Bronzes: South Indian

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Bronzes: South Indian

The majority of the Tamil bronze sculptures of South India were made to be processional images. Every temple would have a central image that was usually made of stone and was referred to as "immovable" (achala). This image would reside in a small dark sanctum in the center of the temple, serving as the conduit through which the divine would manifest themselves to receive the offerings and homage of the devout. As only a small number of people would be privileged by caste to enter the temples and receive the blessings from these images, temples developed yearly ritual cycles in which the deity would manifest in portable bronze images that would be carried out for rituals in different parts of the temple, as well as in processions around the temple and the surrounding city during festivals. Each of these images was fitted onto a pedestal base with either lugs or holes to permit them to be fastened to poles, a cart, or palanquin when they were carried in processions. While individual images were made, there were also processional images made as iconographic groups. These would usually consist of a male deity, his consort, and various attendant figures, depending upon the story being presented.

Persons of stature would have small bronze images of their tutelary deities (ishtadevata) in their private residences, which would be worshiped by the head of the family for the well-being and prosperity of the family. These were usually small, a few inches in height, but could be larger depending on the status of the patron.

Development of Style

The earliest Tamil bronze processional images that have been identified were produced by the Pallava dynasty and date from the eighth century a.d., though seventh-century Tamil saints composed songs mentioning processional images. Pallava images are generally smaller than the images produced under the succeeding Chola dynasty, usually no larger than 10 or 12 inches (25–30 cm) in height. Under the Chola dynasty, temples became larger and more elaborate, and the processional images became larger, reaching an optimum size for viewing as they were transported on palanquins and wooden temple carts. The processional images produced under the Chola dynasty range from 2 to 5 feet (.6–1.5 m) high. Tamil metal craftsmen continue to produce processional images for use in religious festivals and ceremonies.

Relatively few Pallava bronze images have survived, and the bronze processional images are generally only 10 or 12 inches in height. Stylistically, they follow the forms of Pallava stone sculpture, but are more fluid and sensual, as the sculptors were able to take advantage of the more malleable medium of wax in fashioning the image before it was cast in bronze. The forms of the garments, jewelry, and sacred thread are often large and clear. As if the sculptors were still learning how to master the new medium, some details like the width of the sacred thread and the garment "tassels" at the waist are much larger and more pronounced those of the succeeding Chola dynasty. Though there is a sense of grace and ease about many of the figures, they are composed more compactly than their Chola dynasty successors. This is most notable in the images of Shiva as the "Lord of Dance," Shiva Nataraja. In Pallava examples, the nimbus surrounding the figures rises up in a "keyhole" shape, and the image is fully contained and compressed within it. By the tenth century, when the Shiva Nataraja in the Los Angeles County Museum was cast, the nimbus had opened up more, and Shiva's arms and legs extend more fully into space. By the eleventh and twelfth centuries, the nimbus had developed into a full circle, and the form of Shiva's dance determined the space and radius of the nimbus, rather than the nimbus constraining the form of Shiva's dance.

Only recently has there been a serious attempt to define regional styles within Chola sculpture. Art historian Vidya Dehejia has proposed four main regional groups: Chola Nadu, Pondai Nadu, Kongu Nadu, and Pandi Nadu. Chola Nadu is the region around Tanjavor, the Chola heartland. In this style, the faces are oval, and the shoulders gently and sensuously slope into long slender arms and legs. The figures convey a sense of serene, dignified majesty. The Shiva Nataraja mentioned above exemplies these characteristics. The Pondai Nadu style is centered on the region around Madras and north of the Kaveri River basin. These figures are generally more angular and less sensuous than those of the Chola Nadu region. Kongu Nadu is the western region centered around Coimbatore. Images from this region display different bodily proportions than those of Tamil Nadu. Their faces tend to be rounder, and their shoulders are very wide and almost parallel to the ground. Their appearance is not as refined or as elegant as the Chola Nadu images. Pandi Nadu is the region around Madurai. Images made there tend to have bodily contours similar to those from Kongu Nadu, but their proportions are more elongated, like those from Chola Nadu.

As the Chola period progressed, there was a tendency for the images in all regions to become more and more stylized, and more conservative in their forms. Generally, the noses tend to become more pointed and sharp. Crowns become more standardized and less ornate.

Process of Manufacture

In order for an image to be a suitable vehicle for a deity to manifest within, it needed to be made according to precise iconographic requirements and exact, prescribed measurements. These requirements are described in minute detail in the class of texts known as Silpasastras. By the Chola period, these same texts also forbade the making of hollow images. They warned that an artist who tried to reduce costs in making an image would bring misfortune not only upon himself, but also upon the entire kingdom.

In Tamil Nadu, more than any other part of India, metal images were made out of a special alloy of five metals (gold, silver, copper, lead, and iron) called panchaloha. This alloy polishes to a bright, warm golden surface and resists tarnishing. While prized for its bright lustrous surface by priests, when the images were buried in the ground, the surface often corroded into a deep green patina that is now greatly valued by Western museums and collectors.

Tamil artists have traditionally cast processional images using the lost wax method. Following the precise proportions prescribed in the Silpasastra texts, a sculptor would form a torso, arms, and legs from wax. Molding them individually and then joining them together, the sculptor would then add wax to create the image's garments and jewelry. Heating the wax as necessary to keep it workable, the sculptor would raise and incise as many of the final details as possible on the wax core. Tubular struts of wax would then be added to the figure to serve as channels through which the wax and gases could escape and the molten metal enter the mold. The completed figure in wax would then be coated, first with a very fine textured clay, and then with successive layers of fine clay, until it was totally encapsulated. After the clay had dried, the mold would be heated over a fire so that the wax would first melt and then be burned out, leaving a negative space into which the molten panchaloha alloy would next be poured. When the pouring was complete, the clay mold would be submerged in water and broken away from the new image. Throughout the Chola dynasty, the wax images were so finely modeled and cast that the only finishing work required was to saw away the struts and to polish the surface of the image. At some point after the fall of the Chola dynasty, the finer details were no longer cast, but were chiseled into the surface of the image after casting.


During the reign of Rajaraja Chola (r. 985–1016) and his son Rajendra Chola (r. 1016–1044), there was both an elaboration of the rituals surrounding bronze processional images and a dramatic increase in their production. The inscriptions of Rajaraja Chola on the pillars and walls of his Brideshvara temple at Tanjavor document not only the commissioning of bronze processional images, but also the gifts of gold jewelry and silks to adorn the images, and ritual lamps and objects to be used in their worship. Even before the reign of Rajaraja Chola, inscriptions show that when they were employed as a host for a deity during a ritual, processional images were fully robed, garlanded in flowers, adorned with precious jewelry, and shaded from the sun with parasols with all the honor, pomp, and ceremony possible. Processional images would never be displayed unadorned; only their hands, faces, and feet would be visible. During the Chola period, thin plates of silver or silver gilt with gold (kavachas) were fashioned and affixed to cover not only the hands and feet of processional figures, but also the central images in temples. Very often it is possible to see only the face of an image carried in a procession or otherwise under worship. Ritual bathing of processional images also assumed a new prominence under the Cholas. Special bathing pedestals, often very elaborate, were created, upon which the images could be bathed with a series of substances: perfumed water, sandalwood paste, milk, and honey. As the images' faces would receive special cleaning, lustration, and anointing every day, the delicate lines delineating the eyes would often wear down. As perfect eyes were required to make the image suitable for worship, the eyes would be recut as needed. The eyes of images that have been under continual worship have often had their eyes recut many times. Many images that were buried in the face of invasions, which have now been placed in museum collections, also have had their eyes recut in the distant past, after generations of use.

John Listopad


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