Cosmic in Indian art : Shiva as Nataraja

“..Shiva chooses the evening for his dance, when it is dark but the darkness is lit up by his own effulgence, the moon on his crest, the stars around, the flame in his hand and the powerful rays shooting forth from the gems on the hoods of snakes he wears his ornaments” says C. Sivaramamurti.

Shiva is depicted dancing in a circle of flames, lifting his left leg and balancing over a demon or dwarf, muyalaka who symbolises ignorance. His dance represents both the destruction and the creation of the universe and reveals the cycle of death , birth and rebirth.

Shiva is considered the Lord of Dance and has many epithets like nrityasila,nrityapriya,nityanritya,nartana and sarvasadhaka. The dance aspect of Shiva gets prominence in his name NATARAJA or Narteswara. Shiva dances eternally and is the embodiment of dance. The significance of the Dance of Shiva has been understood in many ways. It is understood as a dance of bliss,omnipotence,immanence,time and eternity, onmniscience etc.


Image of Nataraja at Thanjavur Palace, Tamil Nadu

By Mullookkaaran (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0 (, via Wikimedia Commons

Dance of bliss is Anandatandava. Shiva is the Supreme dancer and assures the highest bliss. The dance of omnipotence is a warrior’s dance after the destruction of the Tripuras, a dance of victory, a military triumph.


Image of Nataraja at  Cave No 19, Kailasa, Ellora, Maharashtra

By No machine-readable author provided. QuartierLatin1968 assumed (based on copyright claims). [GFDL (, CC-BY-SA-3.0 ( or CC BY-SA 2.5-2.0-1.0 (, via Wikimedia Commons

The dance of immanence is Shiva dancing as astamurthi symbolising his presence everywhere. The ashtamurti aspect of Shiva includes water,sacrificer,sun and moon, sky,earth and air and is of great use for sustenance of the universe, visual forms seen by all. The Ganga that dances in his jatas is his liquid form, his flying garments are his airy aspect. Shiva in this form has the sun, moon and fire as his eye, his breadth is air, his body is the earth, his ear holds the sky. He assumes the eight forms in order to uphold and maintain the universe as its creator, protector and destroyer. Shiva’s dance is of a whirlwind, of the flames, quake of the earth,dance of light, dance of waves etc.

Dance of time and eternity is Shiva as Kalanataka who kicks death and dances on the prostrate body of death or Yama. Dance of Omniscience is Shiva dancing with a veena as Dakshinamurthy, Nataraja and Vinadhara, he is the Lord of Knowledge, dance and music. The drum of Nataraja is believed to have revealed fourteen sutras to Panini which led to creation of Ashtadhyayi and identification of correct lingual usage. Siva is the poet of the Vedas as Dakshinamurti, an also a beater of the drum,teacher of music with Brahma and Vishnu who are also Natyacharyas.

“He is not only the architect of the universe, he is himself the author of the theory of this mode of construction and his is not an effort limited to a short time schedule to bring into existence something that has not been there. He is eternally active as there is no creation, no destruction, but only transformation and transmutation for which his omniscience, omnipotence and immanence and over-powering will make him the supreme Ishvara...the dance of Shiva is a symbol of this eternal dance. His eternal creation is an eternal cycle of creation,protection,destruction and deliverance”..says C. Sivaramamurti.


References :

Siva in art, thought and literature, C. Sivaramamurti, Publications Division, 1994.


Posted by : Soma Ghosh


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