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Siva Nataraja:


Minneapolis Institute of Arts



Institution Minneapolis Institute of Arts
The physical geography of India has played an important role in its cultural history. The sub-continent is a funnel-shaped peninsula extending from the heartland of Asia. It is bounded on the west by the Indian Ocean, on the east by the Bay of Bengal, and along the northern frontier by the Himalaya Mountains, whose only openings are the Khyber and Bolan passes. India is, thus, almost sealed off from the Asiatic mainland, and the migrating tribes and conquerors who penetrated its natural defenses tended to become absorbed in the rich Indian culture. Within India itself, however, the mountain ranges which divide the sub-continent have created distinct cultural differences between the North and the South.

A chronology of India reveals varying periods of indigenous and foreign rule, with small states and dynasties at times co-existing and at times battling each other for control. Rarely is there political unity. The period from which this sculpture survives is known as the Chola period (10th-13th centuries A.D.). It includes the region south of the Vindhya Range which, because of its geographic position and the political strength of its kingdoms, was able to resist the Muslim Mughals who conquered Northern India. Here the Chola dynasty, the dominant power in the region from the 9th century, created a great empire through military strength and an efficient administrative system based on local democratic self-government. By the mid-13th century, the power of the Cholas had been broken by the Pandyas of Maduri.

The Cholas were also great patrons of religion and the arts, and they caused numerous temples to be built during their reign, the most remarkable being the Rajarajesvara Temple at the capital city of Tanjore. In the great decorative thrust which accompanied this building, the art of bronze casting came to surpass the production of sculptural images in stone.

The earliest known Indian culture is that of the Indus Valley, which can be traced back as far as the 3rd millenium B.C. Because their writing has not been translated, little is known about the features of their religion—but the artwork that remains indicates that it involved the personal worship of mother goddesses, fertility deities, earth spirits, sacred trees and animals, and early manifestations of Hinduism in terms of images of Shiva and the breathing practices of Yoga. These ideas were to be absorbed into all the great religions of India.

Around 1500 B.C. the tribes of Indo-Europeans migrated to India and by conquest and assimilation established the civilization which continues to the present day. The name for this period, the Vedic (c. 1500 - c. 800 B.C.), is derived from the literary tradition of this highly religious, philosophical people. Thousands of hymns, called Vedas, and their appendices, the Brahmanas, were composed for use at the sacrificial rituals and were passed down through the centuries by an incredible aural tradition. The deities of the Vedic period were primarily male and associated with the forces of nature, particularly the sky. Priests were essential to the practice of the religion and ranked highest in the Vedic hierarchy. Aside from their writings the Indo-Europeans left no trace of material remains.

Around the beginning of the Christian era, elements from the old religions of the Indus Valley civilization and from that of the Vedic Period, Brahmanism, combined and the Hindu religion emerged. Hinduism includes aspects of both older religions which at times seem not only complicated but contradictory to one another. From the early Indus Valley culture came the worship of frankly virile fertility deities and earth spirits. This worship took the form of a personal devotion, called bhakti, to both male and female deities for the purpose of inducing fertility in all things. Among the ideas assimilated by Hinduism from Brahmanism were those that are generally formal and intellectual: the rituals were conducted by priests or Brahmins (a contrast to the personal bhakti) and concepts of hierarchy and the caste were established, based on the Vedas. Concepts of mathematics, astronomy, and theology were also developed from these earlier philosophical bases. Finally, the concept that anaccumulation of detail through the addition and reduplication of elements could serve as a means of assimilation and explanation came from the Vedic philosophy. The latter concept is important to an understanding of Hindu religion and art. From this concept, the important Hindu deities expand into many aspects and incarnations (avatars), and Hindu sculpture and architecture become increasingly elaborate and detailed.

The Hindu pantheon developed largely from the gods of the Vedic culture, who continued as lesser gods or were absorbed into the emerging Hindu deities. Various trinities are recognized by Hinduism, but the most important is that of Brahma, the creator; Vishnu, the preserver; and Siva, the destroyer. (In later times, Vishnu and Siva became the most prominent deities, and most Hindus worshipped primarily one or the other.) Behind this multiplicity of belief lies a faith in one being, whose energy is manifested in many forms: serene, divine, active, fierce, destructive.

Hinduism revolves around belief in a constant cycle of birth and reincarnation into a higher or lower caste which is determined by good or bad conduct (Karma). All things are in an endless process of being destroyed and reborn, with destruction the necessary prelude to creation. The figures of Brahma, Vishnu, and Siva are, thus, symbols of cosmic activity—creation, protection, destruction, incarnation, and salvation. Salvation, or escape from this cycle, may be attained by a disciplined ascetic life; through knowledge of the spiritual texts; or through devotion or bhakti to a particular deity.

Hinduism has developed into much more than a religion in the Western sense of the word, confined to creed and worship. For the devout orthodox Hindu, it is a complete rule of life with every aspect of the day—rising, bathing, eating, praying—regulated by ritual. Sacrifice is important at these daily rituals and also to the larger ceremonies of birth, puberty, marriage, and death. This sacrifice is intended to both please and coerce the gods, and it requires the officiation of a member of the Brahmin priest caste.

Hinduism is a religion of tolerance, assimilating rather than attacking other religions. To believers, the Hindu religion is not mutually exclusive. All other religions have the potential to eventually lead to salvation and all are worthy of honor. This more than any other aspect of the religion has assured its place as one of the great religions of India that is still practiced today.

Nearly all forms of artistic expression in India are of a religious nature, and it is important to understand the concept of image and worship in Hindu art. The image is not a magical fetish, worshipped in itself, but stands for something higher—a manifestation of the Supreme Being, an endless visual sermon. The Hindu use of deities is, first of all, an aid to contemplative discipline, a way of achieving identification with a deity. Images are made to describe the deity and his powers as accurately as possible. These representations have been greatly influenced by devotional descriptions in poetry and scripture. If several heads or numerous arms are required to hold the symbols and attributes of the deity and his powers, they are supplied. The end result is a realization of the deity's being, not merely the representation of a sympathetic human being.

SYMBOLISM: Siva Nataraja
This image represents Siva in the incarnation or avatar of Nataraja, the Lord of the Dance. It was one of the most popular images of Siva during the Chola period, and its manufacture has continued into the 20th century. There are various dances of Siva known to Hindu worshippers; the root idea behind all of them is the manifestation of primal rhythmic energy of the god. Siva Nataraja symbolically embodies the five cosmic activities—creation, protection, destruction, incarnation, and salvation—thus, taking the roles of all the major Hindu deities. These activities occur within the cosmos but also within the soul of man.

Creation is symbolized by the cosmic drum held in the upper right hand. Sound is the first manifestation of energy; the cosmos came into being through the rhythmic action of creative dance.

Destruction is symbolized by the flame in the upper left hand. In the endless cycle of time, destruction of previous existences must occur before new creation can begin, so it is through the simultaneous balance of creation and destruction that Siva dances.

Protection is symbolized in the open-palmed gesture of reassurance (the abhaya mudra) of Siva's lower right hand.

Incarnation occurs in the conquering of the dwarf of ignorance and illusion (as told in the legend below). This act is symbolized by the placement of Siva's foot breaking the dwarf's back.

Salvation from ignorance and illusion is symbolized by the foot lifting off the back of the dwarf. The lower left hand points to this act and emphasizes the release and refuge of the soul.

The image also provides an example of the related concepts of right, wrong, and order: by destroying that which is wrong, right and order prevail.

Numerous other symbols are embodied in this image which functions on many different levels of meaning:

Siva's face is meditative, transfixed by the dance. In the frenzy of the dance locks of his hair fly out wildly to either side of his head.
The dance takes place within the cosmos, symbolized by a ring of light (this ring is missing on the MIA image) that surrounds the image.
The figure is on a lotus pedestal, symbolizing purity.
Siva wears two different earrings which represent both the male and female natures of.
The evil dwarf plays with a poisonous cobra, and another cobra is wrapped around Siva's right arm as an ornament, showing his power over evil.
The third eye (almost obliterated on this figure) in the forehead is the eye of wisdom.

These are only a few of the symbolic elements of the Siva. Many others are missing or difficult to see because of the condition of the piece.

Basically, the essence of Shiva's dance is threefold:

  1. It is the image of his rhythmic play as the source of all movement in the cosmos.
  2. The purpose of the dance is to release the countless souls of people from the snare of illusion.
  3. The place of the dance is at the center of the universe, which lies within one's heart.
All sects have their own specific images, and some have many. The function of these images is threefold.
  1. These images serve as a focus of daily ritual worship and ablutions (puja).
    • Flowers, incense, and precious objects are placed before the image.
    • Important foods, such as milk, ghee (clarified butter), or honey are smeared directly onto the image.
    • The images are often clothed, not naked as one sees in museums.
    • On special days the images are carried in procession on wooden temple carts or hitched to poles and carried aloft .
  2. The images create a visual symbol for the power which each god represents.
    • The human form is most direct, although one god may have many non-human forms, or can be entirely formless.
    • Multiple heads, hands, and legs are used to symbolize multiple supernatural powers.
      • The hands hold objects which represent these powers.
      • The position of the limbs may also express these powers.
  3. The images serve as objects of meditation (dhyana).
    • Fixed concentration on an image clears the mind of extraneous thoughts.
SIVA NATARAJA: Background Legend
The Siva Nataraja functions as an endless visual sermon for the devotee, expounding the universal power and unbounded compassion of the dancing creator-destroyer god. One of the ancient legends associated with the development of this image is as follows:

In the forest of Tragam there lived a multitude of heretical rishis (sages of the Hindu mythology, sprung from the mind of Brahma). Siva, accompanied by Vishnu disguised as a beautiful woman, and Ati-Seshan, went among them to confuse them. The rishis at first had violent disputes among themselves, but their anger was soon directed against Siva, and they endeavored to destroy him by means of incantations. A fierce tiger was created in sacrificial fires and rushed upon him; but smiling gently, Siva seized it and, with the nail of his little finger, stripped off its skin and wrapped it about himself like a silken cloth. Undiscouraged by failure, the sages renewed their offerings and produced a monstrous serpent, which Siva seized and wreathed about his neck like a garland. Then Siva began to dance; but there rushed upon him a last monster in the shape of a malignant dwarf, Muyalaka. Upon him, Siva pressed the tip of his foot and broke the creature's back so that it writhed upon the ground; and so his last foe prostrate, Siva resumed the dance, witnessed by gods and rishis. Then Ati-Sheshan worshipped Siva and prayed to behold the dance again in sacred Tillair, the center of the Universe.

Another reference to this image in Hindu spiritual manuals states:
The dancing foot
the sound of tinkling bells, the songs that are sung and the varying steps
The form assumed by our Dancing Gurupapra
Find out these within yourself, then shall your
fetters fall away.

In India, the cire perdue (lost wax) method of bronze casting has its roots in the prehistory of the country but was perfected and extensively used for making sculpture during the Chola Period. Its techniques continue to be used by Indian artisans up to the present day. Motifs and measurements for the images are strictly detailed in sacred writings. The artisan is required to mentally purify and prepare himself for fashioning an image by worshipping and contemplating his inner, mental conception of the image.
As with many aspects of daily life, the technique of bronze casting has been part of a parable in Hindu writings: Just as the copper is melted by fire and poured into a mold, and then takes the very shape of that mold, so does the mind take the shape of the object comprehended by the senses. Each image produced by the Chola is one of a kind because the mold is chipped away. Also, while such pieces usually required hand cleaning, during this period the molds were so exactly made that the objects rarely required additional tooling.
  • Use on the following tours:
    • Religion and Art
    • Asian Art
    • Heroes and Heroines
  • Compare the complex iconographic symbolism of the Siva to that of a Christian piece, such as the Limoges Anointing of the Body or the Japanese Buddhist Amida Nyorai.
  • Contrast the ideas of creation/destruction/ salvation in Hinduism with the same ideas in Christianity and Buddhism.
  • Compare the way the triumph of good over evil is depicted in the Siva to the way it is depicted in the medieval sculpture of St. Catherine.
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Source: Docent Manual entry for Indian, Chola Period, <i>Siva Nataraja</i> (SHE-vah Nah-tah-RAH-jah) (mid-11th century), The Minneapolis Institute of Arts Education Division (1998).
Rights: ©MIA
Added to Site: March 10, 2009