Skip to main content

Tamil Chola Bronzes and Swamimalai Legacy: Metal Sources and Archaeotechnology


This review explores the great copper alloy image casting traditions of southern India from archaeometallurgical and ethnometallurgical perspectives. The usefulness of lead isotope ratio and compositional analysis in the finger-printing and art historical study of more than 130 early historic, Pallava, Chola, later Chola, and Vijayanagara sculptures (fifth–eighteenth centuries) is highlighted, including Nataraja, Buddha, Parvati, and Rama images made of copper, leaded bronze, brass, and gilt copper. Image casting traditions at Swamimalai in Tamil Nadu are compared with artistic treatises and with the technical examination of medieval bronzes, throwing light on continuities and changes in foundry practices. Western Indian sources could be pinpointed for a couple of medieval images from lead isotope analysis. Slag and archaeometallurgical investigations suggest the exploitation of some copper and lead-silver sources in the Andhra and Karnataka regions in the early historic Satavahana period and point to probable copper sources for the medieval images in Karnataka, Tamil Nadu, and Andhra Pradesh. The general lower iron content in southern Indian bronzes perhaps renders the proximal copper–magnetite reserves of Seruvila in Sri Lanka as a less likely source. Given the lack of lead deposits in Sri Lanka, however, the match of the lead isotope signatures of a well-known Ceylonese Buddhist Tara in British Museum with a Buddha image from Nagapattinam in Tamil Nadu may underscore ties between the island nation and the southern Indian Tamil regions.

This is a preview of subscription content, access via your institution.

Fig. 1
Fig. 2
Fig. 3
Fig. 4
Fig. 5
Fig. 6
Fig. 7
Fig. 8
Fig. 9
Fig. 10
Fig. 11
Fig. 12
Fig. 13
Fig. 14
Fig. 15
Fig. 16


  1. A.K. Coomaraswamy, The Dance of Siva—Fourteen Indian Essays (New York: Sunwise Turn, 1924).

    Google Scholar 

  2. K. Zvelebil, Ananda-Tandava of Siva-Sadanrttamurti (Madras, India: Institute of Asian Studies, 1985), p. 2.

    Google Scholar 

  3. C. Sagan, Cosmos (New York: Ballantine Books, 1980), p. 214.

    Google Scholar 

  4. S. Srinivasan, Nature and Culture, R. Narasimha, ed. (New Delhi, India: PHISPC Series and Centre for Studies in Civilisation, 2011), pp. 271.

  5. S. Srinivasan, Orientations 37, 46 (2006).

    Google Scholar 

  6. V. Dehejia, Art of the Imperial Cholas (New York: Columbia University Press, 1990), p. 127.

    Google Scholar 

  7. R.F. Tapsell, Monarchs, Rulers, Dynasties and Kingdoms of the World (London, U.K.: Facts on File, 1983), pp. 443.

    Google Scholar 

  8. S.R. Balasubrahmanyam, Early Chola Temples Parantaka I to Rajaraja I (A.D. 907-985) (New Delhi, India: Orient Longman, 1971), p. 182.

  9. E.H. Warmington, The Commerce between the Roman Empire and India (Cambridge, UK: University Press, 1928), pp. 237.

    Google Scholar 

  10. R. Krishnamurthy, Late Roman Copper Coins from South India: Karur and Madurai (Madras, India: Garnet Press, 1994), pp. 121.

    Google Scholar 

  11. G. Coedès, Indianised States of Southeast Asia (Canberra: Australian National University Press, 1968), pp. 107.

    Google Scholar 

  12. S. Srinivasan, JOM 50, 44 (1998).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  13. S. Srinivasan, Archaeological Sciences 1995, eds. A. Sinclair, E. Slater, and J. Gowlett (Oxford, UK: Oxbow Books, 1997), pp. 136.

  14. P. Wheatley, Nagara and Commandery (Chicago, IL: University of Chicago, 1983), p. 236.

    Google Scholar 

  15. S.D. Goiten, Islamic Culture 37, 196 (1963).

    Google Scholar 

  16. S.D. Goiten and M.A. Friedman, India Traders of the Middle Ages: Documents from the Cairo Geniza “India Book” (Leiden, The Netherlands: E.J. Brill, 2013).

    Google Scholar 

  17. K.A.N. Sastri, A History of South India (London, U.K.: Oxford University Press, 1958), p. 215.

    Google Scholar 

  18. R. Reeves, Cire Perdue Casting in India (New Delhi, India: Crafts Museum, 1962), pp. 29.

    Google Scholar 

  19. U. Von Schroeder, Indo-Tibetan Bronzes (Hong Kong: Visual Dharma, 1981), p. 19.

    Google Scholar 

  20. C. Sivaramamurti, South Indian Bronzes (Bombay, India: Lalit Kala Academy, 1963), p. 14.

    Google Scholar 

  21. S. Srinivasan, Metals and Civilisations, Proceedings of BUMA VII, eds. S. Srinivasan, S. Ranganathan, and A. Giumlia Mair (Bangalore, India: National Institute of Advanced Studies, 2015), pp. 209.

  22. S. Srinivasan, (Unpublished Ph.D. Dissertation, University of London, 1996).

  23. S.K. Saraswati, J. Indian Soc. Orient. Art 4, 139 (1936).

    Google Scholar 

  24. T. Levy, A. Levy, R. Sthapathy, and D. Sthapathy, Masters of Fire (German Mining Museum: Bochum, 2008), p. 56.

    Google Scholar 

  25. C. Chandramouli, Arts and Crafts of Tamil Nadu (New Delhi, India: Census of India, 2004).

    Google Scholar 

  26. U. Von Schroeder, Indo-Tibetan Bronzes (Hong Kong: Visual Dharma, 1981), p. 17.

    Google Scholar 

  27. S. Srinivasan (Unpublished Ph.D. Dissertation, University of London, 1996), S. Srinivasan, Beginning of the Use of Metals and Alloy (BUMA-IV) (Matsue, Japan: Japan Institute of Metals, 1998), pp. 79.

  28. B. Johnson, Krishna: The Cowherd King, ed. P. Pal, Los Angeles County Museum of Art Monograph Series 1 (Los Angeles, CA: Los Angeles County Museum of Art, 1972), pp. 45.

  29. P. Craddock, Scientific Research in the Sculptural Arts of Asia, eds. J.G. Douglas, P. Jett, and J. Winter (London, UK: Archetype Publications, 2007).

  30. M.V. Krishnan, Cire Perdue Casting in India (New Delhi, India: Kanak, 1976), p. 17.

    Google Scholar 

  31. G. Yocum, Experiencing Siva: Encounters with a Hindu Deity, eds. F. Clothey, and B. Long (New Delhi, India: Manohar Publications, 1983), pp. 19.

  32. C. Reedy (Unpublished Ph.D. Dissertation, University of California, 1986).

  33. C. Reedy, Himalayan Bronzes: Technology, Style and Choices (Newark, NJ: University of Delaware Press, 1997).

    Google Scholar 

  34. H. Woodward, The Sacred Sculpture of Thailand (The Walters Art Gallery: Baltimore, MD, 1997).

    Google Scholar 

  35. O. Werner, Spektralanalytische und Metallurgische Untersuchungen an Indischen Bronzen (Leiden, The Netherlands: E.J. Brill, 1972).

    Google Scholar 

  36. B. Raj, C. Rajagopalan, and C.V. Sundaram, Where Gods Come Alive (VigyanPrasar: New Delhi, India, 2000).

    Google Scholar 

  37. B. Johnson, Krishna: The Cowherd King, ed. P. Pal (Los Angeles, CA: Los Angeles County Museum of Art, 1972), pp. 45.

  38. S. Srinivasan, Archaeometry 41, 91 (1999).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  39. S. Srinivasan, Marg-A Magazine of the Arts 52, 54 (2001).

    Google Scholar 

  40. S. Srinivasan, Archaeology as History: South Asia, eds. H.P. Ray and C. Sinopoli (New Delhi, India: ICHR and Aryan Books International, 2004) pp. 219.

  41. Z.A. Stos-Gale, Archaeologie Polona 31, 149 (1993).

    Google Scholar 

  42. E.C. Joel, E.V. Sayre, R.D. Vocke, and F. Willet, J. Hist. Metall. 29, 25 (1995).

    Google Scholar 

  43. S. Srinivasan, Metals in Antiquity. BAR International Series 792, eds. S. Young, M. Pollard, P. Budd, and R. Ixer (Oxford, UK: Archaeopress, 1999), pp. 200.

  44. S. Srinivasan, New Research on Ancient Bronzes, eds. E. Deschler-Erb and P.D. Casa, Zurich Studies in Archaeology, vol. 10, pp. 317–327.

  45. R. Shankar, J. Geol. Soc. India 33, 64 (1986).

    Google Scholar 

  46. S. Srinivasan, (Unpublished Ph.D. Dissertaion, University of London, 1996).

  47. S. Srinivasan and I. Glover, J. Hist. Metall. Soc. 29, 69 (1995).

    Google Scholar 

  48. S. Srinivasan, Traditions of Science: Cross-Cultural Perspectives, ed. P. Bilimoria (New Delhi, India: Munshiram Manoharlal Publishers Pvt. Ltd, 2007), pp. 157.

  49. K. Prentiss, The Sensuous and the Sacred: Chola Bronzes from Southern India, ed. V. Dehejia (New York: American Federation of Arts, 2003), pp. 64.

  50. L. Mowry, Experiencing Siva: Encounters with a Hindu deity, eds. W. Clothey, and B. Long (New Delhi, India: 1983), pp. 37–39.

  51. R. Nagaswamy, Masterpieces of Early South Indian Bronzes (New Delhi, India: National Museum, 1983), p. 1.

    Google Scholar 

  52. R. Nagaswamy, The Great Tradition—Indian Bronze Masterpieces, ed. K. Khandalavala (New Delhi, India: Festival of India, 1988), p. 156.

  53. T.N. Ramachandran, The Nagapattinam and Other Buddhist Bronzes in the Madras Museum, Bulletin of Madras Government Museum, New Series, Vol. VII, No. 1 (Madras, India: Government Museum, 1954).

  54. P.R. Srinivasan, Bronzes of South India, Bulletin of the Madras Government Museum. New Series, Vol. 8. (Madras, India: Government Museum, 1963).

  55. G. Michell, Architecture and Art of Southern India (Cambridge, UK: University Press, 1995), p. 199.

    Book  Google Scholar 

  56. P.T. Craddock, I.C. Freestone, L.K. Gurjar, A.P. Middleton, and L. Willies, British Museum Occasional Paper No. 50, 29 (1990).

  57. S. Srinivasan, The Ramayana in Literature, Society and the Arts, ed. N. Krishna (Chennai, India: CPR Publications, 2013), pp. 34.

  58. R. Nagaswamy, The Great Tradition – Indian Bronze Masterpieces, ed. K. Khandalavala (New Delhi, India: Festival of India, 1988), p. 151.

  59. V. Dehejia, Sensuous and the Sacred: Chola Bronzes from South India (Ahmedabad, India: Mapin, 2002), p. 13.

    Google Scholar 

  60. P.J. Turner (Unpublished Ph.D. Dissertaion, University College, London, 1985).

  61. S. Srinivasan (Unpublished Ph.D. Dissertation, University of London, London, 1996).

  62. Tantilage, Roland Silva Felicitation Volume, eds. N. Chutiwongs and N. Siva (Colombo: PGIAR Publication, 2008), p. 200.

  63. U. Von Schroeder, Buddhist Sculptures of Sri Lanka (Hong Kong: Visual Dharma, 1990), p. 551.

    Google Scholar 

Download references


Thanks are due to S. Desikan and S. Balasubramanian of the Government Museum, Chennai; J. Guy and N. Barnard of the Victoria and Albert Museum; R. Knox, R. Blurton, and P. Craddock of the British Museum; S. Gorakshekar, S. Mukherjee, and A. Sah of the CSVMS Museum; and R. Sthapati, N. Raghavan, R. Krishnamurthy, R. Nagaswamy, J. Marr, A. Bennett, J. Merkel, N. Seeley, I. Glover, S. Settar, G. Michel, J. Fritz, V. Dehejia, S. Ranganathan, B. Raj, N. Krishna, R. Sengupta, P. Selvakumar, K. Mudali, and B.V. Sreekantan.

Author information

Authors and Affiliations


Corresponding author

Correspondence to Sharada Srinivasan.

Rights and permissions

Reprints and Permissions

About this article

Verify currency and authenticity via CrossMark

Cite this article

Srinivasan, S. Tamil Chola Bronzes and Swamimalai Legacy: Metal Sources and Archaeotechnology. JOM 68, 2207–2221 (2016).

Download citation

  • Received:

  • Accepted:

  • Published:

  • Issue Date:

  • DOI:


  • Lead Isotope
  • Copper Slag
  • Lead Isotope Ratio
  • Bronze Vessel
  • Solid Casting