In today’s dance class, Michele (my dance teacher) gave us more insight about Nataraja, the Lord of Dance. We usually have lecture sessions about dance, Sanskrit and everything related to Bharathnatyam. I just thought it would be a great blog post! The dancing figure of Shiva Nataraja has become perhaps the most recognized icon of Hinduism. I know a lot of people who love the Nataraja sculpture but they don’t know about the elements present and their meaning. I hope this blog post will help you understand the beauty of the Nataraja sculpture/art. So, I started digging for more information and I hope you will enjoy this blog post.

The Story

There is an interesting legend behind the conception of Shiva as Nataraja: In a dense forest in South India, there dwelt multitudes of heretical sages. Thither proceeded Shiva to confute them, accompanied by Vishnu disguised as a beautiful woman. The sages were at first led to violent dispute amongst themselves, but their anger was soon directed against Shiva, and they endeavored to destroy him by means of incantations. A fierce tiger was created in sacrificial fires, and rushed upon him; but smiling gently, he seized it and, with the nail of his little finger, stripped off its skin, and wrapped it about himself like a silken cloth. Undiscouraged by failure, the sages renewed their offerings, and produced a monstrous serpent, which however Shiva seized and wreathed about his neck like a garland. Then he began to dance; but there rushed upon him a last monster in the shape of a malignant dwarf. Upon him the god pressed the tip of his foot, and broke the creature’s back, so that it writhed upon the ground; and so, his last foe prostrate, Shiva resumed the dance.

To understand the concept of Nataraja we have to understand the idea of dance itself. Like yoga, dance induces trance, ecstasy and the experience of the divine. In India consequently, dance has flourished side by side with the terrific austerities of the meditation grove (fasting, absolute introversion etc.). Shiva, therefore, the arch-yogi of the gods, is necessarily also the master of the dance.
God Shiva, the Hindu god of destruction is worshiped in various forms. But, the most recognized art representation of God Shiva is as a dancing figure within a circle of fire, which is more commonly known as Shiva Natraja, Lord of the dance. Statues and sculptures of this form are present in various places due to its spiritual and hidden significance.

In this form, God Shiva undertakes the role of Creator, Preserver and Destroyer. The first time this dancing figure appeared to be in the 5th and 6th century CE. But it was not until the 10th century, the familiar freestanding representation of God Shiva became standard. Typically found in bronze, Shiva can be witnessed dancing in a circle of flames which represents time. The time is seen as a circle to symbolize the Hindu belief that is both cyclical and never ending.

Analyzing the elements of the great Nataraja Sculpture

Prahabhamandala / The fiery ring

Prahabhamandala is usually represented by a circular shape encircled in flames representing consciousness and the manifest of universe; the endless cycle of birth and death. It is also interpreted as the Macrocosm and Microcosm. Microcosm and the macrocosm are said to be woven together by virtue of human consciousness perpetually creating harmonized orchestration, as it were, in every significant phenomenon by Anna-Teresa Tymieniecka. Another way of explaining what they are; Macrocosm is everything that surrounds living things (The cosmos, the great Universe) and Microcosm is the inner layer of the living things e.g the Macrocosm of human beings is the Universe and the Microcosm is whats inside of human beings.

The scientists who attempted to see the atom found a world within it that could not be described in ordinary language. They saw everything within the atom – the speed, energy, waves and matter all mixed. They found that if they could know the atom, they could know the whole truth of the cosmos. Yat pinde tad Brahmande – that which is in microcosm is in the macrocosm – that is what the ancient seers of the Upanishads had said — One is in all, All is in one. This is the essence of Quantum theory also. The entire universe is inter- connected, inter-related and inseparable. In the same way, connection between modern physics and Indian mysticism has also become inseparable.


Nataraja facial expression in the sculptures represent his neutrality, thus being in balance. His right eye represents the sun, His left eye the moon and His third eye is symbolic of omniscience, insight and enlightenment. It is believed that He uses the third eye to see beyond the apparent and protect the good ones from the evildoers. All the evil and the ignorance vanish as the third eye opens. Some believe that the physical world will be destroyed if Shiva opens His third eye  and this is when he performs the Tandava dance.

The hair of Nataraja is always loose and flowing and was sculpted this way to remind us of his majestic and heroic form.

Shiva’s hair, the long hair of the yogi, streams out across the space within the halo of fire that constitutes the universe. Throughout this entire process of chaos and renewal, the face of the god remains tranquil, transfixed in what the historian of South Asian art Heinrich Zimmer calls, “the mask of god’s eternal essence.”
The long tresses of his matted hair, usually piled up in a kind of pyramid, loosen during the triumphant, violent frenzy of his untiring dance. Expanding, they form two wings, to the right and left, a kind of halo, broadcasting, as it were, on their magic waves, the exuberance and sanctity of vegetative, sensuous life.
The river Ganges that flows in Nataraja’s hair originally flowed in heaven. When the heavenly Ganges was needed on earth, she was unwilling to fall to earth because she realized that her fall from heaven would be too much for the earth to withstand. Shiva as Nataraja agreed to break the violent power of the sacred Ganga’s fall by catching her in his tangled hair, breaking the fall with his hair on its way to the Himalayas and Northern India.

Nataraja wears a datura blossom, a skull and a konnai leaf as ornaments on his head.

Nataraja wears one blue datura flower in his hair. This associates his dance with the area of shamanistic spirituality and ritual trance. Datura is a very poisonous plant with strong hallucinogenic but also medicinal properties. Little is known of how it was used in India in the past. The Vamana Purana states the plant originated from Shiva’s chest, it is mentioned in Ayurveda for the treatment of various ailments, and it is still used today by yogis and sadhus who smoke it in combination with cannabis.There is one anecdote reflecting its use as part of a devotional as well as scholarly act. The story is told of how the great 16th century scholar Appayya Deeksita drank a hallucinatory decoction made of the juice of the leaves of the datura plant to test his devotion to Shiva. He instructed his students to watch him and note down everything he said in his trance. The result was a poem of fifty verses called Atmarpanastuti which has as subject surrender to Shiva.
There is another mysterious aspect to the datura flower. Although it is clearly part of ancient Hindu and Asian traditions and medicine, it is originally native only to the Americas, where it is traditionally part of tribal shamanistic and initiatory practices.This would imply pre-Columbian contact between the Eastern and Western hemispheres. Recent research indicates it may have been brought from the Americas to Eurasia as long as 3000 years ago.The close association of this powerful hallucinogenic from the Americas with Shiva as Nataraja raises many questions and possibilities about the background of his tradition and the nature of his dance. It strengthens the yogic associations, as yogis and siddhas have often sought to strengthen or stimulate their practice through (al)chemical means.

The skull symbolize His conquest over death. I did not find anything related to the Konnai leaf and Nataraj yet. I wonder if it is not related to the fact that ancient legend tells that Shiva once performed his dance of creation and destruction in a grove of Tillai trees.

He wears a crocodile earring on his right earlobe and an elaborate earhanging worn by females on the other earlobe, this indicates his half-male-half-female entity. This is symbolised as artha naariishvar concept.

Ardhanarishvara (Sanskrit: अर्धनारीश्वर, Ardhanārīśvara), is a composite androgynous form of the Hindu God Shiva and his consort, the Goddess Parvati. Ardhanarishvara is depicted as half male and half female, split down the middle. The right half is usually the male Shiva, illustrating his traditional attributes, the left half is Parvati.

I guess the androgynous aspect explain both the strict/rigid and feminine movements present in Bharathnatyam.

The crescent moon shown on His head is the symbolization of protection of the moon by Lord Shiva because the fall of the moon causes cosmic destruction and that means the destruction of entire life.

He is shown with four arms, each symbolizing the cardinal directions and each hand depicts a distinctive mudra / hand gesture.

  • The upper right hand holds a ḍamaru—a small, hourglass-shaped drum—symbolizing sound originating creation and marking the passage of time. The ḍamaru is also thought to represent the male-female vital principle.
  • The upper left hand holds a flame (agni), which signifies destruction, the dissolution of form. The opposing concepts in the upper hands show the counterbalance of creation and destruction, or the fire of life.
  • The lower right hand shows the abhaya mudra (“fearlessness” in Sanskrit), asserting one to be without fear. The blessing is believed to bestow protection from both evil and ignorance to those who follow the righteousness of dharma. Interestingly, the hand pointing to the uplifted foot is held in a pose imitative of the outstretched trunk of an elephant. In Sanskrit this is known as the ’gaja-hasta-mudra’ (the posture of the elephant trunk), and is symbolic of Ganesha, Shiva’s son, the Remover of obstacles.
  • The lower left hand points towards the left foot, which is elegantly raised, signifying upliftment and liberation. The same arm is held across the chest in the gahahasta (elephant trunk) pose, thought to lead the way through the jungle of ignorance.
  • Snakes that stand for egotism uncoil from his arms, legs and hair.
  • The cobra around Nataraja’s waist is kundalini shakti, or the divine force thought to reside within everything.
  • The dwarf on which Nataraja dances is Apasmarapurusha, a soul temporarily Earth-bound by sloth, confusion and forgetfulness. Shiva’s right leg, representing obscuring grace, symbolizes his victory over ignorance. The uplifted left leg, by contrast, is revealing grace, which releases the mature soul from bondage.
  • Nataraja normally adorns only a short dhoti which is tied around his waist with a sash. Typically, the two ends of the sash billow to the god’s dancing movement and reach out to join the ring of fire.
  • The lotus pedestal on which the image rests locates this universe in the heart or consciousness of each person.

Well, I hope it was interesting ^^

Here are the reading materials I went through for this blog post:


Cheers \M/