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Shiva as Lord of the Dance (Shiva Nataraja)
India, Tamil Nadu
Chola period 970 AD
Bronze (copper alloy)
H. 29 1/2 in.

Hinduism, one of the world's great religions, is the belief system of 80 percent of the people of India. It is an ancient and complex system in which there are many levels of understanding.

In the Hindu cosmos, time is conceived of as cyclical, rather than linear. The world is created and, after millennia, destroyed, only to be created once again.

Most Hindus believe in divinity that is formless and all-powerful but may manifest itself in many different gods and goddesses in order to help people who need a deity to worship. For purposes of worship, a god can place his or her power in a visible form (for example, a statue). When that power is made manifest in humanized form, such images represent divine reality, rather than likenesses of earthly beings.

The major Hindu deities are Shiva, Vishnu, and Devi (a goddess). The character of the deity Shiva is complex. He is known by many different names and has numerous manifestations. Shiva is worshiped in symbolic form (known as linga) for his progenitive powers. Although he is regarded as the cosmic destroyer, he is also a creator. Among his manifestations are Cosmic Dancer, creator and destroyer of the universe, wandering mendicant, and family man. He is full of paradoxes. He may be auspicious or inauspicious, male or female. He is all of these things, all opposites reconciled.

This sculpture represents Shiva in his role as Lord of Dance performing his "dance of bliss." It is believed that Shiva first performed this dance in order to redeem a group of sages who were practicing an unorthodox form of Hinduism. In an attempt to resist Shiva, they challenged him with three creatures, a tiger, a snake, and a dwarf-demon. Shiva subdued all three. As a result, he often wears a snake belt and an animal-skin loincloth, and he generally stands on the back of a dwarf. The three creatures symbolize the untamed minds, egoism, and ignorance that Shiva had to destroy in order to guide the sages to a more developed spiritual state. After he had subdued the creatures, Shiva began his dance. The power inherent in his furious dance symbolizes his role as the creator-destroyer of the universe. The dance is the catalyst for the destruction of the universe and the creation of a new cosmos.

This image was created in south India during the Chola period (880-1279 B.C.E.), an era of great Hindu piety in that region. The Chola rulers were devoted to Shiva, in particular in his role as the Lord of Dance and they built great temples in his honor. They patronized the arts and were renowned for the sculptures made in their bronze casting workshops.

How to look at this work
Hindu images are both visual theologies and visual scriptures. They are visual narrations of myths and traditions. We may identify individual deities by the objects that they hold, by what they wear, by their hair styles and by the other beings that accompany them.

Shiva as Lord of the Dance is represented in the following way:

  1. Flaming halo Shiva dances within a flaming arch that springs from a lotus base. The halo represents the cosmos. The triple flames on this halo are symbolic of the three worlds: heaven, earth, and the netherworld.
  2. Pose Shiva's feet are in a dancing pose. His left leg is raised and his right foot is planted on the demon-dwarf, signifying that Shiva overcomes ignorance in the world.
  3. Hands Multiple hands symbolize Shiva's multiple powers.
    The back right hand holds the drum, the symbol of creation. Sound was the first of the five elements that became manifest in the cosmos.
    The back left hand holds a flame within a bowl. The flame symbolizes destruction leading to creation.
    The front right hand is held in the gesture that tells the devotee to have no fear. This is the gesture of reassurance.
    The front left hand points to the raised leg in a gesture that is called 'like an elephant trunk" and signifies that Shiva's activities will bring salvation.
  4. Face
    Shiva's expression is aloof; he is absorbed in meditation.
    He has an all-seeing, all-knowing third eye.
    Shiva wears the matted locks of a yogi, or holy person. The hair is piled up into a crown at the top of his head. The strands flow towards the flaming halo and are adorned with flowers.
  5. Clothing and adornments
    Shiva wears a short skirt, known as a dhoti (pronunciation "doe-tee"), over which he wears a tiger skin.
    He wears much jewelry: necklace, armlets, bracelets, ankle bracelets, and finger and toe rings.
    A snake is wound around his arms.

Large scale bronzes images like this sculpture were (and still are) generally intended for temples. Devotees would visit a temple to be in a space sacred to the deity. The god is understood to inhabit the sculpture and therefore worshipers treat the sculpture as they would a god. In the act of worship, devotees can see the god and the god can see the devotees. Worshipers bathe and perfume the god, dress the image in robes, and ornament it with jewelry and flowers. During festivals, the deity might be taken out and carried in processions.

How this object was made
This bronze image was created using the lost-wax technique.

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