Icons depicting Shiva as the Lord of Dance (Nataraja) seem to have originated in the North in Gupta times, and developed in the South under the post-Gupta Vishnukundin dynasty early in the seventh century. One of the first southern sculptures is a colossal dancing figure carved upon the cliff face above the facade of a cave- temple at Mogallarajapuram on the Krishna river. The Pallavas took up the theme and developed it throughout the succeeding two centuries until, in the tenth century, the Cholas perfected in bronze the form which is the precursor to the present image.
To place this icon-type in its context, it is just one of several images,
such as the Dakshinamurtis, which depict Shiva-Mahaguru in one of his
teaching roles; in this case, as teacher of the classical dance which
originated as a magnificent form of worship in temples. The architects and
sculptors of the temple having been required to study music and the dance,
the sacred building comes to life when the dances are staged, the
performers, whose lives are dedicated to the god, being dressed to resemble
the deities, demons and heroes of mythology. The god is entertained, his
temple resounding with precise rhythms; the dancers themselves, trained from
childhood in the strict discipline of their art, may attain a state of
ecstasy; and the observers see the gods acting out their timeless dramas in
the magical medium of the sacred ballet which recreates the supernatural
world of myth.
The Nataraja icon presents the dancer in a pose which is technically termed
bhujanga-trasa, 'fear of a snake', since the body is twisted violently to
the side, one leg raised abruptly as if the foot had just trodden upon a
snake. The left arm sweeping across the body is also a purely artistic
movement from the dance. In the upper right hand, is the damaru drum - a
double-faced instrument held in the middle at the narrow waist. When the
drum is shaken with a vigorous rocking motion, the thongs fly out and the
knots or weights lash the stretched skin of the drum faces, producing a
rapid, staccato tattoo: the original meaning of the word damaru is a
tumultuous clamor or uproar. As for the rest, the icon is wholly didactic, a
superb symbol of the divine forces which demand utter self surrender on the
part of the individual, presented in ritualized artistic terms which engage
the mind of the devotee as compellingly as does the temple-dance itself.
This is the four-armed Nataraja image as it is best known; Shiva as the
destroyer of ignorance, pattern of the cosmos and guide to liberation.
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