Of the myriad works of art produced on the Indian subcontinent in over five thousand years, the bronzes of Tamilnadu are among the finest. Bronze casting in this area received a significant impetus around 1000 A.D., when the great king Rajaraja Chola ascended the throne in his capital city of Tanjore. The tradition grew strong enough to continue for several hundred years, but the most exquisite bronzes were produced during his reign. Their refined grace and impressive technique moved Auguste Rodin, in 1921, to collaborate on a book about them with A. K. Coomaraswamy, the premier historian of Indian art. This image of the Hindu god Shiva stands on a double lotus base, supported by a square platform also inscribed with lotus petals. The finely finished figure wears only a short lower garment (dhoti) decorated with a floral design, its folds appearing to be symmetrical stripes. Around his waist is a jeweled belt. He is further adorned with bracelets, armlets, two necklaces, and a sinuous sacred thread draped from his left shoulder across his chest. His long hair, arranged in a jata-bandha, is held in place with an ornamental band. The precise, elaborate details, the fluttering ends of the garment and belt, the sharply defined facial features, and the fullness of the figure attest to its thirteenth-century date.
Sculpted and cast by anonymous artists, images like this one were created by men who from childhood learned their art from their fathers and the master artists of their bronze-working community. The works were commissioned by royalty and the wealthy as acts of religious devotion.
Shiva, one of the most important Hindu deities, has many manifestations. In this benign and gracious form, Shiva Vrisha-vahana (Shiva with his vehicle the bull), he was originally in the company of two other figures. His bull, Nandi, would have stood behind him, and his wife, the goddess Parvati, would have been on his right. His raised left elbow would have rested on the head of the bull, the gently curving fingers touching its forehead. A crooked stick (vakra-danda yudha), made of either bronze or wood, would have been in his right hand. This particular Shiva image follows remarkably closely the descriptions given in Sanskrit iconographic texts, including the statements that he "should be standing with his right leg placed firmly on the ground and the left slightly bent "and his left hand "should hang fully open so that the tip of the middle finger may reach the level of his own navel." Very few of these group images are preserved in their entirety.
Such bronzes were generally intended as processional images. They were not the objects of daily veneration in temple sanctuaries, but were housed in side chapels and carried out into the village or town on festival days. The holes in their bases allowed the images to be secured with ropes and bamboo poles. The iconographic group of Shiva Vrisha-vahana was carried, appropriately, on the back of a bull. The exceptional heaviness of these bronzes is a result of solid casting. The lost wax method was the prevalent technique, with surface finishing and polishing completed with fine tools.