Nataraja is the most popular representation of the Hindu God Shiva. In Sanskrit, Nata means dance and raja means Lord. Shiva therefore is the 'King of Dancers'.
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 meditative yoga (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.
These iconographic details of Nataraja have the following significance:
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 Shiva sutra.
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
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.
The 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
(ignorant darkness) is overcome and suppressed. The
Nataraja image thus addresses each individual to
overcome complacency and get his or her own act
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 each person.
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