Nataraja: A Personal Inquiry

(Written in August 1994. Unpublished)

Nataraja as depicted in Chola bronzes is a complex construction of signs and symbols whose satisfactory reading demands a journey from the Indus Valley civilisation in the north through the Vedic and post-Vedic ages to the 10th and 11th century reign of the Chola dynasty in the south. For unless you come to grips with the palimpsest-like character of Shiva himself, with the philosophical concepts of creation and destruction, of nada and akasa, and finally, with the cosmic significance of music and dance, a Chola bronze of Nataraja will amount to no more than any other work of art, to be judged in terms of aesthetic values only.

Three problems face us in trying to put together a cohesive narrative of the journey through time, space and ideas that brings us to Shiva:
(1)    The thousand-year dark age that stretched between the end of the Indus Valley civilisation and the beginning of the Gupta period, during which, as Richard Lannoy has pointed out “nothing of any artistic importance has been recovered” (1) that might serve as a bridge between what had been and what was to be.
(2)    The absorption by the Aryan invaders’ nomadic, horse-centred culture of elements from the cattle-based agricultural and trading culture of the Indus Valley and the hunting and food-gathering cultures of jungle denizens into their own expanding stream of philosophical thought and religious practice.
(3)    The uselessness of the western-oriented rational, linear mode of analysis and narrative construction in containing the shifts, ambiguities, contradictions and discontinuities which  reside within what appears like a grand continuity of cultural expression from the 2nd millennium B.C. to the 10th century A.D.(2)

Scholars have cited a Harappan seal depicting a fertility god as bearing features that became attributes of Shiva in the post-Vedic age. To quote Lannoy again, “Many important iconographic and formal elements are first found on the Harappan seals. The most striking example is a horned feritility god in an ithyphallic yogic posture which may well be an early prototype of the Hindu Shiva.” (3)

This inference, however, is contested by R.S. Sharma who sees it as part of the attempt to prove that Aryans were not invaders, but the creators of Harappan culture. “An image on a seal around which there are several animals has been found. However, this cannot be regarded as Pasupati Siva. Similar horned images are also found in early times in Central Asia and elsewhere. Although the hymns of the Rg Veda are dedicated to numerous gods, Siva is not mentioned in any of them.” (4)

While one may concede that Aryans were not Harappans, one does not need to deny that a cultural exchange could have taken place. The fact that horned images like the one found in Harappa have been found elsewhere in Central Asia too does not eliminate the possibility that such an image, stored in the cultural memory of the people was recovered when an iconography had to be constructed for a new god? The most powerful icons owe their power to their attributes arousing resonances in the shared memory of devotees. They are never imagined out of a void.

The dark age was dark, but was it a void? A whole series of questions raise their head here. Who were the repositories of this cultural memory? Would they be descendants of the artisan/artists who had created the Indus Valley artefacts? When that civilisation disappeared or was destroyed, what exactly was destroyed? Only buildings and artefacts or people as well. If people, of which class? Elites? Artisans? Both? If we concede that there must have been an overlap of cultures to bring about the cultural exchange that would have helped to carry ideas encrypted in the Harappan fertility god seal over to the post-Vedic age, then at least some of the elites and some of the artisans must have survived. Only then could old skills and tools have been passed on through the dark age to be revived to produce the abundance of fine carvings, paintings and sculpture that began to burst forth in the Buddhist period?

Whatever the case may be, it is not only the horned feritility god who might be seen as pointing forward from the Indus Valley civilisation to Shiva, but also Ganga who pours out of his matted locks and the cobra he wears round his neck. Indus Valley female nature deities associated with trees and water, symbols of fertility, were the precursors of the Yakshis of Buddhist art and later of the Hindu deities Ganga, Yamuna and Saraswati. Serpent worship pre-dated the coming of the Aryans who did not originally share the Indus Valley inhabitants’ reverence for animals. Taken along with the presence of Ganga and the Cobra, the horns on the Indus Valley fertility god might be seen with greater justification to have been externalised as Nandi, Shiva’s bull, while the idea of Shiva as yogi itself might have had a connection with the earlier deity.

Moving on in time, we see in the Vedic gods Agni and Rudra, features which were later to become aspects of Shiva. Like them he not only destroyed but also healed or created, had a terrifying as well as a beneficent aspect. Though the appearance of Shiva and Vishnu in the later Vedic age and the Epics in particular as powerful gods might seem like a clearly demarcated shift in linear accounts, they must have been gradual developments. In asserting that the impersonal theism of the concept of Prajapati gave way to the personal theism of  Shiva and Vishnu bhakti gradually, M. Hiriyanna suggests that these gods were in fact older than Prajapati but had not been given much importance to begin with. He says with some regret, “The history of this personal theism, subsequent to the decline of Varuna worship, is lost; but  we may conclude from the fact of its continuance later that it could not have wholly disappeared then. It should have remained mostly a belief of the common people....” (5)

It is perhaps from “the common people” that Shiva derived his tamasic aspect, expressed in Nataraja’s tandava dance in cemeteries and crematoria accompanied, as Coomaraswamy describes it “by troops of capering imps”(6). In this aspect, Shiva’s accoutrements are a garland of skulls round his neck, a tiger skin round his waist and hair flying loose in a frenzy round his head. It has been suggested that it was the common or folk origins of this aspect of  Shiva, combined with his belief in the practice of austerities rather than sacrificial rites as ordained by the Vedas and brahmins, which made Daksha leave him out  when he invited the gods to his sacrifice.                               

At the other end of Shiva’s pre-Aryan and folk origins which find expression in his tandava nritya is his evening dance performed on Mount Kailas and witnessed joyously by Devi and all the gods. C. Sivaramamurti paraphrases the relevant description from Pradoshastava, the best in hymnal literature in his opinion, thus: “Seating Gauri, the mother of the three worlds, on a gem-decked golden throne, on the rocky surface of Kailasa, the trident-bearer, Siva, portrays his dance at eventide, when all the celestials surround him. Sarasvati holds the lute, Indra the flute, the lotus-born Brahma has his hands engaged in rhythmic beat, the goddess Sri pours forth music, Vishnu dexterously beats the noble drum, as all the celestials stand round respectfully, at sunset, in attendance on the Consort of Mridani.” (7)

Tthe mangalcharan with which the Katha Saritsagar opens, contains the following line referring to the twilight dance of Shiva: “May Lord Ganesh, who sweeps the dim stars from the sky with his trunk and creates a new world of stars with a hiss of indrawn breath at the time of the evening dance, guard you all from harm.”

Like the evening dance, Shiva’s dance as Ardhanarishwara also pertains to his auspicious aspect. It symbolises one of the most seminal concepts of Indian philosophical thought—the co-existence of polarities to form a complete whole. Sivaramamurti cites the famous Halayudha Stotra for the concept of Shiva Ardhanarishwara as the union of Prakriti and Purusha, of knowledge and the known, of destruction and creation, of desire and asceticism.

Of all the poetry devoted to descriptions of this aspect of Shiva, the most quoted and amusing verse, attributed to Rajasekhara, describes child Skanda’s confusion on seeing his parents in this form in these words: “This is mother! Oh it is not mother! There is no stubby growth on a half of her face! This is father! Oh it is not father! I have never seen here a breast on his chest! Who is she anyway! Oh who is he! Is it a woman or a man! What other third beyond these can this object be?”

Sankara’s Ardhanarinateshwara Stotra describes the androgynous figure fulsomely, ending with a reference to his/her composite dance: “One half golden-hued like the champa flower, and the other white like camphor, braid on one side and heavy locks on the other, perfumed with musk and saffron on one side and smeared over with ashes on the other, rejuvenating Cupid on the one and destroying the same on the other side, bracelets and anklets tinkling on one side, with bright reptile anklets on one foot on the other, with the eye like a large blue lotus on one side and the red lotus on the other, adorned by a garland of mandara flowers to the left , with a garland of skulls on the neck to the right, draped in magnificent attire on the left, uncovered on the other, with beautiful curly hair, dark like a water-laden cloud on one side and tawny locks of copper hue, bright like lightning on the other, exceeding the Supreme on one side and Lord of all on the other, playing the lasya as prelude to the creation of the Universe on one side, performing the tandava for its complete destruction and annihilation on the other.”
In Tantra, Ardhanarishwara presides over the Visuddha Chakra, located behind the throat. The chakra is associated with the element ether (akasa) and controls the principle of sound related to the sense of hearing. Both ether and sound are significant concepts in the iconography of Nataraja dancing the anandatandava as we shall see presently.

The anandatandava is Shiva Nataraja’s ultimate dance, of which the most exquisite sculptural expressions are to be found in the Chola bronzes of the 10th and 11th centuries. They represent Shiva in Chidambaram, seen as the centre of the Universe. This icon has four arms, braided, jewelled hair of which the lower locks swing loose. A cobra is twined round the upper locks piled on top of the head, upon which sits Ganga flanked by the crescent moon. The right ear is adorned with a man’s earring and the left with a woman’s, thus incorporating the idea of Ardhanarishwara. Other ornaments include armlets, necklaces, bracelets and toe and finger rings. The sacred thread and a scarf tied round the middle complete Nataraja’s aharya. One right hand holds the damru, one left hand, fire. The second right hand is held up in the abhaymudra while the other left hand points downwards towards the raised left leg. The slightly bent right leg is planted on Apasmara, symbol of ignorance. A lotus pedestal provides the base for the sculpture. From it rises an arch of glory (tiruvasi) which encircles the figure of Nataraja. Flames burst from its external rim, while its inside rim is touched by Nataraja’s outspread right and left hands holding the damru and agni.

Each of these iconographic features resonates with philosophical and spiritual meaning. To read the icon exhaustively is to understand the full import of Shiva as Ishwara.                  

Coomaraswamy cites several passages from Tamil literature to explain the significance of Shiva’s anandatandava, one of which describes the import of the icon in these words: “O my Lord! thy hand holding the sacred drum has made and ordered the heavens and earth and other worlds and innumerable souls.  Thy lifted hand protects the multifarious animate and inanaimate extended universe. Thy sacred foot planted on the ground, gives an abode to the tired soul, struggling in the toils of karma. It is thy lifted foot that grants eternal bliss to those that approach thee. These five actions are indeed thy handicraft.” (8)

The “five actions” or panchakritya are then enumerated by Coomaraswamy as:
1)    Shrishti (overseeing creation, evolution).
2)    Sthiti (preservation, support)
3)    Samhara (destruction, evolution)
4)    Tirobhava (illusion, embodiment, also giving rest)
5)    Anugraha (release, grace, salvation).

Separately considered, they are the activities of Brahma, Vishnu, Rudra, Maheshwara and Sadashiva. Of these deities, Rudra is the Vedic god who later evolved into the Hindu god Shiva. The latter two are in any case acknowledged forms of Shiva. Vishnu in his Mohini form is Shiva’s partner in dance and the abstract god, Brahma is incorporated into the linga, the symbol of creative energy which is worshipped as Shiva. Shiva as Nataraja is thus all-inclusive bringing to mind the nandisloka of Kalidas’s Abhijnana Shakuntalam (K.V.K. Sundaram’s translation):

May the Lord who is manifest
in water which Brahma first created
in fire that bears oblations to the gods
and in him that offers them;
in sun and moon that time’s measurement make,
in ether, the base and essence of sound
that eternally pervades the Universe,
in earth that, womb-like, bears all created things,
in air by which all living creatures live;
may the Lord who is manifest in these
eight forms perceptible to men, preserve you. (9)

Fire, represented by the flame in Shiva’s left hand and the fringe of dancing flames around the tiruvasi, signify both destruction and creation. His jatabhara contains the skull, symbol of death, but also the crescent moon, symbol of growth and eternity; Ganga, symbol of sustenance and life and the snake, symbol of transmigration from one body to the other by the eternal soul which casts off the worn body like the snake’s sloughed off skin.

The most fascinating symbol encoded into the Chola bronzes depicting Nataraja’s anandatandava is the tiruvasi or prabhavali which circumscribes the dancing figure. On one level, one may interpret it as a reminder of the polarities of destruction and creation that inhered in the all-powerful Vedic god Agni and which were absorbed into the idea of Shiva when he began to acquire power. The arch springs, as we see, from the lotus pedestal (symbol of the earth), curves upwards through the atmosphere, touches the sky and returns to earth. Agni was said to be thrice-born—first in heaven as the Sun, then in the air where he was born in storm clouds as lightning, and finally on earth not only as the sacrificial fire kindled by priests but as the warming, protecting, nourishing hearth-fire lit by every man. Shiva too is omnipotent in the three worlds.        

On another level, Coomaraswamy quotes Tiru Arul Payan who interprets the prabhavali as “the dance of nature” which  proceeds on one side, while “the dance of enlightenment” takes place on the other. Thus the arch represents matter, Nature, Prakriti. If one side of the arch is  Prakriti, then says Coomaraswamy, in continuation of the interpretation, “Shiva dancing within and touching the arch with head, hands and feet, is the universal, omnipresent Spirit (purusha). Between these stands the individual soul, as ‘ya’ is between ‘Shi – ‘va’ and ‘na’ – ‘ma’ (the five aksharas).” (10)   

He ends the essay, “The Dance of Shiva” with a moving summing up of his interpretation of the anadadatandava depicted in Chola bronzes: “In the night of Brahma, Nature is inert, and cannot dance till Shiva wills it: He rises from His rapture, and dancing, sends through inert matter, pulsing waves of awakening sound, and lo! matter also dances, appearing as a glory around Him. Dancing, he sustains its manifold phenomena. In the fullness of time, still dancing, he destroys all forms and names by fire and gives new rest. This is poetry; but none the less, science.”

Sankara, however, calls this arch the circle of Maya or illusion., leading us to the Lord, directing us to pranava, the happy path of bliss. Sivaramamurti points out that Arunachalam too claims that the circle of flames represents the Pranava or Omkara, symbol of all possible sounds. Coomaraswamy counters this argument by pointing out that the damru already represents sound, making this interpretation superfluous.

The damru, as symbol of sound, leads us to the most potent import of the Natarja icon. Ajit Mookerjee  (Kundalini, pg 29) explains the origin of sound thus: “With Nandikeshvara, one of the earliest masters of Saivagama, all the sounds known through the Sanskrit alphabet are identified as the vocables sprung from the cosmic drum of Siva, that is of creation itself.” (11). Sound travels through ether, akasa which serves as its sub-stratum. Akasa is also the sky, and Nataraja is actually worshipped as the sky in Chidambaram.

Abhinavagupta describes Shiva’s sky-form as the stage for the dance itself; and behind the Kanakasabha of the Chindambaram temple where Nataraja is said to dance, you see only a screen. Pull it aside and you are faced with empty space. The removal of the screen is the removal of ignorance. The empty space is akasa, the stage for the dance. Only the devotee’s bhakti and imagination will help her/him ‘see’ the dance. The empty space is truth – sat, chit, ananda. All the iconic features of Nataraja dissolve into the invisible abstraction of the sky. We must apprehend the truth it represents in the only way in  which truth may be apprehended –through knowledge, concentration, and tapasya.

When one studies closely the whole range of Nataraja icons that were carved by dozens of anonymous hands over two centuries of Chola rule, one sees which sculptors had truly understood the many meanings of Nataraj. There is movement, grace, balance, and a rare serenity in their work which puts the viewer in touch with those meanings. Very few of today’s dancers who worship a Nataraja icon at the beginning of their performances, understand the full import of their own action. If they knew what they were worshipping, they would come nearer to dancing the dance of bliss.

(3,043 words)



(1) The Speaking Tree, Richard Lannoy, OUP, 1974, Chapter 1, p 10.

(2) Ibid., p 9-10 “The torso of a dancer from Harappa displays a characteristic twist and movement that became well-known in the poses of classical art and is similar to the stance in which numerous Chola bronze images of the dancing Shiva, Nataraja, were portrayed during the late medieval period in the Dravidian south.”

(3) Ibid., p 9

(4)    Looking for the Aryans, R.S. Sharma, Orient Longman, 1995, Chapter 6, p 70.

(5)    The Essentials of Indian Philosophy, M. Hiriyanna, Allen and Unwin, 1960, Chapter 2, p 33.

(6)   The Dance of Siva, Ananda Coomaraswamy, Noonday, 1957

(7)   Nataraja in Art, Thought and Literature, C. Sivaramamurti, National Museum, 1974, Chapter 9, pp   137-138.

(8)   The Dance of Siva, Ananda Coomaraswamy, Noonday, 1957

(9)   The Plays of Kalidasa, Translated from the Sanskrit by K.V.K. Sundaram, Patriot Publishers, 1988, “Shakuntala Recognised”, p 187

(10)   The Dance of Siva, Ananda Coomaraswamy, Noonday, 1957

(11)   Kundalini, The Arousal of the Inner Energy,  Ajit Mookerjee, Thames and Hudson, 1989, Chapter 2, p 29



Published On : 14-08-1994