Aesthetic Exploration of Ganesha part I (Forms in 3D)
Traditional Temples and Idols
The god of new beginnings, Ganesha is worshipped at the start of any undertaking. To this day in India, he is invoked, for example, by students commencing an exam, women starting to make a new batch of sweets, and accountants opening the books for a new year. Ganesha is carried at the head of all festival processions, even before the chief deity of that particular festival; thus every temple possesses at least one Ganesha figure.
To understand more about Ganesha idols, which originated in temples, it makes perfect sense to delve a bit into these temples, especially South Indian architectural marvels. The heritage value of these temples is priceless and most of our present day creative understanding of Ganesha’s forms definitely starts here.
Significance of temples:
The worship of Gods in temples is a very ancient practice in India. Many believe that three great pillars that have held Hinduism high, millennium after millennium are the satgurus, the scriptures and the temples.
Temples are believed to be the abodes for Gods. Idols of Shiva, Vishnu, Parvati, Lakshmi, Kartikeya and Ganesha were placed inside these for worship. The South Indian temples have a special place in Indian history as their style of temple architecture is very distinct from that of the rest of India.
The types of architecture of these temples can be divided into four periods corresponding to the principal kingdoms which ruled in southern India down the centuries. The magnificent temples commissioned by the rulers were marvels of architecture with perfectly carved sculptures and idols of deities.
Pallava (AD 600-900)
The rock- cut of temples at Mahabalipuram are the greatest accomplishments of Pallava architecture. Another example is the Kailasanatha temple at Kanchipuram which is a huge temple complex with a towered sanctuary and mandapa (a columned hall preceding the sanctuary).
The Cholas – perhaps Peninsular India’s most powerful dynasty – came to power in the late 9th century A.D. and until the late 13th century, ruled most parts of peninsular India and even parts of Indonesia’s Java island.
Chola architecture achieved its peak at Thanjavur, the capital established by the Chola ruler Rajaraja-I. Bronze sculptures of this era are the finest in southern India. These are delicately modelled, especially those depicting Lord Shiva in his many aspects.
Chola rulers are known more for what they built rather than their conquests. During their rule poetry, theatre, music and dance flourished as arts. The magnificent temples commissioned by them were marvels of architecture with perfectly carved sculptures and idols of deities. With their rule, bronze-casting became a huge art in South India. One of the finest ones of all time, a masterpiece - the idol of Lord Nataraja or dancing Shiva in the Chidambaram temple was created in this era.
The temples erected during the Hoysala kings have complicated plans with numerous angled projections. The temples from the Hoysala period can still be seen at Belur, Halebid and Sringeri. After the reign of the Hoysalas, architectural traditions were interrupted by Muslim raids at the end of the 13th century and temple building resumed later under the Vijayanagara Empire.
By the 16th century, Vijayanagara Empire was one of the largest, with almost all of southern India being a part of it. The characteristic feature of this period was the development of the temple complexes which had a concentric series of rectangular enclosure walls with gopuras (towered gateways) in the middle of each side. Of the numerous Vijayanagara complexes in southern India, the most magnificent are those in Kerala on the west coast which developed a distinct style of architecture, during the same time. The temples here were roofed with sloping tiers of metal or Terra cotta tiles to protect them from heavy rainfall. A superb example of this is the Vadakkunatha temple at Trichur, which dates from the 12th century. Temples constructed later are found at Chengannur, Kaviyum and Vaikom.
Agamas: The temple architecture during these various periods followed the ancient Agamas (collection of sacred ritual practices).
These are books, and records of temple architecture and carry all information related to building one. Each Agama consists of four parts. The third part specifies rules for the construction of temples and for sculpting and carving the figures of deities for worship in the temples. In the Agamas for Silpa (the art of sculpture) elaborate rules are laid out, describing the quality requirements of the places where temples are to be built, the kind of images to be installed, the materials from which they are to be made, their dimensions, proportions, air circulation, lighting in the temple complex etc.
Apart from the aspects of temple construction, details regarding the exact manner of consecrating deities and worshipping them are laid out. They also describe every possible detail of handling icons and conserving them.
These books are also the source of Vastu Shastra, the science which has gained immense popularity today.
Some examples of temples with monolithic stone Ganeshas in India:
Sometimes instead of housing the sacred stone Ganeshas in temples, some were carved on large boulders of granite creating monolithic, open air, outdoor Ganesha shrines.
The ancient town Melukote in Karnataka has unique monolith Ganesha idols. While one is located at the foot of Melukote hill, the other idol is at Kunthibetta in the Pandavapura taluk. This monolithic sculpture is said to be carved out around 1140 A.D.
The idol is said to be sculpted during the construction of the Melukote Chelluvanarayana Swamy temple at the direction of the rulers of Mysore.
The monolithic Ganesha at the foot of the hill is offered pooja once in a year. The ritual is observed on Ganesh Chaturthi day in the month of ‘Bhadrapada’ once in a year. The devotees offer Mahabhisheka for the monolith Ganesha on the day.
Kunthibetta, a place close by also hosts a 15 feet monolith idol of Ganesha. According to folk tales, Pandava during their exile after losing in dice game to Kauravas offered pooja to this idol.
Kunthibetta is a favourite for trekkers and adventure buffs, and before starting their expedition many offer prayers to this Ganesha idol for a safe adventure.
While some of the ancient stone Ganeshas around the country receive their due reverence and worship some are in a sad state of neglect. One such example is at Mahabubnagar, Andhra Pradesh. An ancient Ganesha idol sculpted on a large granite boulder is lying in a state of neglect since centuries in the district. Believed to be carved out around 1140 A.D. by a king of western Chalukya dynasty, the idol is located in an agricultural field at Avancha village of Thimmajipet Mandal in the district.
The granite Ganesha reflects simplicity and grandeur, and truly has an ambience that is spiritual, but neither the Department of Archaeology nor the district administration has initiated measures to protect the ‘rock Ganesha’ according to its heritage status.
Idols in temples:
Along with stone idols, bronze and other metal idols were made in Tamil Nadu mostly during the Chola and Pallava eras of history between the 6th and 11th century A.D. The Pallava dynasty built temples across the verdant landscape of Tamil Nadu, but these were small and their spires rose to heights of 20 to 60 ft. Thus, the idols of Shiva, Vishnu, Parvati, Lakshmi, Kartikeya and Ganesha were the popular idols of that era and were small, but in consonance with the rules of the Agamas.
The Cholas were empire builders; they built huge temple complexes and their idols were also proportionately larger and more perfectly designed.
Many of these bronzes big or small have exquisite facial expressions. The ornamentation, the grace of posture, the proportions of limbs and the spiritual significance of these bronzes are incomparable.
The temples usually have two kinds of idols. Those which are fixed permanently in the sanctum and the sub-shrines are called Achala Bimba or immovable reflections of divinity. Each temple also requires transportable idols for worship or festive processions. These are called Chala Bimbas, or moveable reflections of divinity. The latter is used in festive rituals and processions.
From History, one learns about dynasties like the great Cholas who indulged in gifting bronze images of Gods and Goddesses to temples. This was done because it was believed that the wealth of kings had to be matched by equally impressive gestures of grand devotion to the Almighty. The processional deity (Utsava Murthi or the Chala Bimba), was adorned with royal jewels, and silks, bedecked by flowers and carried in palanquins or elaborate wooden chariots. They were also heralded by trumpets and drums and were taken in processions quite often winding their way around the imposing temples, as a show of pomp and glory.
Such temple festivals with processions, conducted with great pomp and splendour are conducted even to this day based on these age-old traditions.
Bronzes and other metal icons of the Chola era were either cast hollow or were solid. These were sculpted by master craftsmen (Sthapathi) who had already mastered the art of stone sculpting. A new craft was thus born the process of casting bronze images.
Traditional craftsmen in Swamimalai, Kumbakonam and other temple towns where the studios are located follow this procedure to date.
Procedure: A wax model of the figure is chiselled by hand as detailed in drawings. The figure is then covered by a mould of clay. Once the clay has dried, 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.
Till date, Tamil Nadu is dotted with innumerable temples which have bronze images worshipped according to the ancient Agamas. Some of these idols are one-of-a kind. They are breathtaking in style, and significance. They radiate an intense and sacred aura.
Panchaloha idols: Some of the temples also had idols made of Panchaloha, which is a mix of five alloys - brass, gold, copper, silver and zinc. These five also represent the five elements which symbolically sanctify the cosmic core of sacred images. When melted in the right proportion it forms a shining metal, used for making sacred statues or sculptures.
Idols as “objets d'art”:
The art of making bronzes reached its zenith during the Chola era between the 10th and 11th centuries. Later dynasties too followed the custom of commissioning images for worship.
Apart from the sacred purpose of worship over the years, these have reached the status of unique art creations and have attracted art connoisseurs from all over the world. In fact, it is this perception of being sacred art, that some of these idols have found their way into the vaults of private collectors.
A few examples are shown below:
1. Bronze Ganesha – (Chola period, ca. 1070) - From the Cleveland Museum of Art
This sculpture displays powerful modelling and depicts Ganesha with his characteristic gentle paunch. He holds his typical attributes - the two rear hands hold a battle axe and a noose or rosary, and the two front hands hold his own tusk (broken in a victorious battle against a mighty demon) and Modaka (sweet). Ganesha’s love of sweets is proverbial, and sculptors frequently indicate this by having his trunk touching the sweets.
2. Ganesha, India, Uttar Pradesh; 8th century
This is a Ganesha in sandstone from the private collection of Mr. and Mrs. John D. Rockefeller’s 3rd Collection of Asian Art. This is a sculpture of a ten-armed Ganesha. Six of his ten hands perform gestures commonly used in dance. The other four hold a rosary, a snake, a bowl of sweets, and a broken tusk.
This Ganesha is from the private collection of John and Blanchette Rockefeller.
It was the connoisseurs, and art historians, both Indian and foreign who brought these bronzes into focus as great works of art. While some of them strived to explain their mysticism of them, others went into ecstasy about the images themselves. Elaborate analysis and detailed descriptions about these “objets d'art” by a series of art historians, kindled the greed of collectors. And the market value of such sacred art turned priceless.
Many have been sold by art thieves, many have been smuggled out of the temples or even the country and many have landed in museums or private collections. In times of war in the bygone era, with the invading Islamic armies who came from the north, many of these idols were buried according to the rites in the Agamas. It was also customary to bury them during floods, famines, and enemy attacks. These idols were hidden in secret vaults, under sand brought from rivers for conservation. Some were recovered, some not. Thus there has been persistent plundering of bronzes from our temples, though some of these treasures are now recovered and housed in temples or museums.
Over time some collectors bequeathed their stolen, but paid for collections to museums, while others, to this day, have them hidden in vaults.
These sacred bronze idols deserve the kind of care and protection they enjoyed a thousand years ago. Their beauty is profound, their antiquity is sacred. They are the nation’s treasures to guard and enjoy forever. Hence with the use of technology, it must be endeavoured to put an end to such pillage and preserve these masterpieces, like several Indian archaeologists have been doing till date.