Portrait bronzes of Chola Kings – A study from Past references

The Tanjore Big temple is very much in the news these days. On the occasion of its 1000th year, there is a call for the return of this bronze sculpture which is currently residing at the Sarabhai Museum. We take this occasion to explore this in more detail and the trail leads us on an eye opening journey of portrait bronze sculpture.

Statutory Warning: Long but addictive post!!

( Photo Courtesy: Sri Kudavoil Balasubramaniam book Rajarajeeshwaram – Back cover.)

Is this Raja Raja Chola. For a better understanding of the subject, readers have to be transported in time to 1014 CE, to the environs of the big temple – to its west enclosure.


No. 38. On the first niche of the west enclosure, third inscription

This inscription describes seven images, which had been set up before the 29th year [of the reign of Rajarajadeva] by the same manager of the Rajarajesvara temple, who is mentioned in the inscription No. 26, and a number of ornaments, which had been given to these images by the same person (paragraphs 23 to 50) and by the inhabitants of two towns (paragraphs 51 and 59). The images represented Nambi-Aruranar (paragraphs 2, 23, 55, 59), Nangai-Paravaiyar (5, 25, 57, 66), Tirunavukkaraiyar (8, 29, 53), Tirunanasambandadigal (11, 36, 51), Periya-Perumal (14, 44), his consort Lokamahadevi (17, 47), and the god Chandrasekhara[7] (20). Of these, Periya-Perumal, ‘the great king,’ and his consort Lokamahadevi are perhaps identical with king Rajarajadeva and his queen Lokamahadevi, both of whom may have been represented as worshipping the god Chandrasekhara, i.e., Siva, in whose honour the king had built the temple.


1. Hail! Prosperity! The following copper images,[23] which had been set up in the temple of the lord Sri-Rajarajesvara until the twenty-ninth year (of the king’s reign) by Adittan Suryan, alias Tennavan Muvenda-Velan, a headman (of) Poygai-nadu, who carried on the management of the temple of the lord Sri-Rajarajesvara, — were engraved on stone, after they had been measured by the cubit measure (preserved) in the temple of the lord, after the jewels (given to them) had been weighed without the threads by the stone called (after) Dakshina-Meru-Vitankan, and after the gold had been weighed by the stone called (after) Adavallan: –


14. One solid image of Periya-Perumal, having two sacred arms (and measuring) one mulam, four viral and a half in height from the feet to the hair.
15. One lotus on which this (image) stood, (measuring) five viral and two torai in height.
16. One pedestal, joined to this (lotus and measuring) eleven viral square, and five viral and six torai in height.
17. One solid image of his consort Ologamadeviyar, having two sacred arms (and measuring) twenty-two viral and two torai in height.
18. One lotus on which this (image) stood, (measuring) five viral in height.
19. One pedestal, joined to this (lotus and measuring) eleven viral square, and five viral and two torai in height.
20. One solid brass image of Chandrasekharadeva, set up as Devaradevar[24] of Periya-Perumal, having four divine arms (and measuring) five viral and two torai in height from the feet to the hair.
21. One brass pedestal, (measuring) two viral and four torai square, and one viral in height, and (bearing) a lotus, which was joined to this (image and measured) one viral and a half in height.
22. One solid aureola of copper, covering this (image and measuring) twenty-one viral in circumference.

Now the operative line ofcourse is the measurement above : one mulam, four viral and a half in height. Lets take Mulam as approx 15 inches and 41/2 virals to mean half of a mulam – so totals up to 22.5 inches or 57 centimeters. But here comes the complications, the basic scale differs from location to location, from temple to temple – we had learn’t earlier from a session with a master sculptor that it would depend on the grain of rice grown in that area, there are other versions that it depends on the ruler , his birth start etc etc. This basic scale is what drives every aspect of the temple – from the Main deity, to the ancillary shrines. – like the DNA of the site, genetically linking every strand of its architecture and iconography. Experts need to work to find out what the basic Tanjore big temple scale and muzham works out to.

Thanks to a wonderful book we picked up from the Egmore Museum,Bronzes of South India – P.R. Srinivasan (F.E. 1963, L.R. 1994) for just Rs. 386, we embark on our journey to study portrait bronzes of Chola kings.

Its much bigger than what it looks on the photograph and for its price is a steal.

The darker color papers are the description of the bronzes and the whiter ones are the plates – just loved every page. Ok, back to the bronze under question – yes, it is featured in the collection.

Lets see what is the description of this bronze from the work.

The bronze representing a Chola King, height 74 cm – stands on a padmasana in the sama – bhanga posture with hands kept in the anjali pose. The makuta and the loin cloth with its simha mukha clasp are ornate. In fact everyone of the details of this figure is chiseled extremely well eg, the necklets and Keyuras. The face is rather square. its features are clear – cut. The expression suggests self absorption and tranquility. There are only two necklets, the usual ring like necklet seen outermost in the bronzes of this period is absent. The channavira is, however, slender and is treated in the manner in which such details are dealt with by the sthapatis of this period.

The torso is not particularly well modeled. The modeling of the arms is suggestive of strength, although the proportions of the shoulders do not seem to fit properly with those of the chest. The other noteworthy points are the projecting nipples and the elbow ornaments. The latter are beaded and they show the projecting pieces conspicuously. For quite a considerable time now bronzes with this feature were not met with. In fact this seems to us to one of the latest bronzes to show this feature, bronzes of the subsequent periods, showing this detail so prominently being almost nil. Interestingly the shoulder ornament is seen on the side only. A flower like design is shown between the hands which are treated with great skill.

The Ornateness of the loin-cloth is apparent which is brought out clearly by the treatment of the simha-mukha and the festoons and tassels hanging from it. The border of the cloth is noteworthy. The ends of the cloth may be seen to be dealt with rather in a ` modern’ way. The defective modeling of the leg is quite obvious not only from the prominent knees but also from the natural contraction of the lines at that place. A very important detail of this bronze is its anklet seen on the left leg only, beside the padasara. This type of anklet characterises the sculptures of the western and eastern gopuras of the temple at chidambaram. A different type of anklet was seen in the two beautiful bronzes from Sundarapperumal kovil which was similar to the anklet seen in some of the sculptures from the temple at Gangai Konda Cholapuram. But from now onwards this additional anklet becomes more or less a constant feature of bronzes. In several bronzes of subsequent periods, this is seen on both ankles. But later day bronzes without this characteristic are not uncommon.

The Padmasana is simple but delicately worked; its petals are braod and the marginal lines are rather faint. Tips of petals are not emphasized. As a whole its form and details have been beautifully conceived and tastefully executed. On these grounds this may also be assigned to the second quarter of the 12th Century AD, but not to the 13th Century (JISOA Vol VI P22) nor to the 12 -13 th Century ( The Art of India and Pakisthan,p 74)

The stylistic concepts and dating of bronzes vary from one scholar to another, but, the pertinent questions to be asked are – Muzham and viral from the inscription – how much do they translate to in cms and since it clearly talks of the lotus and pedestal separately its clear that it defines the head to toe measurement of Idol. Now, the 74 cms mentioned in the work – is it head to toe or incl the pedestal. Best way would be for someone to visit the Sarabhai Museum to procure its dimensions.

Ideally, we should have ended an already long post with the above, but thanks to a chance interaction with Ms. Liesbeth Pankaja Bennink, who is managing the works of Late Sri Raja Deekshithar, on the previous post on the sculpture from Tiruvisalur, yielded another hidden gem.
An article by Sri.T. G. Aravamuthan, in 1930 titled South Indian Portraits

South Indian Portraits

We came across a very interesting bronze in that article and surprise of surprises, it was ( AT THAT TIME) in the Tanjore temple itself. One glance and you can be sure that we are talking of an entire new image and surprisingly have not chanced on this particular bronze in any museum or article post this. The image is not too clear to check on the anklet, but it does appear that he is wearing on anklet on both legs. Users may help to identify / check where this bronze is ?? ( there is another Bronze in the Tanjore Art Gallery which we will see after this)

In the last days of Rajaraja I (985-1013 A. D.), the great Chola king who built the famous Brihad-Isvara temple at Tanjore, 37 the manager of the temple seems to have set up a solid image of Rajaraja along with a similar one of his queen, Loka-maha-devi, in the temple to the building of which that king devoted the treasures he acquired in his numerous conquests. An inscription in the temple does not seem to be susceptible of any other interpretation. The measurements of the two images and the pedestals are given in the inscription: the image of the king was ‘one mulam, four viral and a half in height from the feet to the hair,’ and that of the queen was ‘twenty-two viral and two torai in height.’ Among the “jewels with which the statues were decked were ‘sacred arm-rings’ and ‘sacred ear-rings.’ It is also worth noting that a lamp was kept burning in the presence of the king’s statue, just as if it were an image of the deity. No image now in that temple is identifiable with that of the queen Loka-maha-devi: her statue seems to have disappeared. A king’s statue is found among the images now in the temple, but it is exceedingly doubtful if it is the statue to which the above-mentioned inscription relates. All that we know of this statue has been summarised thus: ‘In the Brihadisvara temple at Tanjore is a metallic image with the label, Rajarajendra-chola-raja of the big temple, engraved on the pedestal in the modern Tamil alphabet. The king is represented as standing with both his palms joined together in a worshipping pose. As a work of art, it is only a second-rate specimen, not to be compared favourably with the image of Krishna-raya at Tirumalai. It is said that this image receives all the honours in the temple and when the god is taken out in procession, this royal image escorts the deity. The name as given on the image evidently refers to the Chola king Rajaraja I, for it was he who was intimately connected with the construction and the upkeep of this temple. It should be a later work done to perpetuate the memory of the founder of the great temple. The tradition locally current about this image also corroborates this view. One look at this bronze is enough to show that compared with the many icons in the same temple which were set up in the days of Rajaraja I it is of far inferior quality, especially in regard to the moulding of the figure. The fine idealism and the vigorous freedom of those icons do not animate this figure” which is very wooden and unspeakably rigid. Further, the height of the statue of Rajaraja I which was set up in his times is known to us from the inscription in the temple; this height does not tally with the height of the image which now passes for Rajaraja’s. The characters on the pedestal are attributable to the, seventeenth century: at any rate, they do not belong to Rajaraja’s times. From all that we know of Rajaraja we cannot but hold it extremely probable that the manager of the temple acted on Rajaraja’s wishes in setting up the two; statues and providing that the king’s image should accompany the utsava-vigraha of the god in the processions of the great festivals. Perhaps we have to suppose that the, original statues were lost and that the present statue was substituted much later when the metal worker’s art had degenerated greatly in this part of the country. Had the original bronzes survived they would have been of unique artistic value, for they are not merely the very earliest portrait statues of metal the date of which is indisputable,—though we have many specimens of icons of metal of much earlier date,—but they are also specimens of a period to which some of the very best south Indian bronzes belong.


While searching for this bronze, chanced on Satheesh’s set from the Tanjore Art gallery exhibits and hit on this Bronze.

its definitely a king for he is wearing the trademark Veerakkazhal.

Though the body and torso are of decent workmanship, the facial features are a big let down. The modeling of the head dress is also indicative of a slightly later date for this bronze. Not sure if this exhibit is labeled / dated in the gallery. Tanjore readers may assist to find out. SO WHO IS THIS ROYAL PERSONALITY?

Serious readers would have notices that the clasped praying hands is a common feature among all the bronzes we have seen so far, but the first one had a variation – it held a flower in its hand. what is this depiction. We go back to Sri. P.R Srinivasan’s book to look at a few similar depictions in bronzes.

This style is commonly seen in the Chandikeshwara bronzes of the late 12th C. For eg, look at this fantastic specimen from Eton College. ( location as mentioned in the book)

Similarly this Chandikeswara from Polonnaruwa Srilanka, also dated to the second half of the 12th Century. Another masterpiece.

Though the posture is similar including the clasped hands and the flower held in it, notice that the anklet is missing .

And now, we come to another interesting exhibit in the same book. Another bronze king, this time from Kandarakottai, Cuddalore Taluk, South Arcot district.

This is dated to the third quarter of the 11th Century. The Kirita is strikingly similar to that of Rama from Valarpuram, its necklaces and armlets are similar to those of the bronzes of this school dealt earlier. The loin cloth shows closely ” wrinkled folds’ and its edges are prominent. The Uttariya is tied with a graceful knot in front and a pair of pendent ends are seen on either side. The other interesting detail is that rosaries of beads held between the hand in anjali pose, the like of which has not been met with in earlier bronzes. That the bronze is of the school is borne out by the angular treatment of the elbows and by the presence of a thick anklet on the left leg. This latter ornament, as has been seen above, has become a distinguishing feature of a majority of images since Rajendra I’s time. Its erect posture is in the style of Vishnu bronzes; and the workmanship of the legs, which taper beautifully and are proportionate, adds charm to the posture.

The Padmasana of this bronze is of the usual type and the marginal lines of the the petals are distinctly sen although their tips are not prominent. The asana is seen on a simple square bhadrasana which has on either side a pair of rings.

From the above description it will be seen that this is a good specimen of the art of bronzes of this school. As regards its identification Mr. T.G. Aravamuthan has said that it represented a local chief, but the authors of the Catalogue have said that ” it is presumably the Chola King Madurantaka, who is said by local tradition to have built the temple where it was found”. They, however, opined that they had not been able to identify the king. But now the situation is slightly better. It is known that the title of Madurantaka was brone by a number of Chola kings and princes, namely, Parantaka I, Sundara Chola, Rajendra I and Madurantaka, son of Virarajendra. Of these, on grounds of style, this bronze cannot be said to belong to either of the former two kings. On the other hand, the style of the bronze, being characteristic of bronzes of the school of Rajendra I, and that the temple where it was found is said to have been built by a Madhurantaka who may either be Rajendra I was a great builder of temples and it was during his period, as during his father’s , portraits in metal, of royal persons came to be made frequently and places in temples as testified to by the bronze figures discussed above. But this figure being in a slightly more evolved style, it may be a representation of Rajendra I made during his successor’s time. Accordingly to us the school of Rajendra I extends upto about 1075 AD. It may therefore be said that this bronze may have done during the time, by the ruler of Tondaimandalam about 1065 AD by Virarajendra, the temple may have been built by him to which he presented the bronze in question.A solution to this question will require further on the spot examination of the temple and of the other bronzes returned to the villages.

There is no indication of the current location of this bronze !

its been a long post and have been curbing the voices to break it into parts, but the piece de resistance is yet to come and we get to see one more illustrious Chola King – probably Kulottunga III. Again ref and photos from the same book.

The bronze representing a King, over a foot high, probably Kulottunga III, formerly in the Siva temple at Kalahasti but now in a private collection may be examined now ( WHERE ? WITH WHOM?). Extremely fortunate it bears on its pedestal an inscription which according to Mr. G. Venkoba Rao, the epigraphist is in characters of about the 13th Century AD, a proposition accepted by Mr. T.G. Aravamuthan. The inscription is in two parts. ” The first part ………….is a label ‘ Kulottunga Sola devar’ and the second part is a record of the dedication of the image to that temple by one Udaiya Nambi.” So the difficulty in dating this piece has been very much reduced by this inscription. The style of the bronze, appropriately enough, is characteristic of the period to which the inscription is assigned on the basis of its paleography

Prof. Sastri says the following about this : ” ……the figure wears many ornaments and the face is expressive of youthful energy and eagerness. The image is important as perhaps the only authentic contemporary portrait of a Chola Monarch so far known”
.But regarding his dating of the bronze expressed in the sentence “…..the image may have been made about the time of his accession.”…..its date is most probably somewhere around 1180,” it may be said that it is somewhat early.

The noteworthy details of this pretty little piece, are the curly hair in front, depicted in a manner very similar to that which is meet with in the bronzes of Jnanasambanda, the thick cluster of necklaces, the prominent beaded strings on the shoulder, the stylised and not clearly worked keyuras and elbow ornament, the ornate shorts and waist bands and the anklets of three rings on the ankles.

The asanas too are beautiful, the petals of the padmasana are in the traditional style. The bhanga of the figure is beautiful and the excellence of tis conception is exemplified by the realistic rendering of the facial features and the smiling countenance. This may be attributed to the middle of the fist quarter of the 13th Century AD.

Lots of information is available and these are not recent findings. There is much to learn from the work of these scholars and build on. Hope you all found this long post educative and enlightening, for it was definitely so for me . Hoping someday some of these bronzes will surface again somewhere?

31 thoughts on “Portrait bronzes of Chola Kings – A study from Past references

  1. nice presentation i fully endorse the statements inthe last paragraph &comments by sri swaminathan N iwould like to to give some more repeat reading to digest the info cograts good painstaking essay

  2. Thanks for all the wonderful responses. There is a wealth of information in the works of experts – we need to use it effectively and build awareness.

    reg Dr Muthunarayanan querry, dating of bronzes is indeed a tough job – very scant icons have inscribed titles, second reliable inscriptinal evidence – again very scant. The most widely practised ( not accepted) is stylistic dating – based on evolutionary aspects of body/facial features, the way the yagnopavitham is worn, the stylisation of the ornaments, dress, tresses etc – are key aspects to assign a period. But again is subjective only and a bone of contention amongst most scholars.


  3. what u say is correct though chemical analysis of metal composition for periods unless u find few idols with dates this may also be an approxmation

  4. Thanks for the answer. I was wondering again if there is any sculpture or statue in which the stapati has signed like in modern times? and is it possible to relate the bronzes to any particular school and are there any records of sculpture schools in ancient Tamilnadu? Sorry if you fin

  5. மிகவும் போற்றத்தக்க முயற்சி, பாராட்டுக்கள்.

    மன்னரின் கரங்களிடையே இருப்பது உருத்திராக்க மாலையாக இருக்கக் கூடும்.

    நாயக்க மன்னர்களின் சிற்பங்கள் இளம் தொந்தியுடன் இருப்பதைப் பார்த்துள்ளேன். தஞ்சைப் படிமம் அவ்வகை சேர்ந்ததாக இருக்கலாம். மூன்று வரி வீரக்கழல் நன்கு புலப்படுகிறது. வீரக்கழல் பற்றிய குறிப்பு அருமை.

    சில பிழைகளைத் தவிர்த்திருக்கலாம்; ‘ ப்ருஹதீச்வரர் ஆலயம் ’ சரி, (ப்ருஹத் ஈச்வரர் – பெருவுடையார்)

    வெங்கலம் – வெண்கலம்
    சாம பங்கா ஆசனம் – ஸமபங்க ஆஸநம்
    பாதசாரம் – பாதஸரம்


  6. VJ, just a small correction on this:

    “Similarly this Chandikeswara from Pollunuwara Srilanka, also dated to the second half of the 12th Century. Another masterpiece.”

    The name of the place in Sri Lanka is Polunnaruwa or Polannuruwa. (but either way it is xxxxruwa not xxxwara).

    Srinivasan N.

  7. மிக்க நன்றி தேவ் சார்,

    வருங்காலத்தில் பிழையின்றி எழுத முயற்சி செய்கிறோம்…

  8. I just read in Today’s newspaper that a bronze supposedly of Raja Raja is in Gujarat Calico Museum (BTW it is a textile museum wondering what a bronze is doing there) and the Govt of TN is trying to get it back the bronze through legal ef

  9. Raja Raja solan oru devendrar kula vellalar but onething old tamil history devar means padai veeran but today its one community bad and thief community i told again and again Raja Raja Sola devendrar

    • dear shanmuga sundaram

      Not sure if this is apt place to discuss this ,but devendra kular velalar ….but cholas clan is prior to the appearance of this clan. the ref from sankaranarayanar temple gives the legend. read my friends post here


      விசுவாவசு வருடம் வைகாசி மாதம் 14 நாள் திங்கட்கிழமையும் உத்திராடமும் பெற்ற நாள் தெய்வேந்திரக் குடும்பன் பலாத்துப்படி : முன் துவாபர யுகத்தில் உக்கிரப் பெருவழுதியும் சோழனும் சேரனும் உலகம் வறுமைப்பட்டு இருக்கின்ற காலத்திலே தெய்வேந்திரன் பக்கல் மழை கேட்கப் போனவிடத்திலே பகவானும் மனம் மகிழ்ந்து இரும் என்ன சேரனும் சோழனும் வணங்கியிருக்க பாண்டியன் தெய்வேந்திரனுடனே கூடியிருக்க, தேவேந்திரனும் வரிசை செய்தாற்போல கவடு நினைக்க. பாண்டியன் கோபித்து எழுந்து. தேவ கன்னிகை மக்கள் நாலு குடும்பத்தாரை கைப்பிடியாய்ப் பிடித்துக் கொண்டு சென்னல் விதையும், கன்னல் விதையும் (கதலி) விதையும் பனைவிதையும் முதலான பல வித்தும் ஒரு ரிசபமும் ஒரு சாவியும் கொண்டு பூமியில் வந்தான். நால்வரில் முதல்வனுக்கு தேவேந்திரக் குடும்பப் பட்டமும் கட்டி, மூன்று பேருக்கு வாரியன், அக்கசாலை, (இளந்தாரியன்) என்று வரிசைப் பட்டமும் கட்டி ஒரு நாளையிலே 12000 கிணறு வெட்டி வேளாண்மை கண்ட படியினாலே ராஜாவும் மனம் மகிழ்ந்து வெள்ளானையும் வெள்ளை வட்டக் குடையும் சேறாடியும் பகல் பந்தம் பாவாடை ரெட்டைச் சிலம்பும் ரெட்டைக் கொடுக்கும் நன்மைக்கு

      16 பந்தக்காலும் துன்மைக்கு 2 தேரும் பஞ்சவன் விருந்தும் . . . . .

      18 மேளமும் கட்டளையிட்டு நடக்கிற காலத்திலெ .

  10. என்னுடைய வலைப்பூ வாசகர்களுக்கு ஆயிரம் கால அதியத்தை உணர்த்த உங்கள் வலைப்பூவை பயன்படுத்திக் கொண்டேன்.

    தஞ்சை பெரிய கோவிலின் மர்மங்கள் என்று தேடினால் கிடைக்கும்.

    • ஜெகதீஸ்வரன், உங்கள் இடுகையை படித்தேன் , நன்றாக உள்ளது , தொடருங்கள். விஜய்

  11. May 5,2010 Nagai district mayiladudurai near inthalur near kalukanimuttam near kailashanathar kovilil seppu kidaithathu. Ithai padithal theriyum. Rajaraja cholan Thevar thaan endru. More details june 19 thinakaran news paper.

    • Dear Vijay, Mostly inscriptions of Chola Kings address them out of respect as Thevar / periya thevar etc. Similarly The women folk are addressed as Aalvar. However, do not see the reference to the Emperor’s caste ref in this post. Would like to keep this focussed on sculptures. Thanks for your understanding. If you need to discuss more, please do write to me in private


  12. The bronze shown under the title,” So, who is this king” belongs to nayaka period . This can be easily seen from the rich details and poor facial expression and rigidity of posture. This easily compares with the stone sculpures of Achyuthappa nayaka at Trichy and other places.The veerakkazhal also has a name,”virudhu pendoram”. In my opinion the idol must be either that of Ragunatha nayak of tanjore or his son

    • dear Karthik, It is indeed from nayak period – but my question to you was to compare it with the portrait sculpture of the most famous Nayaka ruler? any guess?


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