Early Chola Temples

by S. R. Balasubrahmanyam | 1960 | 105,501 words

This volume of Chola Temples covers Parantaka I to Rajaraja I in the timeframe A.D. 907-985. The Cholas of Southern India left a remarkable stamp in the history of Indian architecture and sculpture. Besides that, the Chola dynasty was a successful ruling dynasty even conquering overseas regions....

Part II, Bronzes


In ancient India, metallic images were made of gold, silver, copper, brass and alloys, and western scholars have used the term bronzes as a blanket description of the whole class. Metal-casting in India goes back to remote antiquity. It is an epic in itself. However, we have to admit that there were alternate periods of growth and decline but its continuity throughout the historical period is well attested.

So it is not possible to agree with the extreme view that

“the classical movement in bronze and stone sculpture, the period of most original achievement lasted little more than a century and a half from about a.d. 850 to the early decades of the eleventh century a.d.” (Barrett, ECB, Preface p. vii).

The bronze of the dancer found at Mohenjo Daro (b.c. 3000-2500), the figure of the Mother-goddess (about b.c. 1000) found at Adichanallur in the Tiru-nelveli district in the extreme south of India, the Buddhist icons found at Buddhapad near Guntur, the Hindu and Buddhist images discovered at Nagaijuna-konda, the Melaiyur Maitreya (Madras Government Museum), the Vishapaharana of Kilappudanur and the Tiruvalangadu Somaskanda maintain the continuity of the tradition in metal casting, though there may be some gaps or missing links.

F.H. Gravely and T.N. Ramachandran declared long ago (1932) that “no Hindu metal image is known that can definitely be proved to be Pallava”(page 25, Madras Museum Catalogue); and Douglas Barrett declares (ECB, 1965) that he would be inclined in general to support the views put forward by the authors of the Catalogue “that no known bronze has a clear and unequivocal claim to a Pallava date and provenance”. However, it may be added that Ramachandran himself is inclined to revise his earlier view; as will be evident from his review of South Indian Bronzes by Sivara-mamurti in the Marg (Vol. XVII No. 1-July 1964).

He writes:—

“Noteworthy are the efforts of the author (C.S.) to prove the existence of Pallava bronzes though it would be difficult to give them as early a date as a.d. 600-800” and adds “What Sivaramamurti calls Pallava were characterised by the earlier writers as those stylistically falling in the transition period when the Pallavas were receding and early Chola was appearing.”

He admits that this revision is called for, as much new material and literature have come to light since 1932. We welcome this open-minded approach. We have at the same time to admit that there is so far no dated bronze of the Pallava period, and the distinction between later Pallava and early Chola is difficult to establish on the basis of scientific evidence.

Chakra and Sanka

A false step of the authors of the Catalogue was the absolute acceptance of the tentative conclusions of G.J. Dubreuil (in his Archaeology of Indian Iconography—Catalogue pp. 22-23) regarding the dating of sculptures based on the evolution of Vishnu’s Chakra and Sanka. No doubt, the form, the mode of holding them and their decorations are true up to a point in respect of certain images at a particular point of time, but it is its generalization that has caused the difficulty and confusion.

The Vishnu images attributed to the 8th-9th centuries a.d. (C.S. Pis. 10 a and b, 11 a and 11 c—South Indian Bronzes) have the flames on their chakra and sanka in such a variety of forms and positions that they defy the conclusions of Dubreuil blindly followed by the authors of the Catalogue.

The images of Vishnu and Vaishnavi of the temple of Virattanesvaram at Tiruttani have flames in both chakra and sanka (in the form of an inverted comma) whereas Dubreuil introduces flames to these weapons only in the 10th century a.d.

In respect of Vishnu and Durga of the temple at Gramam built in the days of Parantaka I, Barrett admits that the chakra carried by Vishnu is edge-on to the spectator, and Durga’s is half turned to the spectator (ECB, p. 6).

While the authors of the Catalogue correctly recognized that “there is nothing to show whether any particular stage in the development can be recognized as characteristic of any particular period”, still they classified the bronzes of the Madras Museum on these conclusions of Dubreuil. They state (p. 25, Catalogue): “In the Pallava period from about 600 to 800 a.d., these (conch and discus) are held between the thumb and forefinger of the closed hand and are without flames or other decorations. During the 9th century they came to be held between the raised first and second fingers, but are still undecorated. In the 10th century, flames first appear. Upto this time, the discus is held with one of its flat faces turned towards Vishnu, but by the 13th century, it is held obliquely and by the 15th with its edge towards Vishnu.”


The yajnopavita passing over the right forearm of an image was considered a distinct Pallava feature. There are Pallava sculptures of the 7th-8th century without this feature. On the other hand, there are three Chola sculptures of the tenth century which have this feature, namely Dakshinamurti of Erumbur (a.d. 935) andChandesvara of Tiruvaduturai (a.d. 932) and of Punjai (a.d. 955-960). So this cannot be a distinctive feature to fix the age of a sculpture.

In recent years great progess in the dating of bronzes has no doubt taken place, thanks to the discovery and study of dated and datable bronzes. Nevertheless, there is great disparity in dating even among experts. The images of Yenugopal and his consorts from Chima-kurti are ascribed to the 10th-11th century by Siva-ramamurti (SIB, PI. 4-a), to the 11th—12th century by N. Ramesan (Lalit Kala No. 13) and to a.d. 1600 by P.R. Srinivasan (BSI, Fig. 279).

Let us take another example. Parvati of Tiruvelvik-kudi (SIB, Fig. 80-a) is ascribed to the 16th century perhaps because of the folds in the abdomen. This figure may be compared with Parvati of the Haridas Swali collection (SIB, Fig. 68-a) which is described as Late Chola (12th century a.d.). These two may be compared with Nataraja’s consort from Peruntottam (ECB, PI. 29).

Maitreya of Melaiyur of the Madras Museum is yet another case in point. It is assigned to the 8th-9th century by Sivaramamurti (SIB, Figs. 12 b and c) while Barrett would place it in the middle of the 10th century a.d. (ECB, p.42).

Hence it seems to me that there is much weight and wisdom in the shrewd observations of Hadaway:—

“It is not a simple matter to compare the metal with the stone images of known date and to deduce from similarities of treatment, details of ornament etc, a corresponding similarity in age. It requires not only much intuitive artistic insight, but also what is extremely rare, a thorough knowledge both of stone working and metal working, and the difference in technique of the two, combined in a single individual. Certainly no one who has yet written on this subject has possessed this unique combination of knowledge.... It becomes evident that details of ornamental treatment are by no means a safe guide to age, and we may find images of modem times with all the characteristics of work of the 10th century or earlier, in either stone or metal. It is a common mistake among modern critics to rely to the extent they do on superficial similarities of treatment or detail. One can find occasionally modern work in the spirit of the old, and conversely, old work which might have been executed quite recently.... I do not hesitate to say that there have been no authentic data brought forward, by which one could date one of these images with accuracy. Hitherto, the dating of the South Indian images has been fancy or speculation which could be considered in no other light than as guess-work, pure and simple.” (p. 21—Madras Museum Catalogue; Rupam—1922 pp. 59-61).

It is therefore imperative that modern scholars exercise greater care and attention to this problem, and be less dogmatic in their approach. It is gratifying that such an attitude is already in evidence.

We have had recently three standard books on South Indian Bronzes from three scholars viz. (1) South Indian Bronzes by C. Sivaramamurti, Lalit Kala Academy, New Delhi, 1963, (2) Bronzes of South India by P.R. Srinivasan, a Bulletin of the Madras Government Museum, 1963 and (3) Early Cola Bronzes by Douglas Barrett, Bhulabhai Memorial Institute, Bombay, 1965. Each is complementary to the other.[1] After this exhaustive treatment, I shall rest satisfied with merely grouping the bronzes, the most typical of them, in a series, set in a chronological order.

Footnotes and references:


(1) A critical review of the three publications under the title of‘The chronology of South Indian Bronzes’ by Karl Kandalavala is published in Lalit Kala No. 14. (2) The view expressed by N.N. Ray in the section on Art in Volume V, Struggle for Empire, in the series ‘History and Culture of the Indian People’ (p. 672) needs considerable revision.

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