Culture

Arudra Darshan: Understanding Cosmic Dancer Nataraja – The Symbol Of Creation And Destruction

The Nataraja.
Snapshot
  • The cosmic dance form of Shiva, Nataraja, symbolises the creation and destruction of universe and more.

    Scriptures talk about five specific ‘actions’ of the god — creation, protection, destruction, hide and grace.

    It is essential to understand and assimilate the underlying philosophy behind the manifestation while worshipping Nataraja, especially as Arudra Darshan is being celebrated today (10 January).

Of the various manifestation of Lord Shiva, Nataraja, the dancing Shiva occupies a unique and a special place in Indic tradition. This form, as many are aware, represents the cosmic dancing of Shiva and is very popular in South India, especially in Tamil Nadu.

There are various theories from the iconography perspective as to when this form was evolved.

However, references about the celestial dancing of the god during the creation and destruction of universe were found in various puranas and scriptures.

It is worth noting that the Nataraja worship flourished during the Chola era (9 to 13 century CE). Cholas are ardent devotees of Shiva.

Chidambaram, the foremost among the Nataraja temples, is one of their capitals. The Chola kings were usually coroneted in the vicinity of golden sabha of the temple.

Hence one can find innumerable bronze sculptures of Nataraja made by Cholas. This has even caught the attention of the legendary astronomer Carl Sagan, who made this remark in his very popular series ‘Cosmos’:

In India there are many gods, and each god has many manifestations. The Chola bronzes, cast in the eleventh century, include several different incarnations of the god Shiva. The most elegant and sublime of these is a representation of the creation of the universe at the beginning of each cosmic cycle, a motif known as the cosmic dance of Shiva. The god, called in this manifestation Nataraja, the Dance King, has four hands. In the upper right hand is a drum whose sound is the sound of creation. In the upper left hand is a tongue of flame, a reminder that the universe, now newly created, will billions of years from now be utterly destroyed.

It is no wonder that a Nataraja statue was placed in Center for Research in Particle Physics (CERN) in Geneva, which was in search for the mysterious ‘God Particle’.

<i>Nataraja statue in CERN</i> Nataraja statue in CERN

So what does this dancing of the god signify? Is it merely to symbolise the creation and destruction of universe or does it have a deeper meaning?

Our scriptures mention about five specific ‘actions’ of the god, viz, creation, protection, destruction, hide and grace.

The dance which is based on all these five actions is called as ‘Panchakrithya’. Meaning, all these actions are carried out by god manifest in the form of dance.

In the Tamil region, where Nataraja form had originated, one of the names by which Lord Shiva is called is “Koothan”, someone who dances.

The Tamil literature speaks about a number of ‘Koothus’ performed by the god. It is said that there are 12 different dance forms of Shiva.

Chandogya Upanishad mentions that when the Lord performs these dances, Uma Devi said to be playing the tala required for the dance. These talas are classified into three parts — ‘pani’, the first, ‘thooku’ the middle and ‘seer’ the final part in Tamil.

Among these 12 dance forms, the three worth special mention are ‘kodu kotti’, ‘paandarangam’ and ‘kaapaalam’.

Let’s look at what they mean and signify in the current context, taking the help of one of the Sangam texts — Kalithogai, which has a verse describing all these three dance forms.

Hindus believe that the universe goes through the cycle of ‘yugas, chatur yugas — four yugas to be precise.

At the end of this four-yuga cycle, there will be ‘maha pralaya’ — complete destruction, during which all the living beings are absorbed by the god.

In the intermittent period, due to the cycles of births and deaths, they experience profound grief and sorrow. Hence, they are assumed to be taking the much-needed rest during the maha prayala kala.

The god was so happy that sufferings of all living beings ended thus and dances with joy. He is happy like a mother whose children are back home after so many days, happy like parents who see their wards having peaceful sleep after days of turmoil.

The dance of happiness, happening when the god absorbs all the living beings during the maha pralaya time is called ‘kodu kotti’. Kotti means clapping. He is happy and dances with clapping his hands. It is ‘kodu’ — cruel as it is the time where everything is destroyed.

This dance form is also known as Kottichetham. This was described in Kalithogai, in a poem by Nallanthuvanar. He says:

“PaduparaipalaIyampa pal uruvampeyarthu nee
kodukottiadungalkoduuyarakalalkul
kodipurainusuppinaalkonda seer tharuvalo?”

(Oh my Lord, when you dance kodu kotti, with your parai (damaru) making various sounds, with various manifestations of living beings liberated and absorbed by you, who else can give you the seer (end part of tala) for the dance, but the goddess with a narrow-waist.)

The poet exclaims that after everything is destroyed and absorbed by the god, when he dances in elation by clapping his hands, jumping, moving around, making various sounds in his damaru, who will be able to witness such a divine koothu except the devi, who in fact provides the required tala for this dance. Note that the poet mentions seer, the “final” tala here.

The dance form also finds a mention in the Tamil epic, Silappathikaram.

It seems the koothars — dance artists of yesteryear, mastered the kodu kotti dance and used to perform this in kings’ courts. Silappathikaram mentions that in the court of Chera King Senguttuvan and his queen, one Kootha Sakkayan from Parayur performed the kodu kotti dance.

“Umayavaloruthiranaga, ongiyaImayavanadiyakottichetham paatharunaalvagaimarayorparayurkoothasakkayanadalin, magizhnthu”

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The kottichetham dance of Shiva, during which Uma Devi remained alongside, was performed by Parayur Kootha Sakkayan, says Silappathikaram.

There are always the demonic manifestations in the world. The god fights them and destroys them for the well-being of the universe. Our puranas have various legends about conflicts between gods and asuras. In the end, the good prevails over the evil.

There are eight such acts of valour by Shiva in eight places in Tamil Nadu, known as ‘Atta Veeratta Thalangal’. When Shiva wins these wars against the asuras by burning them down, he dances in ecstasy.

When the evil is burned to ashes, he puts the thiruneeru (white ash) all over his body and dances in the place which has turned into white due to the burning. Pandu means white. Arangam means stage. When the lord dances on the white stage, having white ash all over his body, the form of dance is called Pandarangam. Nallanthuvanar describes the dance as

“Manduamarpalakadanthumathukaiyalneeruaninthu pandarangamadungalpanaiezhilanai menthol vanduaratrumkoonthalaalvalarthookutharuvalo?”

(Oh Lord, when you win many wars and perform Pandarangam wearing the sacred thiruneeru, who will play the thooku (the middle tala). It is none other than the devi who has soft and bamboo like shoulders and whose hair is surrounded by bees.)

Silappathikaram also mentions this dance. It says the dance happened during Thiripura Samhara, destruction of the three demons in the form of cities.

“Thermunnindrathisaimugan kana
bharathiadiyaviyanpandarangamum”

After defeating the thiripuras, Lord Shiva, with his body full of thiruneeru danced before the Brahma, who was his charioteer. It is said that Brahma drove the chariot in the form of Earth and the four vedas as horses.

The third form of koothu is known is ‘kaapalam’. This symbolises the god’s function of destroying our ego/ arrogance.

Brahma had five heads like Shiva. Arrogance overtook him and Shiva had to cut off Brahma’s fifth head. However, the Brahma kapala got stuck in his hand.

Shiva had to seek ‘biksha’ with kapala in his hand to get rid of it. The inner meaning of this is, the god seeks biksha to bless all of us, liberate and give moksha. When he dances with this kapala in his hand, the form is known as kaapaalam. The dance is performed with Shiva dancing with tiger’s skin around his hip, kondrai (laburnum) mala around his neck and kapala in his hand, Nallanthuvanar exclaims:

“Kolai uzhuvai thol asai ekondrai thaarsuvarpurala
thalaiangaikondu nee kaapaalamadungal
mulaianinthamuruvalalmunpanitharuvalo?”

(Oh lord, when you dance kaapaalam, wearing the skin of the tiger which came to kill you, with the mala made up of kondrai poo, with the head in your hand — who else can provide the pani (the first part of tala) none other than the goddess who has a smile like that of mullai poo.)

These three and many such forms of the dances of god gave raise to Nataraja, the dancing Shiva.

When this was manifested into a sculpture, various aspects from the Natya Sastra by Bharatha Muni were taken into consideration from which this murthi was evolved.

The first among the many Nataraja sculptures can be found during the Pallava era itself.

One such example is the stone sculpture in the cave temple at Seeyamangalam (early seventh century).

This was said be modelled in line with the ‘Bhujanga-Trasitakarana, which is one of the karanas (poses) from Bharata’s Natya Sastra.

When a person is about to put his left leg forward and suddenly sees a snake, he lifts the leg in scare, across the body. This pose is ‘Bhujanga-Trasita’, scare of snake. The snake beneath the foot confirms that the iconography is based on the karana as described by Natya Sastra.

Nataraja in Seeyamangalam Cave temple Nataraja in Seeyamangalam Cave temple

From this, the Nataraja iconography has evolved into the current form. There are other theories based on astronomy which mentions about the evolution of the Nataraja iconography. One such theory is based on the constellation of Orion, the pattern of stars that make up the cluster gives the picture of Nataraja in the backdrop.

Picture: courtesy chidambaramhiddentreasure.com Picture: courtesy chidambaramhiddentreasure.com

It must be worth noting that the two major festivals associated with Nataraja, the Margazhi Arudra (in December-January) and Aani Thirumanjanam (June-July) has links with Orion.

The star Arudra (Betelgeuse in the Orion constellation) is sacred for Shaivites and a maha abhishekam is performed to Nataraja in various Shiva temples when full moon happens on the Arudra star in the month of Margazhi.

Similarly, during Aani Thirumanjanam, another abhishekam is performed to Nataraja when sun moves through the Arudra star during the month of Aani.

In effect, the dance of the god signifies the divine actions exhibited through various forms.

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It symbolises the creation, functioning and destruction of universe through cycles which happen in an orderly manner just like a dance.

These functions as depicted in the scriptures coupled with the dancing poses based on Natya Sastra gave rise to the form of Nataraja.

It is essential to understand and assimilate the underlying philosophy behind the manifestation while worshipping Nataraja, especially as Arudra Darshan is being celebrated today (10 January).

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