Pala Bronze Sculptures
Depicting figures from Buddhist and Hindu mythology, the Pala bronze sculptures were cast in alloys of bronze or brass during the reign of the Pala Dynasty in present-day eastern India, between the eighth and twelfth centuries CE. The style shows continuities with earlier methods and iconographies, especially those made with Gupta patronage, but it also innovated more slender, ornamented and polished forms. Usually smaller in size than the stone sculptures that were also found at various sites occupied by the Pala Dynasty, it is speculated that the bronze sculptures were usually intended to be carried home for personal worship after manufacture. While the Pala Dynasty was spread over the modern-day Indian states of Bihar, West Bengal and parts of Bangladesh, important sites of excavation include Nalanda, Kurkihar and Paharpur. Since the Pala Dynasty had extensive trade relations (as well as faith exchanges) with Southeast Asian states, similar styles of sculpture have been recovered as far away as Thailand and Java, in modern-day Indonesia.
The bronze sculptures — usually cast in one piece, although there are exceptions — were made using the lost-wax process, as described in the shilpa-sastras. Some of the smaller sculptures were made solid, instead of being hollowed-out. The alloy that was used is traditionally called the ashta-dhatu (Octo-alloy); it included a mixture of metals such as copper, lead and tin with antimony, zinc and iron in some cases. Some bronze statues bear inscriptions in the name of Devapala, one of the Pala kings, who would have patronised the artisans. Apart from the South East Asian states, the Pala style also spread to the areas of Nepal and Tibet.
Aside from the various forms of the Buddha and its avatars, typical figures included Hindu deities like Vishnu, Shiva and Parvati (and her avatars). Female figures also included feminine counterparts of the Buddha, such as Tara and Prajnaparamita. A twelfth-century figurine, about 12.4 cm in height, now lodged at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, shows the delicate form of Tara, making a dharmachakra mudra with her hands. The same museum holds another Buddha figure from the same style, dated to the tenth or eleventh century CE, which shows more intricate inlays of silver, lapis lazuli and rock crystal. The silver was employed to highlight the crown, necklace, eyes and forehead dot. The stepped throne seating the Buddha and the elaborate flame-tipped, oval-aureole at the back bears the lapis lazuli and rock crystal embeds. A statue of Vishnu, recovered from modern-day Bangladesh, also carries the ornate, flaming halo at the back.
A Pala bronze sculpture held in New Delhi’s National Museum depicts the episode of the Buddha’s birth in Lumbivana. Maya retired into these woods and delivered the child as she held onto the branches of the sal tree. These figures are represented along with that of Indra, shown receiving the newborn child. The Maitreya form of the Buddha has also been recovered, showing fine silver and copper inlaying, the latter of which can be seen in the reddish hues of the lips. This sculpture, showing the Maitreya seated in the rajalilasana pose, stands at 12 cm.
The National Museum in New Delhi also holds a Shiva-Parvati bronze sculpture, flanked by Kartikeya and Ganesha, carrying the oval-aureole frame at the back, and a layered seating area where Nandi and Parvati’s lion is shown lying at their preceptors’ feet. The same museum holds what is described to be the most elaborate metal votive stupa recovered from India, with parasol rings on top and depicting eight episodes from the life of Buddha. Another notable Hindu divinity depicted is Surya, standing with attendants in one instance and sitting cross-legged in another.
Other institutions housing Pala bronze sculptures include the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Los Angeles County Museum of Art and the Philadelphia Museum of Art.
Our website is currently undergoing maintenance and re-design, due to which we have had to take down some of our bibliographies. While these will be re-published shortly, you can request references for specific articles by writing to firstname.lastname@example.org.