The Origins of Shiva Nataraja

Nataraja with Parvati being worshiped by sages.
Nataraja with Parvati being worshiped by sages. Detail of a ceiling painting in the inner first prakara (enclosure) of the Nataraja temple, Chidambaram. © Bharath Ramamrutham.

As the family and state deity, Shiva was the most important authority in the religious, political, and cultural world of the Cholas and their subjects. Although Shiva was depicted in many divine roles, it was Shiva Nataraja who became a symbol of Chola power and who remains relevant in India and throughout the world today.

Between the Pennar and Kaveri rivers is the key religious site associated with Shiva in his form as “Lord of the Dance”: the temple city of Chidambaram. The Cholas believed Chidambaram was the earthly home of Shiva and the sacred place where he performed the “dance of bliss” (ananda tandava) as Lord of the Da

The central religious story behind Nataraja takes place in the Tillai forest of Chidambaram, described in the songs of seventh-century poet-saints as the setting for a variety of divine and demonic activities. Shiva came to the forest in the form of Bhikshatana, a wandering beggar, to trick and humiliate the sages who neglected proper worship. In the battle that ensues, the sages send creatures, such as a demon and a snake, to attack him. Shiva dramatically defeats these malevolent forces and performs his victorious “dance of bliss.” Ultimately, the story positions Shiva at the top of the Hindu divine hierarchy.

Scholar Padma Kaimal has observed that the Shiva Nataraja image and narrative may also be linked to the warrior dances of the Cholas. With military strength as one of the central pillars of their dominance, the Cholas may have seen the Nataraja’s dance as another reason for their affinity with Shiva, who—through the combat in the Chidambaram forest—demonstrated his supreme divine rule.


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