Period: Chola period (880–1279)
Date: ca. 11th century
Culture: Indian (Tamil Nadu)
Medium: Copper alloy
Dimensions: H. 26 7/8 in. (68.3 cm); Diam. 22 1/4 in. (56.5 cm)
Credit Line: Gift of R. H. Ellsworth Ltd., in honor of Susan Dillon, 1987
Accession Number: 1987.80.1
If a single icon had to be chosen to represent the extraordinarily rich and complex cultural heritage of India, the Shiva Nataraja might well be the most remunerative candidate. It is such a brilliant iconographic invention that it comes as close to being a summation of the genius of the Indian people as any single icon can. Sculptures of Shiva dancing survive from at least as early as the fifth century, but it was under the rule of the great Chola dynasty of southern India (ca. 860–1279) that the world-famous iconographic type evolved.
The setting of Shiva's dance is the golden hall of Chidambaram, at the center of the universe, in the presence of all the gods. Through symbols and dance gestures, Shiva taught the illustrious gathering that he is Creator, Preserver, and Destroyer. As he danced he held in his upper right hand the damaru, the hand drum from which issued the primordial vibrating sound of creation. With his lower right hand he made the gesture of abhaya, removing fear, protecting, and preserving. In his upper left hand he held agni, the consuming fire of dynamic destruction. With his right foot he trampled a dwarflike figure (apasmara purusha), the ignoble personification of illusion who leads humankind astray. In his dance of ecstasy Shiva raised his left leg, and, in a gesture known as the gaja hasta, pointed to his lifted leg to provide refuge for the troubled soul. He thus imparted the lesson that through belief in him, the soul can be transported from the bondage of illusion and ignorance to salvation and eternal serenity. Encircling Shiva is a flaming body halo (prabhamandala, or surrounding effulgence) that not only establishes the visual limits of this complex and dynamic composition but also symbolizes the boundaries of the cosmos.