Splendour in stone

Print edition : February 06, 2015

Parvati, Chola bronze, Tamil Nadu, 14th century. Collection: Saraswati Mahal Art Gallery, Thanjavur. The bronzes of Tamil Nadu are among the masterpieces of Indian art. The depiction of the garbha griha (sanctum sanctorum), such as a Siva linga, was made closest to the formless divine, Images of deities in human form were also made so that devotees could respond to the eternal concepts, through shapes with which they were familiar. Im South India, there developed a tradition of Utsava murtis, in which these deities came out of the garbha griha and even the temple to give darshan to the devotee. This resulted in portable images of the divine, made out of bronze, such as this Parvati. Photo: Benoy K. Behl

The Descent of the Ganga, Mamallapuram. In the 7th century, under the Pallavas, this huge rock face, over 20 feet high, was carved from top to bottom. It was transformed into a teeming world, inhabited by exquisite figures of divine and semi-divine beings, sages, men and animals, gathered around a cleft in the rock which represents the flowing Ganga. Gentle and graceful figures of a Naga king and queen are seen swimming in the waters of the river. Photo: BENOY K. BEHL

Natesa, Chola, c. 11th century (The Government State Museum, Chennai). The cosmic dance of Siva represents the eternal cycle of creation and destruction. This great concept of Indian philosophy is captured beautifully in the dynamic poise of the figure of Siva. Photo: BENOY K. BEHL

Benoy K. Behl. Photo: V. Sreenivasa Murthy

January 16, 2004

FROM the 7th century onwards, with the Pallavas and later Cholas, comes the most exuberant sculpture of south India. This period also brings new developments and shapes the future art of this region. At the wondrous site of Mamallapuram, the Pallava artists transformed the very rocks into a living world of sculpted forms.

One of the most remarkable groups of sculptures anywhere in India is “Arjuna’s Penance” or the “Descent of Ganga”, sculpted on the surface of two huge boulders at Mamallapuram with a narrow fissure between them. Twenty feet high and 40 feet across, this magnificent relief brings the rocks alive. The moon, the sun, pairs of singers, siddhas, nymphs are all shown moving towards the cleft in the rock, where a sage is seen engaged in penance. Gracefully carved nagas and naginis with their hands folded in adoration stand out against the cleft. The artists have used the cleft beautifully to represent Ganga as she flows down from the heavens.

Everywhere in Mamallapuram, the sculpture is sensitive and graceful. The subtle touches and gentleness belie the hard granite surface which appears to have been lovingly shaped by the artists’ hands.

The sculpture of Mamallapuram presents some of the most simple and charming scenes: a cowherd milks a cow that fondly licks her calf; a milkmaid holds a pile of milk pots and balances a bundle of fodder on her head; a woodcutter idly rests his axe on his shoulder and a cowherd plays a flute. These are some of the most natural pastoral scenes in the realm of sculpture.

The images of Siva, Vishnu, Durga and other gods and goddesses sculpted here are unforgettable in their quality and liveliness. For the first time in Indian sculpture, we also come across portraits of kings and queens. This is an important turning point and the beginning of the depiction of imperial grandeur in the art of India.

The Cholas succeeded the Pallavas as the prominent dynasty of South India. The sense of imperial majesty which begins to come into art with the Pallavas reaches a climax of heroic proportions in the art of the Cholas.

The great temple of Brhadisvara in Thanjavur built by Rajaraja and the temple at Gangaikondacholapuram by his son Rajendra stand as pinnacles of the artistic achievements of the Cholas.

The temple at Thanjavur is an eloquent expression of the extent and power of the Chola Empire under Rajaraja. The temple is called Brhadisvara (The Great Lord), with reference to Siva’s greatness. It was also called Rajarajesvara after the name of the king who built it.

The temple is a veritable treasurehouse of Chola art. The sculptures are of impressive proportions and adorn the huge pyramidical vimana with great stateliness. Here we find a great wealth of iconographic detail and an emphasis on the heroic aspects of Siva. Indeed, the entire temple appears to reflect the power and grandeur, both of the Great Lord and of the king who built the temple.

The art of the imperial Cholas comes to its fruition and finest expression in the famed Chola bronzes. From the 10th to the 12th centuries, some of the finest sculptural pieces of the entire history of Indian art were made under the Cholas.

Chola bronzes capture both the stately dignity of the art of the period as well as delicate and human touches. While they are grand, they are at the same time, graceful and sensitive.

The finest sculptures of the Chola period are of the form of Siva known as Nataraja, Lord of Dance, of which many bronze figures were made. The image of the Nataraja, which combines dynamic movement with graceful harmony, conveys a deep sense of the eternal rhythm of the cosmos.

During the Chola period, the art of south India also evolved from its earlier simplicity and naturalism to a style of greater formality and monumentality.

Benoy K. Behl is a film-maker and art historian who is known for his prolific output of work over the past 33 years. He has taken over 35,000 photographs of Asian monuments and art heritage, made 126 documentaries on art history, and held his exhibitions in 28 countries. His books include The Ajanta Caves , published by Thames & Hudson, London and Harry N. Abrams, New York. A regular contributor to Frontline , he has done a 25-part series on Indian art (2007) and a six-part series on Buddhist heritage of the world (2012).