During the Chola period, women were major donors of bronzes of Uma to accompany images of Shiva; in fact, women donors often referred to Uma, in affectionate terms, as their own daughter (en-makalar-kondu). While in north India and in the Sanskrit tradition, Shiva’s wife is referred to as Parvati or daughter of the mountains (the Himalayas); in Tamil Nadu, she is addressed solely as Uma, with the added phrase Parameshvari or “Great goddess.” She accompanies Shiva in his many manifestations, whether of a martial category as when he kills the elephant demon or destroys the forts of three demons, or of the gentle category as with Shiva as rider of the bull. In other words, there are as many bronzes of Uma as there are of Shiva. Inscribed lists of bronzes, for instance in the temple at Tiruvilakudi on the Kaveri river, provide further confirmation as they specify that each form of Shiva is accompanied by nachchiyar, the term for the accompanying consort.
Uma’s role as consort of Shiva strengthened further during the Chola period with the introduction of bronzes to reflect newly important aspects of her character and personality. Apart from her accompanying role in Shiva’s manifestations, the belief arose that the aniconic linga form of Shiva in the sanctum, isolated thus far, also needed her presence. And so, images of Uma as Bhoga shakti or “Pleasure Force” began to be created and placed at the entrance into the sanctum. The iconography of the form of Uma remained unchanged so that the identification of an image of Uma as “Pleasure Force” rests solely on the larger-than-average size of the bronze. Additionally, from the twelfth century onwards, the concept of the tiru-kama-kottam or “sacred fortress of love,” came into play; donors now commissioned seated bronzes of Uma as palli-arai-nachchiyar or “consort of the bedroom chamber.” At the end of each day, an image of Shiva was ceremonially taken to this palli-arai (reclining chamber) that contained the image of Uma. It was, and still is, at the bedroom chamber that that the first early morning service is conducted by temple priests, and that the final late-night puja occurs.
This tall and stately image of Uma with the typical diadem framing her face, wears makara earrings, and a tiered cylindrical, lightly tapering crown seen in much of Chola art. Three incised lines at the waist are suggestive of her lush beauty; literature refers to such a well-endowed woman as trivali-tarangini or “she with three waves [at her waist].” Her perfectly rounded breasts are placed high with prominent nipples noticeably encircled by the aureola. Bands of jeweled chains hold in place her long skirt that hugs her thighs and legs.
Where do we place her in the chronological framework of bronzes? She stands at the very end of the Chola period before it transitions into the full-fledged Vijayanagara mode when limbs acquire a somewhat tubular quality, and a degree of firm aloofness envelops the image. We should here remind ourselves of the fact that while Chola rule ended in 1280, it was close to a hundred years later - in 1378 - that the Vijayanagara kingdom was established. The intervening hundred years was a period of considerable instability and confusion, with the armies of the Delhi Sultanate making two forays into the south in order to capture the fabled jeweled wealth of the Tamil temples. The Delhi sultans appointed a governor in Madurai, but he decided to establish an independent sultanate called Ma’bar; it lasted till the founder of Vijayanagara put an end to it and reestablished temple worship of the type that existed under the Cholas. Early in that intervening period, inscriptions from once famous Chola temples, like Tiruvenkadu, speak of festivals and rituals being re-inaugurated through generous donations from the Pandya rulers of Madurai. While bronze workshops would have found themselves short of work, and many wax modellers and bronze-casters must have moved away, a few centers clearly continued working after Chola rule crumbled.
When the Vijayanagara rulers took charge of Chola temples that had lost their ardent crowds of devotees, and hence their vitality, they commenced the process of commissioning new bronzes to replace those that were lost in the tumultuous century that preceded Vijayanagara rule. These new bronzes tend to have cylindrical limbs, elongated bodies, and firm stances. This Uma is not Vijayanagara, but neither is she purely late Chola; she appears to belong to the cusp between the two, and to the century that intervened between the two apparently “easy” labelling systems of “Chola” and “Vijayanagara.” More importantly, this bronze Uma has a commanding presence, and an aura of authority, that testifies to her creation by a talented artist. There is indeed a startling difference between the soft breasts of Umas of the early Chola period and these breasts raised high with pronounced nipples. Perhaps one may resort to the use of European terminology to ask whether viewers prefer the more restrained style of Renaissance art or the exuberance of the Baroque? Artists creating images for Tamil temples of the thirteenth century onwards were clearly responding to a change in taste as they strove to please their new clientele.
Dr. Vidya Dehejia
Barbara Stoler Miller Professor of Indian and South Asian Art