvars) began writing and performing devotional hymns and poems dedicated to their chosen gods and goddesses. Possibly inspired by Tantrism, their devotion was emotionally charged, at times even overtly sexual.
Note 7 – These dancers were known as devadasi and dedicated to temple service for life. On the walls of the great temple complex of Brihadisvara Temple in Tanjore are inscribed the names of 400 devadasis, with their addresses.
Note 8 – Of these texts, it is the Shilpa Shastra that guides the craftsmen (sthapathi) who create the exquisite Chola Bronzes.
Note 9 – A key element of Shakta Tantra is the belief that women are filled with the creative energy of Shakti and, therefore, spiritually more powerful than men. With its strong belief in equality between genders, in today’s terms, Tantrikas could be said to be feminists.
Note 10 – Menstrual blood was considered to be especially power due to its association with feminine creativity.
Note 11 – Anyone participating in the sexual ritual who lapsed from the psychic state of oneness with the divine (preman) into the reality of the moment could expect hellish consequences.
Note 12 – Indian spiritual beliefs were always eager to embrace new ideas to remain relevant. For instance, as Hinduism spread across the sub-continent, it absorbed local beliefs and deities under the overarching principle of Brahman, the Ultimate Universal Soul. All deities and their associated beliefs and practices were deemed facets of Brahman and, therefore, seamlessly absorbed into Hindu doctrine.
Note 13 – For example, the great Chola king and devout Saivite, Rajaraja Chola I, bore the cost of building and maintaining over 500 Buddhist monasteries within the Chola homeland.
Note 14 – In 1311, Muslim invaders reached the former Chola homeland. They only stayed a hundred years but had plenty of time to strip the temples of their bronzes, melting them down to cast cannon. Hundreds of Chola Bronzes were saved though by being buried in the earth and behind false temple walls; however, the locations of many were forgotten with time. Today lost hoards are discovered from time to time, but after such a long period of spiritual neglect are no longer deemed sacred and so find their way into museums or private collections. There was at least one instance though where an icon was discovered near its original home in a village temple. The local priest gave it a wash, put it back in the temple, reconsecrated it and carried on as though the intervening 700 years had never happened.
Normally the conclusion of ritual worship, or puja, aarti is the offering of light, usually oil lamps, to one or more deities. Aarti may also be an offering of song or chant. See also; Puja and Mantra.
Ananda is the blissful state reached upon completion of moksha, oneness with Brahman. Ananda is deemed many hundreds of times stronger than any ecstasy experienced in our mortal existence. See also; Moksha.
formal temple ritual
Puja performed by a priest in a temple.
opening of the eyes
A Chola Bronze is only able to fulfill its role as a spiritual image when its eyes are ritually opened in the ritual known as Chaksunmilan. Initially it is the last task to be completed by the craftsman before it is considered finished. It is also the final ritual when the piece is consecrated in the temple or home. Once chaksunmilan is complete the sculpture is believed able to receive divine worship and bestow grace in return. See also; Pranapratishta.
When proper rituals are performed the deity, which normally exists in a Brahmanic formless state, descends into the icon, bringing the bronze to life. Cold sculpture becomes sacred icon. On the part of the deity, this is an act of grace and allows direct and dynamic connection between the worshipper and the deity. Eye contact may be only momentary but when connection is made, the believer receives the god’s blessing in a moment of ecstasy. See also; Pranapratishtha, Puja, Bhakti and Nyasa.
An autumn festival where craftsmen worship their tools with incense, flowers and unhusked rice. In ancient times carpenters offered prayers and sought forgiveness of a tree before cutting it for wood. The tree was considered to be a living being and the axe used to cut the tree would be rubbed with honey and butter to minimise the hurt to it.
servant to the gods
A woman attendant in the temple whose duties were to serve the gods, either in a housekeeping role or as part of ritual worship. From a young age girls were taught classical dance, hymns or poetry. The position brought high status and they often married well, their daughters would often following their mother in temple service. Devadasis were banned from temples by the Indian government in 1988.
festival of lights
Diwali is the Festival of Light, a celebration renewing the allegiance of us mortals to the gods rather than demons. It’s a time for family and friends, new relationships, fresh possibilities and opportunities. According to tradition people put small oil lamps outside their door on Diwali, guiding Lakshmi, the goddess of material and spiritual wealth, into their home to bless them. See also; Lakshmi.
feminine force of fertility
A belief in the blooming of trees and flowers through contact with a young woman through the touch of her hand or foot, or the sound of her voice in song. The young women are known as salabhanjika and over time images of them became ornamental carvings, often as a bracket figures. See also; Salabhanjika and Yakshis.
The Gayatri Mantra is the most widely known of the Hinduism’s sacred chants and for most Hindus, the only Sanskrit prayer they know. Translated to English; “Aum Bhuh Bhuvah Svah Tat Savitur Varenyam Bhargo Devasya Dheemahi Dhiyo Yo nah Prachodayat”
"O thou existence Absolute, Creator of the three dimensions, we contemplate upon thy divine light. May He stimulate our intellect and bestow upon us true knowledge.” Click here to listen to our favourite interpretation; https://youtu.be/yQjHSIHPJfw
Whether chanted, whispered or thought, Mantras are syllables, words, phrases or sentences charged with metaphysical energy. Tantric in origin, Mantras are used in ritual and spiritual practice to carry the thoughts and prayers of devotees to the deities. In Tantrism, Mantric energy is guided by yantras, deity-specific geometric shapes. A favourite for Shailja and I is the Gayatri Mantra sung by Deva Premal; https://youtu.be/yQjHSIHPJfw See also; Yantra, Tantra.
establishing a deity’s presence
The ritual of establishing the presence of one’s chosen deity by touching the limb of sacred image then touching one’s own limb in turn, one by one. See also; Bhakti, darshan and pranapratishta.
The ritual of putting the deity, in the form of an icon (murti), to sleep for the evening.
Prana means ‘life giving element’ and pratishta means ‘installed’ or ‘consecrated’. Pranapratishta is a ritual where the soul-less metal icon becomes the literal embodiment of the divine. When the worshipper comes before the statue and begins to pray, faith activates the divine energy within every object, and at that moment, the god or goddess is present. The worshipper sees the divine and is seen in return, in the belief known as . See also; Upasana,
Food or other offerings, which after being presented to God, are considered sanctified, reflecting the recognition that when human beings make offerings to deities, the initiative is not really theirs. They are actually responding to the generosity that bore them into a world fecund with life and possibility. The divine personality installed as a home or temple image receives prasada, tasting it (Hindus differ as to whether this is a real or symbolic act, gross or subtle) and offering the remains to worshipers. Some Hindus also believe that prasada is infused with the grace of the deity to whom it is offered. Consuming these leftovers, worshipers accept their status as beings inferior to and dependent upon the divine. An element of tension arises because the logic of puja and prasada seems to accord all humans an equal status with respect to God, yet exclusionary rules have sometimes been sanctified rather than challenged by prasada-based ritual.
Puja is the act of showing reverence to a god, a spirit, or another aspect of the divine through invocations, prayers, songs, and rituals.The purpose of the puja ritual is an offering to the divine and the granting of a blessing in return. Puja can be a simple daily devotion in the home where the icon is treated as an honoured guest and offered refreshments and sweets, flowers or coconut milk, or puja could be a complex many-layered temple ritual undertaken over many days. The focus of the ritual can be a sacred symbol, such as a lingam and yoni, or an icon representing the deity. See also; Bhakti and Darshan.
Every art form in India is meant to arouse rasa in the beholder or listener. According to the Natya Sastra, entertainment is a desired effect of performance arts but not the primary goal. The primary goal is to transport the individual in the audience into another parallel reality, full of wonder and bliss, where he experiences the essence of his own consciousness, and reflects on spiritual and moral questions.
ritual hallucinogenic drink
A Vedic ritual drink conferring immortality. A great favourite of the deities for its hallucinogenic properties.
A festival where icons of gods and goddesses, usually housed in the temples, are borne in procession outside the temple walls to be worshipped directly by ordinary citizens.
The essential element of Vedic ritual is sacrifice to the divine fire (Agni) of offerings such as cooked food, grain, fruit, ghee, oil, water, milk, honey, wood of varous kinds, incense, leaves, kusa grass, prayers, chants, etc. Everything sacrificed to the sacred fire (Agni) is believed to be distributed by Agni the god equally to the other deities. While important Vedic rituals must strictly follow the scriptures, simple daily sacrifice (puja) is performed by individuals without diminishment. See also; Devas, Vedas.
Glossary of Terms – Hindu RitualTerry Curell2019-11-07T16:35:44-08:00
“Without a form how can God be meditated upon? If God is without form, where will the mind fix itself? When there is nothing for the mind to attach itself to, it will slip away from meditation or glide into a state of slumber. Therefore the wise will meditate on some form, remembering, however, that the form is a superimposition and not a reality.”
Vishnu Samhita Ch 29, V 55-7
When Brahman (God) is without form, the form which enables Hindus to focus their devotions is either an abstract aniconic form such as a lingam, yoni or yantra; or figurative – such as a Chola Bronze.
Lingam and Yoni; The aniconic pillarlike form of the lingam predates figurative imagery to a time when symbols alone were used to represent divinity (note 1). In the Saivite and Shaktic traditions, the lingam is Shiva’s column of light at the center of the world, rooted in the dark netherworld, breaking through the surface of the earth and reaching towards the infinite cosmos. The yoni (tr; womb, origin, source) is the female, regenerative equivalent of the lingam and represents the Divine Feminine principle of Shakti. The lingam and yoni together represent the regenerative power of the universe through the union of male (Prakriti) and female (Purusha) natural, divine power.
Yantra; A Yantra (tr; machine) is a geometric shape, often drawn on the floor with powder, specific to a particular deity and worshipped as that deity. Yantras predate Vedic belief by many thousands of years and closely associated with Shakti worship. Yantras are charged with the power of a Mantra and direct mantric energy towards the deity. While Yantras and Mandalas are similar in appearance and both are metaphysical devices created to aid meditation practice, Yantras are specific to a deity, or the home of a deity, while Mandalas represent the cosmos as a whole.
An ancient tradition in south India is the kolam, an auspicious geometric pattern similar to the yantra and mandala. The kolam is applied to the ground outside the entrance to private homes and are refreshed each morning. Kolam are believed to repel evil and welcome Lakshmi, Goddess of Abundance and Good Fortune.
Figurative Sculpture; In Hindu mythology, it is believed gods and goddesses exist on a higher plane in a formless state and leave this state only when a physical body is required to perform a heroic deed, or when a worshipper requires a material focus for worship. If certain rituals are performed the god’s spirit may mystically descend and enter into a sculpture created in its human form (murti). For the time it takes to perform puja, the bronze figure becomes the god or goddess. Doing so is an act of grace on the part of the deity and having a physical form enables the god to bestow a blessing upon the worshipper with a gesture or eye contact (Darshan). and it is the clean, simple, visual vocabulary of iconography which makes it possible.
The challenge for Chola artists was to craft sculpture worthy of the gods. As a material metaphor of a divine entity, it must be aesthetically and technically perfect and when royal patronage put all the resources of the empire at the artist’s disposal, the iconic Chola Bronzes were created. The artists worked within the temple complex and in most cases, were also trained in music and dance. Then as now, dance brought to life the god’s stories, not only through body language (bhangas and hastas) but subtle hand gestures (mudras) as well (note 2). A dancer tells the god’s story with their body, the sculptor tells it in bronze.
For those new to the idea of gods and goddesses as sexual beings, the sensuality of Chola Bronzes can be unsettling. Prudery was unknown to the Cholas, indeed to most pre-colonial Indians, who believed the body’s senses were a gift from the gods. The intense sensual stimulation of sex was the greatest of those gifts and connection with one’s beloved while making love was believed to be spiritually akin to the feeling of connection between worshipper and deity during the ritual of Darshan. In addition, the ecstasy of sexual release was deemed similar to Darshan’s moment of bliss when the worshipper and divinity became visually connected.
As Chola artists created their sculptures, they were guided by the firm hand of sacred texts, the Shilpa Sastras. Every aesthetic and technical detail was followed to the letter (note 3). The units of measurement are the angula, or a finger width, and the tala, the distance from the chin to the forehead. Twelve angulas equal one tala. The artist creates a figure using an ancient system where the head is one tala high; the neck is four angulas, the torso three talas, and so on. The figure’s eyes, for example, are to be shaped like a small fish or lotus petal; the eyebrow like an archer’s bow; the lips shaped like lotus blossoms; the chin like a mango stone; and the arms like an elephant’s trunk or, in the case of a woman’s arms, long and tapered like a perfectly formed edible root. The male torso should resemble the frontal view of a bull’s head or the chest of a lion. The female should have full breasts, a narrow waist like a drum (damaru), and generous hips, all symbolizing nature’s abundance and the female procreative powers. Goddesses are slightly shorter in stature and slender, while in a grouping of deities, lesser gods and juveniles are proportionally smaller.
As they blend characteristics of both the divine and the human, a Hindu god’s body appears soft, without muscle definition, because it is filled not with blood, muscle and bone, but with prana, the sacred breath of life and evokes the serene otherworldliness of spiritual beings who have passed beyond the physicality of the human body. The way the gods stand or sit or hold their hands conveys messages to the beholder of assurance, blessing or protection. Multiple arms and hands hold symbolic attributes such as flowers or weapons, all conveying information as to the deity’s qualities or responsibilities. The head of an animal, such as a boar or an elephant, places the deity in myth and legend. But tradition – and the Shilpa Sastras – specify these figures must also blend supernatural characteristics with the ideal beauty of earth-born men and women and the artists need to look no further than the royal court around them for inspiration. They would be surrounded by beautiful, youthful, semi-nude men and women, adorned in fine silks and lavish jewellery (note 4). For royalty, divine or mortal, the wearing of jewels and silk sets them apart and above. In a tropical environment, minimal clothing was natural and only lack of adornment (alankara) was considered vulgar.
Note 1 – The lingam is the central fixed point in Creation and any figurative forms are deemed secondary. For example, while the galleries and outer courtyards of a Saivite temple may contain multiple images of Shiva in his various aspects (Nataraja, Tripuravijaya, etc.) the centre of temple worship in the innermost sanctum is the Lingam.
Note 2 – Bharatanatyam is India’s oldest classical dance form and in the Chola period was known as Sathir. Noted for its fixed upper torso, with legs bent or knees splayed, intricate footwork and sophisticated vocabulary of body postures (hastas), gestures (mudras), eye and facial expressions, Bharatanatyam is an interpretive narration of mythical legends and spiritual ideas. For a top contemporary dancer see; http://arushimudgal.com/video-ardhnarishwar.html
Note 3 – The Shilpa Shastras formalized how Chola bronzesmiths related the perfection of the natural world to the perfection of the gods. In addition to the creation of their iconic bronzes, the Shilpa Shastras also directed the arts of painting, temple architecture, mural carving, jewellery making, music, dance, poetry, medicine, carpentry, even the erotic arts.
Note 4 – Chola Bronzes worshipped in temples are never seen unadorned except by their attendant priests. Except for their faces and perhaps their hands, their bodies are hidden beneath garlands, silks and jewellery.
Chola Bronze IconographyTerry Curell2019-11-08T05:28:22-08:00
A fundamental human need is connection, with our self, our family, and our friends. Many of us also long for connection with something greater, something transcendent, and in Hinduism that transcendent something is Brahman, The Great Soul of The Universe – eternal, infinite, formless, all-embracing, everything that ever was, is now, and ever will be. Hindus also believe that within each of us is a spark of Brahman’s essence, our, Atman. Our soul. (note 1).
“That which is the finest essence, This whole world has as its soul.
That is Reality. That art thou.”
Chandogya Upanishad 6.9.4
Basic Tenets; The three great religions of India, Hinduism, Buddhism, and Jainism all share these fundamental beliefs.
Oneness; All forms of life – gods, humans, flora, and fauna – are one.
Time is cyclical and everything in the universe, including the universe itself, is endlessly cycling through creation, destruction, and rebirth (note 2),
Maya; Our experience of the world is transitory and illusional,
Samsara; All living beings are born and reborn in an endless reincarnation cycle of birth, an illusional life, death, and rebirth.
Karma; One’s good and bad actions accumulate through our life to determine the form into which we will be reborn.
Moksha; The spiritual goal of all three religions is release from Samsara.
Dharma, a value shared by all Indian faiths it has no simple definition and depends to a great degree upon the context in which it is used. A gross generalization might be to aspire to a righteous, dutiful and moral life,
Artha, translates as “meaning, purpose or essence.” In a personal sense, it means securing one’s career, wealth, and prosperity.
Kama, taking pleasure in the senses. Whether in the arts, in nature or sexuality, Kama is essential to a well-lived life, provided it doesn’t violate one’s dharma,
Moksha, only humans have the potential for the consciousness to transcend Maya and achieve Moksha, the transcendental and eternally blissful merging of one’s Atman (essence or soul) with Brahman, The Great Soul.
“The life span of a man is one hundred years. Dividing that time, he should attend to three aims of life in such a way that they support, rather than hinder each other. In his youth, he should attend to profitable aims (artha) such as learning, in his prime to pleasure (kama), and in his old age to dharma and moksha.”
Kama Sutra: 1.2.1 – 1.2.4
The four Vedic stages of Hindu life (ashramas) are Purusartha, literally “object of human pursuit”;
Brahmacharya (student life) where one builds the foundation of one’s life by learning how to live a life of Dharma through the study of sacred texts, philosophy, logic, and science.
Grihastha (household life) is when one strives to live a dharmic, family-centred life. This is the stage of life when one produces the food and wealth, or artha, which enable others in the family and community to pursue their stages of life. This is also the time of sensory pleasures, or kama when the person is most engaged in the world.
Vanaprastha (retired life) when the responsibilities as a householder are passed on the next generation. As a grandparent, your family comes to you for advice. It is a time when of gradual withdrawal from worldly affairs as the focus turns to moksha.
Sannyasa (renounced life) where the material life is left behind. Some at this point embrace an ascetic life, where possessions are few, and the focus is on a simple spiritual life.
Note 1 – This belief carries over into daily interactions with others. The anjalimudra, hands together, palms touching, fingers pointing up, thumb gently touching the Anahata, or heart chakra, is a gesture of respect to the tiny spark of Brahman in the person being greeted. Its literal meaning is, “The divine in me bows to the divine in you.”
Note 2 – Hinduism views time in great cyclic periods known as yugas. There are four such yugas, and today we live in the period known as Kali Yuga, the era of spiritual darkness, ignorance, and destruction.
It is said that Hinduism is a religion of 300 million Gods, but those who say it perhaps don’t understand the symbolism of the Hindu pantheon. Truth may take 300 million forms but there is only one Ultimate Truth and it is Brahman and the entire Hindu pantheon is needed to even begin to represent Brahman’s aspects and manifestations.
He is the one, the one alone, in Him all deities become One alone.”
Hindu gods and goddesses are broadly classified as Vedic or Puranic. The Vedic gods and goddesses are the old gods, while the Puranic deities were created later. The Puranic epics, Bhagavad Gita and Ramayana, are well-loved by Hindus everywhere, while in south India, Sangam literature told stories of the lives and adventures of south India’s royalty, however, it is within the Puranas where the major deities have their stories told. The Puranas are perhaps the most important or commonly used scriptural texts; guidebooks for the whole of life and society. These sacred texts were in their final form by about 500 AD though orally passed down for two thousand years before that. The principal Puranas tell the stories of Vishnu the Preserver (Vishnu Purana), Shiva the Destroyer (Shiva Purana) and Devi, the Mother Goddess (Markendeya Purana). The Bhagavata Purana is important to the worshippers of Krishna, while Vayu (Vedic God of Air), Agni (Vedic God of Fire), Murugan (second son of Shiva and Uma), Kalki (last avatar of Vishnu), Lingam (the anthropomorphic pillar symbolizing Shiva) each have their own Purana.
These myths and legends were more than tales of high drama and superhuman feats; they told the stories of the gods and goddesses and brought them to life. No longer seen as unapproachable statues in temples or processions, these divine beings fought demons in hand to hand combat, made love, felt pain and lost their tempers, just as humans do. These tales showed them to be wise, loyal, caring, while some even had a sense of humour. In other words, they became multi-dimensional to Hindu devotees, more real, more approachable. The stories weren’t just entertainment but allegorical lessons in Dharma, the dutiful pathway. They taught Hindus, by example, how to do the right thing.
The Gods and Goddesses of HinduismTerry Curell2019-11-07T16:39:27-08:00