the Hindu god of destruction is also known as
Nataraja, the Lord of Dancers (In Sanskrit Nata
means dance and raja means Lord). The visual image
of Nataraja achieved canonical form in the bronzes
cast under the Chola dynasty in the tenth century
AD, and then continued to be reproduced in metal,
stone and other substances right up to the present
times. The Chola Nataraja is often said to be
the supreme statement of Hindu art.
There is an interesting legend
behind the conception of Shiva as Nataraja: In
a dense forest in South India, there dwelt multitudes
of heretical sages. Thither proceeded Shiva to
confute them, accompanied by Vishnu disguised
as a beautiful woman. The sages were at first
led to violent dispute amongst themselves, but
their anger was soon directed against Shiva, and
they endeavored to destroy him by means of incantations.
A fierce tiger was created in sacrificial fires,
and rushed upon him; but smiling gently, he seized
it and, with the nail of his little finger, stripped
off its skin, and wrapped it about himself like
a silken cloth. Undiscouraged by failure, the
sages renewed their offerings, and produced a
monstrous serpent, which however Shiva
seized and wreathed about his neck like a garland.
Then he began to dance; but there rushed upon
him a last monster in the shape of a malignant
dwarf. Upon him the god pressed the tip of his
foot, and broke the creature’s back, so that it
writhed upon the ground; and so, his last foe
prostrate, Shiva resumed the dance.
To understand the concept of Nataraja
we have to understand the idea of dance itself.
Like yoga, dance induces trance, ecstasy and the
experience of the divine. In India consequently,
dance has flourished side by side with the terrific
austerities of the meditation grove (fasting,
absolute introversion etc.). Shiva, therefore,
the arch-yogi of the gods, is necessarily also
the master of the dance.
Shiva Nataraja was first represented
thus in a beautiful series of South Indian bronzes
dating from the tenth and twelfth centuries A.D.
In these images, Nataraja dances with his right
foot supported by a crouching figure and his left
foot elegantly raised. A cobra uncoils from his
lower right forearm, and the crescent moon and
a skull are on his crest. He dances within an
arch of flames. This dance is called the Dance
of Bliss (anandatandava).
These iconographic details of
Nataraja are to be read, according to the Hindu
tradition, in terms of a complex pictorial allegory:
The most common figures depict
a four-armed Shiva. These multiple arms represent
the four cardinal directions. Each hand either
holds an object or makes a specific mudra (gesture).
The upper right hand holds a hour-glass
drum which is a symbol of creation. It is beating
the pulse of the universe. The drum also provides
the music that accompanies Shiva’s dance. It represents
sound as the first element in an unfolding universe,
for sound is the first and most pervasive of the
elements. The story goes that when Shiva granted
the boon of wisdom to the ignorant Panini (the
great Sanskrit grammarian), the sound of the drum
encapsulated the whole of Sanskrit grammar. The
first verse of Panini’s grammar is in fact called
The hour-glass drum also represents
the male and female vital principles; two triangles
penetrate each other to form a hexagon. When they
part, the universe also dissolves.
The opposite hand, the upper left,
bears on its palm a tongue of flames. Fire is
the element of destruction of the world. According
to Hindu mythology at the end of the world, it
will be fire that will be the instrument of annihilation.
Thus in the balance of these two hands is illustrated
a counterpoise of creation and destruction. Sound
against flames, ceaselessness of production against
an insatiate appetite of extermination.
The second right hand is held
in the abhaya pose (literally without fear) and
so a gesture of protection, as an open palm is
most likely to be interpreted. It depicts the
god as a protector.
left leg is raised towards the right leg and reaches
across it; the lower left hand is stretched across
the body and points to the upraised left foot
which represents release from the cycle of birth
and death. Interestingly, the hand pointing to
the uplifted foot is held in a pose imitative
of the outstretched trunk of an elephant. In Sanskrit
this is known as the ’gaja-hasta-mudra’ (the posture
of the elephant trunk), and is symbolic of Ganesha,
Shiva’s son, the Remover of obstacles.
Shiva dances on the body of a
dwarf apasmara-purusha (the man of forgetfulness)
who embodies indifference, ignorance and laziness.
Creation, indeed all creative energy is possible
only when the weight of inertia (the tamasic darkness
of the universe) is overcome and suppressed. The
Nataraja image thus addresses each individual
to overcome complacency and get his or her own
The ring of fire and light, which
circumscribes the entire image, identifies the
field of the dance with the entire universe. The
lotus pedestal on which the image rests locates
this universe in the heart or consciousness of
The Nataraja image is also eloquent
of the paradox of Eternity and Time. It shows
us that the reposeful ocean and the racing stream
are not finally distinct. This wonderful lesson
can be read in the significant contrast of the
incessant, triumphant motion of the swaying limbs
to the balance of the and the immobility of the
mask-like countenance. Shiva is Kala, meaning
time, but he is also Maha Kala, meaning “Great
Time” or eternity. As Nataraja, King of dancers,
his gestures, wild and full of grace, precipitate
the cosmic illusion; his flying arms and legs
and the swaying of his torso produce the continuous
creation-destruction of the universe, death exactly
The choreography is the whirligig of time. History
and its ruins, the explosion of suns, are flashes
from the tireless swinging sequence of the gestures.
In the beautiful cast metal figurines, not merely
a single phase or movement, but the entirety of
this cosmic dance is miraculously rendered. The
cyclic rhythm, flowing on and on in the unstayable,
irreversible round of the Mahayugas, or Great
Eons, is marked by the beating and stamping of
the Master’s heels. But the face remains, meanwhile
in sovereign calm.
Steeped in quietude, the enigmatic
mask resides above the whirl of the four resilient
arms and cares nothing forthe superb legs as they
beat out the tempo of the world ages. Aloof, in
sovereign silence, the mask of god’s eternal essence
remains unaffected by the tremendous display of
his own energy, the world and its progress, the
flow and the changes of time. This head, this
face, this mask, abides in transcendental isolation,
as a spectator unconcerned. Its
smile, bent inward, filled with the bliss of self-absorption,
subtly refutes, with a scarcely hidden irony,
the meaningful gestures of the feet and hands.
A tension exists between the marvel of the dance
and the serene tranquillity of this expressively
inexpressive countenance, the tension, that is
to say, of Eternity and Time. The two, invisible
and visible, are quintessentially the same. Man
with all the fibers of his native personality
clings to the duality; nevertheless, actually
and finally, there is no duality.
Another aspect of Nataraja rich
in a similar symbolism is his lengthy and sensuous
hair. The long tresses of his matted hair, usually
piled up in a kind of pyramid, loosen during the
triumphant, violent frenzy of his untiring dance.
Expanding, they form two wings, to the right and
left, a kind of halo, broadcasting, as it were,
on their magic waves, the exuberance and sanctity
of vegetative, sensuous life.
Supra-normal life-energy, amounting
to the power of magic, resides in such a wildness
of hair untouched by the scissors. The conceptualization
here is similar to the legend of Samson who with
naked hands tore asunder the jaws of a lion. His
strength was said to reside in his hair.
Also central to understanding
the symbolism behind Nataraja’s hair is the realization
that much of womanly charm, the sensual appeal
of the Eternal Feminine, is in the fragrance,
the flow and luster of beautiful hair. On the
other hand, anyone renouncing the generative forces
of the vegetable-animal realm, revolting against
the procreative principle of life, sex, earth,
and nature, and entering upon the spiritual path
of absolute asceticism, has first to be shaved.
He must simulate the sterility of an old man whose
hairs have fallen and who no longer constitutes
a link in the chain of generation. He must coldly
sacrifice the foliage of the head.
The tonsure of the Christian
priest and monk is a sign of this renunciation
of the flesh. (Clergymen of denominations in which
marriage is not considered incompatible with the
saintly office do not wear a tonsure.) These “Worthy
Ones”, representing the victory of yoga-spirituality,
have overcome all seduction by their taking of
the monastic vows and following of the ascetic
formula. With their voluntary baldness they have
broken through to the peace beyond the seasons
of growth and change.
Thus by donning long, luxurious
hair, Shiva dispels the notion of the conventional
ascetic and reiterates that the image of Nataraja
assimilates and harmonizes within itself apparently
contradictory and conflicting aspects.
Shiva is thus two opposite things:
archetypal ascetic and archetypal dancer. On the
one hand he is total tranquillity-inward calm
absorbed in itself, absorbed in the void of the
Absolute, where all distinctions merge and dissolve,
and all tensions are at rest. But on the other
hand he is total activity- life’s energy, frantic,
aimless and playful.
The Nataraja image represents
not simply some event in the mythic life of a
local deity but a universal view in which the
forces of nature and the aspirations and limitation
of man confront each other and are blended together.
The curator of the Indian collection of the Metropolitan
Museum of Art has rightly written that: "If one
had to select a single icon to represent the extraordinarily
rich and complex cultural heritage of India, the
Shiva Nataraja might well be the most remunerative
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