A large bronze figure of Parvati
South India, Tamil Nadu Chola period, ca. 1090 A.D.
84.5 cm high
This phenomenal bronze Parvati is not only a magnum opus of Chola art of immense arthistorical importance, but one of the most graceful, sublime and sensual female figures in world art, equal-ranking with the greatest sculptural creations of mankind.
The present sculpture is the greatest Chola Parvati known from the period around 1090 A.D. and was created by an unknown master artist in a royal workshop during the reign of Kulottunga Chola I (Kulottunga literally means „the exalter of his race“), one of the greatest and most successful Chola rulers (ruled ca. 1070 – ca. 1122). The bronzes created in Chola-Nadu – like this Parvati – , the Chola heartland and centre of the empire in the Kaveri delta region, display the most classical Chola style and the greatest refinement. However, royal ateliers must have co-existed with regular workshops in Chola-Nadu. The creation of superlative bronzes of large size required enormous means and the best artists. Even the bronze sculptures housed in the most important temples usually display a wide range of qualities, with true masterpieces being very rare exceptions.
The rule of Kulottunga I was characterized by religious tolerance, internal peace, enormous prosperity and successful administration. His empire was secular in nature and Kulottunga I encouraged both Shaivism and Vaishnavism. Kulottunga I consolidated the empire with some important military victories – against the Pandyas and the Cheras in the South, the Vengi kingdom in the North, and Kalinga (Orissa) in the North East – but generally avoided unnecessary wars. For example he did not have any interest to reinstall the Chola hegemony over Sri Lanka after the Chola army had been defeated by Lanka forces in 1070 A.D.. Instead, he genuinely cared about the prosperity of the empire, royal patronage of the arts and the well being of his subjects. Kulottunga I had diplomatic relations with distant countries like the Khmer Empire, the kingdom of Pagan (Burma), the Srivijaya kingdom, and China. Around one century after the glorious rule of Raja Raja Chola I (985-1014 A.D.), Kulottunga created another „Golden Age“ in the field of the arts. The Cholas considered Shiva Nataraja as their family deity. Kulottunga I and his family members also continued to make endowments to the Nataraja temple in Chidambaram. Therefore it is not a coincidence that the most important sculptures created under Kulottunga I feature Shiva Nataraja and his consort Parvati. In fact, when Parvati (Uma) is shown as the consort of Shiva Nataraja, she is referred to as Shivakami or Shivakama Sundari.
The present figure was without any doubt the consort of a major Nataraja icon and can therefore be referred to as „Parvati (Uma) as Shivakami“. A closely comparable royal Chola bronze Parvati (Uma) as Shivakami (together with her matching Shiva Nataraja) is housed in the Prananadeswarar temple in Thirumangalakudi. This Shiva temple was renovated during the 11th century by Kulottunga I and bears a royal inscription by him praising Lord Shiva. The existence of this inscription clearly indicates that this temple received royal patronage during the reign of Kullottunga I. Thirumangalakudi is located merely 25 kilometers from Gangaikonda Cholapuram, to where Rajendra Chola I (ruled 1014-1044) had moved the Chola capital in 1025 A.D. to commemorate his victory over the Pala Dynasty (previously the Chola capital had been in Thanjavur), and was hence located in the very heart of the Chola empire. Thus it is not surprising that two of the finest Chola bronzes created during the reign of Kulottunga I (the above-mentioned Shiva Nataraja with his consort Parvati (Uma) as Shivakami) are housed in this temple. There is another set of Nataraja and Parvati owned by the same temple, which is however of more modest quality and probably originates from a regular workshop.
The similarities of the present Parvati and the Parvati in the Prananadeswarar temple (see Dehejia, pp. 32-33) are overwhelming. Both bronzes must have been created by the same royal atelier as imperial commissions placed by Kulottunga I. The present Parvati is in fact even far superior to the Parvati in Thirumangalakudi and probably a touch earlier. If the piece in Thirumangalakudi was made around 1100 A.D., the present Parvati could have been created easily 10 to 15 years earlier. Several elements prove this slightly earlier date and considerably higher quality of the present sculpture. The face of the present figure is more narrow and has a much more beautiful expression than the face of the piece in Thirumangalakudi. The crown of the present Parvati is more elongated and pointed, which is typical for 11th century Parvati sculptures. The tribhanga pose (tri-bent pose) of the present Parvati is consummate with the head really tilted to the side, whereas the piece in Thirumangalakudi has an almost straight head. The pronounced multiple beauty lines on the belly – extremely subtly modelled on the present bronze –, a typical feature of the second half of the 11th century and similarly displayed on a 11th century Parvati housed in the Thanjavur Art Gallery, are absent from the Parvati in Thirumangalakudi.
The base of the present bronze is beautifully sculpted and of compressed shape, which again is a form and style often found in the 11th century; distinctive are the additional small lotus leaves inserted at the top rim of the upper lotus, which in similar form can be observed on the base of the most famous of all Chola bronzes, the Shiva Vrishabhavana („rider of the bull“) in the Thanjavur Art gallery (this Shiva figure with its distinctive „snake turban“ was created during the reign of Raja Raja Chola I, around 1012 A.D.). By contrast the double lotus base of the Parvati in Thirumangalakudi is higher and the lotus leaves are totally flat and merely incised. The weight distribution on the present figure is much more elegant and convincing than on the piece in Thirumangalakudi: the present figure seems to have almost her entire weight on her proper right leg, while her left leg is bent and hardly seems to carry any weight; she is just about to lift her left leg from the ground in order to make a step. Although the left leg of the figure in Thirumangalakudi is also bent, she appears to have the same weight on both legs, thus appearing not really relaxed and not really dynamic. The areolas on the present figures are subtle to an almost unimaginable degree and almost invisible. On the Parvati in Thirumangalakudi the areolas are raised and in comparison rather crude. The convex hip of the present bronze is curved even stronger than the equivalent hip of the sculpture in Thirumangalakudi. The jewellery on the present figure is very delicately rendered, very minimalistic, and applied in a very organised way. In contrast the application of the jewellery on the Parvati in Thirumangalakudi is rather confused and therefore disturbs the natural flow of the body. Another ingenious artistic device sets the present Parvati apart from all other Chola Parvatis of this period: her head is not only beautifully tilted to the side, but also slightly bent forward; thus she does not appear like an unapproachable goddess, but rather as an ideal and utterly sensuous representation of womanhood. Parvati is the goddess of love, fertility and beauty, and the present sculpture is one of her greatest manifestations.
In many ways the present Parvati embodies the apex in the depiction of the female form in Chola India and in world art. Someone could rightly argue that earlier Chola female figures have more „spiritual power“. But when one really looks into the evolution of Chola female bronzes, it can hardly be denied that the present figure is not only undoubtedly the greatest Chola Parvati of its period, but also the most sensual of all Chola Parvatis. Admittedly earlier images have a mystical power which is unsurpassable. But in terms of the unobstructed sensuous flow of a perfect female body this sculpture is second to none.
10th century Chola females – as gorgeous as they are – are heavily bedecked with jewellery, which makes it much harder to focus on their female beauty. The artist who created the present bronze must have been aware of the early 11th century Parvati that accompanies the famous Shiva Vrishabhavana statue in the Thanjavur Art Gallery. Apart from some differences (heavy large armbands, smaller breasts) featured by the earlier bronze, the basic concept (finely cast folds on the trousers etc.) was already very similar and must have inspired the artists working for Kulottunga I. That magnificent early 11th century Parvati in the Thanjavur art gallery – with a penetrating glance of truly divine quality – has one big „weakness“: the lower arm is next to her convex hip, almost touching the hip. In order to really underline the flow of a sensuous female body, the arms have to be sufficiently far from the torso. Therefore the artist who created the present figure placed the lower arm next to the concave hip, thus not interfering with the flow of her amazing curves. The extremely minimalistic and subtle use of jewellery is a signature feature of bronzes created during the era of Kulottunga I. Many sculptures from his reign are known that only feature simple armbands and thin necklaces. Examples include an early 12th century standing Parvati in the Masilamaniswara Temple (dedicated to Shiva) in Thiruvaduthurai, also located in the close proximity – around 30 km – of the Chola capital Gangaikonda Cholapuram. This unostentatious ornamentation is the total exception on earlier sculptures – for example the famous Shiva Vrishabhavana likewise only has a thin armband –, and also almost never appears on later Chola sculptures. But during the glamorous era of Kulottunga I this subdued jewellery style appears as a distinctive feature, used in order to not impair the purity, natural flow and beauty of the consummately sculpted half-naked bodies. The present Parvati is the finest imperial Chola sculpture to survive from the great reign of Kullottunga I – even the Natarja sculptures from his reign can not compare to the ultimate refinement of the present Parvati – and a milestone achievement of Chola art.
Click here to read a report on the sculpture of Uma Parameshvari.