Sacred Chola bronzes

[Image: Uma, “Capital style; ca. 900, bronze, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Bequest of Cora Timken Burnett, 1956.]

The Thief Who Stole My Heart: The Material Life of Sacred Bronzes from Chola India, 855–1280 is the “first book to situate the sacred and sensuous bronze statues from India’s Chola dynasty in social context”. This book is an attempt to synthesise art historical and connoisseurial appreciation of temple bronzes of the Chola dynasty (855-1279) but also to consider the social, economic and religious significance of the bronzes. The Chola dynasty flourished in South and South-Eastern India and northern Sri Lanka; its influence expanded over of the territory of Bengal and Malaysia. Its art is considered by some to be the Indian renaissance. Author Vidya Dehejia, professor of Indian and South Asian art at Columbia University, claims that this book a first full attempt to cover the breadth of the reception and production of the famed temple bronzes.

Dehejia faced certain hurdles in preparing this handsome book. Firstly, not all of the bronzes are either documented or even listed. Secondly, getting reliable data on the bronzes is difficult, not least because – as sacred objects – access to them is limited and photography of some is forbidden. Thus, even making an overall assessment of the estimated 3,700 statues over hundreds of holy sites is a task so large that it will require further even more work. One question the author raises is where did roughly 153 tons of copper used to cast the statues come from, considering there are no copper deposits in the Cholas region? She thinks that evidence of copper mines in Sri Lanka probably indicates trade or conquest prompted Chola expansion to Sri Lanka. Additionally, the pearl fisheries of Sri Lanka were greatly valued by Chola kings.  

These devotional works were fitted with fixings for carrying poles and – in temples – are routinely clothed, daubed with substances and have offerings applied. Years’ worth of accretion of incense, ointments and soot have patinated the statues that are kept in situ in temples. Some statues have been removed to museums (in India and worldwide, especially Great Britain and the USA). The author explains the subjects of the statues, which are of gods and goddesses (mainly Shiva, Uma, Skanda, Vishnu, Kali, Ganesha) and saints. Included are plentiful photographs of statues dressed in their holy-day finery, showing how worshippers have seen these statues for over a thousand years. In the Valuvur temple in Nagapattinam, the brahmins put a diamond-studded foot cover on the raised foot of dancing Shiva.   

As Dehejia explains, the original sculpture that be modelled in a mixture of wax, resin and oil. This is then coated with plaster, surrounded by sand and molten bronze poured in, which replaces the original model entirely. This makes the Chola bronze solid, not hollow as the lost-wax method generates. “All Chola bronzes are the product of this direct lost-wax process in which the mold must be broken to release the image. There is no mold left for reuse, so each Chola bronze is a singular piece that may not be replicated in any mechanical fashion.” Statues are sometimes worn smooth by the touch of priests. Periodically, worn details would be cut back in by sculptors. Some statues and laws on copper plates have been unearthed in recent years, offering further knowledge of the period. In 1310 an invading army of Muslims was pillaging temples for valuable materials, so priests in the region buried their statues and the threat of defilement and destruction lasted until 1378. The hiding places of the bronzes and valuables was secret information. It seems that not all of the bronzes were recovered at the time.

Dehejia notes that the earliest of Chola bronzes (c. 855/860) display remarkable accomplishment. “No evidence exists of hesitant beginnings. Where did this Master come from? Where is his other work? Might it emerge from an underground burial site? Since the entire art of processional bronzes was in its infancy, we must assume that the artist who created this couple [Shiva and Uma] in the mid-ninth century trained as a sculptor in a wood- or stone-carving workshop. The markedly flattened form of the images that is strikingly evident in side view is noteworthy; it is almost as if the figures were extracted from a bas relief in stone or wood.”

[Image: Shiva as Wondrous Dancer, ca. 970, Freer Gallery of Art, Washington, DC,
Purchase-Charles Lang Freer Endowment and funds provided by Margaret and George Haldeman.]

The domination of Shiva worship outstrips worship of other deities. “[…] of the 311 temples in the extended Kaveri delta (the present-day districts Tiruchirappalli, Thanjavur, and Nagapattinam), 295 honor god Shiva, while only 16 are dedicated to god Vishnu.” It seems that the sinuous lithe forms of dancing Shiva (Shiva as Lord of the Dance, often with four arms) in bronze statues came from Chola Shiva worship and accelerated the preference for Shiva over other gods.

The tapering torso, smooth chest, wide shoulders and elongated face is typical of Shiva and some of the other male statues. The figure type of the women is famous: the wide hips, sloping shoulders, elongated torso, narrow waist and large bust (sometimes exposed). The men exude strength and grace; the women are fecund and youthful. Faces of gods are generally serene. Sometimes figures are accompanied by smaller companions, children and animals. These sometimes support the main figures structurally, as do other forms, such as halos of fire (aureole) and mandalas. Deferral to elegance over verisimilitude is apparent, with some poses being improbable or impossible.

The stone carvings are considered and amply illustrated. The author sees many parallels between the stone and bronzes. The stone (the type is not described) is weathered when exposed to the elements and thus the bronzes are better examples of the sculpture of the period. Most of the bronzes are kept inside the temples. The weathering and alteration of inscriptions in stone walls – sometimes so extensive that they cover all the ground-level walls, alcoves and pilasters – has made reading dedications and instructions difficult. Also written on the walls are donations made by the devout.  

Dehejia discusses the co-existence of Tamil Hindus and Sinhalese Buddhists on Sri Lanka. The Cholas were Hindus but understood the value of patronage of Buddhist temples as well as supporting the Tamil merchants’ Hindu temples. Apparently, the sculptors also made Buddhas and Dehejia compares holy statues of Hindu and Buddhist subjects and finds many stylistic and technical points of overlap.

An overview of the classes of individuals who founded the temples is assessed by Dehejia, following the known inscriptions in Sanskrit and Tamil. She concludes that women donors frequently donated statues of Uma. Artists in this period are anonymous. There has been an effort to discern separate masters in certain places and eras, in order to permit an artist-centred appreciation of sacred art, as is possible in modern Europe. Dehejia tentatively assigns specific statues to certain single unnamed masters.

The standard of the art is excellent. The grace of the figures and skill of the artists are comparable to art of any era and region. The stylised and hieratical character of the bronzes can make them look to the uninitiated as led by formalist concerns, but Dehejia explains the subtle psychology expressed in certain groups – for example, the shyness of Uma before her wedding and protective but insistent guidance of her protector. The restrained expressions belie the distinct characterisations of individual gods.

“Today, many small Chola-era temples, including Vadakkalathur, Tandantottam, and Tiruvilakudi, have no bronzes at all. In the light of the smuggling that, unfortunately, has accompanied the thriving art market in India and overseas, all bronzes from many temples have been removed to safe-houses, referred as “Icon Centers”. […] When sequestered in Icon Centers, these exquisite bronzes with deep religious significance and aesthetic reputation are not available to priests, to devotees, or to art lovers, thereby deptiving the bronzes of their many consequential levels of meaning.”

Dehejia’s book does much to illuminate the meaning and importance of the holy statues of the Cholas. The illustrations are generally very good, the level of information is appropriate for the educated non-Hindu reader. The appendices, notes and glossary make the book a self-contained reference work on the subject. Highly recommended.

The Thief Who Stole My Heart: The Material Life of Sacred Bronzes from Chola India, 855–1280 is part of the A.W. Mellon Lectures in the Fine Arts National Gallery of Art, Washington Center for Advanced Study in Visual Arts Bollingen Series XXXV: 65.

Vidya Dehejia, The Thief Who Stole My Heart: The Material Life of Sacred Bronzes from Chola India, 855–1280, Princeton University Press, 2021, hardback, 336pp, 242 col./3 mono illus., $75/£58, ISBN 9780691202594

© 2021 Alexander Adams

To see my art and books visit www.alexanderadams.art