In the exhibition booklet on the occasion of the 1000th anniversary of Thanjavur’s Brihaddeshvara Temple- the crown jewel of Tamil- Chola artistic tradition, the first page, displays a charming bronze sculpture of the Hindu god Ganesha- with an elegantly shaped head and lovable physique. When the temple was established by the Chola ruler Rajaraja, out of the 36 bronzes that were devised, 10 belonged to “Pillaiyar” (Pillai meaning son, of Shiva) the name given to Ganesha in Tamil Nadu, where every temple, irrespective of its sectarian affiliations is bound to have at least one Ganesha idol.
If the Chola bronze tradition is the materialization of the greatness of Tamil bhakti (devotion), the numerous representations of Ganesha in the medium of Panchaloha (five metals) is the best way to gauge the skilfulness of the Sthapatis of Swamimalai, who give form to the formless (Niraaakara). Moreover, as the Agamas (theological works) prescribe, one must begin every endeavor with the blessings of Sri Ganesha.
GANESHA IN TAMIL DEVOTIONAL POETRY AND ITS INFLUENCE ON CHOLA BRONZES
In the literary works of his devotees, Lord Ganesha is affectionately called “Pillaiyar” or “Vinayaka” (destroyer of all evils). Among the bhakti saints who exalted Ganesha through their writing, 9th-century woman saint “Auvaiyar” (venerated mother or woman) stands out. She composed the Vinayaka Ahaval- a song in the praise of Ganesha where she describes Him as the “wish-fulfilling elephant”, “master of wisdom”, who “like a mother” appeared before Auvaiyar and “cut the delusions of unending births”.
Besides his adulation as an independent, omnipresent god, Ganesha is often evoked as the son of Shiva in the hymns of the Shaivite saints. For them, He is the guru (teacher) who shows them the path to Shiva, and Vighnaharta (remover of obstacles), who enables them to walk the said path by destroying their hurdles.
The mystical Bhakti (devotion) of the Tamil saints required a more durable material than wood and stone, to materialize in front of the devotees. Panchaloha (Pancha meaning five, and loha meaning iron or metal) - an alloy made from gold, copper, silver, zinc (sometimes substituted with tin or lead), and iron was chosen by the Sthapatis (craftsmen), who after laboriously studying Shilpa Shastras (texts on sculptures) and Agamas, using the Madhuchista Vidhana (lost-wax technique), produced icons which are known across the world as Swamimalai bronzes.
GANESHA IN CHOLA BRONZES: THE MANY FORMS OF THE DIVINE
Historian A.L. Basham in praising the craftsmen of Swamimalai has noted that “It is surprising that bound as they were by these rigid rules (of Shilpa shastras), the Tamil craftsmen succeeded in creating works of such great beauty and often considerable individuality.” The beauty and individuality experienced by Basham in the Swamimalai icons can be witnessed in the range of Ganesha icons that were formulated by the Tamil master artists.
Ganesha as the ruler of the cosmos, seated on a throne or his mouse, is one of the most popular representations of the deity in the Panchaloha medium. The artists show their knowledge of the texts by showing the Chatrubhuja (four-armed) form of the deity, with one broken tusk (Ekadanta) and holding a Modaka, his favorite sweet in his hand.
Another popular form of Ganesha in bronze is where he is accompanied by his Shaktis (female potencies) - Riddhi-Siddhi (his consorts) or Shakti (the personification of his powers as the divine feminine). In these depictions, Ganesha sits regally with his counterparts on his lap. Such icons are appealing in their beautiful manner of presenting the togetherness of Ganesha with his spouses.
A lively and loved iconographical representation of the elephant god is the dancing Ganesha, known as Narthana Vinayakara (in Tamil). Visually dynamic and artistically brilliant, these idols are traditionally used as the processional images or Uttsava murti in the south Indian shrine, located in which the Pillaiyar dances with his devotees.
Some other representations of Ganesha which are created by the Shilpis of Swamimalai are- a) Ganesha as Veer Ganapati and Yuddha Ganapati, both of the forms showing him as a heavenly warrior, multiple-armed and carrying powerful weapons, b) Herambha Ganesha (literally mother’s beloved Ganesha), where Ganesha has five heads, with the fifth one on top of the four heads which face the four cardinal directions, c) Ganesha with mother Parvati, holding the hand of the mother of the universe, Ganesha in these icons are shown as a toddler, full of the naughtiness and purity of a child.
These are only a few examples of the forms in which Ganesha incarnates in the Swamimalai bronzes. To describe the various stages of the lost-wax technique in detail or to highlight all the aspects of Sri Ganesha is a task that we should leave to the Sthapatis- who in inspiring the heart to utter words filled with a joy of devotion, become instrumental to the creation of devotional poetry, and to the Bhaktas (devotees) who by arousing an intense wish to see the divine as described in their works, become the muse of the sculptor.
Curious to know more about the elephant-headed Vinayaka and his bronzes? Head towards our vast collection of Ganesha bronzes now.
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