What prompted Mark Twain to describe this country as the land of dreams and romance, of fabulous wealth and fabulous poverty, of splendor and rags, of palaces and hovels, of famine and pestilence, of genii and giants, and Aladdin lamps, of tigers and elephants, the cobra and the jungle, the country of hundred nations and hundred tongues, of a thousand religions and two million Gods.
The complexity and variety is the hallmark of India, which attracts many visitors. This country is replete with traditional art; from calligraphic signs to mural paintings and pillar structures, architecture; from vignette stones to monuments, languages; from Malayalam to Kashmiri, literature; from Geetanjali of Rabindranath Tagore to Vedic epics, music and dance; from folk to classical, philosophy; from rational to spiritual, science; from abstract to the most technical, medicine; Ayurveda, Siddha to music therapy, magic, illusion and such sundry elements of art and culture.
This article, an excerpt from the introduction to the book “The Art and Architecture of India” by Benjamin Rowland puts it all in a nutshell.
The history of India and its art has been so bound up with the geographic nature of this vast continent that something must be said of these physical characteristics. India has a kind of impregnable geographic isolation. It is in the shape of a great sealed funnel extending from the heartland of Asia. This peculiar shape of the peninsula made for an inevitable retention and absorption of all the racial and cultural elements that poured into it. The peninsula is bounded on the west by the Indian ocean; on the east by the Bay of Bengal. Along the northern frontier India is almost sealed off from the Asiatic mainland by the rocky curtain of the Himalayas from Baluchistan to Assam. The only openings in this formidable natural fortification are the various passes of the north-west, such as the famous Khyber and Bolan passes, which wind through the mountains seperating India from the Iranian plateau. Through these gaps came all the migrating tribes and conquerors that made themselves masters of the rich plain of India.
The cultural divisions of India proper have always been determined and dominated by the great river systems, the watersheds of the Indus and Ganges, the Deccan plateau and South India.
Climate, no less than geography has played its part in the development of the peculiarly indigenous traits of Indian history and art. All the races of martial character have grown up in the dry and hilly districts of north-west and centre, whereas the fertile plains of Bengal and South have been inhabited by peaceful and unwarlike cultivators.
The overpowering nature of India has in a way forced upon the inhabitants an inability to act, a situation responsible for the Indian races having become lost in religiosity.
The mystery of Indian myths and Indian art lies partly in the fact that it suggests rather than states. It could truly be said that Indian symbols of art voiced the same truth as Indian philosophy and myth.
In India, all art, like all life, is given over to religion. Indian art is life, as interpreted by religion and philosophy.
Indian art may, in a general way, be described as theological, hieratic, or, perhaps best of all as traditional. The purpose of Indian art, like all traditional art, is primarily to instruct men in the great first causes, which according to the seers, govern the material, spiritual and celestial worlds. Art is dedicated to communicating these great truths to mankind and, by the architectural, sculptural and pictorial reconstruction of the powers that maintain the stars in their courses.
The temples constructed over the centuries boast of the sculptures, exhibiting the Indian artisans’ talent. The numerous sculptures on temple walls are all hon out of hard rock & last to date. Rock-cut architecture was perfected by the Buddhists, and was followed by several Hindu rulers. The Pallavas excelled in this art in the South of India.
The sculptures or idols in temples are made of granite (if it is mula vigraham) & the Utsava murthis are made of bronze & panchaloha. Apart from these, there are the huge Iyyanar statues & horses which still exist in South Indian villages.
Metal sculptures became popular throughout India during the post-Gupta period. In South India, they mastered the art of making huge exquisite sculptures with great stress on designs and details. The art achieved its zenith in the Chola period. The Cholas were Saivites and hence they mostly cast idols of Siva ( Nataraja ), other Saiva Gods such as Muruga, Sakthi, Ganesha, Saivite Saints. They also erected and renovated Vaishnavite shrines. Idols of Vishnu, Lakshmi in various aspects were also cast. The utsava murthis (idols) of temples, which are taken out in procession during temple festivals were made of bronze and panchaloha.
All of these idols were cast based on rules, proportions and methods laid down in the ancient texts based on scientific principles. The artisans who were involved in this art are called the Sthapathis.
Basically, the metal sculptures were cast using wax models. Two methods are followed, one yielding solid figures and the other hollow images.