Editor’s note: This essay on the history and significance of Shiva's representation as Nataraja was first published on The Heritage Lab—a wonderful resource of stories on cultural heritage, art, museums and lots more. You can find other wonderful essays on art and culture over at their website.
Nataraja: The original lord of the dance
What exactly is Nataraja?
‘The Nataraja’ is one of the most important, visually thrilling forms of the Hindu god Shiva. Artists in Tamil Nadu, India began to make this form of Shiva in the early tenth century, with the patronage of the king inspired by poetry written by ardent devotees and using skills in metal craft developed over hundreds of years. Once made and brought to life through ritual, Nataraja lived in the temple, moving out daily and during festivals, gracing his devotees within the temple and in the streets, as he processed through the town with song and ritual.
Depictions of Shiva as Nataraja, King of the Dance, were first created during the Chola Period (ca. 907—1279). Cult images such as this were used in temples and were sometimes carried in processions.
The sculpture is usually made in bronze, with Shiva dancing in a circle of flames, lifting his left leg (or in rare cases, the right leg) and balancing over a demon or dwarf (Apasmara) who symbolises ignorance.
What is the story behind the Nataraja?
Shiva constitutes a part of a powerful triad of divine energy within the cosmos of the Hindu religion. There is Brahma, the benevolent creator of the universe; there is Vishnu, the sagacious preserver; then there is Shiva, the destroyer. “Destroyer” in this sense is not an entirely negative force, but one that is expansive in its impact. In Hindu religious philosophy all things must come to a natural end so they can begin anew, and Shiva is the agent that brings about this end so that a new cycle can begin.
Shiva, as Nataraja, gracefully performs the dance of bliss, creating and destroying the cosmic world in an eternal cycle of regeneration.
The double-sided drum in his farthest right hand symbolises creation while the flame on his left hand suggests destruction. When he first performed this dance to convince skeptics back to the Hindu faith, he was tempted by a tiger, snake, and demon. Shiva prevailed and is depicted wearing a snake belt and animal loincloth, standing on a demonic figure.
One of the longest lasting empires of South India, the Chola Dynasty heralded a golden age of exploration, trade, and artistic development. A great area of innovation within the arts of the Chola period was in the field of metalwork, particularly in bronze sculpture. The expanse of the Chola empire stretched south-east towards Sri Lanka and gave the kingdom access to vast copper reserves that enabled the proliferation of bronze work by skilled artisans.
During this period a new kind of sculpture was made, one that combined the expressive qualities of stone temple carvings with the rich iconography possible in bronze casting. This image of Shiva is taken from the ancient Indian manual of visual depiction, the Shilpa Shastras (The Science or Rules of Sculpture), which contained a precise set of measurements and shapes for the limbs and proportions of the divine figure. Arms were to be long like stalks of bamboo, faces round like the moon, and eyes shaped like almonds or the leaves of a lotus. The Shastras were a primer on the ideals of beauty and physical perfection within ancient Hindu ideology.
A glimpse from the Shastras:
Here, Shiva embodies those perfect physical qualities as he is frozen in the moment of his dance within the cosmic circle of fire that is the simultaneous and continuous creation and destruction of the universe. The ring of fire that surrounds the figure is the encapsulated cosmos of mass, time, and space, whose endless cycle of annihilation and regeneration moves in tune to the beat of Shiva’s drum and the rhythm of his steps. In his upper right hand he holds the damaru, the drum whose beats syncopate the act of creation and the passage of time.
His lower right hand with his palm raised and facing the viewer is lifted in the gesture of the abhaya mudra, which says to the supplicant, “Be not afraid, for those who follow the path of righteousness will have my blessing.”
Shiva’s lower left hand stretches diagonally across his chest with his palm facing down towards his raised left foot, which signifies spiritual grace and fulfilment through meditation and mastery over one’s baser appetites.
In his upper left hand he holds the agni, the flame of destruction that annihilates all that the sound of the ‘damaruhas’ drummed into existence.
Shiva’s right foot stands upon the huddled dwarf, the demon Apasmara, the embodiment of ignorance. Shiva’s hair, the long hair of the yogi, streams out across the space within the halo of fire that constitutes the universe. Throughout this entire process of chaos and renewal, the face of the god remains tranquil.
On Shiva’s right ear is an earring depicting a makara, a mythical water creature. His left ear is adorned with a circular earring worn by women. The pair represents Shiva’s male and female aspects—illustrating the cosmic balance of male and female energies. The image of Shiva is mounted on a circular double petalled lotus pedestal which is cast in one piece with a rectangular base, the latter with fittings at the side for attachment to a processional carrier.
Why is the Nataraja sculpture made in bronze?
Although bronze is an alloy of the metals gold, silver, copper, tin, lead or zinc, it was traditionally the ideal material used in creating these images. The metals correlated to the five elements that constitute the universe—earth, water, fire, air, and space—emphasising the divine nature of the sculptures.
The Nataraja Sculptures are part of Museum collections across the world. Popular International Museums include: Denver Art Museum, The Smithsonian, The Met, V&A.
In India, you can find Nataraja sculptures at CSMVS Mumbai, National Museum New Delhi, Government Museum Chennai among other collections.