by Hugo Weihe and Tristan Bruck
Medieval Bronze Masterpieces of the North and South
The sculptural legacy of India is vast and expansive, stretching far back in to antiquity across the whole of the subcontinent; indeed, modern sculptors today carry on the tradition, working in stone and bronze in places like Mahabalipuram and Nagapattinam. The difficult process of bronze casting, however, reaches its zenith in India during the medieval period; this article discusses the some of the masterpieces in bronze from the Pala and Chola periods.
Rising out of the chaos of the Post-Gupta period, the Pala dynasty of kings grew from a small regional power in to the dominant rulers of all of northern India, bringing peace to the subcontinent and providing a stable setting for the development of new forms of indigenous religion. According to legend, the collective chieftains of Bengal, fed up with frequent invasions caused by political uncertainty, elected a local warrior as king. Gopala, the first in the line of Pala rulers, brought stability to the region; it was his grandson Devapala, however, that bequeathed an empire. By the time of Devapala’s death in 850 CE, the Pala domains stretched from Eastern India across the Gangetic plains up to Kashmir and Pakistan, and south into the modern states of Orissa, Andhra Pradesh, Maharashtra, and parts of Tamil Nadu. Despite some setbacks and temporary losses of territory, the Pala Empire thrived for the better part of the next three centuries until its collapse in the middle of the 12th century.
The Pala kings embraced the Buddhist religion, despite the resurgence of the Hindu faiths, and as good Buddhists, felt compelled to support the local religious institutions. Within their lands were the great Buddhist universities at Nalanda and Vikramshila, and these centres of learning thrived during the Pala period thanks to the royal protection and munificence. Buddhist scholars from across Asia flocked to Bihar and Bengal to study at these institutions and to worship at the site of Bodhgaya, where the Buddha had attained enlightenment; the influx of learned minds helped to foment fervent discussion of the faith, and a new form of tantric Buddhism, Vajrayana, was developed. Vajrayana Buddhism forms the basis for much of the Buddhism practiced in the Himalayas and East Asia.
The earliest Pala Buddhist bronzes, however, continued in the tradition of the Gupta sculptural style, especially that which developed around Sarnath in the 4th through 6th centuries. The influence of the Gupta style on the early Pala sculptors is no doubt due to the legacy of that previous power: Bihar and Bengal were wholly encompassed in the Gupta Empire. However, like Bodhgaya, Sarnath was an important Buddhist centre, being the site of the Buddha’s first sermon, and it is likely the Pala sculptors looked to that sculptural tradition due to its religious importance. The Sarnath and early Pala styles, as evidenced in an enormous and exquisite 7th/8th century bronze figure of Buddha now in the Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery, are marked by the lithe form of the Buddha’s body, fully visible beneath the cascading folds of his long diaphanous robes. The soft, slightly exaggerated proportions and lack of ornamentation exude a graceful sense of simplicity. The focus on the basic form, however, does not imply a lack of skill on the part of the sculptors; intricate bronzes were crafted in contrast to the large simplified works. A jewel-like Buddhist altarpiece now at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art is among the most complex Indian bronzes ever created, cast in several parts and fit together to create a wonderfully ornate work of art.
The lithe and attenuated form of the early Pala sculptures only becomes more pronounced with time, as evidenced in the 12th century gilt copper figure of Padmapani in the Patna Museum, an exquisite masterpiece of the Pala period. The supple form of the bodhisattva sits languidly on a lotus base, with the same enchantment in cascading drapery folds found in the earlier bronze. However, the refined simplicity of the Post-Gupta bronze has been replaced by an extreme attention to detail and delight in ornamentation. The figure is covered in heavy gilding, richly adorned with jewellery inset with semi-precious hard stones, and the eyes and necklaces are inlaid with silver, a difficult metalwork practice mastered by the later Pala sculptors. Iconographically, the Post-Gupta focus on the historical Buddha has by the late Pala period been replaced by an interest in the myriad of bodhisattvas and tantric deities of the Vajrayana Buddhist tradition; take, for example, a bronze figure of Samvara sold at Christie’s New York, with his ten arms, three faces, and ferocious expression. In contrast to the large size of the gilt Padmapani, this work stands just under six inches high, and was likely crafted in a smaller size to satiate the demand for portable images from the large pilgrim population.
Contemporaneous to the power of the Pala dynasty in the north was the mighty Chola Empire of South India. Although the history of the Cholas extends far back in to antiquity when they were active trade partners with the Roman Empire, they spent nearly half of a millennium in the shadow of their rivals in the South, the Pallavas and Pandyas. That changed, however, in 848 CE when Vijayalaya Chola shook of the Pallava yoke and established a new dynasty of Chola kings. By the reign of Rajaraja I in the late 10th century, the Cholas controlled much of southern India and the islands of Sri Lanka and the Maldives, and their presence was felt in parts of north India and as far away as the maritime empire of Srivijaya in Indonesia and Thailand, the Tang and Song courts in China, and the Abbasid Caliphate in Baghdad.
Like the Palas, the Chola kings were great patrons of the arts. In contrast to the state-propagated Buddhism of the Pala Empire, the Cholas were followers of the Hindu god Shiva, and although Buddhism and other forms of Hinduism were accepted in their territories, the vast wealth of the Cholas was devoted to honouring the Lord. The Chola kings continued the legacy of the Pallavas in constructing grand free-standing temples in stone to serve as houses for the god, and most impressive of these was the Brihadeeswarar in Thanjavur. Commissioned during the reign of Rajaraja I and completed in 1010, the temple stands 66 meters at its highest point and was the tallest building in India when it was finished. Every surface of the main shrine is covered with elaborately carved figures, and much of it was originally painted. Originally, the temple had a staff of over a thousand people, including priests, craftsmen, clerks, dancers, and musicians, and the agricultural output of several towns and villages was entirely devoted to the upkeep of the temple.
The temples were but a shell, however, for the images inside of them. In Hindu worship, the image of the deity is a vessel which, when placed in the temple, is inhabited by the presence of the lord. In Shaivism, the Lord is worshipped in the non-anthropomorphic form of the lingam, a column over which libations are poured, and anthropomorphic forms of the deity himself; the latter were crafted and perfected in bronze under the patronage of the Cholas. While the lord Shiva was depicted in many forms, such as the ascetic Bhikshatana or the teacher Dakshinamurti, perhaps the most innovative form developed under the Cholas was the Shiva Nataraja, or the Lord of Dance. In this form, Shiva assumes a dancing pose, keeping the beat of the music with a small drum, while he raises an aureole of fire around him to destroy the world and prepare it for rebirth. The Chola craftsmen who were tasked with representing this powerful form elegantly presented him balancing on one foot with the other knee drawn to his naval and with his many arms arrayed around him in graceful gestures. The dreadlocks of his matted hair have come loose from dance, and they are magnificently outstretched and attached to the flaming aureole around him. The dynamic composition of the image and the sensuous quality of the bronze itself belies the destructive nature of this form of Shiva. A large bronze figure of Hanuman currently at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, however, demonstrates that Chola sculptors were not strict Shaivites, here depicting a popular Vaishnavite Ramayana character.
Perhaps the most powerful bronze image from the Chola period is of an altogether simpler form of Shiva. Unearthed in the small village of Thiruvengadu in 1951 and housed in the Thanjavur Art Gallery, an image of Shiva as Rishabhavahana Devar (Reclining on the Bull) must surely be regarded as the finest of the Chola sculptures and a one of the world’s great masterpieces in bronze. Dated from a temple inscription to the year 1012, only two years after the completion of the Brihadeeswarar, the bronze was a votive gift from a private individual. Shiva is shown standing with ankles crossed, his right hand raised to rest on the back of his bull, Nandi. The locks of his hair, traditionally shown in a matted pile on the top of his head, are here depicted coiled in the form of a turban. The face, with full lips, straight nose, and elongated and downcast eyes, is the picture of serenity. The body, with the attenuated legs and narrow waist, mixes naturalism with the slightly exaggerated Chola ideal of the human form. Another bronze unearthed in the same hoard depicts the marriage of Shiva and Parvati: Vishnu presents his sister to Shiva, and the newlyweds grasp hands. Technically, the fusing together of two large bronze figures at the wrist presents the sculptor with an extremely difficult challenge, and demonstrates the mastery of the Chola bronze casters.
While the Palas and Cholas chose to devote their wealth to propagating different faiths, both had a lasting influence on the art of India and that of the world. The Pala style of sculpture travelled with pilgrims across the trade routes to affect the artistic traditions of the Himalayas and East Asia. Similarly, the Hindu sculptural forms realized in the Chola period in the South certainly influenced the artistic traditions of all of Southeast Asia. The medieval sculpture of India, therefore, can be said to have had a global reach, influencing the religious and stylistic legacy of cultures far beyond the shores of the Indian subcontinent, across time and space.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Dr. Hugo Weihe is a key member of the business getting team for Asian art and responsible for the Indian and Southeast Asian art department in New York. He received a Ph.D. in art history from the University of Zürich.
Tristan Bruck is a Specialist in Indian and Southeast Asian Art at Christie’s New York. Prior to joining Christies, he worked at The Pace Gallery, a blue-chip contemporary gallery in New York. Mr. Bruck holds a Bachelor’s degree in Art History from Wesleyan University and furthered his studies at the School of Oriental and African Studies in London. He holds a Master’s degree in Modern Art, Connoisseurship, and History of the Art Market from Christie’s Education in New York.