Nataraja, ‘The lord of Dance’, is a depiction of the Hindu god Shiva as an ecstatic dancer. When he performs the Ananda Tandava, the universe is created, maintained and dissolved. The most common illustrations focus on the energy in dancing. He dances within a circular or cyclically closed arch of flames which represent the cosmic fire that creates everything and consumes everything while also highlighting a cyclic existence. His legs are bent, which suggests an energetic dance. His long, matted tresses are shown loose and flying out in thin strands during the dance, spread into a fan behind his head.
On his right side, meshed in with one of the flying strands of his hair, is typically the river Ganges personified as a Goddess. In Hindu mythology, the potential danger of a mighty river that falls from the heavens is offset by the power of nature that tames it and controls its strength.
In his upper right hand, Nataraj holds a small drum shaped like an hourglass that is called a ḍamaru in Sanskrit. A specific hand gesture (mudra) called ḍamaru-hasta is used to hold the drum, which symbolizes rhythm and time. His upper left hand contains Agni or fire, which signifies forces of creation and destruction. The opposing concepts show the counterpoise nature of life. A Naga uncoils from his lower right forearm, while his palm shows the Abhaya mudra suggesting that faith can dispel fear. It also represents the more generic theme of ignorance surrounding the devotee as he or she follows the path of dharma. The second left hand points towards the raised foot which shows the viewer that the ultimate bhakti lies in surrendering at the feet of a higher force.
The face shows two eyes plus a slightly open third on the forehead which collectively symbolizes the triune in Shaivism. The eyes represent the sun, the moon and the third has been interpreted as the inner eye, or symbol of knowledge (jnana), urging the viewer to seek inner wisdom and self-realization. The three eyes alternatively symbolize equilibrium of the three Guṇas: Sattva, Rajas and Tamas.
The dwarf on which Nataraja dances is the demon Apasmara purusha (Muyalaka, as it is known in Tamil), and it symbolises the fact that proactive effort can lead to victory over demonic evil and ignorance. The slightly smiling face of Shiva represents his calmness despite being immersed in the contrasting forces of universe and his energetic dance.
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