Tell me friend
what strange man is this?
his form is smeared with ashes white
a serpent rears upon his hand
in cryptic speech he seems well versed
what manner of man is he?
Why look at his ashes
or fear his serpent
or heed his elusive
all you need to know is this
he is the essence
the god of all
that lives and moves1
So sang saint Manikkavachakar of the god Shiva, using the popular mode of a question-and-answer song (calalo) to acknowledge the paradox that the deity who is the highest of the high is at the same time the god of eccentric dress, ornaments and attributes. Shiva is the beautiful god of the matted jata or dreadlocks, which are wound together and piled high on his head. Adorning them are a crescent moon, a skull and a serpent, together with Shiva’s favourite blossoms, the konrai or wild cassia and the unmattai or hornblower flower. On his forehead is a vertical third eye, symbolising his omniscient powers.
01shiva Shiva as Nataraja (Lord of Dance), eleventh century, bronze, height 111.5 cm. The Cleveland Museum of Art, Purchase from the J. H. Wade Fund, 1930.331. Photo: © The Cleveland Museum of Art, Purchase from the J.H. Wade Fund 1930.331
Shiva as Nataraja (Lord of Dance), eleventh century, bronze, height 111.5 cm. The Cleveland Museum of Art, Purchase from the J. H. Wade Fund, 1930.331. Photo:
Shiva’s attributes are a trident and a battleaxe, his weapons of choice. His favourite companion, an antelope, invariably accompanies him, often transformed into an attribute poised on one of his rear hands. He is the lord adorned with serpents; apart from peeping through his dreadlocks, serpents serve variously as his loincloth, belt, scarf, necklace, armlet, wristband or anklet. Shiva’s mountain home is Kailasa in the snowbound Himalayas, and his consort Parvati (daughter of the mountains) is likewise from the north. The sixty-three Tamil Shaivite poet-saints who lived between the sixth and ninth centuries relocated this god, together with his consort whom they called Uma, to the lush paddy fields, sandy shores and coconut groves of southern India, singing of how he chose to take up residence in the temples of Tamil Nadu. In the sanctum itself, Shiva is always represented in the form of a pillar-like linga emblem but on the outer walls of temples and in the bronze images created for temple festivals, Shiva took on a number of manifestations, including Nataraja (Lord of Dance), Tripuravijaya (Victor of the Three Cities), Somaskanda (with Uma and infant Skanda), Shrikantha (Lord of the Auspicious Neck) and Chandrashekhara (Lord Crowned with the Moon).
In his snowbound mountain home of Kailasa, Shiva is said to have invented 108 types of dance as Nataraja (Lord of Dance), perhaps to be identified with the 108 karanas or poses of Indian classical dance. Shiva dances in triumph at defeating demons, or for the pleasure of his consort and, through his celebrated cosmic dance known as ananda tandava or dance of bliss, he is believed to dance the world into extinction only to dance it back into existence as part of the cyclical time system of India. As Nataraja (nata meaning dance and raja meaning king in Sanskrit), Shiva stands in theatrical splendour on his bent right leg, while his gracefully poised left foot is raised high across his body. In his left rear hand he holds fire, signifying destruction, while his right rear hand holds a damaru drum, whose sound denotes creation. His right front hand is raised in a gesture of protection. Closely associated with the sacred Chola temple of Chidambaram, dancing Shiva, hailed by the French sculptor Auguste Rodin as the perfect embodiment of rhythmic movement, appears to have become almost a symbol for the Chola dynasty.
In this bronze Nataraja, Shiva stands serene and assured, master of the universe, within a circular prabha aureole framed with five-tipped flames that represent the oscillating universe. The god rests his right foot on the back of the dwarfish demonic figure of Mushalagan, representing darkness and ignorance to be overcome, who meekly raises his head to look up at the lord. The detailing is finely executed and the skull, crescent moon and crane feathers crowning his head are clearly delineated, although his matted locks, usually shown splayed out through the movement of dance, have broken away. The sculpture reveals absolute mastery of the art of bronze-casting and exemplifies the mature iconography for Nataraja that remains the model today.
In contrast to images of Vishnu, seen by Tamil devotees as an actual manifestation of the god, a finely crafted image of Shiva is considered to be the perfect vehicle for the temporary descent of the deity during ritual worship, known by the term puja. The presiding priest invokes the god with an avahana or invitation to enter the image; when puja is complete, he performs a visarjana or sending away to permit the spark of divinity to depart. Devotees encounter the image after it has been enlivened and adorned and is presented to the world for admiration and worship.
1 Manikkavachakar, Tirucalal, 1, in Dehejia 1988, p. 6.