Processional Images

Seated Ganesha sculpture
Ganesha, the god of wisdom and new beginnings, is the son of Shiva and Parvati, S1987.960.

There were many separate shrines and halls within the large Shiva temples constructed during the Chola dynasty. In both immovable stone sculptures and portable bronzes, Shiva was represented in his many different forms, including his non-anthropomorphic form of a pillar (lingam). Stone and bronze sculptures of Shiva’s family—his consort Skanda, and a variety of other deities—would also be situated in temple spaces.

Bronze sculptures were created as mobile embodiments of the gods, to be carried outside the temple during rituals ranging from routine daily processions to month-long annual festivals. The use of processional images of Hindu deities in south India began in the seventh century, when they were likely wooden sculptures no more than twelve inches tall. During the Chola period, however, the images were crafted of stronger, highly polished bronze and reached heights of up to five feet. These portable sculptures, from their earliest use through the present day, are richly adorned with jewelry, silks, and flowers while in procession.

Hindu ritual was transformed by the introduction and rise of portable sculptures at a time when many people had no access to the images inside the temples. The inner sanctum of a temple was restricted to specially trained members of the priestly class (Brahmins). Class determined how close a person could get to the inner sanctum; some people were barred from the temple altogether.

Already at this time, a critical aspect of Hindu worship was darshan—the ability to attain blessings by seeing and being seen by the deity. Processional images carried outside the temple walls allowed all worshippers the opportunity for darhsan as they made visual contact with the gods.

Next: The Origins of Shiva Nataraja