The sanctity of our religious heritage has not been fully understood by our own people. Is it not time to educate them about what they should care for, with pride of possession?

With unfailing regularity one is greeted by reports in our morning dailies that ‘Panchaloha' idol thieves were nabbed by our alert police force. One cannot miss the irony in the fact that after nearly a century of such plunder, there are still unguarded idols for the take! Idols meant for worship have been the exclusive preserve of temples in South India, particularly Tamil Nadu, since the seventh century. An amalgam of ritualistic tradition and rich endowments for worship by kings ensured a place for ‘ Panchaloha' idols in our temples. What indeed is ‘Panchaloha'? It is a mix of five alloys - brass, gold, copper, silver and zinc. The five also represent the five elements which symbolically sanctify the cosmic core of sacred images. Melted in the right proportion to form a shining metal, this alloy has been the strong base for what is commonly described as a bronze statue (iconic sculpture).

Evolved technique

Probably the first of these sacred figures meant for temple worship were crafted in the Pallava period. They were sculpted by master-craftsmen (sthapathi) who had already mastered the art of stone sculpting. A new craft was thus born…. the cire perdue process of casting bronze images. Followed to this day by traditional craftsmen in Swamimalai, Kumbakonam and other temple towns where the studios are located, this method is as follows: A wax model of the figure is chiseled by hand as detailed in drawings. The figure is then covered by a mould of clay. Once the clay has dried, the red hot molten metal is poured into a hole in the mould. As the metal displaces the wax which pours out of another hole, it solidifies into the shape of the figure. After hours of cooling, the clay mould is broken open to reveal the rough metal image. Details and ornamentation are now worked on the metal figure before the final polish.

History tells us clearly why dynasties like the great Cholas indulged in gifting these bronze images of gods and goddesses to temples. The wealth of kings had to be matched by equally impressive gestures of grand devotion to the Almighty. In the show of pomp and glory, there was obviously nothing to beat the processional deity (utsava murthi) gifted by kings, queens and nobility, adorned with royal jewels, bedecked by flowers, heralded by trumpets and drums, winding its way around the imposing temples. God had become ‘king', and went out in grand style to meet his subjects and devotees!

The old bronze images can be dated according to style, geographic location and inscriptional evidence. Perhaps the absolute pinnacle of beauty in bronze was chiseled just before, during and after the reign of the great Chola king Raja Raja I. The queen-mother Sembiyan Mahadevi is supposed to have commissioned some of the finest images which one can still see and worship in their original setting. The most noteworthy representations of this group are in the Umamaheswarar temple of Konerirajapuram. The most outstanding bronze image of Shiva as Vrishavahanadevar belonging to Raja Raja's reign, originally belonging to the Swetharanyeswara temple of Tiruvengadu can be viewed in the Tanjavur art gallery. A masterpiece of all time, this Shiva alone can stand testimony to the greatness of the Chola dynasty and their patronage of temples.

Tamil Nadu is dotted with innumerable temples which have bronze images worshipped according to the ancient Agamas (compendium of sacred ritual practice). Some of these icons are one-of-a-kind. Among them are two icons of Shiva in rare dance postures. One is the Urdhuvatandava murthi in the Shiva temple of Tiruvalangadu, near Arakonam, not far from Chennai, and the other is the Gajasamhara murthi in the Veeratteswara temple of Vazhuvur near Mayiladuthurai. They are breath-taking in style, and significance. As the Cholas were staunch Shaivites one can see countless exquisite images of Shiva and Parvati, and other deities, in many temples. The Cholas and their successors also built temples for Vishnu. Icons of Rama, Sita, Lakshmana and Hanuman are vested with divine beauty in the temples of Vaduvur, Tillaivilakam and Paruthiyur. They have the power to radiate an intense sacred aura.

Later dynasties too followed the custom of commissioning images for worship. Seeing these deities in temples and in grand processions evokes a certain feeling, which one cannot expect to have as one browses through a gallery or a museum. It is like walking past a huge canvas of the Virgin Mary and the infant Christ in muted colours by Titian in the National Gallery, rather than be drawn to it in a candle-lit cathedral in Florence. The sacred, perceived as “art” has its own limitations!In fact it is this perception of the sacred icon as a piece of art which finds its way into the vaults of private collectors that is worrisome. It brings into sharp focus the persistent plundering of bronzes from our temples. When will it stop?!

It was the connoisseurs, and art historians, both Indian and foreign who brought our bronzes into focus as great works of art. While Ananda Coomaraswami strived to explain the mysticism of the dance of Shiva, others like C. Sivaramamurthi went into ecstasy about the images themselves. Elaborate analysis and detailed descriptions about these ‘objets d'art'by a series of art historians obviously kindled the greed of collectors. A market value was thus created by vested interests. Take the case of the millionaire-collector Norton Simon paying a million dollars for the stolen Sivapuram Nataraja. How he returned it to us after a prolonged legal battle is a story by itself! Over time some collectors bequeathed their ‘stolen', but paid for collections to museums. Others, to this day, have them hidden in vaults. Aiding and abetting the “collectors” were a range of people – from the sophisticated “brown sahibs” of India, to the wily dealers of Bombay, right down to the uneducated priests of unguarded old temples and local petty thieves! One can easily add to this list a host of others who were careless, insensitive, and downright corrupt.

Past wisdom

The sanctity of our religious heritage has not been fully understood by our own people. Is it not time to educate them about what they should care for, with pride of possession? Perhaps history itself will teach us some valuable lessons. The Chola dynasty patronized a system of village assemblies called urs,sabhas ornagarams.They were merchant settlements whose administration was carried out by elected members who were efficient, with integrity of character, and educational qualifications.

Chola epigraphs tell us that restricting the period of service to nine years ensured continuity, stability and also sufficient opportunity for public service. Vigilant and careful administration of public property, especially temples and their endowments was thus guaranteed.

In the present context perhaps Chola-style administration is not possible. National trusts like INTACH should spread their wings to include small temple towns, and villages where the people should be taught to conserve their heritage. With technology at our disposal, should we not start archiving forensic digital images of our bronzes, wherever they are? The UNESCO would certainly be interested in helping such a world-heritage project. Do not our sacred bronze icons deserve the kind of care and protection they enjoyed a thousand years ago? Their beauty is profound, their antiquity is sacred. They are our treasures to guard and enjoy forever.

The writer is a Bharatanatyam dancer and an art historian.

Keywords: idolssmugglingINTACH