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Lord of the Dance
Shiva as the Lord of Dance LACMA edit.jpg
A 10th century Chola dynasty bronze sculpture of Shiva, the Lord of the Dance at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art
TextsAnshumadbhed agama
Uttarakamika agama

Nataraja (Tamil: நடராஜர்),[1] (Sanskrit: नटराज, romanizedNaṭarāja), is a depiction of the Hindu god Shiva as the divine dancer. His dance is called Tandavam or Nadanta, depending on the context of the dance.[2][3] 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.[4]

The classical form of the depiction appears in stone reliefs, as at the Ellora Caves and the Badami Caves, by around the 6th century.[5][6] 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,[7] some over.[8] Nataraja reliefs are found in historic settings in many parts of South East Asia such as Ankor Wat, and in Bali, Cambodia, and central Asia.[9][10][11]

The sculpture is symbolic of Shiva as the lord of dance and dramatic arts,[9] with its style and proportions made according to Hindu texts on arts.[7] 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 (elephant hand) or dandahasta (stick hand) 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 udukkai(damaru).[7] His body, fingers, ankles, neck, face, head, ear lobes and dress are shown decorated with symbolic items, which vary with historic period and region.[2][12] 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 / trampling upon a demon shown as a dwarf (Apasmara or Muyalaka[3]) who symbolizes ignorance.[7][13] The dynamism of the energetic dance is depicted with the whirling hair which spread out in thin strands as a fan behind his head.[14][15] The details in the Nataraja artwork have been variously interpreted by Indian scholars since the 12th century for its symbolic meaning and theological essence.[8][16]

Nataraja is a well known sculptural symbol in India and popularly used as a symbol of Indian culture,[17][18] in particular as one of the finest illustrations of Hindu art.[19][20]


Chola bronze, Tamil Nadu, 10th or 11th century.

The word Nataraja is a Sanskrit term, from नट Nata meaning "act, drama, dance" and राज Raja meaning "king, lord"; it can be roughly translated as Lord of dance or King of dance.[21][22] According to Ananda Coomaraswamy, the name is related to Shiva's fame as the "Lord of Dancers" or "King of Actors".[16]

The form is known as Nataraja in Tamil Nadu and as Narteśvara (also written Nateshwar[23]) or Nṛityeśvara in North India, with all three terms meaning "Lord of the dance".[24] Narteśvara stems from Nṛtta same as Nata which means "act, drama, dance" and Ishvara meaning "lord".[25] Natesa (IAST: Naṭeśa) is another alternate equivalent term for Nataraja found in 1st-millennium sculptures and archeological sites across the Indian subcontinent.[26]


The dance of Shiva in Tillai, the traditional name for Chidambaram, forms the motif for all the depictions of Shiva as Nataraja. In Tamil, he is also known as “Sabesan” (Tamil: சபேசன்) which splits as “Sabayil aadum eesan” (Tamil: சபையில் ஆடும் ஈசன்) which means “The Lord who dances on the dais”. This form is present in most Shiva temples, and is the prime deity in the Nataraja Temple at Chidambaram.[27]

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 vigorous form of 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.[28]

According to Alice Boner, the historic Nataraja artworks found in different parts of India are set in geometric patterns and along symmetric lines, particularly the satkona mandala (hexagram) that in the Indian tradition means the interdependence and fusion of masculine and feminine principles.[29] Nataraja is also shown with his wife Parvati as they dance together.[citation needed]


As the Lord of Dance, Nataraja, Shiva performs the Ananda Tandava (dance of bliss), 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:[7][16][30]

  • He dances within a 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 (mythical water beasts) on each end.
  • 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 the river Ganges personified as a goddess, from the Hindu mythology where the danger of a mighty river is creatively tied to a calm river for the regeneration of life.
Detail of Chola bronze
  • His headdress often features a human skull (symbol of mortality), a crescent moon and a flower identified as that of the entheogenic plant Datura metel.
  • Four-armed figures are most typical, but ten-armed forms are also found from various places and periods, for example the Badami Caves and Ankor Wat.
  • The upper right hand holds a small drum shaped like an hourglass that is called a ḍamaru in Sanskrit.[31][32] A specific hand gesture (mudra) called ḍamaru-hasta (Sanskrit for "ḍamaru-hand") is used to hold the drum.[33] 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 lower left hand is bent downwards at the wrist with the palm facing inward, we also note that this arm crosses Naṭarāja’s chest, concealing his heart from view. It represents tirodhāna, which means “occlusion, concealment.”
  • The face shows two eyes plus a slightly open third on the forehead, which symbolize the triune in Shaivism. The eyes represent the sun, the moon and the third has been interpreted as the 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 the three Guṇas: Sattva, Rajas and Tamas.
  • The dwarf upon whom Nataraja dances is the demon Apasmara purusha (Muyalaka, as he is known in Tamil), and who symbolises the demonic evil and ignorance over which the sacred dance of Shiva gives victory.
  • The slightly smiling face of Shiva represents his calmness despite being immersed in the contrasting forces of universe and his energetic dance.[8]
6th/7th century Nataraja in Cave 1 of Badami cave temples

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.[16] 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.[34] 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.[35]


Nataraja at Thanjavur Palace

An essential significance of Shiva's dance at Tillai, the traditional name of Chidambaram, can be explained as:[36]

  • First, it is seen as the image of his rhythmic or musical 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".[37] The Nataraja iconography incorporates contrasting elements,[17] 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.[38]

Nataraja is a significant visual interpretation of Brahman and a dance posture of Shiva. The details in the Nataraja artwork have attracted commentaries and secondary literature such as poems detailing its theological significance.[8][16] It is one of the widely studied and supreme illustrations of Hindu art from the medieval era.[39][40]


One of the earliest known Nataraja artworks 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.[41] The Asanapat inscription also mentions a Shiva temple in the Saivacaryas kingdom. Literary evidences shows that the bronze representation of Shiva's ananda-tandava appeared first in the Pallava period between 7th century and mid-9th centuries CE.[42]

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.[5][6] 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.[43][44] 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.[45] In medieval era artworks and texts on dancing Shiva found in Nepal, Assam and Bengal, he is sometimes shown as dancing on his vahana (animal vehicle) Nandi, the bull; further, he is regionally known as Narteshvara.[46] Nataraja artwork have also been discovered in Gujarat, Kerala and Andhra Pradesh.[47]

The oldest free-standing stone sculptures of Nataraja were built by Chola queen Sembiyan Mahadevi.[42] 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.[48]

The depiction was informed of cosmic or metaphysical connotations is also argued on the basis of the testimony of the hymns of Tamil saints.[49]

The largest Nataraja statue is in Neyveli, in Tamil Nadu.[50]

In the contemporary Hindu culture of Bali in Indonesia, Siwa (Shiva) Nataraja is the god who created dance.[51] 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.[52]


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.[53] A special plaque next to the Shiva statue explains the metaphor of Shiva's cosmic dance with quotations from physicist 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.[54]

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 (lost-wax casting) process.[14]

Nataraja is celebrated in 108 poses of Bharatanatyam, with Sanskrit inscriptions from Natya Shastra, at the Nataraja temple in Chidambaram, Tamil Nadu, India.[2][4]


In dance and yoga[edit]

In modern yoga as exercise, Natarajasana is a posture resembling Nataraja and named for him in the 20th century.[57] A similar pose appears in the classical Indian dance form Bharatanatyam.[58]


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Further reading[edit]

External links[edit]