Bronzes: Early Images

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Bronzes: Early Images

A figure made from an alloy of metals is generally described as "bronze." In the Indian context, the common term for such items is ashtadhatu, meaning eight metals. As gathered from ancient canonical texts (Shilpa Shāstras), the mixture of metals included gold, silver, copper, bronze, brass, tin, lead, and iron, though an alloy of even two metals was called bronze. In the southern part of the country, five metals ( panchalauha) made a bronze; the ingredients were gold, silver, copper, brass, and white lead. Iron, being considered impure, was avoided for shaping divine figures, and costly metal like gold was sparingly used. With the passage of time, an icon made of even a single metal was called bronze.

Bronzes, or metal figures, have been used for worship, meditation, cult purposes, aesthetic admiration, and as prized possessions. These also served as substitutes for large consecrated images (dhruvaberas); they were called chalaberas, mobile images that were used on festive occasions and in processions. These became popular in India among Hindus, Buddhists, Jains, and in folk cults.

As works of art, Indian bronzes are highly esteemed, equal to the best stone sculpture, displaying a high degree of workmanship, exquisite beauty and charm, rhythm, posture, and expressions. Chronologically, these works first emerged in the Indus Valley dating back to the middle of the third millennium b.c.; their production has continued to the present, with a fascinating journey of development through the ages and in different regions.

Indus Figures

The lumps revealed from sites like Mehargarh, Baluchistan (in Pakistan) prove the prevalence of metal, particularly copper, by about the sixth millennium b.c., although the earliest use of bronze or metal hails from Mohenjo-Daro and belongs to the third millennium b.c. Small in dimension (4.3 in. [10.8 cm] high), the figure of a dancing girl is of great aesthetic merit. Looking like a young indigenous maiden with horizontally enlarged eyes, she stands in rhythmic pose, with her left leg flexed forward, balancing the weight of her body on the right leg, with her right arm resting on her hip and her left arm on her thigh. While no trace of drapery is marked, she wears a triple-beaded, single-stranded necklace around her neck, double bangles on her right wrist and arm, and a row of thick bangles covering her entire left arm. The hairdo terminates into an elongated tuft ( juda) resting on the nape. The use of drapery and sometimes decorated textiles is attested by terra-cotta figurines (particularly a stone bust of a so-called priest with trefoil motif scarf ), but this female bronze is bare bodied except for these ornaments, which do not conceal her nudity. It may perhaps be presumed that the young girl (shodashi ) served some cult or ritual purpose. Alternatively, it may simply be a demonstration of ornaments on the body for decorative purposes. At the same time, the naturalistic treatment of the human figure suggests an advanced stage of production of metal sculpture in the early phase of Indus culture.

Another female figure in metal was revealed from the same site (Mohenjo-Daro). With her right arm on her waist, she bears some similarity to the dancing girl, wearing some ornaments on her unclothed body, but the workmanship lacks grace and elegance, and the figure is weather worn. The buffalo from Mohenjo-Daro (2.8 in. [7.1 cm] long) is another excellent product of the Indus bronze atelier. It is notable for its anatomical rendering as well as its projection of vitality and strength. The bull from Kalibangan (2.76 in. [7 cm] long) is also a fine specimen. The little dog from Mohenjo-Daro (.7 in. [1.78 cm] long), probably made as a toy, must have come from the hands of a skilled smith. Its raised ears and tail bespeak realism, and a collar-type projection around the neck is an interesting feature. Whether it indicates a domestic breed of pet or something else is unknown. All the above objects are housed in the National Museum of New Delhi. From Mehi were recovered several bronze specimens, but the mirror (4.9 in. [12.5 cm] diameter) is outstanding. The handle is shaped like a standing female figure, with suspended arms alongside an unusually elongated body. The object also suggests the application of shining polish for reflection.


Bronze casting not only continued to be practiced in the late or post-Indus culture, but it was considerably improved. This is evidenced by a hoard unearthed at Daimabad, on the left bank of the Pravara River in the Ahmednagar district of Maharashtra in western India. Four large bronzes are of immense significance, particularly for the fact that they have been dated between 2000 and 1800 b.c. Of these, three represent animals (an elephant, buffalo, and rhinoceros) and the fourth is a chariot driven by a standing male figure. All the statues are made in solid bronze (ghana dhatu), but each is a different size. The animals stand on three separate pedestals, which have wheels for movement.

The elephant (14.4 X 10.4 in. long [36.5 cm high, 26.5 cm]) is the highest of all four, though the wheels of its pedestal are missing. The large holes on the four pegs conspicuously explain its use for a procession. The anatomy is robust and the twist of the tip of its trunk and a curved cavity between the hind legs and stomach befit the representation. The buffalo (10.8 X 9.7 in. long [27.5 cm high, 24.8 cm]), resembling a bison with large horns, bears the natural projection of front knees and stands on a four-wheeled chariot. The front two wheels are smaller than the rear ones. The rhinoceros (11.2 in. [28.5 cm] high) lacks naturalism, as the pleats of thick skin, legs, mouth, and horn are stylistically treated, similar to the depiction of a rhinoceros on some Indus seals. All four wheels of the base are of equal dimension.

The most fascinating object of the hoard is certainly a chariot driven by a standing young man. There are several remarkable features of this unique piece. With a length of 19.7 inches (50 cm) and a height of 9.2 inches (23.3 cm), this is the largest item from Daimabad hoard. The chariot has two components; the front part is dominated by a driver in commanding attitude. The two parts are joined by a thick string, terminating in a yoke on the necks of a pair of bullocks, whose front and hind legs are supported on two separate pedestals. The animals have a composite appearance: while the horns, hoofs, and midsections are suggestive of bulls, the mouths, tails, and hind portions give the impression of horses. The fabrication of the back unit is rather complicated but exciting. Its basic structure is composed of a flat base with two vertical rods terminating in loops on top. A triangle of rods gives it strength and, along with a curved rod, rests on the back of an animal (probably a tiny horse). The young charioteer holds a whip. This may also be conjectured as a section of a broken rein, which controlled the running or galloping animals. This part of the carriage has two wheels for movement. The exact purpose of this extraordinary object is unknown. The posture of the charioteer and the shape of the cart, allowing no room for cargo or a passenger, encourage us to think that it was meant to depict a racing cart. Thus, the object on one hand is a rare example of advanced metallurgy and on the other suggests the prevalence of sports like cart racing in the early second millennium b.c.


The finds from the Indus and late or post-Indus sites attest to the popularity of the lost wax (cire perdue) method of bronze casting in India. This process continues to the present with slight variations in different parts of India. Medieval period textbooks refer to it as madhuchchhishta-vidhana, which could be applied either for solid ( ghana) or for hollowed (sushira) figure. The different stages of bronze casting for a solid ( ghana) figure are as follows:

Preparation of model image in wax;
Application of several coats of clay;
Perforation, especially on top and bottom;
Drying of casket-type mold in shade and sun;
Heating of mold for melting the wax, which is then "lost";
Top holes are closed;
Preparation of an alloy of metals in molten form;
Pouring of liquid metal through top hole;
Allowing liquid to spread thoroughly in space created by lost wax figure;
Cooking of the lump;
Outer clay cover to be broken;
Cast figure is ready;
Finishing and filing.

The different stages of bronze casting for a hollow (sushira) figure are:

Preparation of mold image in clay;
Coating of wax;
Coating of clay;
Remaining stages the same as for solid ( ghana);
Lightweight hollow figure ready;
Finishing and filing.

The details of the process of metal casting are recorded in the canonical texts, like Manasara (68.20–23), Manasollasa or Abhilashitarthachintamani (1.77–97), and Vishnu-samhita, Aparajitaprichchha (199.13–14). We are yet to come across a hollow metal figure from the Indus or late Indus culture, and it may be presumed that it was a later innovation. The last process of bronze casting, the finishing and filing, became so elaborate with the passage of time that the finished figure looked quite different from the cast model.

Vedic Period

It cannot be said with certainty whether the Vedic people preceded or followed the Indus culture, although historians generally subscribe to the view that the Vedic age is later. While material remains of the period are wanting, the Vedas furnish ample testimony regarding the artistic renderings and use of metals. Tvashta remains busy in creating different forms (Rig Veda 3.60.4) and Vishvakarma produces beautiful figures (ibid., 10.81.7). He is compared with a smith who uses furnace for smelting metals (ibid., 10.72.2). When a person (a smith artist) asks for ten cows in exchange for Indra (ibid., 4.24.10), he must be in possession of a costly figure of the deity, probably made in gold. The process of metal smelting was known as sandhamana.

Copper Implements

Archaeology is silent for about eight centuries, and no metal figure is found up to the eleventh or tenth century b.c., when some copper implements resembling a human figure (anthropomorphic) emerge from several parts of India, like Orissa and Uttar Pradesh. Their purpose and the lifestyle of their users remain a mystery. Some do bear the incised marks of fish, but these do not seem to be art objects. There is again a big gap of time when bronzes or metal figures disappear. It is only in the Shunga age (2nd–1st century b.c.) that we find a unique gold repoussé sculpture from Patna, now in the Bharat Kala Bhavan, Banaras Hindu University, Varanasi. It represents a male and a female, and the sad expression of the female figure suggests that it is Sītā, kidnapped by Ravāṇa. A gold plaque depicting Karttikeya, found at Hulaskheda near Lucknow by the State Archaeology Department, is also a rare piece of the early first century a.d.

The Kushana Period

Excavations at Sonkh, near Mathura in Uttar Pradesh, conducted from 1968 to 1974 by German archaeologists under the guidance of Herbert Härtel, revealed metallic items from the ninth or eighth century b.c. The bronze sculptural specimens, however, come from the Kushana layers only. One, a standing young man holding a spear (shakti ), has correctly been identified as Skanda or Karttikeya. Wearing a high diadem with a central jewel, rings in the ears, and a single pearled necklace (ekavali), he stands with his left arm akimbo. The sculpture was cast in two flat pieces that were then joined (3.7 in. [9.3 cm] high). The second bronze (4.2 in. [10.6 cm] high, 3.3 in. [8.5 cm] wide) also hails from the same levels of the Kushana period and represents a standing couple within a frame. The male, with high matted hair, raises his right hand in a protective (abhaya) pose, while his left hand holds a bowl. He wears a dhoti (lower garment), the folds of which are seen between the legs. Beside double earrings (now seen on the left side only), he also wears a loose flat necklace. The woman to his left (probably his spouse) has her right hand raised, while the left one holds a child. The head has been shaped like an animal (perhaps a cat). The plaque may represent Kubera and a mother goddess like Shashthi or Charchika. The frame gives the impression of a gateway (torana) with brackets on both sides and a central decorative motif, a variation of Shrivatsa or Nandyavarta. The above two are the earliest bronzes from the stratified levels in India and are similar to the contemporary stone sculptures for which Mathura was famous. There are two small bronze figures in the collection of Vinod Krishna Kanoria of Patna of the early Kushana period. One represents a young man with high fluted headgear, probably blowing some musical instrument and supporting a clublike object behind his raised left hand. The other is a female blowing a wind instrument. It retains the archaic appliqué ornamental technique.

Satavahana bronzes

A good number of metal items were found in a hoard at Brahmapuri, near Kolhapur in Maharashtra, belonging to the Satavahana period (2nd century a.d.), contemporary with the Kushanas. The most striking is a small bronze (2 in. [5 cm] high) representing four riders on an elephant. The two on the front may be explained as a royal or noble couple, as presumed from their jewelry, headgear, and garments. The remaining two on the backe may be a female attendant and a page. Their positions are those prescribed by code, that is, the chief, followed by his spouse, her female attendant, and the page at the end. They are, perhaps, going to a shrine for worship. The elephant has been rendered beautifully and may be compared with the depiction in some early western rock-cut sites like Karle. The posture of the animal is noteworthy, as it seems it is about to rise to begin the journey.

The mythical lion from the same site, belonging to the same period (2.4 in. [6 cm] high) is also interesting. This specimen of repoussé technique is significant for its vigor and movement, as indicated by its prancing front right leg. The head is shaped like an eagle; such fabulous figures are also found in early Indian architecture. Another item is a metal ring, which is surmounted by the heads of four mythical beings. The purpose of this piece cannot be explained exactly, but it might have been used as dharmachakra (the "Wheel of Law" set in motion by the Buddha in his first sermon at Sarnath).

The Buddha from Amaravati (17.1 in. [43.5 cm] high) in the Government Museum at Madras (Chennai), belongs to the late Satavahana or early Ikshvaku phase (c. 3rd century a.d.). With locked hair, protuberance, elongated ears and eyes, the Buddha wears ekansika sanghati (drapery covering the left shoulder only), the hem of which is held in the raised left hand. The right arm is half suspended in a posture of varada (bestowing a blessing). The Archaeological Museum, Nagarjunakonda, Andhra Pradesh, houses an excellent bronze figure of a prince (3.3 in. [8.5 cm] high) from the third century a.d. Standing stylistically, the young man wears a fluted headgear, a pair of bangles, earrings and a dhoti (lower garment). The right arm is held akimbo with some object in the hand; with the left hand he supports a long scepter or a bow. He stands gracefully in a curved (tribhanga) pose with his right foot forward.

Chausa bronzes

A hoard of sixteen bronzes was found at Chausa in Bihar. These magnificent sculptures are related to the Digambara (sky-clad) sect of Jainism and are dated from the second century to the third century a.d., a period that can be termed the Kushano-Gupta epoch. Curiously, these figures follow the Mathura idiom in stylistic rendering. The motif of Shrivatsa on the chest, a conspicuous feature of Mathura Jinas, is also noticed in Chausa bronzes. Most figures represent the Tīrthānkaras, of whom Rishabhanatha (the first Jina) can be identified by locks of hair falling on the shoulders. They stand in a stiff pose of penance and austerity (katyotsarga or danda), generally on a pedestal. The size varies from 7.9–18.9 in. (20 to 48 centimeters).

Aesthetically, a dharmachakra (12.8 in. [32.5 cm] high) is a unique piece within this group. The sixteen-spoked wheel is encircled by a rim decorated with a band of nandipada (taurine) motif. It terminates on the tail of crocodiles that support the female bracket figures (shalabhanjika) with their lower jaws. This decorated dharmachakra rests on a plain pillar. The Chausa bronzes are housed in the State Museum at Patna.

The Gandhara region

Kushana period or even somewhat earlier bronzes have been recovered from the Gandhara region (now in Pakistan and Afghanistan) as well. These include bold reliefs on caskets from Taxila, Bimaran, and Shahji-ki-dheri. The figure of Horous Harpocrates from Taxila is an excellent citation of the pre-Kushana era. From the same period came an amorous couple in repoussé work. The bronze casting continued for several centuries in the Gandhara region, and some remarkable specimens are on view in the Indian Art Museum of Berlin.

The Guptan Golden Age

The period of a century and half following the disintegration of the mighty Kushana dynasty is shrouded by darkness, and the horizon becomes clear only in the early fourth century when Shrigupta of the Gupta family assumes power of Magadha in a.d. 319. An unbroken chain of success, consolidation of power, expansion of empire, firm administration, peace, religious harmony, and flourishing trade culminated in prosperity and grandeur, and the age of Guptan rule is rightly termed as the golden period or classical age of Indian history. All the components of culture—literature, music, dance, drama, arts, architecture, iconography, coins, garments, and social values—bear the imprint of richness and ascension.

Bronzes fashioned between the late fourth and sixth century narrate the same story of grace and elegance. Even technology was considerably improved, and this is evidenced by the metals used in figures, coins, and especially in the production of the excellent iron pillar installed at Mehrauli (Delhi) by Chandragupta I (r. 320–c. 330). This has not been affected at all by rust, even though it has stood open to the sky for about sixteen hundred years. Produced in any part of India, the bronzes of the Guptan period bespeak a national phenomenon in art creation. We are informed by the travelogues of Chinese pilgrims Fahsien (early 5th century), Hsieun Tsang (mid 7th century), and Itsing (late 7th century) that the metal images were kept in the cells of monks at the Nalanda vihara (place of learning, stay and worship for Buddhist monks and students) for daily worship.

The noble conventions of art renderings by the great school of Mathura in stone, especially at Sarnath, are also seen amply reflected in the metal sculptures. The youthful, slim and slender body, curly or long hair terminating in curls (kakapaksha), light drapery with or without pleats covering the left shoulder (ekansika sanghati) or both shoulders (ubhayansika sanghati) in case of the Buddha, inexpressive anatomy and masculinity, elongated earlobes and a blissful expression are some of the remarkable features. The harmony of physical beauty and spiritual elevation was the hallmark of Guptan art. It appears that all the endeavors and trends of Indian art reached a stage of fulfillment. The Guptan art innovations were, therefore, practiced, followed, furthered, and imitated in different ways in diverse regions in the following centuries.

Gupta-Vakataka Bronzes

Like the Guptas in northern and eastern India, the Vakatakas in central and western India, from the mid-third to the early sixth century a.d., patronized art, architecture, and painting. With the marriage of Prabhavati Gupta, daughter of Chandragupta II, to the Vakataka prince Rudrasena II, cultural and administrative ties strengthened and expanded. Consequently the art in the Deccan is generally known as Gupta-Vakataka art. The early Guptan bronzes have been discovered from different places, including Phophnar (Madhya Pradesh), Ramtek (Vidarbha, Nagpur, Maharashtra), Akota (near Vadodara, Gujarat), and Buddhapada (Andhra Pradesh). In the main area of the Guptas, northern and eastern India, the important site is Dhanesar Khera (eastern Uttar Pradesh). Some other bronzes from eastern Uttar Pradesh and Bihar are reported, but their exact provenance is unknown.


Seven bronzes were found at Phophnar. All represent the Buddha standing, with the right hand in the abhaya (protective) pose and the left hand holding the hem of transparent sanghati. The head has full curls of hair with topknot (protuberance). The earlobes are elongated and the eyes are half open, suggesting serenity. Out of seven, two have drapery of ubhayansika sanghati (garment covering both the shoulders) and five have drapery of ekansika (covering left shoulder) only. The figures have a raised pedestal; one is surmounted by a full-blown lotus and above the head there is a canopy with celestial beings carrying a wreath. Some items display a classical style, while others suggest a folk art touch. The size varies from 10.2–25.4 in. (26 to 64.5 centimeters). The best piece is in the collection of the National Museum of New Delhi. The Brahmi letters on its base resemble the inscriptions of Ajanta.

Eastern Uttar Pradesh

Two Buddha figures from Dhanesar Khera are interesting for their contrasting characteristics. One, now in the Nelson Atkins Museum of Art in Kansas City, Missouri, represents the Buddha standing on a pedestal in abhaya (protective pose) with a large nimbus. Some Gandhara influence is discernible in the fabrication. The other, now in the British Museum, London, shows the Buddha seated cross-legged on a multitiered pedestal in a preaching pose. The drapery is smooth and transparent, a feature for which the Sarnath school is known. The facial expression imparts a thoughtful but simple appearance. The inscription on the pedestal records that it was the gift of a Gupta queen. The State Museum of Lucknow exhibits a gold-plated iron head of the Buddha, recovered from Azamgarh, in eastern Uttar Pradesh.

The standing Buddha in abhaya pose (27 in. [68.5 cm] high), now in the Asia Society of New York, wears a garment with schematic folds, following the Mathura tradition. The other Buddha (19.5 in. [49.5 cm] high), in the same collection, wears smooth drapery in the Sarnath fashion. The figures of the Buddha from Nepal, now in the Norton Simon Foundation, Pasadena, California, and the Cleveland Museum, have similar features. The largest statue (7.4 ft. [225 cm] high), now in the collection of the Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery, hails from Sultanganj, Bihar, and belongs to the late Guptan or post-Guptan phase.

The figure of Brahma from Mirpur Khas, Sind (Pakistan), housed in the National Museum of Pakistan, is another superb product of the age. The four-headed deity with matted hair is in the recitation posture. He wears a dhoti (lower garment) and a deerskin on the left shoulder.


The bronze figures unearthed in 1951 from Akota, near Vadodara, Gujarat, belong to the Shvetambara sect of Jainism and are of special interest, as they represent a regional style: Maitraka of the late or post-Guptan phase. In addition to Tīrthānkaras, the hoard also includes other figures of the Jain pantheon, like Ambika, Sarasvati, yakshas, and yakshinis. Mahavira, the twenty-fourth Jina, has been shown as Prince Jivantasvami. The Akota bronzes are dated to the late sixth to the eleventh century a.d. and should not be treated as Guptan period works.

R. C. Sharma

See alsoAjanta ; Guptan Period Art ; Indus Valley Civilization ; Mohenjo-Daro


Härtel, Herbert. Excavations at Sonkh. Berlin: Museum of Indian Art, 1993.

Khandalavala, K., and Asha Rani Mathur, eds. Indian Bronze Masterpieces. New Delhi: Festival of India, 1988.

Masterpieces from the National Museum Collection, edited by S. P. Gupta. New Delhi: National Museum, 1985.

Sivaramamurti, C. Indian Bronzes. Bombay: Marg Publications, 1962.