Chola Bronze Sculptures
A body of bronze-cast sculptures made through the tenth to thirteenth centuries in southern India, Chola bronzes are especially known for depictions of Shiva as the Lord of Dance, Nataraja.
Though most frequently associated with the Chola Dynasty, bronze sculptures were commissioned by a variety of patrons through this period. Most bronzes were produced as part of iconographic sets, usually a group including a male deity and his consort and attendants in hierarchical scale. The iconography of these sculptures align closely with contemporary depictions in stone as well as specifications laid out in the textual tradition. The bodies are lithe and firm and arranged in frontal poses, sculpted with ornaments and sinuous folds suggesting clothing. Most bronzes were made using lost-wax casting. Additional costumes, jewellery, and accessories were used to adorn them once they began to be actively worshipped.
The production of bronzes in early mediaeval Tamil Nadu was linked with political and religious developments. The second half of the tenth century CE saw the emergence of the Cholas as a major power in the region, and many early Chola monarchs and family members patronised existing shrines such as that at Chidambaram, associated with a dancing form of Shiva. The resulting prominence of Chidambaram then led to the production of a number of Nataraja images: one of the most common depictions of Shiva from this period was of the god in ananda tandava (the dance of bliss), with his left leg thrust across his body. Another popular figure was of Shiva performing the nadanta (dance of destruction), in the same posture but grasping a damaru drum, dancing upon a vanquished dwarf, and wearing a snake around his neck. The god was also frequently depicted as Dakshinamurti and Tripuravijaya, as well as in groups with Parvati and their son Skanda, such as the Kalyanasundaramurti or Somaskanda. Bronze imagery of the period also includes depictions of Krishna, especially as a young boy dancing on the head of the serpent-king Kaliya, as well as Shaivite saints such as Karaikkal Ammaiyar and Manikkavacakar.
Bronzes also grew to become a crucial aspect of temple worship as a result of evolving ideas of the role of the enshrined god. While the deity of the temple was initially believed to be resting within the garbhagriha, from the eleventh century onwards, they came to be seen as a corollary of the monarch. Thus, among the roles played by the deity were giving audiences to their devotees, inspecting the temple, participating in festivities celebrating their birth and marriage anniversaries, and undertaking processions and parades. As deities became an active part of socio-religious life, these portable bronze representations became a stand-in for the immovable images in the garbhagriha.
As of writing, artisans in Tamil Nadu continue to produce bronze sculptures in a tradition descended from that of the early mediaeval period, and bronzes continue to be extensively used in temple processions in the region.
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