At a time when the Notre Dame and the Cathedral at Pisa were yet to be constructed, Southern India, ruled by the Chola dynasty, produced great works of sacred art. The bronzes from the era are now housed—as symbols of human creativity at its best—in the museums such as the Cleveland Museum of Art and the Asia Society Museum in New York.
Some fifteen thousand bronzes dating back to the period between 9th and 13th centuries when the Chola dynasty ruled over Southern India (today’s Indian province of Tamil Nadu) are widely considered to be the peak of South Asian art. They are also an enigma. These idols of the Hindu gods, predominantly of God Shiva and his consort Uma, have no parallels with images originating from the rest of India. What is even more interesting is that copper, the basic raw material used, is not readily available in the area. In her study The Thief Who Stole My Heart: The Material Life of Sacred Bronzes from Chola India, 855-1280, renowned art historian Vidya Dehejia approaches these bronzes from socio-political, economic, literary, and religious angles to deal with the various mysteries associated with them.
One mystery is that of the way they look: the unprecedented, intense focus on the physical beauty of the gods, especially of Shiva. Dehejia argues that a little before the Cholas came to power, local saint-devotees such as Sambandar reimagined Shiva as a god belonging to the regional landscape as opposed to the Himalayas in the north where Hindu mythology has him live. Sambandar, whom Dehejia invokes in the title of her book, says:
He wears a woman’s earring on one ear;
riding on his bull,
crowned with the pure white crescent moon
his body smeared with ash from the burning ground,
he is the thief who stole my heart …
Shiva is described in terms of irresistible beauty. Another seventh-century poet, Appar, says:
Listen, my friend
yesterday in broad daylight
I’m sure I saw that Holy One.
As he gazed at me, my garments slipped
I stood entranced.
I brought him alms
But nowhere did I see that Cunning One –
If I see him again
I shall press my body against his body
Never let him go
That wanderer who lives in Ottriyur.
This poetry created a change in the popular imagination of Shiva. The artists too began to portray Shiva sensuously. Dehejia writes that the bronzes from the artists show physical beauty to indicate moral perfection:
India visualizes its divinities as youthful, captivating beings whose bodily beauty is a pointer to their spiritual grandeur; it is an ethos in which physical beauty is viewed as an invariable accompaniment of divine spiritual glory.
Shiva appears in different exquisite forms such as Shiva as Victor of Three Forts, Shiva Taking Uma’s Hand in Marriage, and Dancing Shiva. However, this concern for physical beauty and perfection manifested in representations of all gods including Vishnu and the Buddha:
Workshops with wax modelers and bronze founders worked for a range of patrons, using the same aesthetic standards and similar details of hairdo, clothing, and ornamentation, regardless of whether the bronze was created for a Shaiva, Vaishnava, or Buddhist patron. Artists adjusted their work to reflect required iconographic prerequisites, but the standards of beauty remained the same.
Thanks to the maritime network of the Tamil merchants, this style seems to have spread to other regions, for temples in Sri Lanka show similar images of Shiva. A 13th-century Chola-style Shiva temple built in Quanzhou in south China had stone pieces based on images from one of the royal temples of the Chola era. Some of these pieces are now in the Kaiyuan Buddhist temple while some are kept in Quanzhou Maritime Museum.
Another mystery is that of the source of copper for these bronzes. Bronzes from the rest of the world are hollow pieces. However, Chola bronzes are heavy pieces of solid metal that would have consumed a total of at least 153 tonnes of copper in the making over the four and a half centuries. Dehejia suggests that this copper must have come from Sri Lanka, a region that was of great interest to the Chola kings. It was a source of copper and also of pearls that were used in the making of ornaments for the gods. To the Cholas, Sri Lanka was also strategically located in terms of ports connecting the trade route from Aden to China.
Dehejia has studied a wide range of images deeply. She has found two styles of imagery at work. She finds images from “Coastal workshop” style to be slender, sinuous, and tall with oval faces and those from “Capital workshop” style to be compact and broad with squarish faces. Her eye for such details yields many lessons in looking at the objects as well as Chola times very closely. These were times when the idea of divine beauty underwent a transformation alongside a transformation in the idea of worship and divinity. Prior to the 9th century, the idols tended to be made of wood and were meant to be worshipped in the sanctum sanctorum of the temples. However, gradually, Shiva became a god who needed to be taken around in processions outside the temple. Numerous rituals required the idols to be taken around in the city.
Tamil India came up with an innovative concept that resulted in a novel visualization of its deities. Like royalty, or like the pope for that matter, the deities were visualized as giving audience, inspecting the temple premises, celebrating birthdays and wedding anniversaries, and setting out on festival processions to the beach, riverfront, or a coconut grove. Homage continued to be paid to the sanctum image, the original or core image known as mula vigraha or root-image. But now portable deities, originally created of wood, became crucial to Tamil worship; these perishable portable images were supplanted during the Chola period by more permanent metal images.
Dehejia’s 360-degree approach to the material objects is a lesson in how to conduct a historical study in general. Perhaps the greatest take away from the book has got nothing to do with the bronzes per se but a new way of looking at the way Indians have been maintaining historical records:
Scholarship on India has often regretted India’s lack of a sense of history, complaining that there were no chroniclers who kept track of events, and that it was only with the coming of Islam that historical archives came into existence in India… In Tamil Nadu, starting around the year 850 when the Cholas appeared on the scene, inscriptions of local import, historical and otherwise, began to appear in large numbers on the walls of every single temple in the Kaveri delta. Approximately 13,000 inscriptions are to be found on the walls of temples constructed during the period of Chola rule… These inscribed temple records provide us with a treasure trove of material that sheds light on multiple aspects of the times from sociopolitical circumstances, through the economics of agriculture, irrigation, and trade, to the religious milieu within which the temples functioned and, incidentally, to temples and bronzes.
Who knows what else one can find if such treasures are really paid attention to? The Thief Who Stole My Heart is a great contribution to social history as well as art history.