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Nataraja Yoga Pose in South Indian Temples

Dancer Yoga Pose

The Dancer pose aka Natarajasana is one of the most emblematic yoga postures. The Sanskrit name literally means the posture of the king of the dance. The Lord of the Dance is an aspect of the Hindu god Shiva.

Nataraja Sculpture

Usually, Nataraja is seen in sculpture as dancing in a ring of fire, the left leg lifted in the air, the right foot stepping on a demon (the demon of ignorance and illusion). In his upper right hand is the the drum of creation; his upper left hand holds the fire that will destroy all of creation. No fear signals his lower right hand, held up in abhayamudra. His lower left hand, pointing towards his lifted left leg, signals refuge.

There are lots of temples in South India where Shiva is worshipped in his aspect of Nataraja. In Tamil Nadu, one of the southern Indian states, there are five main temples of Nataraja known as Pancha sabbas or the five halls where Shiva performed his cosmic dance. At these temples are stages / ambalams.

The most important temple for Nataraja among these five is the Kanaka Sabha or golden hall at Chidambaram, where on the temple gopurams (entrance towers) you can see sculptures of karana or dance movments.

Chidambaram Temple Sculpture

 

Another important Nataraja shrine is the Rajatha Sabha or silver hall at the Minakshi Sundareshwarar temple in Madurai. Here you can see a rare representation of the Natarajasana.

Shiva Navaraja at Meenakshi Temple

The Lord of the Dance  is shown raising his right leg and dancing on the demon with his left foot, reversing the usual posture of Nataraja. As a practicing yogi you might think it’s just to balance out the left and right sides. The reversal in posture here, however, is due to legend.

Once upon a time the king of Madurai was a devotee of Nataraja and tried to learn how to dance. Finding it very hard to dance only on his right leg all the time, as we usually see in the sculptures, the king prayed to Lord Nataraja to change his posture so that the king could also change his  posture. The Lord accepted his request and thus Nataraja is dancing on his left foot here in Madurai.

Another temple in Tamil Nadu dedicated to Nataraja is at Kanchipuram. Although not one of the five places where Nataraja performed his cosmic dance, the Kanchi Kailasanathar temple was built by a devotee to Nataraja, the Pallava King Raja Simha. The low sandstone campus shows Shiva as Nataraja in various postures on exterior panels.

thandava Roopam at Kailasanatha Temple in Kanchipuram

Thandava at Kailasanatha Temple in Kanchipuram

 

Finally, one of my favorite sculptures of Shiva is at the Muvar koil temple far off the tourist path at Kodumbalur in the Pudukkottai region. Built and carved by early Chola artisans in the 9th and 10 centuries, the architecture features lovingly detailed reliefs in the niches.

Here Shiva is shown as Kalari, dancing over the figure of Kala. The graceful smile on his face as well as the balanced positioning of his arms and legs make this scene quite lyrical. Instead of Shiva as the terrifying conqueror of Kala, here he is at ease, at play, dancing.

Shiva as Kalari at Muvar Koil in Kodumbalur

The Nataraja image has been partially destroyed at Kodumbalar, but it gives the same impression of grace and movement.

Nataraja at Muvar Koil in Kodumbalur

By showing this variety of images of Nataraja at Indian temples I mean to illustrate the different ways to take the dancer pose in yoga. Quite often we hear that there is only one right way to take a pose, but if we go back to the origins, you can see for yourself that Shiva himself danced in different ways over a period of time even in the same region.

What’s your favorite image of Nataraja? Let me know in the comments where to see your favorite representation of the dancer pose.

Images from the top : Elena Ray, Met Museum, Isabel Putinja, University of Washington Libraries, two photos from Sulekha.com, two photos from Saurabh
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