Nataraja: How the dancing avatar of Shiva made his way from rock sculptures to modern physics


IMAGE/Balu Velachery/Flickr (CC-BY-SA 2.0)

The deity, with obscure origins in the Indus Valley Civilisation, has inspired the likes of Carl Sagan and found a home at CERN.

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.

Aldous Huxley, 1961

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.

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