Decoding the Nataraja Bronzes: A Cosmic Dance through Centuries

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    The ‘Nataraja’, or the form of Shiva in cosmic dance, is one of the most iconic and perhaps even a stereotypical representation of classical Indian culture, on the global stage. In India, terms like ‘Nataraja’ and ‘Chola Bronzes’ are loosely mentioned in art circles. But what do we actually know about these Nataraja bronzes?

    Prof Sharada Srinivasan, an archaeologist who specialises in archaeometallurgy, has been researching the South Indian bronzes for the last 30 years. In this exclusive article for LHI, Prof Srinivasan traces the story of how Nataraja achieved global fame, its origins in the ancient past, the fascinating metallurgical and trade connections that underpinned these bronzes, and how they are actually made.

    In 1912, geologist-turned art historian Ananda Coomaraswamy in his essay Dance of Siva pondered the symbolism of the enigmatic Nataraja bronze of the dancing Hindu God Siva. Published in the Journal Siddhanta Dipika, it is considered one of the most iconic essays in Indian art.

    Coomaraswamy cited the 13th century CE Tamil Shaivite text Unmai Vilakkam from the temple town of Chidambaram (230 km south of Chennai) to convey that the symbolism of Nataraja captured the five activities of – Creation (Shrishti), Preservation (Sthiti), Destruction (Samhara), Illusion (Tirobhava) and Salvation(Anugraha).

    Coomaraswamy’s unique background as a scientist-aesthetican lent an inspired edge to his essay, where he wrote that, “creation arises from the drum... while from fire proceeded destruction”. He further evocatively wrote, “In the fullness of time, still dancing, he (Siva) destroys all forms and names by fire and gives now rest...”

    As pointed out in Coomaraswamy’s essay of 1912, ‘the cosmic activity is the central motif of the dance’. A 1918 edition was titled with the now-famous sobriquet ‘Cosmic Dance of Siva’.

    It was this dramatic interpretation of the Nataraja bronze by Ananda Coomaraswamy that triggered the imagination of several renowned figures and turned the image of Nataraja into a global icon of Indian art. The figure and iconography of Nataraja captured the imagination of a veritable who’s who, such as noted French sculptor August Rodin (1840-1917), American astronomer and writer Carl Sagan (1934-1996), physicist and bestselling author Fritjof Capra and many others.

    In 1993, a landmark contemporary sculpture ‘Cosmic Dancer’ created by American sculptor Arthur Woods and inspired by the Nataraja was installed in the Mir Space Station.

    In 2004, one of the largest Shiva Nataraja bronzes cast by master craftsman Rajan, from Swamimalai in Tamil Nadu, was gifted by the Indian Government to the CERN Cosmic Lab in Geneva, involved in the discovery of the Higgs Boson particle.

    While Nataraja has become an icon, not just of Indian culture, but even of science, progress and of a ‘world beyond’, its history is just as fascinating with some of its aspects going back to the 2nd century BCE.

    Evolution of the Nataraja’s Iconography

    Whereas several postures of a dancing Siva are known in sculpture, this very specific formulation of Siva with extended left leg dancing on the dwarf demon as crystallised in bronze is scarcely found outside of the Tamil region. Some sculptural aspects hark back to the Shivalingam at Gudimallam in Chittor district of Andhra Pradesh, that dates to the Satavahana period (2nd century BCE). Siva stands imposingly circumscribed by the lingam on top of a forward-facing, squatting dwarf, which brings to mind wooden totems.

    A 5th century CE open-air sculpture from the cave shrine of Mogalrajapuram near Vijayawada in Andhra Pradesh also provides an early precedent to the Nataraja icon. Though heavily damaged, two pairs of arms and part of the leg lifted in urdhvajanu (lifted knee) can be discerned along with the contours of a sideways-facing dwarf. There is also a damaged sculpture of a horned anthropomorphic figure beside the door, which might be a representation of Nandi, Siva’s bull vehicle.

    Interestingly, ritual dances with horned headgear are part of traditions of the Gond tribals who lived not only in Central India but also in Andhra Pradesh with their deity known as ‘lingodeva’. This inevitably does bring to mind horned figures in Harappan seals, perhaps suggesting ancient practices.

    In the 1990s, I carried out a series of archaeometallurgical investigations on numerous Nataraja and Chola bronzes in India and around the world. As part of my doctoral thesis with the University College London titled ‘Archaeometallurgical And Art Historical Investigations on South Indian Bronzes’ (1996), I conducted a technical finger-printing study of South Indian bronzes using lead isotope analysis and elemental and trace element analysis. This provided a diagnostic tool for telling apart bronzes of different stylistic and provenance affiliations based on differing sources of metals and metal processing at different points in time.

    Based on my research, the earliest known metal images of dancing Siva and Nataraja were found to date back to the Pallava dynasty (7th-8th centuries CE). The one in the British Museum may be the earliest known Nataraja image (Fig 1), in stone or metal, with all the typical formulations including the extended leg, the hands holding drum and flame, the aureole, while he also dances on a forward-facing dwarf.

    Another Pallava image of dancing Siva is from the temple at Kuram near Kanchipuram in Tamil Nadu. It too dates back to the 7th century CE. The Kuram Nataraja is depicted dancing in the urdhvajanu pose. In both the above images the similar depiction of the forward-facing dwarf brings to mind the Gudimallam lingam. Interestingly, noted historian P R Srinivasan in his book Bronzes of South India (1963) refers to a copper plate grant of the Pallava ruler Paramesvaravarman I (c. 630-668 CE) from a temple in Kuram, which mentions the grant of metal images (Fig 2).

    There is also an interesting connection of the Nataraja imagery, with the imposing relief of Siva dynamically dancing with nine pairs of arms, found in the caves at the Chalukyan capital of Badami in Karnataka, dating back to the 6th century CE. This image was also discussed by C. Sivaramamurti in his landmark tome, ‘Nataraja in Art, Thought and Literature’ (1974). This Chalukyan ‘Natesa’ predates the Pallava ones by almost a century. The Pallavas had occupied the Chalukya capital of Badami for about a decade in the mid-7th century, and there might have been a cultural connection. But there are scholars who point to longstanding roots of Nataraja worship in the Tamil country.

    In fact, one of the earliest sculptures of Siva dancing with the typical extended leg in bhujangatrasita karana associated with the full-fledged Nataraja bronze image is found in a small pilaster in the 7th century CE Pallava cave temple at Siyamangalam (Fig 3). The bhujangatrasita karana seems to refer to the movement of evading a serpent which is also charmingly depicted in this sculpture. The noted scholar of Tamil literature, Kamil Zvelebil (1927-2009), in his book Ānanda-tāṇḍava of Śiva-sadānṛttamūrti (1985), suggested that aspects of Nataraja worship drew from earlier Tamil traditions as reflected in Sangam literature and the ecstatic kāvadi dancers of the Murukan cult. The repertoire of Therakootu, the street performance tradition of Tamil Nadu, consists of a euphoric dance movement of rotatory motions performed by hopping with one foot extended, with heavy anklets.

    Indeed, such a proposed Pallava date for the emergence of the Nataraja bronze sits quite well with the time frame of the formulation of a rich body of Tamil Bhakti devotional poetry.

    A verse by 7th century CE Tamil poet saint Appar mentions Shiva’s “sweet golden foot raised in dance”.

    In the 9th century CE, the rule of the Pallavas was replaced by that of the Cholas.

    The illustrious patron and 10th century CE Chola Queen Sembiyan Mahadevi played a most significant role in temple expansion in the Kaveri delta. An inscription from the temple at Aditurai, going back to the time of 7th century CE saint Appar and which was refurbished by Sembiyan Mahadevi around 970 CE, mentions artisan communities including bronze workers, the Kammala. A set of bronze images of Nataraja and Sivakami are still prominently worshipped in this temple (Fig 4).

    This remarkable Chola queen had a town named after her with the Kailasanathaswamin temple built by her. Coomaraswamy had pointed to an early 11th-century inscription of Rajendra Chola of a bronze statue of the queen, which was known to have been worshipped in procession during her natal star in the Chithirai month, around April. This festival and puja or worship during her natal star is still performed.

    The Uma Maheshwarar temple in Konerirajapuram in Tamil Nadu has a commemorative plaque depicting Sembiyan Mahadevi with her late husband Gandaraditya Chola, worshipping a lingam. A poet and author of Tiruvisaippa, he fasted to death as a devotee of Siva. This temple houses a colossal Nataraja bronze image, towering at seven and half feet, broadly speaking of the Chola era.

    What is particularly astonishing is the attention to life-like detail in the casting: down to the bump on the right foot of the inner ankle bone which is the protrusion of the medial malleolus, a part of the base of the tibia.

    The lifted left foot with toes beautifully splayed brings to mind a 9th century CE verse by Tamil poet Manikkavachakar: “He revealed his foot which is like a tender flower, caused me to dance, entered my innermost part (akam), became my Lord.”

    Metallurgical and Trade Connections

    While the terms ‘Chola Bronzes’ or ‘South Indian Bronzes’ are frequently used in Indian art circles, most of the research is generally focused on the iconography. But a detailed study of these idols also reveals a very rich insight into interesting metallurgical and trade connections across a vast expanse. Where was the metal for these wonderful bronzes coming from?

    From the spectrochemical analysis of some 150 icons for 18 elements, it was found that many of the south Indian and Chola images were of leaded bronze, i.e. copper alloyed with tin and lead. For example, one of the most exquisitely cast 11th century Chola Natarajas, from Kankoduvanithavam in Government Museum Chennai (Fig 5) had 8% tin and 8% lead, alloyed to copper to improve its castability. Brass, which is an alloy of copper with zinc as the major element rather than tin, was also used and more so in later periods. The Pallava images were more coppery. Lead isotope ratio analysis, was useful to explore the clustering of objects based on similarities of sources of lead. Some clustering was also detected in the levels of the trace elements (occurring below 1%, such as cobalt and nickel) which could be related to similarities in copper ore sources. These trends were also found to have some correlation with different chronological and stylistic affiliations of bronzes such as early medieval Pallava and Chola or later medieval Vijayanagara and so on, serving to distinguish between them.

    Preliminary archaeometallurgical insights from lead isotope analysis point to the use of some lead sources in Northern and Southern India over the ages, and gave some insights into possible copper ore sources in Tamil Nadu, Karnataka and Andhra Pradesh with evidence for old mines such as at Mamandur, Agnigundala, Ingaldhal, Kalyadi and Tintini.

    The Chola influence and maritime links also extended into Sri Lanka and Southeast Asia as is well known. As such, Sri Lanka has a rich source of copper-magnetite ores in the Seruvila region, with evidence of mining in antiquity. However, from my research, it was found that the analysed South Indian images had very little traces of iron, unlike some of the analysed Sri Lankan images, for which the copper may have come from iron-rich Seruvila. Particularly for images in museums of uncertain findspots, this could perhaps be useful in telling apart bronzes from south India and Sri Lanka (of Buddhist or Hindu affiliations) which sometimes have some overlapping styles.

    I also found some preliminary evidence of some local exploitation related to tin and bronze from Karnataka. Even so, given the scarcer tin resources in India in general, it is probable that by the medieval period, some tin was being traded in from tin-rich South-East Asia. In the 10th century CE, Arab writer Abu Zayd wrote of tin being traded from Kalah (Sumatra).

    The words ‘kedaram’ and ‘kadah’ find mention in Tamil inscriptions. While ‘kada’ is the colloquial Tamil word for ‘marketplace’, it is also used with a similar meaning even today in Malaysia. The Geniza documents (a set of medieval documents discovered in a synagogue in Cairo) point to the involvement of Jewish traders as well in coastal Southern India in metal foundries.

    Long-distance maritime contacts predating the European interventions are also suggested by the intriguing find of a bell fragment with parts of a 14th century CE Tamil inscription in New Zealand.

    The inscription mentions that it was the bell of the ship of ‘Moyudeen Bakhs’, suggesting that the owner was from the Tamil Muslim community, which had links to the Arab world.

    An evocative testimonial to the contacts of the Indian and particularly Tamil region with the Far East, as linked to the Nataraja imagery, is found in a 10th century CE Khmer sculptural relief at Banteay Srei in Cambodia on the eastern gopura. While this multi-armed dancing Siva image in chatura pose (with the feet in a rhombus formation) accompanied by a drummer with a vertical drum like the Mizhavu, recalls more to the Badami Natesa, on one corner there is an arresting image of the emaciated Tamil woman, Saint Karaikkal Ammayar playing cymbals.

    Karaikkal Ammayar, one of the earliest Nayanmar or Saivite women saints, dated to about 6th century CE, is said to have come from a merchant or trading family in the coastal town of Karaikkal. According to legend, she prayed to Siva to turn herself into a ghoulish figure or a hag from a beautiful woman, to be able to accompany Siva on his dances in the fearsome cremation grounds among ghouls and ghosts, as invoked in her powerful poetry, where she sings of his dance holding the fire in his palm.

    An early depiction of Karaikkal Ammayar with cymbals is also found next to a Nataraja image from the Tirunageswaram temple, with early 10th century CE remnants going back to Aditya Chola’s period (Fig 6). The emaciated 10th century CE Banteay Srei depiction in a yogic asana resembles a beautiful bronze image of Karaikkal Ammayar in the Tiruvalangadu temple, attributed to the 10th century CE Sembiyan Mahadevi era. A similar Karaikkal Ammayar image in Victoria and Albert Museum was finger-printed by me to the 13th-century post-Chola later Pandyan period with 20 % lead and 3.5% tin. As mentioned earlier, although some images in the V& A collection were retrieved from Ceylon and northern Sri Lanka, the lead isotope and trace element finger-prints affirmed a southern Indian attribution for this image of the later Pandya period.

    Casting the Bronzes

    Although South Indian bronzes are often referred to as pancha-loha or ‘five metalled’ icons, from analyses they are found mainly to be copper alloys of leaded bronzes and some leaded brasses, i.e. with the major alloying elements being a combination of lead, tin and zinc. The reference of five metals is more symbolic, underpinning Saiva Siddhantic notions of the five elements.

    As pointed out by the late master craftsman Devasenasthapati of Swamimalai to me during a field visit in 1990, very minor additions of gold or silver were sometimes made on the request of clients, as a sastra or ritual, thus accounting for the five elements. The lost wax icon casting process, still practiced in Swamimalai in Thanjavur district, recently obtained a Geographical Indication tag (Fig 7). The fine alluvial silt of the Kaveri river in the Thanjavur delta has provided the moulding clay that has supported this craft over generations. A wax model of the icon is invested with clay and then expelled by heating the mould, and then molten metal is poured in to solidify into the icon.

    As I watched master craftsman Srikhanda Sthapathy deftly finishing of a cast Nataraja metal icon, he smiled wryly, and movingly mentioned that it almost involved a process of moving or dancing like Swamy (or the Lord Nataraja) himself as he manoeuvred and positioned himself all around the image, now vigorously striking and now gently tapping, to chisel, file and finish it to transform matter into divinity. It gave a sense of the untiring physical ardour and mental dedication of centuries of traditional artisans, which has sustained such a remarkable and enduring artistic legacy.


    Sharada Srinivasan is a Professor at the National Institute of Advanced Studies, Bengaluru (working in Technical Art History, Archaeological Sciences and Archaeometallurgy) and is a Padmashri Awardee and Fellow of the Royal Asiatic Society of Great Britain and Ireland.
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