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Shiva as Nataraja (Sanskrit: Lord of Dance), represents apocalypse and creation as He dances away the illusory world of Maya. Nataraja in bronze is a very fluid, energetic representation of a moving figure. It was developed in southern India by 9th and 10th century artists during the Chola period (880-1279 CE) in a series of beautiful bronze sculptures. By the 12th century AD, it achieved canonical stature and soon the Chola Nataraja became the supreme statement of Hindu art.
The significance of the Nataraja sculpture is said to be that Shiva is shown as the source of all movement within the cosmos, represented by the arch of flames.
The Cosmic dance
The cosmic dance was performed in Chidambaram in South India, revered as the center of the universe by some Hindus.
The dance of Shiva represents his five attributes:
Shrishti (creation, evolution, symbolized by the drum)
Sthiti (preservation, support, by the "fear not" hand gesture of abhaya)
Samhara (destruction, evolution, by the fire)
Tirobhava (illusion, by the foot planted on the ground)
Anugraha (release, emancipation, grace, by the foot held aloft).
The characteristic of Nataraja, though with minor variations at some places, are as follows
He is shown with four hands, two on either side. The upper left hand holds a flame, the lower left hand points down to the demon Muyalaka, who is shown holding a serpent, toward that holy foot in assurance that Siva's grace is the refuge for everyone, the way to liberation.
In the back right hand Shiva often holds a damaru (an hour glass shaped drum), representing the rhythmic sound to which Nataraja dances ceaselessly recreating the universe.
The front right hand is in the abhaya-mudra (the "fear not" gesture represented by holding the palm outward with fingers pointing up).
The front left hand is held across the chest in the gahahasta (elephant trunk pose), with the wrist limp and the fingers pointed downward toward the uplifted foot.
The back left hand carries agni (fire) in a vessel or in his hand. Its flames represent the destructive energy with which Nataraja dances at the end of each cosmic age, cleansing sins and removing illusion.
The upper right hand holds a drum, the lower one is in the abhayamudra (fear not).
The demon Apasmarapurusha (denoting ignorance, laziness, lethargy etc.) generally shown holding a serpant, is being crushed by Shiva's right foot, the other foot is raised.
Shiva's hair is shown braided and jeweled, but some of his locks whirl as he dances. Within the folds of his hair are a wreathing cobra, a skull, and the figure of Ganga. Shiva's unkempt hair symbolises the rejection of the society, showing him to be an ascetic.
The goddess Ganges is shown nesting in Shiva's dreadlocks. The river Ganges that flows in Nataraja's hair originally flowed in heaven. When the heavenly Ganges was needed on earth, she was unwilling to fall to earth for rear that the force of her fall would be too severe for the earth to withstand. Shiva as Nataraja agreed to break the violent power of the fall by catching her in his tangled hair and moderate it with his hair.
The crescent moon in his matted hair keeps Kama, the god of love. Through the waxing and the waning of the moon Shiva creates different seasons and rejuvenates life.
The Serpent around Nataraja's waist is kundalini shakti, the soul-impelling cosmic power resident within all. The snake Nataraja wears coiled around his upper arms and neck symbolizes the power over the most deadly of creatures, also symbolizes reincarnation.
His lifted left foot, grants eternal bliss to those who approach him. The other foot treads firmly upon the dwarf of ignorance, paving way for the birth of knowledge. Nataraja dances above the body of the demon, Muyalaka - Apasmara (representing the ignorance of teachings), whom he has killed in the role of Natesa, releasing all that are enlightened.
The entire figure stands on a lotus pedestal and is fringed by a circle of flames, which are touched by the hands holding the drum and the fire.
The all-devouring form looming above is Mahakala, "Great Time", thus representing Shiva's five activities, creation, protection, destruction, embodiment, and release.
The symbolic significance of every aspect of the representation of Shiva is furnished by text:
"O my Lord, Thy hand holding the sacred drum has made and ordered the heavens and earth and other worlds and innumerable souls. Thy lifted hand protects both the conscious and unconscious order of thy creation. All these worlds are transformed by Thy hand bearing fire. Thy sacred foot, planted on the ground, gives an abode to the tired soul struggling in the toils of causality. It is Thy lifted foot that grants eternal bliss to those that approach Thee. These Five-Actions are indeed Thy Handiwork".