INDIA AND SRI LANKA
Nataraja, ‘Lord of the Dance’
India, Tamil Nadu
Chola period, 12th century
H. 10.4 W. 81.5 D. 33.3
Collection Royal Museums of Art and History, Brussels, inv.no.EO.2290
Detail: close up
The Lord (raja) of the Dance (nata) is without doubt the best-known depiction of Shiva. He dances the ecstatic cosmic dance, the anandatandava, during which he performs the five essential acts as creator, preserver, eradicator of ignorance, bestower of solace, and ultimate destroyer. But the wild dance, tandava, is, in the first place, referred to as ‘blessing’, ananda. With the little drum, damaru, in his right hand, Shiva as creator produces the first waves of sound. With the ‘fear not’ gesture, abhayamudra, his second right hand expresses his benevolence as preserver. His right foot tramples the dwarf of ignorance, apasmarapurusha. The obliquely positioned left hand, gesturing downwards in the form of an elephant’s trunk, gajahasta, brings enlightenment and salvation. The pot of fire in the raised left hand symbolizes ultimate destruction. The endless process of creation and destruction is inherent in the blazing circle that surrounds the dancing Shiva. The fiery circle, prabha, represents the glow of the sun, the moon, the stars, everything that is in motion in the cosmos. Or as the texts of the Upanishads put it, the whole universe originates in space, akasha, is borne by space and will ultimately be reabsorbed by space. In this sculpture, too, everything within the flaming circle is in swirling motion. The trampled dwarf looks up chastened at Shiva who turns on his axis on one leg. The position of Shiva’s four arms and his legs as well as the fluttering ribbons of his girdle (udarabandha) and his outward- fanning hair enhance the swirling movement. Medieval south Indian poets lauded the soothing smile of the wildly dancing Shiva as the sweet expression of the all-transcending truth, the ultimate blessing, ananda, of the cosmos.
Shiva is young, slim, and powerful. His headdress is made up of crane feathers set fan-wise into his crown, in whose centre is a cobra and at top left the crescent moon. The locks of hair are pulled through beads and end in floral motifs; snakes writhe in between. To the right of Shiva’s head we can see the tiny figure of the serpenttailed river goddess Ganga. Shiva wears a simple ring-shaped earring, patrakundala, in his left ear. As a dancer, Shiva has small tinkling bells at his ankles. Around each calf is a thread with a single bell, an ornament that made its appearance in the late Chola period. He has rings on his fingers. A cobra is wound around his right forearm while simple, spiral-shaped armbands, ananta, adorn his upper arms. All these elements and the double ring with ornamental motifs within the blazing circle place the figure most likely at the end of the twelfth century. In the early Chola period, the flaming aureole was either not rendered or it was oval in shape with threepointed flames. Later, it was broader or double, more circular and with five-pointed flames. In south Indian temples, Shiva Nataraja is always placed with his face to the south. Parvati, in the shape of Shivakami, is always nearby. In the square pedestal of this sculpture, below the double lotus, are two round openings that were intended for the rods by which the image was carried in processions.
all text & images © 2005 The authors, the photographers and the Ethnographic Museum, Antwerp