Nataraja – King Of Dance: Understanding Chola Bronzes


Nataraja, popularly known as Dancing Shiva, has its origins in Chidambaram in Tamil Nadu. It is probably the most recognizable piece of Indian Art, which may be competing with Ganesh’s images that we see in various Avatars. Though has not changed much over time, it remains more or less the same. I have seen only one variation of it at the Birla Museum where it is upside down.

Nataraja - The King of Dance
Nataraja – The King of Dance

Nataraja – The King of Dance

Let me walk you through the iconography of the Lord. Take a good look at the image above. Shiva, as we know, stands for destruction followed by creation and this is well represented in this image. This image shows the circle of life and how Shiva is a part of each of them. Nataraja literally means the King of Dance and performs Tandav or the Cosmic Dance in this form.

Nataraja Idol Explained

Upper Right-Hand holds Damru – an hourglass-shaped small drum that is beaten by rotation of the wrist and beats come when a thick string tied to it hit the drum area. Damru represents the Sound from which the universe was created. It represents Creation.

Upper Left-Hand holds Agni or Fire – which is a symbol of Destruction. The two opposing symbols of creation and destruction both hands represent the balance of both. Or a cycle of one following the other.

Lower Right-Hand is in Abhaya Mudra representing Protection to the one who follows Shiva or the path of righteousness. Abhaya is a Sanskrit word for ‘Without Fear’

Lower Left-Hand facing downwards is Varada Mudra represents a sanctuary for the soul of devotees or Liberation. Lower hands represent the protective, nurturing, or preserving part of the Universe. That is for the time between creation and destruction.

Right Leg is balanced on top of a demon that represents ignorance. So Shiva while creating, nurturing, destroying, and re-creating is Trampling the Demon of Ignorance. Observe that the demon is actually looking with a smiling face towards Shiva.

The left leg is raised and represents the Dance of Bliss.

Snake around the waist represents Shakti in the form of Kundalini which resides in our Navel. The Crescent moon represents enlightenment. The left ear has a man’s earring and in right, a woman’s depicting the fact that wherever there is Shiva there is Shakti. He is wearing a necklace, armlets, anklets, toe rings, and a bejeweled belt like a dancer. The expression on his face is that of equanimity. Perfectly balanced – neither happy for creation nor sad for destruction. As he dances, his hair open-up and on the right side of his Jata, you can see Ganga. The circle of Fire around the figure represents the Universe.

The rhythm of Creation & Destruction

Noted Physicist Fritjof Capra says in his book Tao of Physics – “modern physics has shown that the rhythm of creation and destruction is not only manifest in the turn of the seasons and in the birth and death of all living creatures but is also the very essence of inorganic matter,”. And that “for the modern physicists, then, Shiva’s dance is the dance of subatomic matter.

He concluded: “Hundreds of years ago, Indian artists created visual images of dancing Shiva in a beautiful series of bronzes. In our time, physicists have used the most advanced technology to portray the patterns of cosmic dance. The metaphor of the cosmic dance thus unifies ancient mythology, religious art, and modern physics.”

I am tempted to ask him if Shiva and Shakti are essentially what modern Particle Physicists call Particle and Anti-Particle, coming together of whom generates endless energy.

The clearest image of God

Art Historian Ananda K Coomaraswamy says that Nataraja is the clearest image of the activity of God… A more fluid and energetic representation of a moving figure than the dancing figure of Shiva can scarcely be found anywhere. He elaborates that dance of Shiva represents his following five activities called Panchkritya:

  • Shrishti – overlooking, creation, evolution
  • Sthiti – preservation, support
  • Samhara – destruction, devolution
  • Tirobhava – veiling, embodiment, illusion, giving rest
  • Anugraha – release, salvation, grace

All these are represented in the above image through hands. Creation from the drum, preservation from Abhaya Mudra, destruction from Fire, and liberation from Varada Mudra.


This is how he describes Nataraja ‘The images then, represent Siva dancing, having four hands, with braided and jeweled hair of which the lower locks are whirling in the dance. In His hair may be seen a wreathing cobra, a skull, and the mermaid figure of Ganga; upon it rests the crescent moon, and it is crowned with a wreath of Cassia leaves. In His right ear He wears a man’s earring, a woman’s on the left; He is adorned with necklaces and armlets, a jeweled belt, anklets, bracelets, finger, and toe-rings. The chief part of His dress consists of tightly fitting breeches, and He wears also a fluttering scarf and a sacred thread. One right hand holds a drum, the other is uplifted in the sign of do not fear: one left-hand holds fire, the other points down upon the demon Muyalaka, a dwarf holding a cobra; the left foot is raised. There is a lotus pedestal, from which springs an encircling glory (tiruvasi), fringed with flame, and touched within by the hands holding drum and fire.’

81 dance poses of Shiva at Badami, Karnataka
81 dance poses of Shiva at Badami, Karnataka

Shiva depicting 81 poses

Here is an image of Shiva depicting 81 distinct poses of Dance from Badami Caves in Karnataka.

This is my first attempt at writing about Indian Art, a subject that I can best call myself a student of, so if there are any errors please help me correct them.


  1. Though the Chola bronzes are the most famous Nataraja sculptures that we have,the Nataraja cult has earlier origins….probably the earliest surviving Nataraja sculpture is the one at Elephanta caves,dating to the sixth or the seventh centuries…The aesthetics of the elephanta sculptures has led scholars to classify them as Gupta-Chalukyan art.

  2. congratulations, and then some more, and then can we have some more. this is truly an excellent start. your use of the quantum physics reference point was very nice too, since much of indian – for want of a better word – religious art is about science and the laws of the universe, and not the apparent personification they refer to. i love the way you have blended india, art, science, and history together. will be back for more.

  3. Thanks Hema.

    Take1, The second picture that I have posted from Badami is also from 5-6th CE. These images may be the predecessors of the Natraja that was literally cast in metal sometime in Tamil country and has continued to be exist that way since then.

  4. Very interesting!

    Please share whatever you decipher, I personally think there is so much more to learn from the eastern thought and philosophy that has been lost in time.

    Thanks for the effort and yes… I have subscribed to your blog on this..


  5. Makes me interested in the subject.
    You wrote so clearly even a noob like me can understand.

    Thanks a lot for sparking this interest.

  6. Natraj is the joyful expression of Shiva.
    The Monsoon has arrived and Kanwariyas( Lord Shiva’s) devotees have started there journeys.

    It is unfortunate that a bus packed with these devotees had slipped into a river and caused so many causalities. Let us pray for them and for the rest of us too.

  7. Hi Anuradha,

    I had a good time reading about this. Thanks for taking up Indian Art and making it accessible to the common man.

    I’m gonna look forward to this.


  8. Such a wonderful explanation! Being a Bharatnatyam student for eight years, I can relate to the article but it was never explained so well by anyone! Thank you for writing this! 🙂

  9. …I am tempted to ask him if Shiva and Shakti are essentially what the modern Particle Physicists call Particle and Anti-Particle, coming together of whom generates endless energy.
    Shiva and Shakti are one as expressed in ardhanarishara, however, Shiva is an unexpressed form of the universe and hence Shiva symbolically expressed as a bindu or a dot. Shakti on the other hand is a dynamic form of Shiva, we also worship her as Devi, Maya etc. This is the life force and hence is dynamic or ever expanding creation. Dissolution or destruction is winding this life force back to the Bindu. The cycle of creation and destruction goes on and on.
    Shakti in the form of Kundalini that resides in our Navel… no Shakti as Kundalini resides at the base of spine. Through yoga this is ascended to the top of scalp through 7 chakras.


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