Gods Forsaken – The Illegal Trade in India’s Sacred Art

The Illegal Trade in India’s Sacred Art

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 Art2019-11-08T10:24:51-08:00

Chola Bronzes in Context

Chola Bronzes in Context

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 Context2019-11-08T05:33:33-08:00

Additional Elements

Additional Elements

Pitha; Hindu deities are subject not to our laws of physics but to their own set of cosmic laws, and therefore their feet must never touch the earth. Should our world and theirs connect in physical manner would be catastrophic  – for us, not for them. In iconography, therefore, this separation of their world and ours means it’s necessary to have a pedestal (pitha) for them to stand or sit upon. Their pithas are sacred by association and their shape and arrangement have symbological meanings of their own, beyond those of the deity sitting or standing upon it. 

Perhaps the most auspicious of the pithas is the padmapitha, or lotus pedestal (above). Recognizable by the stylized lotus petals, it represents how everything, mortal and divine, is born out of purity. 

When a pitha has a single, clearly defined segment, it indicates a single aspect of the god depicted, while a double indicates two or more characteristics. These are Bhadrapitha and unique to the pithas of the Great Gods and Goddesses. 

Some pithas feature holes or rings in the pitha (see above), meant to accommodate carrying poles. Larger sculptures were created to be carried aloft in processions, either as part of a daily ritual or festivals.

Prabhamandala; Sometimes, an arch, or nimbus, may encircle the icon. When it represents the Earth, it is elaborately decorated with stylized leaves from the sacred tree representing cosmic power. In the case of Shiva as Nataraja, the prabhamandala represents the entire cosmos and is surrounded by flames. Sometimes a mask (Kirttimukha, or Face of Glory) will be at the prabhamandala’s peak, providing divine protection. 

Additional Elements2019-11-08T05:29:54-08:00

Pranapratishtha, The Consecration Ritual

Pranapratishtha, The Consecration Ritual

Many indignities will have been heaped upon your sculpture as part of its creation process and Pranapratishtha symbolically transitions your sculpture from lifeless metal to a sacred icon. When performed in a temple the rites are elaborate and lengthy, although we hope you find a simple home ritual will be sufficient.

Your icon will arrive in synthetic packing material, wrapped in silk and its eyes covered. Natural silk forms a barrier between the image and its synthetic packing material, while a blindfold’s purpose will become clear later. As you unpack and install your piece, the ritual starts with performing puja, accompanied by a mantra such as the Gayatri (this particular version, performed by Deva Premal, is our personal favourite). In the spirit of ancient tradition, you may wish to treat your sculpture as an honoured guest arriving after a long journey, by offering refreshment and flowers after placing the image’s face towards the east, marking the sunrise. This could be followed by Nyasa, the touching of different parts of the image signifying the presence of various gods as sensory organs; Indra as hand, Brahma as heart, Surya as eyes, and so on, all accompanied by a mantra such as the Gayatri. The final ritual is chaksunmilan, the ‘opening of the eyes’ when you’ll remove the blindfold. Your sculpture is now considered consecrated.

Pranapratishtha, The Consecration Ritual2019-11-08T05:40:41-08:00

Temples

Hindu Temples

Just as Chola Bronzes and other sacred figurative sculptures are highly symbolic in nature, Chola temples were also subject to the iconographic dictates of the Shilpa Shastras. Just as a bronze sculpture is believed to represent the deity in physical form (in certain specific circumstances), temples are believed to house the presence of the Divine in the world. If the universe is the body of the Divine on a macrocosmic scale then the temple is the body of the Divine in a microcosmic scale and therefore the temple’s major features correspond to features of the human body.

Chola temples were, and are, where worshippers interact with gods in their material form, either in their most ancient form as an abstract (aniconic) symbol, such as Lingam and Yoni, or figurative, such as a stone or bronze sculptural icon. If a major temple was dedicated to Shiva – as most in south India were – the central form of God might be a Lingam/Yoni in the inner sanctum (karuvarai), while a modest village shrine makes do with a simple Lingam or crude stone icon (mulamurti). A Vaishnava temple, on the other hand, would have a figurative image of Vishnu. Temples in South India dedicated to Shakti, the Divine Goddess, were less common, although they would again feature an anthropomorphic image of a specific manifestation such as Uma or Kali (note 1). South India temples dedicated to Shiva outnumber those dedicated to Vishnu roughly two to one, while temples dedicated to Shakti, the Great Goddess, are relatively few. Though each temple may be dedicated to a particular god or goddess, in the larger temples icons of the major gods are found throughout the temple building and grounds, each with their own shrines and sacred sculpture, allowing the devotee to perform puja to more than one god in a single visit. 

Brihadisvara Temple, with the Nandi Mandapam

Architecturally, the temples of south India differ from their northern counterparts in three distinct ways;

  • They are usually enclosed by within a compound wall, with the front wall having an entrance gateway (gopuram) in its centre
  • The central tower (vimana) over the karuvarai is pyramid-shaped with flat sides as opposed to the bulging sides of its northern cousins. A cupola-like structure (shikhara) is placed on top.
  • A covered assembly hall (mandapa) used for music and dancing in front of the inner sanctum. A large temple may have several. 
  • A tank (kalyani) is usually found in the compound and used for ritual purposes. 
  • Temples dedicated to Shiva will have a pavilion (Nandi Mandapam) for a murti, or sculpture, of Nandi, Shiva’s bull vahana (vehicle), which will be facing his master. 
  • The external walls of the temple are segmented by pilasters and feature niches housing sacred sculpture. 

Early shrines were created anywhere having a special spiritual meaning for the people, serving as a focus for worshipping nature spirits, such as trees or Lingam shaped rocks, or springs, even anthills, the home of snakes, or nagas. Temple tradition may have started with early cave sanctuaries, themselves symbolic ‘womb chambers’, indicative of the creative power of the gods, particularly Shakti. Perhaps a simple wall would be built to define the sacred ground surrounding the shrine, and as time went on a shelter of wood or brick in time evolved to what eventually became the grand temple complexes built by the Chola kings and queens (note 3) and serving royal residence, seat of government and setting for the sacred arts. Chola temples have been in continuous use since they were created a thousand years ago, having been spared the worst of the Mughal invasions which had destroyed so many north Indian temples. Many of the original bronze icons still in place and are still being worshipped with the same mantras and rituals, and entering these temples today one feels an almost palpable presence of the worship performed in these soot-blackened chambers for the past thousand years.

Note 1 – In south India, the Mother Goddess is no less powerful, however, Shakti is expressed through manifestations such as Uma (Shiva’s consort), Lakshmi and Bhu Devi (Vishnu’s wives), Kali or Mari Amma, as Durga is known in south India.

Note 2 – Such shrines are still scattered throughout India, reflecting the animist beliefs of pre-Vedic times.

Note 3 – The trend towards grand temple complexes began when Tantric values regarding puja became popular, starting around the 5th century. Tantrism also accelerated the belief in personal devotion to one’s chosen deity, a concept known as Bhakti. 

Note 4 -Brihadisvara, the grandest of all Chola temple complexes was built in only seven years by Rajaraja Chola 1. Construction began in 1003 AD and at the time of its completion was one of the tallest buildings in the world at 63 metres (208 feet). It is a UNESCO Living Chola Temple.

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Temples2019-11-10T13:04:04-08:00

Bronzeology

Bronzeology

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.

 

Bronzeology2019-11-08T09:55:44-08:00
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