A babel of meditative Hindu, Jain, and Buddhist chants fills the gallery. Breaking the rhythmic loop is the tinkle of bells on a dainty anklet wrapped around a goddess’ voluptuous leg. Almost in competition, I hear the stomping of feet as Shiva, the destroyer, dances in passionate abandon, flames emanating in a fiery ring around him. Bharata, Rama’s brother from the Ramayana, a mere couple of feet away, holds up his brother’s sandals on his head to place them on the throne to rule as regent of the Ayodhya kingdom, accompanied by verses from the epic.
The clipped British accent snaps me out of my reverie. And that of the deities too, who freeze mid-dance, mid-song, mid-chant, in sparkling glass cubicles scattered across the air-conditioned hall—lurching the room to pin-drop silence. And I wonder if I had imagined it all.
It is the middle of the afternoon in a sweltering summer afternoon in Delhi, and I am at one of its most prized treasures: The National Museum’s Bronze Gallery. The magnificent collection is but the tip of the iceberg; a small selection of the bronzes made using the lost wax process, owned by the country’s repository of art and heritage.
India has always had a rich tradition of bronze-casting to create effigies that burst with live-wire energy. Who can forget the 4,500-year-old Dancing Girl way back from the Harappan Civilization? While there are some examples of the art from the Shunga (185 – 75 BC) and Kushan (30 – 375 AD) periods, bronze casting came into its full glory during the Gupta period (240 – 590 AD) when it was carried out at an unprecedented scale and spread throughout the subcontinent.
An alloy of copper and tin, bronze has historically been mixed with three other metals like zinc, silver, and gold, and called Panchaloha [five metals] in India. Occasionally it was alloyed with eight metals and called Ashtadhatu.
Cast in both the solid and hollow, subjects have comprised religious themes and related narratives, like much of all Classical Indian art. The twist appears in the sheer variety of styles which emanated from this one process, one metal, and one thematic area.
The Pallava and Chola bronzes from South India embody one of the highest achievements of Indian art with their perfect mathematical schematics. East Indian bronzes are characterised by tall slender figures, rich ornamentation, gilding and an oval-aureole rimmed with flame tips, paving the way for Nepal sculptural aesthetics and iconography. In Western India, the Jain community patronised metal-smiths for making icons of Tirthankaras or Jinas which served as points of meditation. Meanwhile, the bronzes from the valleys of Kashmir in the north are pale gold in colour with Greek influences. The Himachal bronzes, on the other hand, are linear and mainly Buddhist and Brahmanical.
Some of the finest works in each of these styles are gathered in this one gallery. Whether it be the Buddha images from Phophnar or the Vishnu Vaikuntha from Kashmir. Whether it be a Shiva Nataraja in its most magnificent artistic form, honed to technical perfection or effigies of saints and poets raised to divine status for the ardent intensity of their hymns. They are all here.
Come, let me take you on a virtual tour of all that is gorgeous in Indian bronzes. And if you stand still in the gallery, usually devoid of crowds, you just might catch them twirling around to their own music, when they think they have a rapt enough audience. 🙂
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Blog post title image: Bharata with Rama’s sandals [14th Century, Vijayanagar, South India]. In the Ramayana, when Rama refused to return to the Kingdom of Ayodhya, his younger brother Bharata took his sandals and placed them on the throne to rule as regent. In this sculpture, Bharata raises his arms to support the sandals placed on his head.
Poet-saint [14th Century, Vijayanagar, South India]. Saints were a popular subject with sculptors. They symbolised the ideal human being—devoted, poetic, and selfless—and were moulded into bronze figures for worship in home-shrines.
Bala Krishna or Sambandar [15th – 16th Century, Vijayanagar, South India]. Sambandar was a prominent, Tamil, child poet-saint believed to have lived in the 7th Century AD. He is usually portrayed as a dancing child and is associated with numerous miracles during his lifetime.
Manikkavachakar [12th Century, Late Chola, South India]. Not as prominent, but equally worshipped is the 9th Century Tamil poet-saint Manikkavachakar. He is credited with composing the Tiruvachkam [sacred utterance], a volume of 51 Tamil Shaiva hymns which expound on the joy of experiencing god. According to legend, Shiva himself signed these works.
Devi [15th Century, Vijayanagar, South India]. Isn’t she beautiful! The goddess or Devi image in India has evolved from fertility figures in the early centuries to complex figures with special iconographic features. Devi-Mahatmya, a religious Hindu text, states that all goddesses, whether consorts of the male gods or independent goddesses, are manifestations of the ultimate, supreme, mother goddess Devi.
Dvarapala [17th Century, Nayaka, Tamil Nadu, South India]. This ferocious-looking armed gentleman with arched eyebrows, bulging eyes, and prominent fangs is a dvarapala or door guardian. He is a common feature in Hindu and Buddhist temples.
Nataraja [12th Century, Chola, Tamil Nadu]. Almost a metre high and wide, this is my absolute favourite piece in the entire museum. It is also the crowning glory of the bronze gallery. Nataraja, the Lord of Dance is regarded as the most outstanding expression of divine rhythm and harmony in Indian art. It signifies the cosmos and hence the omnipresence of Shiva, one of the principle deities of Hinduism. The bronze does more than justice to this belief.
Chandrashekar [15th – 16th Century, Kerala]. There is a charming story on how Shiva got this name. When Parvati’s mother first saw her future son-in-law Shiva all ash-smeared and wrapped in a tiger’s skin she fainted aghast. Vishnu took it upon himself to have Shiva bedecked and bejewelled for the wedding. As a finishing touch, he placed the moon [chandra] on Shiva’s crown [shekar]. Hence the name Chandrashekar.
Nandikeshvara [15th Century, Vijayanagar, South India]. This particular name for Shiva is derived from his mount Nandi and is characterised in its representation by the hands joined in anjali-mudra. Note the axe and antelope in his rear hands. The axe symbolises Shiva as the destroyer of evil; the antelope his mastery over the restless mind.
Uma-Maheshvara [16th Century, Nepal]. One of the most popular iconographic forms of Shiva and his consort Parvati is the one depicted above. In this sculpture from Nepal, Shiva is Maheshvara the Great God, and Parvati is Uma, the daughter of the King of Mountains. Though Nepali bronzes were influenced by Gupta art, they are superior in casting, and express graceful delineations and movements.
These four sculptures aptly illustrate the sheer variety of legends and iconography represented in the gallery. Clockwise from top left:
Panchamukhi Shivalinga [19th Century, Himachal Pradesh]. Five heads of Shiva adorn the Shivalinga—four facing each of the cardinal points, and one placed on top.
Sarfoji, Portrait of Maharaja Shahji [18th Century, Tamil Nadu, South India]. Sarfoji belonged to the line of Maratha kings of Tanjore (17th – 19th Century). His bronze adds a refreshing secular angle to the collection.
Ganesha [15th Century]. Shiva and Parvati’s son, the elephant-headed god Ganesha, is also known as the remover of obstacles. Note both his tusks are intact and in place.
Kaliya-mardana Krishna [10th Century, Chola, South India]. In the depicted legend, Krishna slays Kaliya, the snake demon who was giving Vrindavan’s residents hell.
Vishnu Vaikuntha [9th Century, Kashmir]. In Hindu thought, the supreme being is manifest in three cosmic roles: Creation, Sustenance, and Dissolution which are represented by the trinity Brahma, Vishnu, and Shiva respectively. Ancient Hindu texts claim Vishnu is the first to emerge after the Great Deluge to commence creation and takes 10 avatars [incarnations] for his tasks. Kalki, his 10th avatar is yet to be born.
Kali [12th Century, Late Chola, South India]. Standing 75 cm high, this image of Kali stands out with her flaming hair and cobras draped over her breasts and one ear. Kali is a primordial Hindu mother goddess believed to be without beginning or end, and beyond the universe. Concepts of colour, light, good, or bad, thus, do not apply to her.
Panchatirthi of Parsvanatha [15th Century, Gujarat]. This object is called a Panchatirthi because it depicts five icons together. Such objects were very popular in Jainism, depicting as many as 23 Tirthankaras or Jinas in one panel. The central figure here is Parsvanatha identified by the snake hood over his head. Jinas are depicted with diamond-shaped marks on their chests and silver-enamelled eyes.
Tirthankara Parsvanatha [9th Century, Gujarat]. From 500 AD onward, the Tirthankaras have been depicted with a more or less fixed series of figures comprising other Jinas, celestial figures with flywhisks, and guardians. The tiny couple seated on the above effigy’s pedestal is that of the donor couple who commissioned the artwork.
Native to every continent, except Australia, the lost wax process used to create this bronze and the others in the gallery is also called cire-perdue. The process dates back to 3500 BC and has changed little over the years. It is a method of metal casting in which molten metal is poured into a mould created using a wax model. Once the mould is made, the wax model is melted and drained out through narrow tubes.
Left: Buddha [11th – 12th Century, Pala, Eastern India]. This little gem is perhaps the only known image from Burma to be inscribed with a donatory Sanskrit inscription in the Kutila script of Eastern India. Right: Standing Buddha [10th Century, Pala, Bihar]. Standing images of Buddha were a common feature of Nalanda art during the Pala dynasty. Note the elongated earlobes, cranial protuberance, tuft of hair on the forehead, three lines on the neck, webbed fingers, and lotus sign on the palm. They all form part of the 32 mahapurusha lakshanas [signs of a great man] in Buddhist iconography.
Indra [15th Century, Nepal]. Last, but definitely not the least, I just loved this 600-year-old bronze sculpture from Nepal. The meditative calm, the graceful lines. Also known as Devendra, Indra is a Vedic god in Hinduism, a guardian god in Buddhism, and the king of the highest heaven in Jainism. He shares similar powers and mythologies with Western gods such as Zeus and Jupiter. A key figure in Buddhist mythology, Indra is associated with Buddha’s birth and is worshipped as an independent deity in Nepal.
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And with this, dear Reader, my virtual tour ends. I hope this post will inspire you to see these bronzes with the awe they deserve, the understanding they require, and the affection that will make you listen to the songs they sing. ❤
PS. If you would like to have a dekko at the Museum’s other treasures, you might enjoy reading National Museum, New Delhi – 90 minutes at the Museum.
- Address: National Museum, Janpath, New Delhi – 110011.
- Timing: 10:00 am – 6:00 pm [Closed on Mondays and Public Holidays].
- Ticket: Rs. 20 for Indians; Rs. 650 for foreigners.
- Audio guide: Rs. 150 for Indians; Included in ticket price for foreigners.
- Free guided tours are available daily at 10:30 am and 2:30 pm.
- Still photography is allowed inside.
- Cloakrooms are available at no charge.