Nataraja – Lord of Dance and Imperial Cholas

Nataraja G20 summit Delhi

Context: The Nataraja sculpture now on display at Bharat Mandapam, where the G20 Leaders’ Summit took place, depicts Lord Shiva in a manner that originated in the fifth century AD but gained iconic status during the reign of the Great Cholas.

More about the news:

  • The 27-foot Nataraja is the world’s tallest statue of Lord Shiva in his dancing form.
  • The remarkable sculpture is crafted from an ashtadhatu, an eight-metal alloy, skillfully fashioned by artisans from Swamimalai in the Thanjavur district of Tamil Nadu.
  • Srikanda Sthapathy collaborated with his brothers to create this masterpiece and the design of the statue draws its inspiration from three esteemed Nataraja idols:
    • Thillai Nataraja Temple in Chidambaram
    • Uma Maheswarar Temple in Konerirajapuram
    • Brihadeeswara Temple, an UNESCO World Heritage Site, located in Thanjavur.

The Cholas and the Nataraja Sculpture

  • The Cholas, a prominent dynasty that thrived during the 9th-11th centuries AD, ruled over a significant portion of peninsular India and are closely associated with the development of Nataraja art.
  • The Cholas, devout followers of Shaivism, constructed elaborate Shiva temples throughout their territories, including the iconic one in Thanjavur.
  • K A Nilakanta Sastri, a pioneering historian of South India, highlighted the prevalence of Shaiva figures in Chola sculpture in his book ‘The Colas’ (1937), stating that while Vaishnava and Jain images were present, Shaiva figures held the most significance.
  • Although the depiction of Shiva as Nataraja dates back to the fifth century AD, it was under the Cholas that this form achieved its present iconic status.
  • Sastri has also noted that Nataraja images, particularly in bronze, were highly regarded among Chola sculptures, and they continue to hold cultural significance to this day.
Nataraja Sculpture

Shiva as the Lord of Dance

  • The worship of Shiva has evolved from the Vedic deity Rudra. Shiva is a multifaceted deity within the Puranic pantheon, characterized by complexity and depth.
  • A L Basham, a prominent Indologist, described Shiva as ‘death and time (Mahakala),’ a deity who both destroys all things and serves as a patron of ascetics in his work ‘The Wonder that was India’ (1954).
  • Shiva also embodies the persona of the ‘Lord of Dance’ or Nataraja, credited with inventing a diverse range of dances, from serene and gentle to fierce, orgiastic, and formidable.
    • In the classic portrayal of Nataraja, he is encircled by a flaming aureole or halo, symbolizing the circle of the world that he both encompasses and transcends.
    • His long dreadlocks flow outward, animated by the energy of his dance, and he strikes a rhythmic pose with his four arms.
    • In his upper right hand, he holds a damru (a hand drum), the sound of which draws all beings into his rhythmic motion.
    • In his upper left arm, he holds agni (fire), which he can wield to bring about the destruction of the universe.
    • Beneath one of Nataraja’s feet, a dwarf-like figure lies crushed, symbolizing illusion, which misleads humanity.
    • However, amidst the symbolism of destruction, Nataraja also offers reassurance, depicting Shiva as the Protector.
    • With his front right hand, he makes the ‘abhayamudra’ (a gesture that allays fear), and with his raised feet, he points to his feet, urging his devotees to seek refuge there.
    • Remarkably, Nataraja is often depicted with a broad smile, signifying his simultaneous embrace of both life and death, joy and pain.

The Lost Wax Method (Cire-Perdue)

The ancient technique can be traced back at least 6,000 years, with evidence of its use found in a copper amulet from a neolithic site in Mehrgarh, Balochistan (present-day Pakistan), dating back to circa 4,000 BC.The famous Dancing Girl of Mohenjo Daro was also created using this method. For millennia, the lost-wax method stood as the foremost technique for producing intricate metallic sculptures, and the Cholas elevated this skill to its zenith.A molten metal is poured into a Mold that has been created by means of a wax model. Once the mold is made, the wax model is melted and drained away. A hollow core can be effected by the introduction of a heat-proof core that prevents the molten metal from totally filling the mold. 

Bronze Sculptures during the Chola Period:

  • During the 10th century, evolving religious beliefs required Hindu deities to participate in various public roles akin to human monarchs.
  • Consequently, large bronze sculptures were crafted to be carried outside temples for daily rituals, processions, and festivals.
  • The iconic dancing depiction of Shiva as Nataraja was conceived and fully refined during the Chola Period, leading to the creation of numerous variations of this intricate bronze image. 
  • The region of Thanjavur (Tanjore) in Tamil Nadu played a pivotal role in the evolution of a diverse range of Shiva iconography.
  • An exceptional example from the ninth century is the depiction of the Kalyanasundara murti, which ingeniously portrays the marriage ceremony through two separate statuettes.
    • Shiva, extending his right hand, symbolically accepts Parvati’s right hand in this representation, with Parvati displaying a bashful expression as she takes a step forward.
  • The union of Shiva and Parvati is brilliantly captured in a single image through the Ardhanarisvara Murti, where the two halves merge to form a harmonious whole. 
  • Independent figurines of Parvati have also been sculpted with grace, portraying her in the elegant tribhanga posture.
  • Bronze sculptures during the Chola period were meticulously crafted using the artistic technique known as Cire Perdue or Madhu Uchchishtta Vidhana, also called lost-wax casting.
    • The method involved mixing beeswax, a type of camphor called kungilium, and a small amount of oil, kneading this mixture, and using it to sculpt the figure and its intricate details.
    • The wax model was then coated with clay, dried, and placed in an oven to melt or evaporate the wax.
    • Subsequently, Pancha Loham, a bronze alloy, was melted and poured into the clay mold, filling every crevice and detail.
    • After cooling and solidifying, the clay mold was broken, leaving only the bronze sculpture.
    • The final steps included adding finer details, cleaning, removing any blemishes, and smoothing and polishing the sculpture before it was displayed, typically within a temple.
Brihadishvara Temple
(Brihadishvara Temple)

Monumental Temples and Architectural Wonders

  • Throughout the Chola Dynasty, monumental temples and splendid works of art influenced by Hinduism were constructed across the empire.
  • These structures were not only immense but also carved from hard rock and granite, featuring intricate carvings and architectural designs that seemed to defy the capabilities of their time. 
  • The architects of the Chola Dynasty drew inspiration from the preceding Pallava dynasty’s style, refining it and elevating Chola art and architecture.
  • King Rajaraja Chola, during the Chola Dynasty, also constructed the grand Brihadishvara temple in Gangaikonda Cholapuram, renowned as the Tanjore temple, dedicated to Shiva.
    • It stands as one of the largest Hindu temples of its time and continues to astound engineers with its construction and architecture.
  • Chola architecture extended beyond religious temples to encompass hospitals, public utility buildings, and palaces.
  • Prince Aditya Karikala built the golden palace for his father, King Sundara Chola.
  • Many of these buildings, constructed using timber and bricks, have not withstood the test of time. 
Map showing the greatest extent of the Chola empire c.1030 under Rajendra Chola I
(Map showing the greatest extent of the Chola empire c.1030 under Rajendra Chola I)

About Imperial Cholas:

The rich history of the Chola dynasty is illuminated by a plethora of diverse sources, providing insights into their governance, culture, and achievements. These sources can be categorized into inscriptions, literary works, and historical records.

  • Inscriptions:
    • Copper and Stone Engravings: Over 10,000 inscriptions etched on copper and stone surfaces constitute the primary sources for studying Chola history.
    • Temple Endowments: These inscriptions predominantly document the generous endowments and donations made by Chola rulers and individuals to temples.
    • Land Transactions and Taxes: Vital components of these inscriptions include land transactions and details about taxes, both collections and exemptions.
    • Copper Plates: Copper plates contain the official commands and decrees of Chola monarchs, offering a glimpse into their administrative authority. Alongside orders, these plates divulge information about genealogy, wars, conquests, administrative divisions, local governance, land rights, and various taxes imposed. 
    • Uttaramerur Inscription: The ‘Uttaramerur Inscription’ issued by Prantaka Chola offers detailed information about the election processes of local self-governance bodies, shedding light on the political structure of the time.
  • Literary Sources:
    • The era saw a flourishing of Tamil literature, with the rise of bhakti saints and the compilation of hymns that reflect the socio-cultural features of the period. 
    • Literary works like ‘Muvarula’ and ‘Kamba Ramayanam,’ the great epic, belong to this era, providing valuable cultural insights

Political History of the Cholas

  • Emergence under Vijayalaya (850–871 CE):
    • Conquest of Kaveri Delta: Vijayalaya’s conquest of the Kaveri delta from the Muttaraiyar marked the re-emergence of the Chola dynasty.
    • Foundation of Thanjavur: He founded the city of Thanjavur and established the Chola kingdom in 850 CE.
  • Parantaka I (907–955 CE):
    • Parantaka Chola initiated territorial expansion and governance reforms, laying the foundation for future Chola glory.
    • Battle of Takkolam: He suffered a defeat at the hands of the Rashtrakutas in the famous Battle of Takkolam.
  • Rajaraja I (985 – 1014 A.D.):
    • Rajaraja I’s reign witnessed significant military achievements and cultural contributions.
    • Naval Expeditions: Victorious naval expeditions along the West Coast, Sri Lanka, and the Maldives.
    • Northern Sri Lanka: His conquest led to the Chola authority’s control over northern and eastern Sri Lanka.
    • Battle of Kandanur Salai: Defeat of the Cheras in this notable battle.
    • Construction of Rajarajeswara Temple: Completed the iconic Rajarajeswara temple in Tanjore in 1010 A.D.
    • Religious Devotion: A devout follower of Saivism, he earned titles like Mummidi Chola and Sivapadasekara.
    • Abdicated the throne in favor of his son Rajendra Chola I.
  • Rajendra Chola I (1012-1044 A.D.): 
    • Military Exploits: Conducted remarkable military expeditions, including defeating Mahipala I of Bengal.
    • Gangaikondacholapuram: Established the city of Gangaikondacholapuram and constructed the renowned Rajesvaram temple.
    • Naval Expedition to Kadaram: Launched a naval expedition to Kadaram (Sri Vijaya, Indonesia), annexing Sri Lanka in the process.
    • Established educational institutions, earning the title ‘Pandita Chola’.
  • Legacy and Decline:
    • Kulathunga Chola I: Grandson of Rajendra Chola, he upheld the Chola legacy by abolishing taxes, fostering trade with China, and uniting the Vengi kingdom with the Chola Empire.
    • Rajendra III: The last Chola king, defeated by Jatavarman Sundarapandya II, marked the decline of the Chola empire.

With the fall of the Cholas, the Pandya and Hoysala kingdoms emerged on the stage of South Indian history, marking the end of an illustrious era.

Read also: Wheel of Konark Temple

Prelims Previous Year Question (2020)

Q. Consider the following events in the history of India:

1. Rise of Pratiharas under King Bhoja

2. Establishment of Pallava power under Mahendravarman – I

3. Establishment of Chola power by Parantaka – I

4. Pala dynasty founded by Gopala

What is the correct chronological order of the above events, starting from the earliest time?

(a) 2-1-4-3

(b) 3-1-4-2

(c) 2-4-1-3

(d) 3-4-1-2

Answer: (c)

Mains Practice Question

Q. The Chola rulers were not only mighty conquerors, efficient administrators but also great patrons of art and architecture. Comment. (10 marks; 150 words)

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