The whole thing is there, you see. The world of space and time, and matter and energy, the world of creation and destruction, the world of psychology…We (the West) don’t have anything remotely approaching such a comprehensive symbol, which is both cosmic and psychological, and spiritual.
Dancing before a corpse wasn’t a new idea to me. Discovering a god in it is what left me stunned.
Decades of watching movies in multiple south Indian languages had not prepared me for it. Neither had tripping on koothu, the dance form popular among cinema-lovers in that part of the country.
Yet, here I was one September day in 2018, searching for hints of lord Nataraja, the fountainhead of most Indian dance forms, in this most unruly of performances, Saavukoothu – “death dance”.
A street dance practiced by some Tamils when they accompany the departed to the final resting place, Saavukoothu doesn’t demand any of the refinement of the more evolved classical traditions like Bharatanatyam or Kathak. There is only one rule: Let go completely.
I had been reading up on Nataraja, the dancing version of the feral Hindu god Shiva, for weeks. I hoped to trace his origins and evolution over a period of nearly five millennia, a search sparked after I was smitten by a famed sculpture in a Karnataka town. Tranquil-yet-ferocious according to Hindu mythology, Shiva is said to reside at Mount Kailasa, now in the Tibetan Himalayas. The third pillar of the triumvirate that includes Brahma and Vishnu, he is believed to be easy to please yet supremely destructive.
My search took me to Chennai, capital of the southern Indian state of Tamil Nadu and home to perhaps one of the greatest collection of ancient Nataraja statues under one roof at the Government Museum in Egmore. One of the experts I spoke to hinted that apart from mainstream dance forms, even something as raw as Saavukoothu could be linked to Shiva. My curiosity kindled, I began visiting the city’s crematoria, hoping to bump into its dancers or even witness it.
There I met the wiry Rajkumar, head of a group of percussion artistes who lead Saavukoothu. For the 38-year-old, who uses only his first name, playing the drums for this street dance has been a family tradition, yet one he was too modest to hold forth on. “My grandpa could have given you more details. Unfortunately, he’s no more. I am still a novice when it comes to the porul [crux] of koothu,” Rajkumar told me, directing me instead to Ragothaman, a priest at a local temple.
This priest, a trained engineer, told me the dance tradition is symbolic of Shiva’s primordial performance – the dead are believed to be finally joining Koothu Perumal, lord of the dance in the Tamil language, and another of Shiva’s epithets. Over centuries, the matted-haired, animal-skin wearing, hash-smoker has evolved into many things, including a hermaphrodite, for many people. This dweller of cremation grounds – he is often imagined covered in ash from funeral pyres – today can be found even on the grounds of the European Organization for Nuclear Research campus in Switzerland, where he symbolises the high-energy collisions of particle physics in his Nataraja form.
In the most recognisable Nataraja version, he is seen dancing in sheer abandon, hair locks wildly swaying and his limbs placed in broad symmetry. He stands beautifully balanced on his right leg, trampling a tiny figurine. This entire scene is framed by a circle of flames.
In a furiously and incessantly transforming world, Nataraja – and the message of his dance, “Keep calm and move on” – may be among the few relevant spiritual anchors of our times.
The blissful Nataraja
The origins of Nataraja, and of the Hindu god Shiva himself, lie thousands of years ago. However, the form we recognise best today may have reached its apex around the 9th or 10th century in southern India: The Ananda Tandava or blissful dance.
In it, Shiva is in the Bhujangatrasita karana pose – literally “frightened by a snake” – with his left leg held across his body at hip level, and every element contains a deep meaning. Roughly, Shiva is here at once seen creating and destroying existence, offering the escape hatch from this constant chaos, and finally, revealing the clue to that escape hatch, which is to subdue ignorance.
The following are the five most important elements, indicating the Panchakritya, or five key acts of the Nataraja.
Srishti or creation: The Nataraja’s rear left arm carries the hourglass-shaped drum, damuru, the vibrations of which create the universe. Some conflate this with the Big Bang of cosmic creation.
Samhara or destruction: The raised, rear right-hand carries the fire that atrophies matter to a formless state, only for regeneration. In that sense, it is the fire of transformation, not destruction. It implies constant change, echoing the Buddhist precept of “There’s no being, only becoming.”
Sthithi or maintenance/protection: The open palm of the forehand indicates an assurance: There is nothing to fear about constant cosmic overhaul. Change is normal and I’m here to protect you.
Tirobhava or concealment: The hidden lower-left palm pointing downwards says he’s the creator of maya, illusion or the veil of ignorance.
Anugraha or blessing or liberation: The raised left foot, combined with the closed hand, signifies the option available before the seeker: moksha or liberation from ignorance and, by implication, from the cycle of birth and death.
A few more elements complement the idea of Panchakritya. These are:
Muyalaka or Apasmara: This dwarf demon at the Nataraja’s feet represents the evils of ignorance and ego, to be trampled upon if one must rise to a higher plane of self-actualisation.
Circle of fire: The frame around Nataraja is maya as experienced through the cyclical phenomenon of birth and death.
Yet, for all the esoteric ideas attributed to him, the dancing lord likely has more earthy origins.
The Indus Valley civilisation’s script has not been deciphered even today. A lot of the culture’s social, religious, economic aspects, thus, remain unlocked.
We do know, however, that the region of northwest India, in River Indus’s basin area, began urbanising around 3300 BCE and was in decline by 1500 BCE. Its natives had their own religious universe, though most of their gods, goddesses, and rituals are still unknown. Yet, artefacts like seals, tablets, and terracotta figurines found at its many settlements like Mohenjodaro and Harappa tell their own tales.
One such tablet, more than 4,000 years old, has as its central theme a man, his penis apparently erect, “ithyphallic”, and meditating cross-legged in yogic posture. Sporting a double-horned headgear, he is surrounded by animals like tiger, rhinoceros, and elephant. This has led archaeologists to call him Pasupati.
This mysterious figure is considered proto-Shiva.
A dancing god, too, may have existed in that culture, going by the “the dancing torso of Harappa” figurine, also supposedly with an erect phallus. In her book, Siva: The Erotic Ascetic, historian Wendy Doniger writes, “The raised linga [phallus] is the plastic expression of the belief that love and death, ecstasy and asceticism, are basically related.”
Doniger also writes that Rig, the first of the four Vedas composed by nomadic tribes from the central Asian steppes that began flowing into the Indian subcontinent in the first millennium BCE, mentions yogic practices and phallic worship “as characteristic of the enemies…”
By 1,500 BCE-500 BCE, the earlier civilisation was in disarray, giving way to the Vedic age. The nomadic tribes had their own religious iconography, often aggressive and martial.
Let us, for the purpose of charting the possible path these new gods took towards popularity, imagine one such tribal settlement. The men have just returned from battle and are preparing to celebrate victory. As the sun begins to set, a central campfire is lit, around which the clan huddles up. Soma, their favourite ritual drink, is generously served. Music, dance, and singing follow and the best of performers take the lead.
At one moment, one among those dancers, his face wearing dramatic ritual makeup, strikes a ferocious warrior pose. Accentuated by the leaping campfire flames, the enraptured shrieks, and overall excitement, it leaves a vivid impression. So much so that the imagery enters the tribe’s oral tradition: hymns, poetry, and chants.
Somewhere in the region, the Vedas, ritual Hinduism’s foundational texts in Sanskrit, are being composed right then. In these profound works, fighting prowess, generosity, creative talent, leadership qualities, and many more such qualities – all aspirational – get attributed to gods. Perhaps some of the talented individuals among the Vedic people themselves get elevated to that status. In any case, there is no shortage of such icons. Many, including dancing ones like the Maruts, the Ashwins, and the Adityas, are already in vogue.
The favourite is probably Indra, who loosely corresponds to Zeus, the Greek god of thunder.
Vajra- or thunder-wielding Indra, “is the immortal dancer, who, enveloping the earth by his glory, bestows prosperity, as the abode of all treasures,” the late art historian Calambur Sivaramamurti wrote in his 1974 book Nataraja in Art, Thought and Literature. The traits and avatars attributed to him by the four Vedas and the Puranas, the richly intricate mythological stories composed a few centuries later, included:
- As Purandara, the destroyer of forts or fortified towns
- As Sahasraksha, the one with a thousand eyes all over his body
- As practitioner of Indrajaala, the art of illusions
- As destroyer of Vritra, the demon of darkness
- As Pasupati, lord of all animals or just king
- As husband of Sachi, whose father he slays
As the Vedic age to gave way the Puranik, two tributaries of Shiva worship merged. As South Asia moved from the Vedic age to the Puranik (350-750 CE), the confluence of cultures brought together the two tributaries of Hinduism: Indus Valley’s “Pasupati” and the warrior gods of the steppe nomads.
This period of transition also marked the rise of Buddhism and Jainism, which considerably obscures the churn from which emerged the early form of modern Hinduism: Vedic deities like Indra, Agni, the god of fire and passion, and Rudra, the enigmatic master of death, progressively lose space to a new crop that includes Vishnu, Brahma, and, most importantly, Shiva.
By the Puranik age, Shiva is worshipped in three main forms, all derivatives of older icons.
Shiva, the meditating yogi: Straight from Indus Valley. “Shiva’s horns are retained…in the form of the crescent or horned moon on his head and in his high-piled matted locks,” Doniger writes in her book. “From Indra, Shiva inherits his…adulterous character, from Agni the heat of asceticism and passion, and from Rudra he takes a very common epithet, as well as certain dark features.” The third eye on Shiva’s forehead, according to Sivaramamurti, is derived from Indra’s thousand eyes, Sahasraksha.
Linga or phallus: Another feature seemingly carried over from the Indus Valley. Indeed, the Gudimallam linga of Chittoor district in the southern Indian state of Andhra Pradesh has an erect phallus on which an image of a standing Shiva is carved, a remarkable merging of Shiva’s aniconic and anthropomorphic forms. It is considered the earliest known Hindu sculpture, and is from around 2nd century BCE, and maybe the first to feature the dwarf Apasmara.
Nataraja: Dance as part of a divine ritual may have its base in the Indus Valley. However, “mere dance conveys no meaning. Conveying meaning through dance required attributes such as postures and gestures with symbolic elements,” says historian Shrinivas Padigar, a scholar of ancient inscriptions and a retired professor of Karnataka University in Dharwad. “In its ultimate version, Nataraja’s relationship is with the concept of the ‘game or play of Shiva’ throwing the web of illusion and making way for the salvation of beings,” he says.
Poetry in stone
Stone and rock sculptures abruptly came into being in South Asia during the time of the first Indian empire under the Mauryas – 322-185 BCE. The phenomenon was perhaps seeded by this dynasty’s close ties to the Hellenistic and Persian worlds.
By the time of the Puranik or classical era, which blossomed under the region’s first Hindu empire of the Guptas – 3rd-6th centuries CE – the dancing Shiva had begun to emerge in his most dramatic form. Not surprising, since “drama was the all-inclusive performing artform of classical India..,” historian Abraham Eraly writes in The First Spring: The Golden Age of India.
Some of the most glorious Natarajas known were sculpted around this time. This includes the famous ones at Ellora caves, Aurangabad, and Elephanta caves off the Mumbai coast around the 5th to 9th centuries.
About the Elephanta Nrittamurti, Sivaramamurti writes: “…[it] is probably unsurpassed in the golden age of Indian art. For sheer rhythmic movement, delicacy of contour line and limpid grace in form and texture, there is nothing to approach this piece. The fact is this is a highly developed sculptural version of the concept of dance.”
The second half of the first millennium sees the scene shift decisively to southern India where two warring powers become key to the icon’s story: the Badami Chalukyas of the Deccan, 543-757 CE, and the Pallavas, 275-897 CE, of the Tamil country, already a bastion of Shiva worship deep south.
Around 642 CE, the Pallavan emperor Narasimhavarman had subdued his kingdom’s most important rival, the Badami Chalukyas of the Deccan, 543-757 CE. The Chalukyas’ legendary king, Pulakeshin, had once humiliated his father, Mahendravarman, in battle some 25 years earlier. Yet, having traveled over 600 km northwest from his home, Narasimhavarman – one imagines – is in awe of the temples and sculptures in the Chalukyan capital and other cities, mostly in today’s northern Karnataka.
As such, Narasimhavarman simply couldn’t help borrowing ideas from the Chalukyas, and incorporating them in the completion of his father’s magnificent shore city project, Mamallapuram or Mahabalipuram, on the eastern coast of India.
“…culturally what all Narasimhavarman could carry back to be repeated at Mahabalipuram shows that the victor stooped to gather blossoms of culture from the land of [the] vanquished…the frequent inroads of the Chalukyas in Pallava territory and vice-versa have created a permanent record of cultural fusion as we see in sculpture in both areas,” Sivaramamurti writes in his 1955 book Royal Conquests and Cultural Migrations in South India and the Deccan.
Particularly eye-catching was the roughly four-feet tall, 18-armed dancing Shiva at the entrance of Cave one in Badami, the statue that sparked my own obsession with this icon. Historian Charles Allen writes that “it is generally considered to be the earliest portrayal of Shiva as Nataraja.”
“A second Chalukyan incursion followed in 744, so presumably it was at this time that the concept of Shiva Nataraja migrated south to take root in Pallava country,” writes historian Charles Allen, in his book Coromondel: A Personal History of India.
However, others aren’t sure about this hypothesis. “The idea could have spread to the south…but I doubt Badami is where it began,” says Padigar.
Sivaramamurti, on the other hand, believes that another statue, now located in modern Andhra Pradesh’s Vijaywada, some 700 km east of Badami, is “the earliest Nataraja figure in the southern part of India.”
Whichever his pitstop, Nataraja quickly grew roots in the south and flourished. So much so that he travelled with the many south Indian empires to regions beyond the seas in southeast Asia. Some of his poses found in peninsular India are now codified in classical dance forms like Bharatanatyam, Kucchipudi, and Mohiniyattam. “The variety of postures and hand gestures of Nataraja sculptures implies they were inspired by real dance,” Padigar says.
Did today’s Saavukoothu also have its roots in such cultural exchanges? “Earlier, fallen soldiers were accorded grand farewells by the king’s military, like today’s 21-gun salute. That practice got more democratised and became Saavukoothu,” Ragothaman, the Chennai priest, had said, explaining the more historical roots of the practice. According to Sivaramamurti, the Shiva-obsessed Chalukyan soldiers insisted on the Nataraja being engraved on their tombstones “in the confidence that they would be victors like their lord.”
For now, though, this connection is only speculative.
Soon, however, another profound transformation happened to Nataraja in the south.
Chidambaram is a dusty small town along the Tamil Nadu coast – yet some 20 million people visit or make a pilgrimage every year to its tragically ill-maintained Shiva temple. Even overwhelmed by dust and cobwebs, the architectural gem carries centuries of aesthetic, philosophic, and spiritual history etched on its walls. Unlike most other Shiva temples in southern India, where he is worshipped in his linga form in the main sanctum, here Nataraja, too, is worshipped. Bronze is the medium here, believed to have been installed under the Chola dynasty, which revived as the Pallavas weakened due to incessant wars with the Chalukyas.
Chidambaram derives its name from a combination of chit or consciousness, and ambaram or cosmos. “In that sense, this spot of Nataraja in this temple may be considered the centre of cosmic consciousness,” said Devi Bala Dikshitar, one of the many priests officiating there.
The shift to the copper alloy helped perfect the image. “It seems that only with an appreciation of the greater tensile strength of metal, compared to wood, were the limbs, locks, and sash ﬂared out more…towards a circular shape,” says Sharada Srinivasan, an archeologist who studies ancient metals at the National Institute of Advanced Studies, a multidisciplinary centre located at Bengaluru’s Indian Institute of Science campus.
The five-foot-something Nataraja idol here is awe-inspiring even in the cold darkness of the sanctum. One can only imagine the tremendous impact it must have had on devotees the day it was first brought out in the open, to be taken in procession around the temple, likely in 1054 – a year that marked an awe-inspiring, real cosmic performance in the skies.
“It may have been linked to the observation of the Crab supernova explosion in 1054 which was also recorded by Chinese astronomers as being visible from July 4 for several days,” says Srinivasan.
Other astronomical connections, too, emerge. For instance, a major festival is held in Chidambaram at the time of the winter solstice in December. During that time, the Orion constellation is seen in its zenith above the temple.
Whatever the reason, it is clear that some time in the mid-11th century the Chidambaram temple began celebrating the festival during which this particular Nataraja statue was taken out in procession.
In his book Coromondel, historian Allen writes that the awestruck devotees would not have missed the link between this radical “cosmic-encompassing god and his royal representative on earth,” the Chola emperor.
Some nine centuries later, Shiva would emerge yet further from the temple, finding new devotees in the world.
Journey to the west
In the early part of the 20th century, Sri Lanka-born art historian and scholar Ananda Coomaraswamy made inroads into the western mind with his philosophical, spiritual, and cosmic interpretations of the Nataraja. British enthusiasts and historians had till then been dismissive about Indian art unless it was influenced by Greek aesthetics, Allen writes. Coomaraswamy’s seminal 1912 essay, The Dance of Siva, later published in his influential collection of essays on Indian art and culture, might be deemed the launchpad of the Nataraja’s global journey.
Citing the many versions of Shiva’s dance, Coomaraswamy said the root idea behind all of them was the “manifestation of primal rhythmic energy.” He wrote:
In the night of Brahma, Nature is inert, and cannot dance till Shiva wills it. He rises from His rapture, and dancing sends through inert matter pulsing waves of awakening sound, and lo! matter also dances appearing as a glory round about Him. Dancing He sustains its manifold phenomena. In the fullness of time, still dancing, he destroys all forms and names by fire and gives now rest. This is poetry; but none the less science.
According to archaeologist Srinivasan, Coomaraswamy’s aesthetic sensibilities and his background as a scientist – he had studied geology and botany – both come through in his essay on Nataraja. His writings “seem to be echoed in TS Eliot’s famous poetic lines ‘At the still point of the turning world…there the dance is…’ Celebrated French sculptor August Rodin  in his essay La Danse de Siva illustrated it with the same Nataraja bronze from the Government Museum, Chennai, as did Coomaraswamy,” she wrote in a 2016 paper.
Born in what was then Ceylon to a Tamil father and an English mother, Coomaraswamy was well placed to interpret Nataraja for a western audience – he served as curator at the Boston Museum of Fine Arts from 1917 for three decades until his death, and was one of the first to build a large collection of Indian artworks in the US.
“Coomaraswamy made Indic art accessible and compelling to many Americans and Europeans in his prolific writings. His essay on the Nataraja may have been especially appealing because of the admirable character and profound ideas it ascribed to that deity, as well as the confidence with which it fixed the meaning of this elaborate sculptural form,” notes Padma Kaimal, a professor of art history at Colgate University, New York, who nonetheless challenges his seminal reading in her own work, citing the fragmentary nature of evidence surviving from medieval southern India among other reasons.
A philosopher-theologian as well, Coomaraswamy corresponded with the likes of science-fiction writer Aldous Huxley, and may perhaps have even inspired some of his work, which included studies of mysticism.
Huxley himself, as the introductory quote suggests, was enamoured of Nataraja. “The great world of all-embracing material world with its flames, within this Shiva dances… He is everywhere in the universe. This is his dance, the manifestation of the world called his Leela, his play. His sense of reign upon the just and the unjust and he is not beyond good and evil, of course, it is all an immense manifestation of play,” he says in a 1961 interview.
Summer of ’69
Fifty years ago, the full swing of the counter-culture movement gave an entire generation in the West a new high, helped by a heady concoction of eastern mysticism and psychedelic drugs. Many experienced epiphanous moments; for some, even life-changing ones. Fritjof Capra, the Austrian-born American physicist, 80 years old now, was among them.
In an email to Quartz, he said:
In the Summer of 1969…one late afternoon, I was sitting by the ocean [in California]…when I suddenly became aware of my whole environment as being engaged in a gigantic cosmic dance. As a physicist, I knew that the sand, rocks, water, and air around me were made of vibrating molecules and atoms, and that these consisted of particles that interacted with one another by creating and destroying other particles…but until that moment I had only experienced it through diagrams and mathematical theories…I “saw” the atoms of the elements and those of my body participating in this cosmic dance of energy. I felt its rhythm and I “heard” its sound; and at that moment I knew that this was the Dance of Shiva.
More such experiences followed. Six years later, he summarised his findings in The Tao of Physics, published first in 1975. The book was received enthusiastically in the US and Europe and, at least for some, revolutionised both their spiritual and scientific planes.
A lot has changed in the field of particle physics since Capra’s “moment.” However, he says, nothing has “invalidated the two grand themes of modern physics – the fundamental unity… and the intrinsically dynamic nature of its natural phenomena.” That dynamic nature of physical reality is embodied in the myth of the dancing Shiva, he adds.
Before Albert Einstein propounded his theory of relativity in the early 20th century, it was assumed that matter could ultimately be broken down into indivisible indestructible parts. But when individual subatomic particles were smashed against each other in high-energy experiments, they didn’t scatter into smaller bits. Instead, they merely re-arranged themselves to form new particles using kinetic energy or the energy of motion: subatomic dynamism.
“At the subatomic level, all material particles interact with one another by emitting and reabsorbing [ie, creating and destroying] other particles. Modern physics shows us that every subatomic particle not only performs an energy dance, but also is an energy dance; a pulsating process of creation and destruction. For the modern physicist, then, Shiva’s dance is the dance of subatomic matter,” Capra said in his email.
This insight of Capra’s is what catapulted Nataraja into the status of a global icon in the 1970s. But he credits his ability to make these connections to his familiarity with works on mysticism by eastern and western scholars – like Coomaraswamy’s Shiva essay. “I immediately saw parallels to some ideas in quantum physics,” Capra says.
Astronomer Carl Sagan was another one fascinated by these synchronicities, writing in his book Cosmos, which became a 13-part miniseries with one episode shot in India, that he liked to imagine the Nataraja was “a kind of premonition of modern astronomical ideas.”
This idea of the eternal universal dancer has so deeply caught on among physicists and cosmologists that in 1993, an abstract sculpture called Cosmic Dancer, was launched to the Russian Mir space station. Asked about how his artwork, its designer Arthur Woods said:
…the [Nataraja] appears very angular yet aesthetic with the four arms outstretched and the raised front leg. Thus my sculpture, which is also very angular could be viewed as a symbolic abstraction of this figure as it dances in the cosmic weightlessness of space…its form is always in a transient state of change…This and the fact that it is free of terrestrial gravity, imparts a supranatural quality normally reserved for gods. Thus this qualitative relationship to the god Shiva can be made.
In 2004, the government of India gifted the European Organization for Nuclear Research, or CERN, a 2-metre tall Nataraja statue which now stands at the entrance of the facility in Switzerland where the world’s most powerful particle accelerator, or the Hadron Collider, became operational in 2008. It has prompted enough curiosity that the CERN website addresses its presence:
This deity was chosen by the Indian government because of a metaphor that was drawn between the cosmic dance of the Nataraj and the modern study of the “cosmic dance” of subatomic particles.
The last dance
A few days after I first met Rajkumar, I got a call from him, inviting me to accompany him. The group had been called to a Chennai neighbourhood where a young woman had tragically lost her battle to leukemia and Rajkumar and his team were hired to lead the Saavukoothu procession.
After the exhausting session, during which around 10 adults and a few children danced for a few hours, we settled down for a cup of tea. “We have at least one body to accompany a day. Sometimes it is the elderly, sometimes little ones. All leaving behind a trail of wails and tears,” Rajkumar said.
Is he too inured by now? “We have seen too many…we realise this is an inevitable part of life,” he said, eyes glazing over. As we bid farewell in the afternoon heat, a last question occurred to me: By any chance, was there anyone named Shiva in his team?
Rajkumar gave me an amused look and replied: “My Tamil name is Tondaimaan. Tondaimaan is Shiva.”
This article first appeared on Quartz.