One of the dancing forms of the Hindu god Shiva, Nataraja is most commonly associated with Chola bronze and stone sculptures from the tenth century CE onwards.
Some of the earliest references to the dancing form of Shiva, also known as nrittamurti, have been traced to the Shaiva agamas, including the Anshumadbhedagama and Uttara Kamikagama. The texts mention 108 dancing modes of the god along with specific iconographic markers identified with the Nataraja form: four arms, with the left front arm held straight across the body in the dandahasta, the front right hand in the abhaya mudra, and the left leg lifted and pointed towards the right side. The dancing Shiva should be adorned with flower garlands, ornaments, a human skull, crescent moon, and a snake. The hair is to be depicted in a jatamakuta, a headdress consisting of matted hair, with the jatas or dreadlocks spread outward and decorated with amaltas leaves. The figure should be clothed over the left shoulder and waist with the skin of a tiger or deer.
Nataraja’s pose is called the bhujangatrasa, described by Abhinavagupta in his commentary on the Natyashastra as a dance where the dancer might lift their leg in a sudden manner. The Shilparatna describes the dancing form of Shiva with the additional detail of a prabhamandala, or a ring of light, around the figure. Some texts suggest that the figure of Ganga be represented on the right shoulder with her hands in anjali mudra. The dancing Shiva is usually shown standing on top of an apasmara purusha (dwarf) lying on its side with two arms and a child-like body. These iconographic markers became the norm in representing Nataraja figures, particularly in the regions corresponding to present-day Tamil Nadu.
Representations of the dancing forms of Shiva survive in sculpture from as early as the fifth century. Early depictions of the dancing Shiva have been found in the Deccan, specifically in Badami Cave 1, as well as in the Ravanaphadi Cave, Aihole, dating to the sixth century. These early representations, however, featured Shiva with eight to sixteen arms, standing on top of a platform and accompanied by Ganesha, Kartikeya or the Saptamatrikas. Some depictions of the dancing Shiva were also produced in the region around Kanchipuram, Tamil Nadu, seat of the Pallava Dynasty from the seventh to the ninth century CE.
More frequent references to the god as Nataraja, coupled with more depictions in sculpture, began to appear in south India in the early tenth century. Some of these early Nataraja depictions include stone relief sculptures from the Sadaiyar temple, the Naltunai Ishvara temple, Gomuktishvara temple and the Pipileshvara temple in present-day Tamil Nadu. However, these figures are not consistent in their iconography, suggesting that the deity was still growing in popularity and that sculptors were still experimenting with his form. The earliest known bronze image of the Nataraja was cast around this time in the village of Karaiviram near Thanjavur.
The Thillai Nataraja temple in Chidambaram is mentioned as the home of a dancing Shiva figure in Bhakti poetry of the seventh and eighth centuries, and appears to have been the centre of a cult to the god. It received considerable patronage from the emerging Chola Dynasty in the tenth century, and the Nataraja figure came to be firmly situated in the political rhetoric of the dynasty. Continuing Chola patronage is linked to the gradual standardisation of the Nataraja image in bronze[a]. The growth of Chola power resulted in the spread of the god’s cult in the Kaveri river valley and delta, and Nataraja bronzes began to appear in temples commissioned by non-Chola patrons. Nataraja was also represented in mural paintings and sculpted in stone. The icon remained popular in the region until the collapse of the Chola Dynasty in the late thirteenth century, and received considerable scholarly attention from the late nineteenth century onwards.
The Nataraja icon as established by the Cholas continues to be one of the most recognizable symbols of South Asian art. New images are frequently produced by artisans for handicrafts stores; older images are the centrepieces of religious rituals in Tamil Nadu and can be found in museums such as the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York; the British Museum, London; and the National Museum, New Delhi.
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