ART AND RELIGION – Shiva

Bronze figure of Nataraja 
Height: 89.5 cm

From Tamil Nadu, southern India
Chola dynasty, around AD 1100

Dancing Shiva in a ring of fire

The Hindu god Shiva appears as the lord of the dance, Nataraja, in a ring of fire. His long ascetic’s hair flies out on either side of his head as he performs his dance. Nestling within his hair is a small figure. This is the goddess Ganga, the personification of the holy River Ganges, who, legend tells, fell to earth through Shiva’s hair. Also visible in his hair are the crescent moon and the intoxicating datura flower; both are closely associated with his wild nature. Beneath his foot he tramples upon the dwarf of ignorance, Apasmara.

In Hindu belief, Shiva as Nataraja appears at the end of one cosmic cycle and the beginning of the next, and is thus associated with both creation and destruction. In his hands he holds both the destructive fire and the double-sided drum, the sound from which summons up new creation. Traditionally time in India is considered to be cyclical, rather than linear, as in the West.

The Nataraja is one of the best known images of all Indian art. It was especially popular during the rule of the Chola kings in Tamil Nadu in the tenth to twelfth centuries. The main temple to this deity is at Chidambaram, a site patronized by the Chola kings. This specific example of the type is both a creative masterpiece and a fine technical achievement for the figure is cast in a single piece. Nataraja images are placed in temple shrines and are paraded during festivals.

British Museum

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