The reign of the Chola empire was synonymous with artistic magnificence which still hypnotizes those who encounter it.
Manjushree is a Mechanical Engineer who decided to make a crossover to a serious study of Sanskrit and Indian culture. She has a post graduate degree in Sanskrit and is now working as a research scholar.
When the Actor beateth the drum,
Everybody cometh to see the show;
When the Actor collecteth the stage properties,
He abideth alone in His happiness.
I stood before the bronze image of Nataraja, the Cosmic Dancer, in Egmore Museum, in speechless wonder. Dated to 1000 C.E, this is the most perfect image of that Formless One, dancing in the full joy of creation. Nimbly posed on the back of a misshapen dwarf— a motion arrested for an instant in the midst of a dance— Nataraja holds a damaru in one hand, fire in another; the third hand is held in abhaya-mudra, and the fourth is thrown gracefully across the body in a gesture of gaja-hastha. The beats of his damaru breathes life into the lifeless, his fire will consume his creation in a moment, and as long as he dances, his creation is sustained. Verily, Nataraja’s dance is symbolic of his līla — the sport of life and death, of creation and dissolution — at once infinite and purposeless. And it is for this reason that he wears a beatific smile— for he smiles alike at death and at life, at pain and at joy. This is poetry; but none the less, science. Physicist Fritjof Capra wrote, “modern physics has shown that the rhythm of creation and destruction is not only manifest in the turn of the seasons and in the birth and death of all living creatures, but is also the very essence of inorganic matter… every subatomic particle not only performs an energy dance, but also is an energy dance; a pulsating process of creation and destruction…without end…For the modern physicist, then, Shiva’s dance is the dance of subatomic matter…”
This particular bronze belongs to the period of Raja Raja Chola (regal years 985-1014 CE). Between the ninth and the thirteenth century C.E, the Cholas were a dominant cultural and political force in south India. Before this, they were one amongst a number of powerful independent groups jockeying for position in southern India. Their rivals were principally the Pallavas, the Pandyas, the Cheras and, further to the north, the Chalukyas. Together, these groups vied with each other for control over the rich fertile flood plains of southern India, centered around the sacred river, Kaveri. Little is known about the early Cholas until the rise of Vijayalaya (848–871), who, taking advantage of a conflict between the Pallava and the Pandya, captured the town of Tanjavur where he established a royal court and founded the dynastic line of the Cholas. Tanjavur became the imperial Chola capital which was later moved to Gangaikondacholapuram. In time, the Chola monarchs controlled all of south India, extended their dominion into Sri Lanka and the nearby Maldive Islands, maintained regular contact with Java, and sent diplomatic missions to Myanmar (Burma), Malaysia, and China.
Enlightened patrons of the arts, the Cholas commissioned beautiful sculptures and majestic temples. During this golden age, the arts—music and dance, poetry and drama, architecture and sculpture—flourished. The bronze idols of this period, in particular, are amongst the most spectacular works of art ever created. Although bronze-casting was known to Indians before, the Cholas adopted and perfected this art — under their patronage, it reached a level of excellence unparalleled, and idols of exquisite artistry were created. These bronzes were made through a process called “cire-perdure”; the Sanskrit texts call it the “madhu-ucchiśţa vidhāna”, and the artisan who cast them was traditionally called sthapathi.
For the sthapathi, his art was sacred. Verily, all art has been considered sacred in India. It has been considered as a path for realization of the Ultimate Reality. In the beginning of Chitrasutra (Viśnudharmottara purāņa), which is the standard text for the Indian artist, it is stated that the “purpose of art is to show the grace that underlies all of creation, to help one on the path towards reintegration with That which pervades the universe.” So, it opens with King Vajra asking sage Markandeya, “How could one make a representation, in painting or image, of a supreme being who is devoid of form, smell and emotion, destitute of sound and touch?” To this, Markandeya explains,
“The entire universe should be understood as the modification (vikriti) of the formless (prakriti) .The worship and meditation of the supreme is possible for an ordinary being only when the formless is endowed with a form; and that form is full of significance.”
So, the artisan tried to see the material world around him as a manifestation of the Universal Spirit, and tried capture the intrinsic unity and harmony of the whole of creation. In E. B. Havell’s words, “Indian art, soaring into the highest empyrean, is ever trying to bring down to earth something of the beauty of the things above.”
Before setting out to make an idol, then, the sthapathi recited the admartha ślokas (found in the śilpaśāstras) and visualized in detail the image he wanted to make. Contemplating upon this image, he recited the dhyana ślokas pertaining to the deity to be carved, and kept his mind fixed on it while fashioning the model. With a wooden chisel, he made this image from his imagination using beeswax mixed with dammar (resin of the shal tree). Once complete, the wax model was hardened in cold water and encased in two-three layers of clay, and then allowed to dry for almost a month. After the stipulated time, the mould was placed in the fire — the beeswax melted off, and was drained out through specially positioned orifices. Molten bronze was then pored into the hollow clay mould, taking care that air-bubbles were not formed. Once the metal had cooled, the clay-mould was broken, and the image emerged in all its leaden beauty. Since the clay mould was destroyed each time, each piece was unique, and reflected the spiritual fervor of the sthapathi who made them. On an auspicious day, he carved the pupils of the eyes on the image, ritually opening the divine eyes. In The Village Craftsmen, Ananda Coomaraswamy narrates beautifully an account of the eye-painting ceremony:
“I give an account of the ceremony of painting the eyes of an image, as performed in Ceylon as illustrating a gorgeous and beautiful episode in the craftsman’s life, and showing him in the performance of priestly functions.
The ceremony, being the concluding episode in the construction or redecoration of a temple, often occupying several years, and an occasion graced by the presence of the patron of the work, in many cases the king himself, was an occasion of general rejoicing and festivity. Crowds of men and women from neighboring villages, dressed in white cloths, and bringing offerings of arecanut flowers, money, or other gifts to offer to the new image, or to the artists, found accommodation in temporary booths. In other booths were those who sold provisions. A bana maduva, or preaching hall, would be erected, and there would be much reading of sutras or Buddhist sermons. There would be abundance of white flags, music and dancing, gossip and edification.
Ceremonies began with the recitation of the Kosala Bimba Varnanava, a legend of the making of a sandal-wood image of Buddha in his own time. Upon this followed the elaborate placing of eighty earthen pots, with offerings to Brahma and Vishnu, and the erection of altars to the regents of the eight points of the compass, with suitable offerings. Altars were also erected for the guardians of the door, whose images in ivory or wood had already been set on the jambs of the door of the image house, and altar to the guardian of the site, the genius loci. These guardians of the temple are conceived of as pure and sweet natural powers, protectors of the shrine and the guardians of the spiritual atmosphere about it. Within the temple, an altar was erected to Gana Deviyo, and a rag figure prepared, afterwards to serve as a scapegoat to receive the first “glance” of the newly-painted eyes. All these arrangements were made by youths of the craftsmen’s caste, dressed as Brahmins. Another man, wearing a red dress, made the dressings, recited mantras, and circumambulated the temple sun-wise. Tom-tomming and other music was kept up continuously.
The final ceremony took place at 5 a.m. in memory of Buddha’s attainment of enlightenment at the same hour so long ago in Kosala. The eyes of the image were painted by the king himself, or, in his absence, by the foreman craftsman in royal costume. The painter, accompanied by a second man, also robed, but less elaborately, and both with veiled heads, entered the temple, all others standing aloof. The second man carried the brushes, black paint, and a mirror. The latter was held before the image to receive its “glance”. A white cloth was spread by the village washerman for the painters to walk on as they passed from door to image. While the painter put in the eyes, or, in some cases, separate sclerotics of crystal or other material were affixed, the second man recited Sanskrit charms, and held up the mirror. Immediately on its completion, the painter veiled his eyes, and thus blindfolded was led out and away to a vessel of water being prepared. Here, he purified himself by bathing his head, repeating the Indian formula of water consecration, “Hail, O ye Ganges, Godavari, Saraswati, Narmada, Sindhu, Kaveri, come and hallow this water”. Then the painter cut the water with his sword, and the vessel was shattered. The painting of the eyes was deemed to be so sacramental, so great a mystery, that such purifications were needed to ensure immunity from evil that might fall upon the presumptuous mortal thus establishing a link ‘twixt heaven and earth. Returning to the vihara, the doors were opened. By this time the grey dawn had passed into day, and the sun was up. The patron and the foreman stood together on the threshold facing the people. The craftsman, repeating Sanskrit charms, sprinkled the people with water. The patron and the people then made offerings to the temple and to the craftsmen. The offerings of money, cloths, etc, made during a certain number of days, were set apart as prerequisites of the craftsmen, in addition to the special remunerations already agreed upon, for in the case of important work, such as temple building, making of images, etc, payments in goods or money were agreed upon, in addition to the mere provision of sustenance during the progress of the work.
After such offerings, the people entered the temple to lay flowers on the altar and admire the paintings, with cries of Sadhu. After the festival had lasted several days, the people and craftsmen dispersed to their homes, the latter completing their purification by a spirit service— the only direct part in the proceedings taken by Buddhist priests. Throughout the rest of the ceremony all priestly offices had been performed by the craftsmen themselves, acting as Brahmin priests. The whole ceremony, though, here described in Ceylon, is essentially Hindu in character, and is typical of the sacerdotal functions of the Kammalar craftsmen.”
Once this ceremony was performed, the image ceased to be the sthapati’s creation— it became as much a God to him as it was to the devotee.
The bronze idols of the Chola period were used as utsav-mūrthis or festival-images. The temples held one major festival each month and a corresponding set of bronze images were brought out to the streets during this time—the deities left their sanctum to be amidst the devotees. For example, the image of Kŗñna as a child was brought out to celebrate his birthday, the bronze Nataraja was carried to a seaside festival, the idols of poet-seers like Kannapa were taken out during bhaktotsavās, etc. Each monthly festival lasted anywhere from three to ten days. The richly adorned bronzes were placed in palanquins or elaborate wooden chariots and taken in procession with great pomp and splendor. A poet-saint describes one such festival-
The Lord of Citticcaram shrine in Naraiyur,
who has the river in his hair,
the poison in his throat,
and the Veda on his tongue,
goes resplendent in ceremonial dress,
as his devotees and perfected sages
sing, and dance his widespread fame,
and the sound of festival drums
beaten on the streets where the temple-car is pulled
spreads on every side.
- Saint Sambandar
Specific images were also used for less elaborate daily and weekly festivals. For instance, some bronzes were brought out for a daily inspection of the temple premises or were placed on a swing to enjoy the breeze and listen to a weekly concert.
Earlier, the large stone deities of the temples were taken out on processions during major festivals, but this was a cumbersome endeavor. Because of this, smaller bronze idols began to be cast in south India in the late 8th century C.E. The art seems to have begun in the court of the Pallavas of Kanchipuram, but it was brought to perfection under the Chola kings. Among those on display now at the Government Museum, Chennai, are Nataraja, family of Rama, Ardhanārīśwara, Balakŗşna, Narasimha, Uma, Ganeśa, seated Buddha, Kŗşna with Satyabhāma and Rādha, a few poet-seers like Kannapa, Sambandar etc. These images have a great depth and a transcendental sense of completeness: a sense of the deepest absorption in the harmony of existence. We feel in these images something far greater than excellence of craftsmanship, warmth of line, harmony of composition — we feel that here is a sincere work of art not because of these fine superficialities, but for the spiritual feeling that lies latent in it. In the Indian philosophy of aesthetics, it is believed that the ecstasy on seeing the finest art is akin to the joy of Salvation itself— for in that moment, one is transported to a different plane, and ‘sees’ the unity of the whole of creation. The Indian philosophy of aesthetics holds that each time this transport occurs, it leaves one a little richer and more capable of experiencing it again— one is on a path towards awareness of that which is eternal within one.
“yat vai tat sukham raso vai sah, rasam hyevāyam labdhwānandī bhavati.”
“That One who is Self-made is verily the Joy. Having attained this joy, man becomes blessed.”