TODAY -

The age-old art of Chola bronze statues

S Balakrishnan *



The art of creating bronze statues in Tamil Nadu follows a hoary tradition that is many thousand years old. Among the statue making styles prevalent in Tamil Nadu, the Chola style of statue making is acclaimed as the most perfect art form. It is named after the Chola dynasty during which period art & architecture thrived and many temples were erected in Tamil Nadu.

The most famous among them being the 1000-yer-old Thanjavur Big Temple, followed by Gangaikondacholapuram and the Irawadeswarar Temples, all three of them enlisted as UNESCO World Heritage Centres under the title “The Living Chola Temples”. Naturally, along with temple construction the art of sculpture making – both in stone and metal - also thrived during the Chola period.

Hence this style of shilpa shastra came to be known as Chola tradition. The idol of dancing Shiva (Nataraja) is the most prominent and perfect example of this Chola art form. Following this hoary tradition, recently a world record has been created near Kumbakonam by making the world’s biggest Nataraja idol of the size of 23 ft x 17 ft out of panchaloha material, weighing a total 15 ton !

Kumbakonam and the nearby Swami Malai and Naachiyar Kovil (all in Thanjavur District of Tamil Nadu) are the best known centers of bronze sculpture making in Tamil Nadu; the artisans here follow this thousand-year-old Chola tradition even to this day. They create bronze statues through the lost-wax method.

A bronze figurine of Mother Goddess discovered at Aadhichanallur in Tamil Nadu has been dated to be 3,000 years old. The surprising fact is that the lost-wax method has been used to create this figure. Bronze is an alloy of copper and tin.

For temple idols, panchaloha (a combination of five metals) is used; this is an alloy of copper, zinc, iron, silver and gold; sometimes tin or lead is used in place of zinc. The combination is 50% Cu (copper), 16% Au (gold), 8% Ag (silver), 10% brass, and 16% Pb (lead).

The lost-wax (technically called cire perdue – meaning wax and lost) is a complicated process. First a wax model is created using bees wax mixed with resin and oil which itself involves a tedious process.

Creating a wax image is the most crucial component. The second part is covering this wax model with layers of clay; not just ordinary clay but specially prepared clay with various types of soil and other material; again, a tedious process. When the clay coating has dried, it is heated and the wax image inside drains out creating a void inside. Now the mould is ready for casting.

The molten alloy is poured into this mould which is gently broken up after the metal has cooled down. Now the rough metal figure is ready. Finally, finishing works like smoothening, engraving, chiseling, polishing, colouring, etc., are done to make a fine figurine.

I am lucky to have a small wax model of Bala Krishna from Naachiyar Kovil that is famous for making lamps – from tiny diyas to massive lamps. My wife did not permit me to buy any statues there. The shopkeeper pitied my position and offered this wax model; as it is not often that we get such a unique piece, my wife also agreed to buy that lovely Bala Krishna.

As it is made of wax, I have preserved it inside a plastic box on a cushion bed. Bala Krishna is happily trying to suckle his big toe which is a popular theme in Tamil Nadu. Well, ultimately she bought there a pair of kuthu vilakku (traditional Tamil Nadu lamp) for 4,000 rupees!

We must realize that behind every bronze statue – either big or small- is the devoted hard work of artisans. So much skillful input with dedication and a lot of patience is required to create every single figure. Keeping this in mind let us appreciate their every work.


* S Balakrishnan wrote this article for The Sangai Express
The writer can be reached at krishnanbala2004(AT)yahoo(DOT)co(DOT)in
This article was webcasted on October 02 2022.



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