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Tamil Poem in Purananuru, circa 500 B.C

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Home > Tamil Culture - the Heart of Tamil National Consciousness > South Indian Bronzes - Chola, Pallava & Nayak Periods


Saivaite & Vaishnavite Bronzes at Chennai Museum

12th Century AD

Bronze Sculptures of the Chola Period at Asia Society Museum

The Sensuous and the Sacred: Chola Bronzes from South India On line exhibition of the works of Indian sculptural art - the temple bronzes cast a thousand years
Splendour in metal `The Sensuous and the Sacred: Chola Bronzes from South India' - S. Rangarajan on the Exhibition at the Smithsonian, Washington, 9 February 2003
Beautiful Bronzes "A collection of sacred bronzes from South India graces the galleries of the Sarabhai Foundation, Ahmedabad. The essence of these pieces is brought out by the display which transcends the contexts of myth and ritual in which they were originally placed.."
The Chola Bronzes: A National Treasure, A visual Treat - Martha Denney "Entering the Madras (now Chennai) Central Government Museum I felt as though I was entering a labyrinth- a veritable maze of buildings that didn't look too promising...The bronzes are distributed around the room, and those in cases under the overhang are very dimly lit. The sculptures in the middle of the room are better lit, but the cases reflect the light from occasional florescent fixtures, making it difficult to see the fine details through the glare. There are many, and at first I simply glanced at them with indifference. It is only upon study that you realize that you have stumbled upon one of the finest collections of South Asian lost-wax sculpture in the world, and they are indeed a treasure.."
I want to know of the origin of south Indian bronzes "Bronze and other metal icons of Tamil Nadu mostly belong to the Pallava and Chola eras of history between the 6th and 11th century AD. The Pallava dynasty built temples across the landscape of Tamil Nadu, but these were small and their spires rose to heights of 20 to 60 ft. Thus, their bronzes of Shiva, Vishnu, Parvati, Lakshmi, Kartikeya and Ganesha were also small in consonance with the rules of the agamas..."
Experts Clean Chola Bronze Statues in Pondicherry Museum

South Indian Bronzes
on the Web

on Serpent Kaliya,
11th-12th Century

Devotee of Shiva, 12th Century


Bronze Southern India Chola, c. 12th century National Museum Singapore
Krishna as Natavara, Lord of the Dance.

he consort of Vishnu, the preserver of the world and the goddess of fortune and wealth

the consort of Brahma,
the creator of the universe, and the goddess of learning

Nayak Queen,
Bronze,16th Century,
Siva Temple,

Nayak Chief,
Thiruvidaimaradur, 16 Century

Siva Bhikshatana
1040 AD, Rajaraja Museum, Thanjavur

Ganesha - circa15th Century

Dancing Ganesha
- circa 16th Century

Dancing Ganesha
- circa 16th Century

Nandi - Chola period, circa 1200

Vishnu's Avatar as Gigantic Boar Embracing Goddess Earth, Chola period, circa 1300

Shiva Vrishabhavana and Parvati, c. 1012, Rajaraja Museum, Thanjavur

Tirujnana Sambandha, 11th century, Rajaraja Museum, Thanjavur

Parvathi - 11th Century

Kali - 11th Century

Kali - 11th Century

*The Sensuous and the Sacred: Chola Bronzes from South India - Vidya Dehejia, Richard H. Davis, R. Nagaswamy, Karen Pechilis Prentiss
* Masterpieces of Early South Indian Bronzes - R. Nagaswamy

Art & Architecture at tamilnation Library


"The following works of art and literature are among the most remarkable contributions of the Tamil creative genius to the world's cultural treasure and should be familiar to the whole world and admired and beloved by all in the same way as the poems of Homer, the dramas of Shakespeare, the pictures of Rembrandt, the cathedrals of France and the sculptures of Greece ...... the South Indian bronzes of the Chola period, those splendid and amazing sculptures belonging to the best creations of humanity....." (Tamil Contribution to World Civilisation - Czech Professor Dr. Kamil Zvelebil in Tamil Culture - Vol. V, No. 4. October, 1956)

Introduction with Note by Dr.Jayabharathi Bronze Casting in Chola Period
Dr.T.V.Mahalingam on Chola Bronzes in Tamil Art and Architecture
The Sensuous and the Sacred - Dr. Sharada Srinivasan
Exhibiting Chola Bronzes
Nataraja - the Dancing Siva...


The Chola bronzes are products of the Tamil creative genius during the period that the great Chola dynasty ruled Tamil NaduLTTE Logo during the 9th to 12th Century. The four centuries of Chola rule, is regarded by many as the age of grandeur in the history of the Tamil people. The Tiger emblem of the Cholas inspired both the name of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam as well as the LTTE flag. Renowned for their harmony of form and content, the Chola bronzes speak across centuries - in silence.

The following is from a note by Dr.S. Jayabarathi whose writings (in Tamil and in English) on Tamil history and culture have earned him the respect and affection of many in the Tamil diaspora:

"The history of metal art in South India is of great antiquity,and this is a living art to this day. This is kept alive by ingenious craftsmen who have preserved the ancient texts about the method of preparation, and also the contemplative hymns or "Dhyana Slokas" which describe the forms of individual icons. The earliest specimen in metal in Tamilnadu is the prehistoric figure of a mother-Goddess from Adhichchanallur.

We don't have any metal image from the Sangam Age. But the present line of bronze casting starts from the Pallava times (400 A.D.). But it was during the Chola times(900 A.D.), that the art and craftsmanship of bronze-casting attained its maximum glory. After a period of 300 hundred years, the craft degenerated.

The forms of Chola bronzes are very plastic. They are devoid of intricate ornaments and designs. They are very expressive. There is grace, elegance, beauty, and above all else - life.

By means of the facial expressions and gestures or mudras and the pose, we can imagine the surroundings of the figure of the god or goddess; what instrument or weapon he or she is holding; what he or she is leaning on; and what he or she is doing or about to do.

There is a pose called Rishabaandhika pose. We see Siva standing with one leg crossed over to the other side, across the other leg . We see that the way His arm is flexed and raised, it is resting on something. The way that His body is tilted suggests that He is leaning on something. In this scenario, Siva is leaning on his bull-vahana, Nandhi, on whose shoulders He is resting His arm. That is why it is called the Rishabaandhika pose.

There is a figure called "Ardha Naareeswara". This figure is very unique and there is none like it in the world. It is a figure of Siva. The right half is the malehalf - i.e., Siva himself, and the left half of the figure is that of Uma Parvathi. The male and female characteristics blend so very imperceptibly in the centre, that you can't make out a dividing centre-line.

Hundreds of Cholza bronzes have been smuggled out of India and have found their way into the private museums of art-collectors. The Cholza bronze, Nataraja of Sivapuram attained immense fame for its price tag of 100 million dollars. What makes these Cholza bronzes so unique and so expensive in the art-market? The answer lies in the way in which they are made - the Art of Bronze-casting -

The Chola bronze is made through the lost-wax process. It is known in artistic terms as "Cire Perdure". The Sanskrit Shilpa texts call it the "Madhu Uchchishtta Vidhana".

Beeswax and kungilium are mixed with a little oil. It is kneaded well. From it, the necessary figure is made. All the minute details are fashioned into it. This is the wax model original.

The figure is made according to the Silpa Sastras. The dimensions, the proportions, the pose, the ornaments, the mudras and the bhavas are all followed very carefully.

The Dhyana Slokas pertaining to the particular deity as mentioned in the Silpa texts is kept constantly fixed in the mind. It is contemplated upon, so that the figure of the god fills the sculptor's entire mind. All this while his hands are fashioning the model. As such, technically speaking, this whole performance of making the model with single-minded attention and contemplation upon a particular deity, makes it a real Yoga.

Clay from a termite-hill is made into a paste and the entire figure is coated with it over and over again until the mould is of a necessary thickness. Then the whole thing is dried. After that the clay-mould with the wax-mould is baked over an oven with cow-dung cakes. The wax-model melts and flows out. Some of it vapourises. Now the clay-mould is empty and ready.

The metal alloy of bronze is melted and poured into the mould. This particular bronze alloy is known as "Pancha Lokam". It is wrongly thought that of containing gold. But it does not. When the metal has filled all crevices and has settled and hardened and cooled, the mould is broken off. The bronze figure is thus obtained. It is then cleaned, finer details are added, blemishes are removed, smoothened, and polished well. So, there will be only one specimen of that particular work done by that sculptor, and it cannot be moulded or copied. Since it is the only specimen available at all times, it is unique and expensive."

Dr.T.V.Mahalingam on Chola Bronzes in Tamil Art and Architecture

"....This account will not be complete without at least a brief sketch of the art of bronze casting for which the Tamil country was famous. Metal images have been cast throughout the centuries under the patronage of different dynasties in the north, south, east and west, but nowhere does it seem to have registered such an acme of development as it did under the Colas. A few Agamic texts and the contemporary practice among the sthapatis indicate two modes of casting icons - the hollow and the solid methods. The figure of a female, identified as Mother Goddess and discovered at Adichanallur is the oldest extant metal icon in the Tamil country. It is small in size and has been taken to be at least 3,000 years old. A few Buddhist metal icons discovered at Amaravati and Kaverippumpattinam and Buddhapad in Andhradesa and assignable to the early centuries of the Christian era reveal that the metallic art was already flourishing in South India.

These traditions of the early period in the realm of art were continued by the Pallavas who held hegemony over parts of the southern Andhradesa and the whole of the Tondaimandalam and even the region up to the Kaveri in the south. A few scholars tend to believe that the art of bronze casting was either unknown to the Pallavas or at least had not attained great heights under them and that for all practical purposes the history of the art of bronzes in Tamil Nad begins with the Colas.

Now it is difficult to wholly accept this, as we know for certain that this art was flourishing under the Satavahanas and Ikshvakus and hence the Pallavas might also have been aware of it. Considering the fact that under the early Colas the output of metal icons was prodigious in quantity and unparalleled in quality, it is difficult to assume that this art had developed to that extent within a short time after its introduction in the Tamil country.

Of particular interest in this connection is an inscription of a certain Abhimana Siddhi (who seems to be either a contemporary of or a ruler anterior to Dantivarman Pallavamalla) in the Vaikunthapperumal temple at Kanchipuram making reference to the gift of one thousand pon (gold) obviously for the making of a golden plate for offering bali and also for a padimam. The padimam here could only mean an image made out of the gifted gold and hence a metal icon.

Apart from some of the Pallava characteristics revealed by a few bronzes, this inscription would show that metal art was not unknown to the Pallavas. A Tripurantaka in a private collection now in Ahmedabad, a Vishapaharana from Kilappudanur in the Tanjore District, a Natarãja from Nallur in the same district are a few of the icons with obvious Pallava features and noted for graceful and simple modelling. A Maitreya from Melaiyur and a Visnu in the Trivandrum Museum may also be included in this list.

A large number of specimens belong to the period of transition from the Pallava to the Cola period and the first two or three decades of the Cola period. This is the period which witnessed the highest water mark in the art of bronze casting, and in the light of recent and penetrating studies it is possible to discern different phases in sequence in the development of the art.

The Visnu from Tiruchcherai, Chandikesvara from Tiruvenkadu, Kirata and Arjuna from Tiruvetkalam are the most representative of the flowering phase of the early Cola period. In modelling treatment they offer valuable links between earlier images and the clearly datable icons of the subsequent period. The skandhamala (shoulder tassel), which is not generally noticed in images of the Pallava period, is invariably seen in Cola bronzes. Similar and interesting changes are found in many ornaments and decorative devices, including armlets, udarabandha, necklaces, katistra, loops and tassels, etc. The shape of the yajñopavita, i.e. its running over the right arm, is continued in a few images but it ceases to be a dependable stylistic feature in the Cola period.

Stylistic characteristics, useful as they are for any chronological classification of images, are not always useful and at times even prove to be deceptive on account of the persistence of certain modes for quite a long time. It is in this connection that a few inscriptions prove to be useful, affording exact dates in which the icons were cast and endowed and thereby enabling one to study the features of dated bronzes and compare them with images with identical features to arrive at their probable dates. Quite a number of well-known and masterly examples of the Cola bronzes have now been dated with as much accuracy as possible.

Numerous are the inscriptions making mention of the dedication of bronze images to temples under successive rulers, but unfortunately not all of them have survived. Special mention must be made of the references to a host of deities in metal in the Tanjore inscriptions of Rajaraja of which none, with possibly the single exception of a Tripurantaka, is still extant. It is difficult to exaggerate the importance of a few dated bronzes, as they indicate art forms and norms of the periods of their making and show how stylistic features are not always wholly trustworthy.

Of the many superlative icons in the Umämahesvara temple at Konerirajapuram, Tanjore District, a Vrshabhavahana Tripurantaka and Ganapati are datable between 959 A.D. and 977 A.D. on the authority of an inscription in the same temple. The reference to gifts to an image of Kuttaperumal and his consort in the Vriddhagirisvara temple at Vriddhachalam by Sembiyan Mahädëvi in an inscription in that temple reveals that the now extant images of Natãraja and his consort there were made in or before 981 A.D.

Of the many bronzes unearthed at Tiruvenkädu in the Tanjore district a Vrshabhavähana was dedicated in 1011 A.D. and his consort in 1012 A.D. and the characteristics of these succinctly illustrate the bronze style during the last years of Rãjaräja I. An inscription of the same ruler dated in his 28th year refers to gifts to an image of Adavallãn (Natarãja) which may be a reference to either of the two figures of the god in the temple; obviously this was dedicated in 1013 A.D. Another epigraph speaks of the dedication of Bhikshatana in the 30th year of Rajadhiraja I corresponding to 1048 A.D. while yet another inscription reveals that an Ardhanãrisvara was endowed in or before 1047 A.D. That other undated Tiruvenkadu bronzes like the Bhairava and Kalyanasundara should also belong to about the same period is apparent. All these icons admirably reflect the heavy and stolid forms of contemporary stone sculpture.

Generally speaking, the bronze icons reflect the form and style of contemporary sculpture in stone. This is true also of iconography and decorative details. The Nataraja image which is rare in Pallava times (found only in the Siyamangalam cave, Dharmaraja ratha at Mahabalipuram, Kailasanatha, Muktisvara and Matangesvara temples at Kanchipuram) is frequently represented in the Cola period.

It is in the beginning of the early Cola period that the Anandatandava mode of dance gets crystallized and is shown alike in stone and metal. In the representation of this and other themes and in general execution and details, minor albeit interesting variations are found between the specimens wrought in the metropolitan art centres in the Cholamandalam and the products in the other peripheral regions like the Pandya and Kongu countries. The reversed posture of Nataraja in the Pandya realm, known as marukal tandavam, is particularly interesting.

The metal art was zealously patronised during the later Cola and Vijayanagar periods as well; but examples of these periods, like contemporary stone carvings, are devoid of life. They are much conventionalised and the dynamic and rhythmic movement characteristic of early examples is now replaced by mathematical schematism.

The Sensuous and the Sacred - Dr. Sharada Srinivasan

"... As a Bharata Natyam dancer and engineering graduate, I embarked on a doctoral thesis on the applications of archaeometallurgical investigations and techniques of scientific authentication in exploring metal technology, dates and find spots of images from southern India. Using micro-drilling techniques, I sampled about 130 metal icons from well known collections in India and abroad on which were done compositional and trace element analysis....

Out of this alchemy popped a surprise: scientific evidence suggested that the metal icon of the Nataraja dancing with leg extended in the dance pose of bhunjangatrasita karana, which was generally thought to have been specifically a 10th century Chola innovation, had already emerged by the Pallava period, when the magnificent shore temples of Mahabalipuram were built. The hymns of the Tamil Saiva saint Appar suggest that by the 7th century the worship of Nataraja might have emerged at Chidambaram, where the Nataraja metal image is uniquely worshipped in the innermost garbha instead of the lingam..." more

Exhibiting Chola Bronzes

"...Among the most renowned works of Indian sculptural art are the temple bronzes cast a thousand years ago during the Chola dynasty in the Tamil-speaking region of South India. Today, museum visitors encounter spot lit Chola sculptures within the hushed spaces of galleries. But in Chola times, the bronzes were consecrated as deities, adorned in silks, and encountered, amidst the chants and music of livelytemple processions, as gods. Richard Davis, in his seminal work, The Lives of Indian Images, first elucidated the dichotomous perceptions and practices surrounding the reception of Chola bronzes by devotional and museum audiences.."

Nataraja - the Dancing Siva...

The dance of Shiva in Chidambaram or Tillai forms the motif of the Chola bronzes of Nataraja.

"Our Lord is the Dancer, who, like the heat latent in firewood, diffuses His power in mind and matter, and makes them dance in their turn" - Kadavul Mamamunivar's Tiruvatavurar Puranam, stanza 75

"Creation arises from the drum: protection proceeds from the hand of hope: from fire proceeds destruction: the foot held aloft gives release." - Unmai Vilakam, verse 36

"The Supreme Intelligence dances in the soul... By these means, our Father scatters the darkness of illusion (maya), burns the thread of causality (karma), stamps down evil (anavam), showers Grace and lovingly plunges the soul in the ocean of Bliss." - Unmai Vilakam, verses 32,37, 39

In " The Tao of Physics", Fritjof Capra writes, "Indian artists of the tenth and twelfth centuries have represented Siva's cosmic dance in magnificent bronze sculptures of dancing figures with four arms whose superbly balanced and yet dynamic gestures express the rhythm and unity of life."

Nataraja Bronze
Gangaikonda Cholapuram,
11th century

Shiva Vrishabhavana and Parvati c.1012 Rajaraja Museum, Thanjavur

Shiva Nataraja 12th century, late Chola Delhi National Museum

Shiva Nataraja 11-12th Century, Chola Period, Government Museum, Chennai
Shiva Nataraja 11-12th Century, Chola Period Government Museum, Chennai

Chola Bronzes at Rajaraja Museum
(16 pages)

Shiva Nataraja Airakkal Mandapa, Meenakshi Temple, Madurai


There are 5 ambalams or sabhas where Nataraja performs the Cosmic Dance. Madurai is the Rajitha Sabha or VeLLi ambalam. Nataraja dances on his right foot. But following the wish of Rajasekara Pandya, he shifted to His left foot - 'kaal maaRi aadal' (courtesy: Dr.S. Jayabarathi, Malaysia)
Shiva Nataraja 15th Century Meenakshi Temple, Madurai
Shiva Nataraja, 11th Century, Raja Raja Museuem, Thanjavur
Shiva Nataraja, 11-12th Century, Chola Period, Government Museum, Chennai

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