Chola Sacred Bronzes of Southern
The exhibition at the Royal
Academy of Arts in London until February 25, 2007
Article added on January 14, 2007
The international exhibition Chola: Sacred Bronzes of
Southern India at the Royal Academy of Arts in London presents until
February 25, 2007 some 30 sculptures. For more information on the history of the Cholas,
a dynastic group that emerged in the ninth century after the capture of
Thanjavur (located in the present day state of Tamil Nadu) in 850 AD and
went on to rule until 1250 AD, check the article
bronzes about the 2003 American exhibition The Sensuous and the Sacred.
Chola Bronzes from South India.
The Pallava period (c. 600-850/900) was marked by a rapid expansion in
temple building in south India. The finest temples, built under Royal
patronage, are the Kailashnatah (early 8th c.) and Vaikuntaperumal (c. 775)
in Kanchipuram as well as the Shore Temple at Mamallapuram, located in the
Pallava kingdom's capital. According to John Guy, these temples, with their
deep porches, dark interiors and constricting enclosure walls, mark the
transition from cave shrines and rock-cut temples to the beginnings of the
mature free-standing Dravidian-style temple.
From around the middle of the first millennium, the god and goddess
envisioned as assuming an active role similar to that of the human monarch,
participating in a variety of activities. Thus, the devine couple inspected
their temple premises each day. The immovable stones image installed in the
sanctum could not participate in such festivities. Thus arose the portable
Chola bronzes. Along its pedestal, each image either has its set of holes or
a set of lugs for the insertion of bamboo poles that would rest on the
shoulders of devotees.
John Guy explains that, in South India, portable icons of the gods came into
existence to allow the parading of the deity away from the temple sanctuary
for both the god's pleasure and the spiritual benefit of devotees.
Poet-saints made the present day state of Tamil Nadu a sacred landscape of
living Hinduism in their winning battle against Buddhism and Jainism. The
poet-saints traveled from one temple to the next, propagating and
proselytising. More than half of the temples named ('sung') by these saints
were in Tanjavur district, a Pallava and Chola heartland along the Kaveri
river and its delta.
Dating of the icons is delicate. The rising popularity of metal processional
images in both Hindu and Buddhist devotional activity begins in the seventh
century. However, the first securely dated icon comes from the beginning of
the tenth century. This is a figure of Uma as Consort of Nataraja, installed
at the temple of Karaiviram village, which, according to its inscription,
was consecrated in the eleventh regnal year of Parantaka I, 917 CE.
(Incidentally, Uma is the mother aspect of Parvati, the wife of Shiva, and
the preferred term for this goddess in south India).
Only few Chola bronzes bear inscribed dates; far more common is the
recording of an important donation in a temple description, usually carved
into the exterior wall of the temple's sanctuary.
The tenth, eleventh and twelfth century proved to be periods of great
prosperity of the Chola dynasty. Much of the surplus was spent on new and
bigger temples and on equipping them with devotional icons and associated
Stylistically, the processional icons of these periods are of a high
standard of elegance. They combine a sensuous naturalism with an
unprecedented refinement of gesture and posture. According to John Guy,
ornamentation in the form of finely detailed belts, necklaces, armbands and
diadems may reflect courtly adornment of the period.
Generally, each festival demanded a specific image, which was not viewed by
devotees because the bronzes emerged in precession after the rite of puja
in which they were ritually bathed, swathed in silks, adorned with jewelry
of gold and precious stones, and honored with blossoms and flower garlands.
At times, barely an inch of bronze is clearly visible, but for the devotee,
the image adorned is the potent image.
From the reign of Rajaraja through that of Kulottunga I, a series of high-Chola-style
bronzes survive, reflecting stylistic shifts and the grades of quality
created by the master craftsmen.
By the second half of the thirteenth century, by which stage the Chola
dynasty was in decline, the icons' luminous humanity of the high Chola style
had given way to convention.
In the 14th century, the Muslims invaded Tamil Nadu. Stone images were more
often vandalized, whereas bronze icons were stole for their considerable
metal value. Therefore, many religious bronze sculptures were buried.
Today's finest Chola bronzes were recovered from caches of images secreted
away in temple grounds and sometimes in the surrounding countryside.
The Government Museum in Chennai owns the largest collection of south Indian
bronze sculptures, mostly acquired directly from temples or through
excavation. In 1979 some 78 bronzes, mostly Chola and none later than early
14th century, were discovered concealed in a hidden chamber within the
Chidambaram temple. This is the largest collection intact collection of
Chola bronzes to have survived from a single temple.
Chola bronzes are unique images that cannot be replicated because of the
lost wax (cire perdue) process used to create them requires that the
mold be broken open to releases the statue.
The London exhibition focuses on bronze images of the Hindu deities created
for the festival cycles of the many Tamil temples. In addition, Jainism and
Buddhism also attracted a following during the Chola period. both faiths
commissioned portable bronzes of their lord, the Jina or the Buddha, for
The exhibition catalogue, Royal
Academy of Arts in London. Get the catalogue, Thames & Hudson, 2006, 176 p.,
120 ill., from
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Ganesha, Cholad period, c. 1070, bronze, 50.2cm.
Photo © The Cleveland Museum of Art, Gift of Katharine Holden Thayer, 1970.62.
Krishna dancing of Kaliya. Chola period, late tenth or early eleventh century,
copper alloy, 87.6cm.
Photo © Lynton Gardinger, Asia Society, New York: Mr and Mrs John D.
Rockefeller 3rd Collection (1919.022).
Shiva as Lord of Dance (Shiva as Nataraja), Chola period, eleventh century,
bronze, 111.5cm. Photo © The Cleveland Museum of Art, Purchase from the J. H.
Wade Fund, 1930.331.