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

Reference Library

Reference Library

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.

Reference Library2021-08-29T11:50:07-07:00

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.

Prabha; 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 prabha symbolizes the cosmos. Sometimes a mask (Kirttimukha, or Face of Glory) will be at the prabha’s peak, providing divine protection. 

Additional Elements2021-08-31T11:56:09-07:00

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


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.



Glossary of Terms – Iconography, Adornment, Attributes, Bhangas, Asanas and Mudras

Glossary of Terms – Iconography, Adornment, Attributes, Bhangas, Asanas and Mudras

AchalaImmovable stone iconIconographyBefore the creation of bronze icons portable enough to be carried in procession, sacred sculptures - Achala - were carved in stone and fixed in place within temple grounds. See also; Mulamurti, Utsavamurti.
AnugrahaBestower of a BlessingIconographyThe generic term used in iconography when a deity, usually Shiva, is portrayed bestowing a direct blessing upon an individual. The deity’s hand is placed on the head of the recipient while another gestures abhayamudra. See also; Abhayamudra.
BhadrapithapedestalIconographyA icon’s base featuring a square base below a round base. One shape denotes one specific aspect, while two shapes indicate multiple aspects.
Bhangastanding postureIconographyThe curving of the body and a standing pose defined by how the figure supports their weight.
Chakra (Hinduism)discusIconographyA solar symbol and wheel, a symbol of the Dharma rotating and spinning its beneficial influence outward in all directions. Also symbolises the cycle of Samsara; repeated birth and death turning endlessly and from which we desire to be liberated. As a weapon of Vishnu, it cuts through ignorance and when thrown it cuts through demons. It's speed is faster than the speed of the mind, thus representing the cosmic mind which destroys our enemies in the form of the afflictive emotions.
DevakoshtasnicheIconographyA wall niche for sheltering a sacred sculpture. See also; koshta
Iconsacred artIconographyA sacred symbol in the form of a painting or sculpture embodying a spiritual truth worthy of veneration and contemplation. “It is impossible for the human being to worship, meditate or praise a deity without form. Therefore the Lord should be worshipped through an icon” Parama Samhita 3:7
KirttimukhaFace of GloryIconographyA swallowing fierce monster face with huge fangs, and gaping mouth, quite common in the iconography of south India. Symbolic of Time and a reminder that everything is impermanent and subject to constant change. Time is the great destroyer and takes from us all that is precious and separates us from our loved ones. As a decorative element on the lintel of temple doorways or gates they symbolize the reabsorption of entering a temple. Not to be confused with Simhamukha, or Lion Face, which leads the worshipper to Brahman.
Kolamsacred geometric patternIconographyKolams are symbolic, symmetrical, line drawing patterns made from white rice flour or other powders. They are re-created each morning by homemakers outside homes throughout the Chola homeland and believed to repel evil and welcome Lakshmi, Goddess of Wealth and Happiness.
LingamsignIconographyThe iconic pillarlike form of Shiva predates figurative imagery to a time when symbols alone were used to represent Hindu deities or the Buddha. Lingam actually means; 'sign', 'mark' or 'symbol. It is Shiva’s pillar of light at the center of the world rooted in the dark netherworld and reaching towards the infinite cosmos. As such the lingam in part represents fertility but the phallus aspect has been overdone by western scholars. The same limitation applies to the yoni, which in truth symbolises transcendent feminine divinity. The yoni is commonly adjoined with the lingam as an object of veneration, symbolic of the duality of Hindu theological principles. See also; Shiva and Svayambhu.
Mulamurtifixed iconIconographyA fixed icon in a temple’s central sanctum, usually carved in stone. The tradition began within cave temples before transitioning to free standing temples under the Pallavas and Cholas. See also; Dhruvabera
Padmapithalotus pedestalIconographyA sacred sculpture’s plinth or base representing the origin of all life, including that of the gods. A double lotus (vishvpadma) indicates high status, representing the heavens with petals point upwards, while our mortal realm is represented by lotus petals facing down. See also; Vishvapadma
ParivaradevataentourageIconographySubsidiary deities when other gods and goddesses are depicted as a group.
Pavailakkutemple ornamentIconographyA bronze lamp donated to the temple crafted with the likeness of a young girl from the donor's family. By making such a gift the donors and their families gain a permanent place in the temple.
PithapedestalIconographyOne shape denotes one specific aspect. Two shapes multiple aspects. Octagonal - initiation ritual. Hexagonal - God is relaxed and being entertained. Round - meditation throne. Square - intended for bathing. See also; Bhadrapitha.
Srivatsaendless knotIconographySymbolises the way things are; endless and complex, without beginning or end.
Svayambhuspontaneous generationIconographyThe principle of spontaneous regeneration, wherein an object is not created by another agency but is ‘self-born’. Some lingamms are believed to be Svayambhu. See also; Padma
Swastikasymmetrical geometric crossIconographyA sacred and auspicious symbol in first the Indus Valley Civilization, then Mesopotamia, Hinduism, Buddhism, Jainism, Byzantine, early Christian artwork and even North American indigenous cultures. The swastika’s sacred symbolism endures despite its having been co-opted by the Nazi party in 1920.
Talameasurement unitIconographyThe unit of measurement of the talamana system used to define sacred beauty in icons. Based on the hand
Talamanameasurement systemIconographyDerived from the Shilpa Sastra, talamana is the system which defines measurement, proportion and geometry as it applies to the creation of icons.
Upasanasitting nearIconographyThe Upanishads tell us of the importance of meditation on our spiritual path. Upasana (upa + asana) means ‘sitting near’ and refers to the act of meditation. Upasana can also be translated as worship, contemplation, devotion (bhakti), puja, etc. Upasana is also a term applied to the image of a Devi positioned near an image of a Deva. See also; Bhakti and Puja.
Utsavamurtisymbolic image of godIconographyA consecrated processional icon, usually in bronze, specifically created as transportable as opposed to a fixed immobile temple figure of a mulamurti. Early utsavamurti were wooden and later bronze when casting techniques were advanced enough for monumental sizes. See also; Achala, Darshan, Mulamurti (fixed).
Vishvapadmadouble lotus pithaIconographyHigh status gods and goddesses are often seated upon the double lotus base, vishvapadma.
Yantrasacred geometric patternIconographyYantra is a geometric shape, often drawn on the floor with powder, specific to a deity and treated and worshipped as that diety. Yantras are charged with the power of a Mantra and the yantra directs that energy. Tantra is the written philosophy and practice for directing and channeling mantric energy to guide the devotee’s spiritual path. Yantra, Mantra and Tantra are interconnected. While similar in shape and purpose, mandalas represent the entire universe rather than a specific deity. See also; Kolam, Mandala and Mantra.
Yogapattammeditation aidIconographyA cirucular yoga meditation band worn around the waist and around one or both knees. See also; Aiyanar, Narasimha Yoga and Yogeshwara.
AlankaraadornmentAlankara (adornment)Sculpture and paintings representing divine and semi-divine figures are adorned with the lavish jewelry, clothing, and hairstyles of their creator’s royal court. Alankara enchants and pleases the eyes of the beholder as it enhances the subject’s inherent grace and exquisite nature. An unadorned figure is considered diminished and unworthy of veneration. Complete nudity is considered unforgivably vulgar, with the exception of ascetics or Jain ‘skyclad’ figures.
AnantajewelleryAlankara (adornment)Armband coiling around the upper arm.
Antariyalower garmentAlankara (adornment)A long white or coloured strip of fine cotton or silk worn through the legs, tucked at the back and loosely covering the legs, then flowing into long pleats at front of the legs. When worn by a deity or royalty, the antariya is richly patterned or pleated, and usually accompanied by an intricate jewelled gold belt and a lion headed buckle. See also: Ardhoruka, Dhoti, Dukula, Kaccha, Lungi and Veshti.
Ardhorukalower garmentAlankara (adornment)Unpleated, diaphanous fine cotton or silk, knee-length, lower body covering. See also; See also: Antariya, Dhoti, Dukula, Kaccha, Lungi and Veshti.
AvatansajewelleryAlankara (adornment)Jewellery worn over the ears but not supported by the earlobes.
BahuvalayajewelleryAlankara (adornment)Jewellery worn draped over the right shoulder, falling outwards towards the bicep. See also; Keyura.
BindicosmeticsAlankara (adornment)Married Hindu women commonly wear a decorative and auspicious vermilion dot or bindī denoting Shakti on the forehead. See also; pottu (or bottu) and tilaka.
Channaviracross beltAlankara (adornment)Symbolizes the prosperity of the wearer.
Dhammillahair styleAlankara (adornment)Goddess’ topknot lower or off the side. Symbolizes deference to accompanying deity.
Dhotilower garmentAlankara (adornment)Worn by both men and women the dhoti, or veshti, is usually around 4.5 metres (15 ft) long, wrapped around the waist, passed between the legs, and tucked at the base of the back. Can be cotton of various quality or silk, richly patterned or pleated, and may be accompanied by an intricate jewelled gold belt and a lion headed buckle if worn by a deity or royalty. Derived from the older antariya. See also: Antariya, Ardhoruka, Dukula, Kaccha, Lungi, Veshti, or Mekhala.
Dukulalower garmentAlankara (adornment)A pleated, diaphanous, close fitting, fine cotton or silk leg covering worn by goddesses. See also: Antariya, Ardhoruka, Dhoti, Kaccha, Lungi and Veshti.
HarajewelleryAlankara (adornment)A necklace or amulet. See also; mala.
Jatahair styleAlankara (adornment)Dreadlocks representing an ascetic aspect.
Jatabandhahair styleAlankara (adornment)Goddess’ topknot of braided hair decorated with jewels.
Jatabharahair styleAlankara (adornment)Large mass of braids tied up on the side. Shiva as Daksina Murti.
Jatamakutacrown of hairAlankara (adornment)A crown of lavishly decorated dreadlocks similar to Kiritamukuta. Shiva but not as ascetic with skull or crescent. Brahma’s jatamakuta is jewelled.
Jatamandalahair styleAlankara (adornment)Symbolizes terrifying aspect.
Jvalakeshahair styleAlankara (adornment)Worn straight up or around the head like flames. Commonly seen in Kali iconography.Agni and Kali.
Kacchalower garmentAlankara (adornment)A pleated, diaphanous, close fitting, fine cotton or silk, leg covering. See also; Antariya, Ardhoruka, Dhoti, Dukula, Lungi and Veshti..
KankanajewelleryAlankara (adornment)Bracelet
Kapardahair styleAlankara (adornment)Shiva’s penitential matted dreadlocks wound around his head like a snail’s shell. Often decorated with snakes.
KarandamukatacrownAlankara (adornment)Conical crown in the shape of a mountain.
KatibandhabeltAlankara (adornment)More of a hipband than a functioning belt. Often decorated with images of lion’s heads and snakes.
Katisutralower garmentAlankara (adornment)An elaborate and complex arrangement of lower sashes. Part of the waistband drops in front of the knees and is knotted at the sides, showing both a a loop and the sash end. The long ends of a second sash fall down the sides of the body. A katisutra also refers to single banded sash or belt worn by female deities.
Keshabandhahair styleAlankara (adornment)Goddess’ topknot of unbraided hair decorated with jewels.
KeyurajewelleryAlankara (adornment)shoulder jewellery. See also; Bahuvalaya
KiritamakutacrownAlankara (adornment)Highest of crowns, literally and metaphorically. Conical cylinder topped with a knot or point. When worn by a goddess she is of equal rank as the highest gods at that moment.
Kuchabandhabreast bandAlankara (adornment)A breastband, often supported by a necklace. Goddesses dwelling on the heavenly plane are typically portrayed bare breasted, while Bhu Devi, as Goddess of the Earth exists within the Earth. She and Lakshmi are often depicted together and to differentiate the two, Bhu Devi wears a kuchabandha.
KundalajewelleryAlankara (adornment)Earrings shaped like mythical sea monsters symbolizing the tow methods of pursuing knowledge; intellectually (sankhya) and intuitively (yoga). See also; makala, and yoga.
Lungilower garmentAlankara (adornment)Lungis are a long lower garment sometimes sewn into a tube shape like a skirt and tied to the left. Made of various qualities of cotton or silk. Aso known as kaili, charam or saaram. Evolved from from the longer antariya. Rarely worn by women. See also; See also: Antariya, Ardhoruka, Dukula, Kaccha, Veshti, Mekhala.
MakatacrownAlankara (adornment)Symbolizes royalty.
Makutahair styleAlankara (adornment)
MalajewelleryAlankara (adornment)A necklace or amulet. Also hara.
ManjirajewelleryAlankara (adornment)Ankle jewellery, often with bells, and an important element in temple dance.
MekhalabeltAlankara (adornment)An eight strand belt worn by female goddesses. Signifies protection and fertility. Used in special rituals either calling for rain or to prevent flooding.
PadasarasjewelleryAlankara (adornment)Anklets
PadvalayajewelleryAlankara (adornment)Ankle bracelet.
PatrakundalajewelleryAlankara (adornment)Simple circular or leaf shaped earring
Pitambaragolden garmentAlankara (adornment)Worn by Vishnu, his light shines through this golden garment just as the Veda’s light of truth radiates through their holy words.
Pottu (or Bottu)cosmeticsAlankara (adornment)Similar to a bindi, a pottu is worn by married Hindu women in south India. Usually between the eyebrows rather than further up toward the hairline as in the north. See also; bindi
RatnamalajewelleryAlankara (adornment)A necklace of precious stones
RudrakshajewelleryAlankara (adornment)Worn as a necklace (mala), rudraksha are believed to protect the wearer, functioning much the same way as a Christian rosary. Composed of the seeds of the rudraksha tree (elaeocarpus ganitreus), they are associated primarily with Shiva, less so with Brahma and Saraswati. Rudraksha are believed to retain a Mantra’s energy after it’s recited. See also; Mantra.
SankhyajewelleryAlankara (adornment)Earrings shaped like mythical sea-monsters (makara) representing the two methods of pursuing knowledge; intellectually (sankhya) and intuitively (yoga).
ShirastrakaturbanAlankara (adornment)Turban of cloth or braided hair tied in a knot on the front. Worn by subsidiary deities, demons and celestials.
Siraschakradisc of feathersAlankara (adornment)When worn by mortals it is simply a hair ornament of white egret feathers shaped into a wheel and worn at the back of the head. When worn by a deity it represents the nimbus of light emanating from divine beings when taking human form.
SkandamalajewelleryAlankara (adornment)A necklace of skulls.
Tholl ValaijewelleryAlankara (adornment)Armband
TilakacosmeticsAlankara (adornment)A mark worn on the forehead as a sign of spiritual devotion. The shape is an indicator of devotion to a certain deity. For example, a 'U' shape tilaka usually denotes devotion to Vishnu, while Shiva devotees often wear it in the form of three horizontal lines.
UdarabandhagirdleAlankara (adornment)A ribbon worn between chest and waist. Used also as a support band in yogic meditation. Typical worn by Shiva as Nataraja, Krishna and Ganesha.
ValayajewelleryAlankara (adornment)Bracelet
Valayajnopavitasacred threadAlankara (adornment)Ganesha’s sacred cord of snakes.
VanamalajewelleryAlankara (adornment)A necklace of flowers
Veshtilower garmentAlankara (adornment)Worn by both men and women, the veshti, or dhoti, is usually around 4.5 metres long, wrapped around the waist and the legs, then knotted at the waist. Can be cotton of various quality or silk, richly patterned or pleated, and if worn by a deity or royalty, it may be accompanied by an intricate jewelled gold belt and a lion headed buckle. See also; Antariya, Mekhala.
Yajnopavitasacred threadAlankara (adornment)A long circular cord worn crossing the left shoulder and falling in a curve across the torso and around the right hip. A symbol of learning and adulthood worn by deities and the three upper castes.
AdarsamirrorAttributesRepresenting the principle that the material world is merely a reflection in the mirror of a pure mind. All is reflected, yet it is not held. The whole universe is a reflection of Brahman, The Immensity, yet is only a tiny fraction of Brahman’s creation.
AgnifireAttributesRepresenting destruction, energy in its purest form but also creation.
Ankushaelephant goadAttributesAttribute symbolizing the incentive to persevere in spiritual practice and apply its teachings. Also the control of anger. The spiritual path is arduous and difficult but if we are committed then Ganesha will prod us by means of the Goad, and guide us to our moksha.
Ayudhasymbolic attributeAttributesAn object held in a icon’s hands defining the nature, character and functions associated with that particular deity. If the icon itself is a symbol of the deity the ayudha adds another layer of symbolism.
BanaarrowAttributesAttribute symbolizing the ability to destroy evil and protect righteousness. Typical of Rama. See also; dhanus.
Camarafly whiskAttributesAttribute symbolizing obedience to the law, particularly ahimsa, the highest principle of Dharma. Also symbolizes following the teacher and tradition.
ChakradiscusAttributesPrimarily an attribute of Vishnu, or Lakshmi the chakra symbolizes; the wheel of Dharma which spins its benefits in all directions; the endless circle of samsara - birth and rebirth of all things; and finally as a weapon whose speed is faster than the speed of the mind.
ChattraparasolAttributesAttribute symbolizing royal protection.
Chintamatiwish fulfilling jewelAttributesSymbolizes the mind, the precious jewel of the perfected mind in which all wishes and aims are accomplished.
ChuridaggerAttributesAttribute symbolizing the spiritual path as the dagger’s razor's edge, needing to be travelled with great care. As a weapon, churi symbolizes the ability to subdue demons or other enemies.
Damaruhand drumAttributesAttribute symbolizing how the universe was set in motion by the regular drumbeat rhythm of the damaru (a theme common to indigenous cultures throughout the world). The damaru’s two joined halves may also be an allusion to male and female principles. In the case of Nataraja when the two halves part the sound ceases and the universe dissolves. In Tamil the damaru is known as udukkai. See also; Nataraja.
DandastaffAttributesAn attribute of Murugan/Kartikeya symbolizing the ability to drive away demons.
DhanusbowAttributesAttribute symbolizing the ability to destroy evil and protect righteousness. Typical of Rama. See also; bama.
Dhanus and Banabow and arrowAttributesAttribute symbolizing the ability to destroy evil and protect righteousness. Typical of Rama.
Dhvajabanner or flagAttributesAttribute symbolizing the bearer is a source of charity and safety to all sentient beings. An indication of the triumph of the Dharma.
DhvajaflagAttributesMaking oneself known to others as a source of charity and safety to all sentient beings. An indicator of the triumph of the Dharma.
Durvalawn grassAttributesAssociated with Gaṇeśa, it is the symbol of indestructibility and regeneration offered in pujas for prolonging life. Also grass represents the delicate choosing of the Dharmic path as demonstrated by an elephant's ability to pluck individual blades of grass or push over a tree.
EkadantatuskAttributesAttribute symbolizing compassion. When Ganeshai acted as a scribe for Vyasa, it was on the condition that he would not interrupt the recitation of the Mahabharata. When his quill broke Ganesha broke off his own tusk in order not to interrupt a work that would benefit so many people. Thus out of great compassion for beings the Lord was prepared to mutilate himself.
GadaclubAttributesAttribute symbolizing Karma’s strength and power, The gada is thus the symbol of intellect and the power of knowledge; the essence of life from which all physical and mental powers come. Gada is also a symbol of sovereignty representing the law of Karma by which all humans are governed.
GhantabellAttributesSymbolizes feminine energies. The bell's ringing is said to welcome gods and drive away evil. Also used in battle to confuse the enemy with its clamour.
GhantjabellAttributesSymbolizes impermanence. The phenomenal world which is impermanent and evanescent. Creation of the transient world through sound - perceived but not held or kept.
JapamalarosaryAttributesAttribute symbolizing spiritual practice. A physical prompt and concentration aid for the Mantra Om Nama Sivaya.
Kamandaluwater potAttributesSymbolizes the causal waters from which all creation has sprung. The heart of the devotee should be ready, like the jar, to contain and hold the life-giving waters of truth and universal well-being. See also; Brahma.
KapalaskullAttributesAs a bowl fashioned from a human skull it is associated with esoteric Tantric ritual and therefore commonly seen in images of Kali and less often in the iconography of Shiva. As a complete skull the kapala represents the deity’s immortality as the vanquisher of death. For worshippers it is confirmation that death has no meaning for the true believer. See; Kali and Nataraja.
Kapalamalagarland of skullsAttributesAttribute symbolizing impermanence and the traces left behind by the dead. Also the false self-images we use to validate ourselves to feed our egos and desires.
KhadgaswordAttributesAttribute symbolizing wisdom cutting through the illusion and ignorance hidden within all of us. Like a scabbard, it needs to be withdrawn with skill and used with care and precision.
Khatvangaclub with skullAttributesImpermanence, dissolution, also symbolizes the 8 mystical powers obtained through yoga meditation.
KhetakashieldAttributesSecurity, defence and protection. Deflection of negativity and assault by others.
Kumudablue lotusAttributesAttribute symbolizing victory over the spirit of self; the ability to leave wisdom, intelligence, and knowledge behind and open to spirituality. This in addition to the powerful symbology of a lotus of any colour. Typical attribute off Bhu Devi. Also known as utpala.
KuntaspearAttributesAttribute symbolizing the focus of concentration applied during meditation aimed at the goal of perfection. Focussed attention at eliminating the inner demons of delusion, anger, greed etc. See also; sakti.
Kusaasacred grassAttributesMentioned in the Rig Veda for use in sacred ceremonies. Also woven as a seat cushion for icons and priests. Attributed most often to Brahma as source of the Vedic rituals.
Laddus/Modakaround sweet rice ballsAttributesAttribute symbolizing the rewards of a wise life, food, clothing and shelter and the wise are not attached to them. Typical of Ganesha who is never shown eating laddus.
Maheshwarthird eyeAttributesOne day Uma snuck up behind Shiva and playfully placed her hands over his eyes. Sudden darkness engulfed the world and all beings trembled in fear. Suddenly a massive tongue of flame leapt from the forehead of Shiva; a third eye appeared there giving light back to the world. Attribute of Shiva and his son, Ganesha.
MalachiselAttributesRepresenting meditation and spirituality.
MrgaantelopeAttributesAttribute symbolizing the soul longing to reach Shiva-hood. The origin may hark back to ancient animist beliefs in a sacred natural world.
MuralifluteAttributesMost commonly associated with Krishna, but also Ganesha, the murali symbolises the melody of love. It’s made of bamboo, with six holes and about 12 fingers long. An ancient flute, today it’s associated with Indian classical music.
PadmalotusAttributesPerhaps the penultimate symbol of purity and beauty, the lotus grows in the mud of endless reincarnation (samsara) but rises and opens to the sun immaculate and pure. A lotus bud symbolizes potential; an open lotus, actualization. The way in which water beads up and rolls off the lotus represents how negativity and distraction fail to adhere to the pure of mind and body. An attribute of Uma, Lakshmi, and Bhu Devi. See also; Svayambhu.
ParasuaxeAttributesAttribute symbolizing non-attachment. To progress on the spiritual path one must cultivate non-attachment to the desires of the material world. The noose held in the one hand needs to be cut with the axe of non-attachment in the other.
PasanooseAttributesAttribute typically made of three strands symbolizing the three bonds binding us to the cycle of rebirth; ignorance (avidya), action (karma), and old patterns (vasana). It also has three other meanings; attracting oneself to the Dharma, tying oneself by the constraints of Dharma and destroying all obstacles to one's spiritual evolution.
PasharopeAttributesAttribute symbolizing an attribute of Ganesha as Ganapati.
Purnakhumbafilled vaseAttributesSymbolizes fullness, and spiritual perfection which overflows to serve all beings.
PustakabookAttributesAttribute symbolizing intellectual pursuit of knowledge and study of the Dharma through The Vedas; the formal learning of all knowledge and theory.
Rhytondrinking vesselAttributesShaped like a ram. Used for drinking the blood of demons Durga has killed.
SaktispearAttributesAttribute symbolizing the destruction of the dark side of human nature. See also; kunta.
Salipallavarice shootAttributesSymbolizes the bounty of nature, fertility and abundance.
Sankhaconch shell trumpetAttributesWhen a sankha is blown it produces the sacred sound; OM. The sankha’s shape is a spiral and represents diffusion of dharmic teachings which start at one point and evolve into ever increasing spirals throughout the universe. All forms of the universe are the effects of this primal sound. The sankha is most often associated with Vishnu and Lakshmi.
Sarpayajnopavitasacred cord as a cobraAttributesA cobra worn as a sacred cord by Shiva as Ascetic (Bhikshatana).
ShrivatsaVishnu identifierAttributesAn identifying triangular or rhomboid mark worn by Vishnu on the right side of his chest.
Srukladle or spoonAttributesSymbolizes the principle of sacrifice. For something to be created or achieved; resources, energy, or time need to be sacrificed. A fundamental principle of Hindu worship ritual. See also; puja.
Sulashort handled stabbing tridentAttributesAttribute symbolizing
TrishulatridentAttributesShiva’s most well known symbol and his weapon of choice. With Surya’s assistance it was created with material from the Sun but with an eighth of its heat.
VeenaluteAttributesThe veena was created by Shiva as an aid to an elevated level of meditation and when played well induces a meditative, trance-like state. When held by Saraswati it represents learning and wisdom. The veena’s origins dates from 1500BCE and its spirtual importance is mentioned in early Tamil texts as well as the Ramayana, the Mahabharata, The Vedas and the Puranas.
AbhangaStanding Posture - BhangaBhangas, Asanas and MudrasBody bent side to side, Weight on one leg. hip pushed out to one side. Symbolizes deep in thought.
AbhayaHand Gesture - MudraBhangas, Asanas and MudrasUsually the right hand, palm raised and facing outwards. Signifies blessing, reassurance and protection. “Fear not, I am here”. An ancient mudra demonstrating that the hand is empty of weapons and thus an offering of friendship and peace. In the Gandharan tradition, abhaya was sometimes used to indicate that Buddha is preaching.
AlidhapadaStanding Posture - BhangaBhangas, Asanas and MudrasBoth feet on the ground. LEFT leg back straight. RIGHT leg in front. Knee bent. Shiva’s aspect as Archer - Destroyer of Three Cities. See also; Alidham and Pratyalidham.
AnjaliHand Gesture - MudraBhangas, Asanas and MudrasBoth palms held together at the chest and level with the heart chakra signifies; “I see and salute the divine essence in you”. An anjali touching the forehead is a greeting.
ArdhacanadraHand Gesture - MudraBhangas, Asanas and MudrasPalm up and cupped or flat as if holding fire, either in the palm directly or in a fire dish. See also; Agni and Nataraja.
ArdhaparyankasanaSitting Posture - AsanaBhangas, Asanas and MudrasOne leg, usually the left, tucked upon the seat. The other leg dangles.
AsanaSitting Posture - AsanaBhangas, Asanas and MudrasPosition of the legs when seated. Along with mudras and attributes, asanas are an important part of a complex visual vocabulary communicating identity, attitude and characteristics of the god or goddess.
AtibhangaStanding Posture - BhangaBhangas, Asanas and MudrasSimilar to tribhanga but the side to side bends of the body are exaggerated. Symbolizes impending violence. Typical of Shiva in his destructive aspect. See also; tribhanga.
BharatanatyamClassical DanceBhangas, Asanas and MudrasOriginating in south India, 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 flexed out, combining intricate footwork with a sophisticated vocabulary of body postures (hastas), gestures (mudras), eye and facial expressions, Bharatanatyam is an interpretive narration of mythical legends and spiritual ideas from sacred Hindu texts. Many of the mudras and hastas of Chola Bronzes are inspired by Bharatanatyam. See also; Hasta, Asana and Mudra. For a top contemporary dancer see; http://arushimudgal.com/video-ardhnarishwar.html
BhujangalalitaSitting Posture - AsanaBhangas, Asanas and MudrasOne leg bent at the knee and resting on the ground. Other leg lifted ABOVE the level of the knee
BhujangatrasaSitting Posture - AsanaBhangas, Asanas and MudrasOne leg bent at the knee and resting on the ground. Other leg lifted AT or BELOW the level of the knee
BhumiparsaHand Gesture - MudraBhangas, Asanas and MudrasThe right arm resting on the the right knee, the hand palm inward, reaching toward the ground. Bhumiparsa, loosely translated as “touching the Earth” represents the moment of the Buddha's awakening as he claims the earth as witness to his enlightenment.
CaturaSitting Posture - AsanaBhangas, Asanas and MudrasRight foot resting on the ground. Left foot upraised with toes touching the ground.
ChandrakalHand Gesture - MudraBhangas, Asanas and MudrasIndex finger pointing upward and thumb at right angle forming a crescent. Represents Chandra, the moon, symbol of intelligence and intellect. Chandrakal can also symbolize a shield and therefore a defensive gesture.
DamarumudraHand Gesture - MudraBhangas, Asanas and MudrasThe literal gesture of holding a damaru, a small, thin-waisted, double drum. See also; Nataraja.
DharmachakraHand Gesture - MudraBhangas, Asanas and MudrasBoth hands are held against the chest, the left hand facing inward covering the right hand facing outward. Dharmachakramudra represents setting in motion the Wheel of Dharma, thus the mudra identifies the Buddha as Teacher.
DhyanamudraHand Gesture - MudraBhangas, Asanas and MudrasIn a position of deep meditation, the right hand rests within the left in the figure’s lap, both palms facing up. Common in Buddhist iconography. See also; Yogamudra.
DvibhangaStanding Posture - BhangaBhangas, Asanas and MudrasStanding with the body bent side to side twice. Signifies a beneficent mood.
GajahastaArm Gesture - HastaBhangas, Asanas and MudrasSymbolizes ultimate strength and power, the arm is held across the chest and straight like an elephant’s trunk. Also known as dandahasta.
HastaArm Gesture - HastaBhangas, Asanas and MudrasPosition of the arms. See also; mudras.
HastavastikaArm Gesture - HastaBhangas, Asanas and MudrasArms crossed in front of the chest suggesting total deference to a higher ranking deity.
JnanaHand Gesture - MudraBhangas, Asanas and MudrasHand level with the heart, palm up. Thumb and finters, usually the ring finger, forming a ring. Represents the great wisdom of the god depicted. Also known as chinmudra.
KaranaHand Gesture - MudraBhangas, Asanas and MudrasRight hand at or near the heart. Palm facing outward. Middle and ring finger bent towards the palm with the thumb holding them in position. Index and little fingers remain straight. Signifies repelling demons or fear and anxiety.
KartariHand Gesture - MudraBhangas, Asanas and MudrasHand raised, index and middle finger holding some sort of attribute, such as a weapon or deer. Without an attribute present, the Kartarimudra represents a deer antler, which in turn symbolizes the contradiction in all things.
KatakaHand Gesture - MudraBhangas, Asanas and MudrasUsually the right hand, the index finger and thumb held as if holding a padma, or lotus. Indicates the deity, usually a goddess, invites the worshipper to offer the gift of a flower. Can also be seen as forming a ring or a lion’s ear.
KatyavalambitaHand Gesture - MudraBhangas, Asanas and MudrasThe hand resting palm down, bent up at the wrist and against the hip indicates the deity will ease the worshipper’s sorrow.
LalitasanaSitting Posture - AsanaBhangas, Asanas and MudrasThe seated pose of royal ease in which one leg is folded so that the foot rests on the seat and the other leg hangs down.
LolahastaArm Gesture - HastaBhangas, Asanas and MudrasA non-symbolic pose where the arm hangs like the tail of a horse at the side of the body.
MudraHand Gesture - MudraBhangas, Asanas and MudrasSymbolic hand gestures with special meaning often seen in artistic depictions of the Hindu and Buddhist images. See also; Gestures and Postures.
NataStanding Posture - DanceBhangas, Asanas and MudrasWild ecstatic dance of Shiva as Nataraja. Also; Tandava.
Natya SastraSacred TextBhangas, Asanas and MudrasAn ancient foundational treatise defining the guiding principles of classic temple dance, as well as its theory, body poses (hastas), gestures (mudras), expressions, symbolism and standards. Codified some two thousand years ago it remains virtually unchanged from when it was written by scholar Bharata Muni. See also; hastas, mudras and Shastriya Nritya
NrityamurtiStanding Posture - DanceBhangas, Asanas and MudrasWeight on one leg, slightly bent. Other leg supported by the foot against the inside of the thigh of the standing leg.
PadavastikaStanding Posture - BhangaBhangas, Asanas and MudrasHip pushed out to one side, weight on one leg. Other leg crossed lightly in front supported by the toes. Symbolizes benevolent tranquility and relaxation. Typical of Krishna playing his flute.
PadmasanaSitting Posture - AsanaBhangas, Asanas and MudrasIn yoga the lotus position. Legs are crossed. Feet upturned. Symbolizes deep meditation. Common in Buddhist iconography. See also; Yogamudra.
PatakahastaArm Gesture - HastaBhangas, Asanas and MudrasArm outstretched to the side like a bird representing the power of flames in a fire. Strength.
PratyalidhamStanding Posture - BhangaBhangas, Asanas and MudrasBoth feet on the ground. LEFT leg back straight. RIGHT leg in front. Knee bent. Shiva’s aspect as Archer - Destroyer of Three Cities. Also Alidhapada and Alidham
SamabhangaStanding Posture - BhangaBhangas, Asanas and MudrasNo bending. Standing straight, weight equally on both feet or one knee slightly bent. See also; sthanubhanga
SthanubhangaStanding Posture - BhangaBhangas, Asanas and MudrasNo bending. Standing straight, weight equally on both feet. Also samabhanga.
SukhasanaSitting Posture - AsanaBhangas, Asanas and MudrasResting comfortably.
TandavaStanding Posture - DanceBhangas, Asanas and MudrasWild ecstatic dance of Shiva as Nataraja. Also; Nata and Nyamurti
TarjanimudraHand Gesture - MudraBhangas, Asanas and MudrasRaised index finger as a threat or warning. In a multi-limbed figure it can convey menace or wrath when used by a left hand of a rearward set of hands.
TribhangaStanding Posture - BhangaBhangas, Asanas and MudrasSimilar to atibhanga but a side to side pose with the weight on one leg, the head and lower body slanting in one direction and the torso moving in the opposite direction. Symbolizes generous demeanour and potential movement. See also; atibhanga.
UttarabodHand Gesture - MudraBhangas, Asanas and MudrasHands together level with the heart, index fingers touching and pointing upwards with the remaining fingers intertwined. Symbolizes supreme enlightenment as direct connection to the divine principle. Common in Buddhist iconography.
VajramudraHand Gesture - MudraBhangas, Asanas and MudrasErect index finger of either hand held in the fist of the other. Signifies the importance of spiritual wisdom. The raised index finger is knowledge and the fist protects it. Common in Buddhist iconography.
VaradamudraHand Gesture - MudraBhangas, Asanas and MudrasPalm down and facing the believer, indicatiing the god is preparing to grant a desire, blessing or reward.
VirasanaSitting Posture - AsanaBhangas, Asanas and MudrasSimilar to Padmasana but crosslegged. Often left leg bent resting on the seat. Right leg hanging. Hero position while battling demons.
VismayaHand Gesture - MudraBhangas, Asanas and MudrasArm raised. Palm facing back. Expresses surprise or wonder when deferring to another deity of higher status.
VitarkaHand Gesture - MudraBhangas, Asanas and MudrasWith the hand palm out and held over or near the heart, the thumb and index form a ring while the other fingers remain erect. Vitarka signifies pure wisdom or judgement. When stretched toward a believer vitarka indicates the god or guru wishes to offer instruction. When not near the heart vitarka is also known as jnana or chinmudra. Common in Buddhist iconography.
YogamudraHand Gesture - MudraBhangas, Asanas and MudrasIn a position of deep meditation, the right hand rests within the left in the figure’s lap, both palms facing up. Common in Buddhist iconography. See also; Dhyanamudra.
YogasanaSitting Posture - AsanaBhangas, Asanas and MudrasLegs crossed. Feet touching the ground. Knees up and supported by a belt or loop (yogapatta). Possibly only one leg supported. Symbolizes an ascetic aspect. See also; Narasimha,
Glossary of Terms – Iconography, Adornment, Attributes, Bhangas, Asanas and Mudras2019-11-08T05:34:33-08:00



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 certified pure bronze alloys to ensure a technical quality Chola bronzesmiths could only dream of achieving.

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. 

Note 3 – A bronze cast using panchaloha was considered 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).

It is no longer possible in the West for panchaloha to be used when reproducing Chola icons due to its Pb (lead) content. Environmental, as well as health and safety concerns for foundry workers, must take precedence. Caution; Pb (lead) remains a major element for casting reproductions overseas. If you currently have Indian-sourced sculptures in your home please ensure your wax coating covers the entire surface and reapply it annually. 


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