One of the most visually dramatic and culturally significant forms of the Supreme Being in Hinduism is Nataraja – Lord Shiva as the King of Dance. Shiva is the god of destruction in the Hindu pantheon and the form of Nataraja gained prominence in the Chola dynasty of South India around the 10th century AD. The bronze statues of Nataraja from that era are some of the grandest examples of Hindu art. It is a popular sculptural symbol of Lord Shiva in India and often used to represent Indian culture. Shiva as Nataraja is found in many temples of South India, and is the primary deity of the famous Shiva temple in Chidambaram which is dedicated to Nataraja.
The visual form of Nataraja has Shiva with four arms dancing within a circle of flames, lifting his left leg and standing on a dwarf, Apasmara, who symbolizes ignorance. His upper right hand holds the drum of creation, beating the pulse of the universe and also music for Shiva’s dance. The drum, called udukkai in Tamil, represents sound as the first element of an unfolding universe. In his upper left hand, Nataraja holds the fire of destruction, which according to Hindu mythology is the instrument of annihilation at the end of each cycle of creation. These two symbols, therefore, illustrate the intricate balance of the forces of creation and destruction in the universe.
The lower right hand is held in the abhaya pose, which literally means fear not, and signifying a gesture of grace and protection to righteous souls. The uplifted left leg signifies revealing grace that liberates souls from bondage. The lower left hand, meanwhile, which points to the uplifted leg in assurance that Shiva’s foot is a refuge for all true believers, and surrender to God is the path to liberation.
The ring of fire around the figure of Nataraja represents the manifest universe, while the lotus pedestal on which the entire image rests places this universe within the heart or consciousness of each person. The flowing hair of Lord Shiva in his dance symbolizes a rejection of society, showing Shiva as an ascetic. The figures of Ganges, crescent moon and skull are also usually found in Nataraja sculptures, and are common symbols of Lord Shiva. The snake around the waist of Nataraja represents the ‘kundalini,’ or divine force found in all beings.
The dance of Shiva represents His five divine activites, or panchakriya – shrishti(creation), sthiti (preservation), samhara (destruction), tirobhava (illusion), andanugraha (grace or salvation). It is a dual statement of stillness and motion, the static sculpture representing the intense activity of Lord Shiva. The stoic face of Lord Shiva represents his composure and neutrality, unaffected and above all forces.