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Nataraja (Sanskrit: नटराज, "the lord of dance"), is a depiction of the Hindu god Shiva as the cosmic ecstatic dancer. His dance is called Tandavam or Nadanta, depending on the context of the dance. The pose and artwork is described in many Hindu texts such as the Anshumadbhed agama and Uttarakamika agama, the dance relief or idol featured in all major Hindu temples of Shaivism.
The classical form of the depiction appears in stone reliefs, as at the Ellora Caves and the Badami Caves, by around the 6th-century. Around the 10th century, it emerged in Tamil Nadu in its mature and best-known expression in Chola bronzes, of various heights typically less than four feet, some over. The Nataraja reliefs have been identified in historic artwork from many parts of South Asia, in southeast Asia such as in Bali and Cambodia, and in central Asia.
The sculpture is symbolic of Shiva as the lord of dance and dramatic arts, with its style and proportions made according to Hindu texts on arts. It typically shows Shiva dancing in one of the Natya Shastra poses, holding Agni (fire) in his left back hand, the front hand in gajahasta or dandahasta mudra, the front right hand with a wrapped snake that is in abhaya (fear not) mudra while pointing to a Sutra text, and the back hand holding a musical instrument usually a damaru. His body, fingers, ankles, neck, face, head, ear lobes and dress are shown decorated with symbolic items, which vary with historic period and region. He is surrounded by a ring of flames, standing on a lotus pedestal, lifting his left leg (or in rare cases, the right leg) and balancing over a demon shown as a dwarf (Apasmara or Muyalaka) who symbolizes ignorance. The dynamism of the energetic dance is depicted with the whirling hair which spread out in thin strands as a fan behind his head. The details in the Nataraja artwork has been variously interpreted by Indian scholars since the 12th-century for its symbolic meaning and theological essence.
The word Naṭarāja (Tamil: "நடராசர்" or Kooththan கூத்தன்) is variously translated as Lord of dance or King of dancers. According to Ananda Coomaraswamy, the name is related to Shiva's fame as the "Lord of Dancers" or "King of Actors".
Koothan is derived from the Tamil word Koothu, which means dance or performance. A male dancer is termed Koothan. Also known as Natarajan in Tamil, meaning "Naatiyathin" (of dance) "Raajan" (king). Naatiyam is another word for dance in Tamil.
The dance of Shiva in Tillai, the traditional name for Chidambaram, forms the motif for all the depictions of Shiva as Nataraja. He is also known as "Sabesan" which splits as "Sabayil aadum eesan" in Tamil which means "The Lord who dances on the dias". This form is present in most Shiva temples in South India, and is the prime deity in the famous Thillai Nataraja Temple at Chidambaram.
The two most common forms of Shiva's dance are the Lasya (the gentle form of dance), associated with the creation of the world, and the Tandava (the violent and dangerous dance), associated with the destruction of weary worldviews - weary perspectives and lifestyles. In essence, the Lasya and the Tandava are just two aspects of Shiva's nature; for he destroys in order to create, tearing down to build again.
As the Lord of Dance, Nataraja, Shiva performs the Ananda Tandava (dance of bliss, Tamil: ஆனந்த தாண்டவம்), the dance in which the universe is created, maintained, and dissolved. The symbolism in the art has been variously interpreted by scholars since the Chola empire era:
- He dances within an circular or cyclically closed arch of flames (prabha mandala), which symbolically represent the cosmic fire that in Hindu cosmology creates everything and consumes everything, in cyclic existence or cycle of life. The fire also represents the evils, dangers, heat, warmth, light and joys of daily life. The arch of fire emerges from two makara on each end, which are creatures of water and a part of Hindu mythologies.
- His legs are bent, which suggests an energetic dance. His long, matted tresses, are shown to be loose and flying out in thin strands during the dance, spread into a fan behind his head, because of the wildness and ecstasy of the dance.
- On his right side, meshed in with one of the flying strands of his hair near his forehead, is typically river Ganges personified as a goddess, from the Hindu mythology where the danger of mighty river is creatively tied up into a calm river for regeneration of life.
- The upper right hand holds a small drum shaped like an hourglass that is called a ḍamaru in Sanskrit. A specific hand gesture (mudra) called ḍamaru-hasta (Sanskrit for "ḍamaru-hand") is used to hold the drum. It symbolizes rhythm and time.
- The upper left hand contains Agni or fire, which signifies forces of creation and destruction. The opposing concepts show the counterpoise nature of life.
- A cobra uncoils from his lower right forearm, while his palm shows the Abhaya mudra (meaning fearlessness in Sanskrit), suggesting not to fear nearby evil, as well as evil and ignorance surrounding the devotee as he or she follows the righteousness of dharma.
- The second left hand points towards the raised foot which suggests the viewer to be active and dance despite the circumstances, or alternatively as a sign of upliftment and liberation.
- The face shows two eyes plus a slightly open third on the forehead, which symbolizes the triune in Shaivism. The eyes represent the sun, the moon and the third has been interpreted as inner eye, or symbol of knowledge (jnana), urging the viewer to seek the inner wisdom, self realization. The three eyes alternatively symbolize an equilibrium of three Guṇa: Sattva, Rajas and Tamas.
- The dwarf on which Nataraja dances is the demon Apasmara purusha (Muyalaka, as known in Tamil), which symbolises action and dance leads to victory over demonic evil and ignorance.
- The slightly smiling face of Shiva represents his calmness despite being immersed in the contrasting forces of universe and his energetic dance.
The above interpretations of symbolism are largely based on historic Indian texts published in and after 12th-century, such as Unmai Vilakkam, Mummani Kovai, Tirukuttu Darshana and Tiruvatavurar Puranam. Padma Kaimal questions some of these interpretations by referring to a 10th-century text and Nataraja icons, suggesting that the Nataraja statue may have symbolized different things to different people or in different contexts, such as Shiva being the lord of cremation or as an emblem of Chola dynasty. In contrast, Sharada Srinivasan questions the link to Chola, and has presented archaeological evidence suggesting that Nataraja bronzes and dancing Shiva artwork in South India was a Pallava innovation, tracing back to 7th to 9th-centuries, and its symbolism should be pushed back by a few centuries.
- First, it is seen as the image of his rhythmic play which is the source of all movement within the universe. This is represented by the circular or elliptical frame surrounding Shiva.
- Secondly, the purpose of his dance is to release the souls of all men from the snare of illusion.
- Lastly, the place of the dance, Chidambaram, which is portrayed as the center of the universe, is actually within the heart.
Nataraja, states James Lochtefeld, symbolizes "the connection between religion and the arts", and it represents Shiva as the lord of dance, encompassing all "creation, destruction and all things in between". The Nataraja iconography incorporates contrasting elements, a fearless celebration of the joys of dance while being surrounded by fire, untouched by forces of ignorance and evil, signifying a spirituality that transcends all duality.
Nataraja is a significant visual interpretation of Brahman and a dance posture of Lord Shiva. The details in the Nataraja artwork has attracted commentaries and secondary literature such as poems detailing its theological significance. It is one of the widely studied and supreme illustrations of Hindu art from the medieval era.
One of earliest known Nataraja artwork has been found in the archaeological site at Asanapat village in Odisha, which includes an inscription, and is dated to about the 6th century CE. The Asanapat inscription also mentions a Shiva temple in the Saivacaryas kingdom.
Stone reliefs depicting the classical form of Nataraja are found in numerous cave temples of India, such as the Ellora Caves (Maharashtra), the Elephanta Caves, and the Badami Caves (Karnataka), by around the 6th-century. Archaeological discoveries have yielded a red Nataraja sandstone statue, from 9th to 10th century from Ujjain, Madhya Pradesh, now held at the Gwalior Archaeological Museum. Similarly, Nataraja artwork has been found in archaeological sites in the Himalayan region such as Kashmir, albeit in with somewhat different dance pose and iconography, such as just two arms or with eight arms. In medieval era artworks and texts on dancing Shiva found in Nepal, Assam and Bengal, he is sometimes shown as dancing on his vahana Nandi, the bull; further, he is regionally known as Narteshvara. Nataraja artwork have also been discovered in Gujarat, Kerala and Andhra Pradesh.
Nataraja gained special significance and became a symbol of royalty in Tamil Nadu. The dancing Shiva became a part of Chola era processions and religious festivals, a practice that continued thereafter.
In the contemporary Hindu culture of Bali Indonesia, Siwa (Shiva) Nataraja is the god who created dance. Siwa and his dance as Nataraja was also celebrated in the art of Java Indonesia when Hinduism thrived there, while in Cambodia he was referred to as Nrittesvara.
In 2004, a 2m statue of the dancing Shiva was unveiled at CERN, the European Center for Research in Particle Physics in Geneva. The statue, symbolizing Shiva's cosmic dance of creation and destruction, was given to CERN by the Indian government to celebrate the research center's long association with India. A special plaque next to the Shiva statue explains the significance of the metaphor of Shiva's cosmic dance with quotations from Fritjof Capra:
Hundreds of years ago, Indian artists created visual images of dancing Shivas in a beautiful series of bronzes. In our time, physicists have used the most advanced technology to portray the patterns of the cosmic dance. The metaphor of the cosmic dance thus unifies ancient mythology, religious art and modern physics.
Though named "Nataraja bronzes" in Western literature, the Chola Nataraja artworks are mostly in copper, and a few are in brass, typically cast by the cire-perdue process.
6th/7th century Nataraja in Cave 1 of Badami cave temples
6th-century Nataraja in Cave 21, Ellora Caves
A 7th/8th-century Nataraja stone relief in Ellora Caves
8th-century Nataraja in Kailasa temple (Cave 16), Ellora Caves
In the Shiva temple of Melakadambur is a rare Pala image that shows the ten-armed Nataraja dancing on his bull.
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- Ananda Coomaraswamy (1957). The Dance of Śiva: Fourteen Indian Essays. OCLC 2155403.
- Jansen, Eva Rudy (1993). The Book of Hindu Imagery. Havelte, Holland: Binkey Kok Publications BV. ISBN 90-74597-07-6.
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- Nataraja Image Archive