In Focus

Shiva Nataraja

This sculpture depicting Shiva as Lord of the Dance was produced during the period of Chola dynasty rule during the 11th century. Although bronzes from south India sel­dom bear dated inscriptions, their dates may be determined by comparison with stone sculptures on temple walls. The art­ists who worked in metal may have done so exclusively, but there is no significant stylistic distinction between stone and metal sculpture at any given date.

Shiva in this form became especially important during the Chola period as the kings established a special and very close relationship with the great Shiva Nataraja temple at Chidambaram. Thus we see a proliferation of Nataraja images during this period, in stone on the southern walls of most Chola royal temples and in metal within their long enclosed porchways. On special occasions, these metal images were taken on procession both within the tem­ple itself and beyond, around the area over which the deity presided. Bamboo poles were passed through the holes at the base of the sculpture so that it could be carried in procession, usually on a cart.

The metal sculptures of south India are solid cast, unlike their counterparts in north India, which are hollow cast. Thus they are generally very heavy. This sculp­ture, like other south Indian images, was cast in the cire perdue (lost wax) technique by which a model was first fashioned, then covered with slips of clay, leaving openings at the top and bottom. When molten metal was poured into the top opening, the wax melted and ran out, replaced by the metal. When the metal solidified, the clay mold would be broken, revealing a metal dupli­cate of the wax original. Final detailing could be added with file and chisel.

The symbolism and meaning of this image are complex and profound. Shiva symbolizes both creation and destruction. In his form as Nataraja, Shiva dances upon a dwarf, Apasmara Purusha, who signifies ignorance, earthly desire, and the cycle of rebirth that imprisons humans, all of which are oblit­erated in the course of the god’s dance. As Shiva dances the universe is set in motion, and when he stops, the universe ends, only to be recreated once the dancing resumes. The snake-like tendrils that form Shiva’s hair represent the sacred Ganges River; they hold Ganga, the goddess of the river, and also suggest the god’s dynamic motion and his identity as an ascetic with matted locks. The crescent moon in his hair references a story describing how jealous ascetics attempted to injure Shiva with a moon sickle, which he thereafter wore as a hair ornament. A vertical third eye on Shiva’s forehead identifies the god and is kept shut to prevent its fiery power from scorching all of creation.

Shiva has four arms, the upper two of which hold objects in their hands. The hand of his extended right arm holds the drum on which he beats out the rhythm of the universe, marking the time of his dance and invoking creation. His upper left hand holds a small flame that reminds the viewer of Shiva’s power to destroy the universe. The empty hands of Shiva’s lower arms are brought together in the elephant gesture representing strength, and the right hand is raised in a gesture meaning “fear not.” Shiva’s raised left leg emphasizes that he is in motion, dancing to the rhythm of the universe. It also symbolizes his liberation from earthly desires and the cycle of rebirth. For his devout followers, this gesture is a promise of liberation.

A circle of flames suggests the continuous flow of energy that forms the universe, and the lotus base on which the god stands symbolizes eternal renewal.

Adapted from

  • Frederick M. Asher, "Shiva Nataraja," in The Arts of India, South East Asia, and the Himalayas, Anne R. Bromberg (Dallas: Dallas Museum of Art; New Haven: Yale University Press, 2013), 75-76.

  • DMA Connect, 2012.

Related Multimedia

Collections smartphone audio for Shiva Nataraja, 2000.377 (DMA Collection); Vishnu as Varaha, 2002.25; Image of Durga, 2003.7.2

Web Resources

  • Khan Academy
    Learn more about Shiva as 'Lord of the Dance.'