“It is Nataraja, Shiva as Lord of the Dance, that is the ultimate Chola icon, " historian William Dalrymple writes in a piece on Chola bronzes. No other statement could have been truer. Full of ethereal vigor, power, and beauty, Nataraja has become synonymous with the age-old tradition of Panchaloha icons, produced in the grand temple towns of Tamil Nadu. The beginning of Shaivism (Shiva’s cult) can be traced back to the earliest human cultures on earth, the Indus Valley Civilization, but Shiva undoubtedly descended with his heavenly greatness, only in the iconography of the Cholas, in whose ambitious imperial projects- the grand temple structures, Shiva can be found in his innumerable forms, each one more mystically enchanting than the other.
The makers of the Tamil bronzes, the Sthapatis who draw their descent from Vishwakarma (heaven’s craftsman) are renowned to sculpt each icon uniquely, after painstakingly understanding the characteristics of each form of the divine through their description from theological traditions of the Agamas and Puranas, as well as the rich writings of the Nayanars- Tamil Shaivite saints, whose devotional poems create magnificent imagery of the lord of Chidambaram- “the atmosphere of wisdom”. It is the spiritual lyrics of the Tevaram (compilation of Nayanar hymns) that manifest themselves in the numerous bronzes, known as “Lila Murtis” – images of the god indulged in playful activities.
The Lila-murtis can be divided into five categories- a) Anugraha-murti, where Shiva is benevolent, b) Samhara-murti, where Shiva slays various demons, c) Bhikshatana- murti, where Shiva is a wandering ascetic, d) Nritta-murti, where he is engrossed in his cosmic dance, and, e) Maheshamurti- representing a three or five-headed Shiva. Out of these, the first four categories seem to be the favorites of the Shilpis (craftsmen), whose skilled hands gave the most spellbinding forms to Shiva, who in all his roopas is the personification of the primordial sound “Aum”.
These Lila-murtis of Lord Shiva for the ease of understanding can be clubbed into three broad categories, based on the roles that the great god, “Mahadeva” takes- the Ascetic (Yogi), Householder (with Parvati and his divine family), and Destroyer (Sanharkarta).
Shiva, the Ascetic
Shiva is the supreme consciousness, the master of Yoga- “Yogeshwara”, he is the source of “Satta (truth) Chitta (consciousness) Ananda (joy)”- the divine joy of being aware of the ultimate truth. As the ultimate ascetic, he can be seen in a number of captivating bronze sculptures showing him in meditation.
Pashupati or lord of the animals- who liberates the animal (soul) caught in the cycle of birth and death is one of the earliest names used to highlight the elemental powers of Shiva. He is four-armed, standing, with an antelope in one of his hands, an animal associated with him in the ancient myths.
Shiva’s role as the supreme guru is captured by his iconography in the “Dakshinamurti” form, where he sits under a banyan tree, surrounded by minuscule figures of sages, his hand in the gesture of imparting knowledge- Vyakhyanamudra. Under his feet is Apasmara, the demon of ignorance.
An important aspect of the ascetics’ lives, is the gathering of alms. Based on his descriptions in the Brahmanda Purana, Shiva is often seen as a wandering ascetic in his “Bhikshatana Murti”, which shows him as mendicant, whose heavenly beauty seized the hearts of the wives of the sages residing in the Deodara forest. Related to the wandering aspect of Bhikshatana Shiva is the representation of him as Bhairava, literally “the terrible one”, a “sampadasthanaka” (standing straight) idol, where he is often accompanied by a dog and his Gana (attendant).
Shiva the Householder
As the beloved of Uma and the eternal benefactor of his children, Shiva resides in his “Anugrahamurtis”. “Kalyana Sundaram” is the name given to the bronze group presenting the divine marriage of Shiva and Parvati. These images show Shiva as a handsome groom who is about to receive Parvati’s hand in the Panigrahana (taking of bride’s hand) ceremony. “Somaskanda”- Shiva with Parvati and Skanda (Kartikeya) is a beautiful example of him in a compassionate mood- a bronze composite that depicts all three of them on a platform, Shiva and Parvati in the posture of royal ease, with the young Skanda standing in between his parents.
The togetherness of Shiva and Parvati can also be felt through the “Alingana (embracing) Murtis”- where Shiva has her hand placed lovingly around his wife. Various bronzes of Shiva with Parvati, either seated (on platform or Nandi) or standing are taken collectively under the umbrella term- “Uma-Maheshwar”. A quintessentially Tamil form of Shiva and Parvati is the” Vrishabhavahana” or bull rider, Shiva standing alongside Parvati, sometimes accompanied by Nandi, his bull. The juxtaposition of the male and female element which is embodied by this divine couple, reaches its zenith in the “Ardha-Narishwara” type idols, representing half-male and half-female, a moving reminder of their inseparability.
Shiva the Destroyer
In the role He is provided as part of the Hindu trinity, the sublime yogi and loving householder Shiva becomes the awe-inspiring annihilator. Sometimes, it is in order to destroy a particular demon, such as Andhakasura, whose slaying by the Lord is seized in the “Gajasamharamurti” where he is seen dancing haloed by the skin of the elephant-demon and standing on his head, often in his ferocious form as Bhairava, with protruding fang-like teeth.
No discussion on Chola bronzes is complete without the mention of Nataraja- the cosmic lord of dance engrossed in a vigorous dance routine. His dancing is what enables the cyclical motion of time, which moves in between the raising and thumping of the feet of Adi-Deva, the primordial god. The physical beauty and sensuality of Nataraja, complemented by the elements and Natesha (the lord of dancers) himself who exemplify the esoteric teachings of Hinduism, is the pinnacle of India’s iconographical and philosophical prowess.
Shiva in his bronzes brings out the magic resulting from the union of rigid iconographical rules and fluid poetry of the Tamil country. He is the creator as the primordial yogi, preserver in his union with Shakti (Parvati), and destroyer.
Delve deep into this mystique of Mahadeva through our handpicked collection of Shiva Panchaloha bronzes, available online.
Email a Friend