Admired for the sensuous depiction of the figure and the detailed treatment of their clothing and jewelry, Chola-period bronzes were created using the lost wax technique, commonly known by its French name, cire perdue. Because each sculpture made in this fashion requires a separate wax model, each is unique, but because they are religious icons, Chola-period sculptures also conform to well-established iconographic conventions.
In addition to representations of Shiva and members of his family, other prominent Hindu deities are depicted in Chola-period bronzes. As it is assumed that each individual is at a different point of spiritual development, Hinduism accepts that each will pursue her or his religious life in the most appropriate manner, and most Hindus venerate several deities, choosing gods or aspects of gods that are appropriate to different situations and life passages. Moreover, Hinduism can be broadly categorized into three branches, each of which is focused on one of three major deities: Shiva, Vishnu, and Devi.
According to Hindu beliefs, Vishnu descends to earth in different manifestations known as avatars in order to save the world and restore the balance of the universe. Vishnu appears in many guises, including a man-lion, a giant boar, and the gods Rama and Krishna. His manifestation as Krishna is one of the most popular, and the life and activities of this beloved god--often as a child--are a favorite theme in Indian literature and art.
This magnificent sculpture of Krishna dancing on a multiheaded cobra depicts his encounter with Kaliya the serpent-demon. Kaliya had been living in a whirlpool in the sacred river Yamuna, terrorizing everyone and spreading his poison throughout neighboring lands. Krishna was caught by the serpent when he chased a ball that inadvertently went into the whirlpool. To the amazement of the onlookers, he grabbed the central head of the serpent, forced Kaliya to bow, danced upon his head, and sent him back to his native environment, the ocean.
This sculpture illustrates the difficulties of dating Chola-period bronze images. The god's broadshoulders and full torso are characteristic of sculptures dating to the late 11th and 12th centuries, yet this body type was also often used in Indian art to depict a child. Thus, here it might illustrate iconography rather than style. Moreover, several of the details in this sculpture of Krishna also point to an earlier date: the sense of volume and fleshiness; the shape of his face; his full, pouting lips; and the organic relationship between the figure and his clothing and ornaments are comparable to those found on 10th-century images of Shiva Nataraja. The precise and three-dimensional treatment of Krishna's hair and ornaments and the distinctive fan-shaped fold at the back of his skirt point to a date in the late 10th or early 11th century. Other features--such as the coppery color of the metal and the greater three-dimensionality seen in the treatment of the jewelry--suggest this sculpture was cast in a region different from the majority of Chola-period bronzes, which are believed to have been produced in the vicinity of Thanjavur.