Pinnacle of Bliss: on Lord Nataraja’s cosmic dance

The form of Nataraja — the supreme dancer — has been hailed as the highest concept of art

Angikam bhuvanam yasya

Vachikam sarva vangmayam

Aharyam chandra taradi

Tam namah satvikam Sivam.

(Whose limbs are the universe, Whose word is the essence of all language, Whose ornaments are the moon and stars — To that Virtuous Shivam, we bow down!)

Saivagama Tantras, the ritualistic sacred texts of Sadhana or devout single-pointed worship, devised an artistic form to which all human devotion can be directed — Nataraja, the supreme dancer. The form of Nataraja has been hailed as the highest concept of art. Ancient Saivites were known to practise a dance-drama at the famous Nataraja Temple of Chidambaram. In the holy month of Margazhi (December-January) in Tamil Nadu, on the day with the asterism Tiruvadirai, the Arudra festival is especially important to Lord Nataraja in all temples, particularly Chidambaram.

Among the five elements, the subtlest space whose essence is sound, is represented by the Akasa Lingam in the temple dedicated to this concept, Chidambaram. Lord Nataraja personifies the descent from the subtlest as an act of creation and also the ascent from the grossest as an act of dissolution. Ananda Tandavam — the Blissful dance — is the dance of Nataraja of Chidambaram. Tirumoolar in his Tantra Tirumandiram refers to it as ‘Nadanta’ posture — the pinnacle of meditative bliss — even beyond the realm of unheard sound or Shiva Vyapti, the ultimate! The dance hall is Chit Akasha, the hall of Supreme Consciousness.

On this holy day, one extols Lord Siva, performing five most important functions to keep the world spinning in rhythmic tandem. They i are creation, protection, dissolution, veiling the truth and showering of grace. Lord Nataraja’s cosmic dance with his consort Sivakami represents these Pancha Kriya dances. Aarudhra or Tiruvaadirai is considered the favourite star of Lord Nataraja, though the Lord never takes birth. He appeared to the holy saints Pathanjali and Vyagrapaada on this day. Maha Vishnu asked Adi Sesha to go to Chidambaram and do meditation and so he came to Chidambaram for Tapas. The Lord appeared on Tiruvadirai day and danced in Chidambaram.

Iyal, Isai, Natakam — form the three-fold components of the most ancient language of Tamil. In temple rituals, Gita (music) Vadya (instrumental music) and Nritya (dance) were the three prominent Upasanas at the culmination of the sixteen Upacharas. Since all festivals were religion-based, music and dance had been important factors in the celebrations. Skanda purana describes that when the sun shines in the Dhanur constellation, the day of Tiruvadirai Vrata arrives for which Rudra is the Devata. It is in conjunction with the full moon, Pournami. One gets up early in the morning on this day to worship the dancing Lord.

The worship on Tiruvadirai is of the southern face of Shiva Lingam by Abhishekam, offerings and ghee lamps.

The festival of black-paste called Krishna-gandha-utsavam is held which is unique on this day. ‘Kriyakramadyotika’ by Aghora Shivacharya is a ritualistic text, most popular in Tamil Nadu and followed by a large number of temples. The Karanaagama gives the process and purpose of this practice. Sandal paste and the herb Agaru’s paste is mixed with jaggery proportionately. To the heated up and burnt mixture is added cow’s ghee and made into the black-paste for use in the festival. It is believed in Saiva Siddhanta doctrine which has given the famous dictum — Anbe Sivam or God is Love, that all living beings are covered with three kinds of Malas or impurities namely Anava/finiteness, Karma/past deeds and Maya/illusory actions, further classified into gross and subtle impurities.

The gross impurity is placed at the feet of the Guru while the subtle ones are surrendered to the feet of Adi Guru Nataraja. The Black-paste represents the impurities which are obliterated while the dance assumes the Aghora form. After the removal of black-paste, the deity is given a bath, all as part of the ‘Nritta’ festival. Nataraja is called Nritta-nayaka. The Nritta performed by the Lord is called the Aghora dance.

The holy bath given on this day to the deity is the most meritorious among the six days in a year that they are performed. In Thillai i.e., Chidambaram, a ten-day festival is held during Tiruvadirai. On the tenth day, at dawn, Maha Abhishekam is done to Lord Nataraja and goddess Sivakamasundari at Raja Sabhai. A special Tiruvabharanam — Sacred Jewels Alankaram, with nine precious gems is done to Sri Nataraja’s Pancha Murthi.

The abhishekam of Nataraja in the thousand-pillared hall is a great event; it denotes creation (srishti). The food offering is preservation (stithi) Sandal as Krishna gandham smeared on Him is dissolution (samhara). A black cow is brought before Him as obscuration (tirobhava ) and finally the dipaaradhana Aarati which all people witness is grace (anugraha). These, separately considered, are the activities of the deities Brahma, Vishnu, Rudra, Maheshwara and Sadasiva.

Lord Nataraja and Goddess Sivakami would bless devotees with Arudra Darsanam and enter Kanaka Sabhai — Golden Sabha. Tiruvasagam hymns of Tiruvempavai by Manikkavachakar are chanted. Sambandar had sung in the Tevaram about how Tiruvadirai was celebrated at the Kapaleeswara temple; Appar wrote 10 songs in Tevaram in the name Tiruvadirai Pathigam which describes the importance and celebrations of Tiruvadirai. On the day of full moon, the chariot procession takes place. The Arudra Naivedyam made for Lord Nataraja on this day is Tiruvadirai Kali made of rice, jaggery, moong dal, coconut, cardamom and ghee to go with Thalagam or Ezhu Curry Koottu, made out of seven vegetables including root vegetables primarily. In Kerala, Thiruvathirakali group dance is performed by women on this day. Out of 27 Nakshatras, Tiru Adirai (Arudra) is dear to Siva, and Tiru Onam (Sravana) to Vishnu. Both Vaikunta Ekadasi in honour of Vishnu and Arudra Darsanam in honour of Shiva (as Nataraja) signify an integration of Saivism and Vaishnavism, both occurring closely one after the other in Margazhi.

Ignorance crushed

Nataraja literally means the Lord of the Stage. The idea is that the world is a stage, a puppet-show which presents the vision of life and activity through the power of the all-pervading Atman or God, the unseen Lord of the Stage. The Atman or self being the real teacher of the human mind, Nataraja is meant to represent the Guru, unseen but to foster growth from within. When we see the eyes of Nataraja we are reminded of the Shambhavi Mudra of Yoga in which the eyes are open but the vision is turned inward.

The little drum holds the cause of the world, i.e., sound (Shabda Nishtam Jagad – through sound the world stands) in his hand. The deer on the one side is the mind that jumps from one thing to another. Nataraja wears the skin of a tiger, standing for Ahankara or egoism. On His head He wears the Ganges, symbolising Chit Śhakti or wisdom which is most refreshing and the moon represents the ethereal light. One foot crushes Maha Maya, the endless illusion which is the cause of birth and death. Ignorance due to bondage with the world is like a demon that has to be crushed and that is what the Lord does in His Nritta.

Symbol of Wisdom

The Mayalaka or Apasmarasura at the feet of the Lord personifies this truth. The other foot is raised upward and represents the Turiya state, which is beyond and above the three states of waking, dream and dreamless sleep, overcoming Maya. The right hand representing the idea of peace and blessing indicates the glorious privilege of wisdom. In one of the hands, is held Agni (fire), i.e., the purifying flame of truth. The left hand gracefully flows across the right giving the place for Sakti in the dance duet.

The place of the dance, the theatre, is Thillaivanam or the body of the individual as well as of the cosmos referred to as a forest on account of the multitude of its components. The platform in that theatre is the cremation ground, the place where all passions and the names and forms that constitute the vision of the world have been burnt away; pure consciousness devoid of attachment to anything outside. He holds the serpent (Kundalini power) showing that He is the Master of Yoga. The Vayus are in perfect harmony. The energy wheels or Chakras are in total balance.

Contemplating on this magnetic image, the unification takes place in the yogi’s heart and when it does, it brings about the complete cessation of all activities of the mind. Nataraja indicates the mystery of transcendence of that harmonious state with the dancing posture. “I shall show the highest vibrating Cosmic Self and take you there,” proclaims Nataraja with his anklets…