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Ananda's Tandava: "The Dance of Shiva" reconsidered.

Almost one hundred years ago Ananda K. Coomaraswamy (1877-1947) published "The Dance of Shiva". (1) The essay summarizes the essential significance of Shiva as Nataraja, "Lord of the Dance", and till today has proven the most persistent point of reference that turned this south Indian bronze into a national symbol, both at home and abroad (figure 1). Recently, Museum Rietberg in Zurich opened another window onto this well-known "Cosmic Dancer". (2) The present essay investigates the blend of intercultural exchanges that lured Western as well as Indian perceptions into an uncritical acceptance of Ananda Coomaraswamys interpretation. Shiva's ananda tandava or "Dance of Bliss", will be its central theme, set in two seemingly irreconcilable contexts. The first cultural context shows Ananda Coomaraswamy in his own, intricate conceptual tandava-dance between East and West. Next, this global perspective shifts to the local practices of south Indian Hinduism where Shiva Nataraja continues to dance his ananda tandava as part of an annual temple festival. In conclusion, the term ananda will be dealt with in the context of its ritual application and contemporary relevance.

Ananda's Tandava: Ananda Coomaraswamy's Dance The Author

In 1877 Ananda Kentish Coomaraswamy was born in Colombo, Sri Lanka. His Tamil father died when Ananda was two years old, whereupon his mother, Elizabeth Clay Beeby of Kent, Lady of Kent, returned with Ananda to England. Here the child completed his primary, secondary, and university studies in Geology and Botany. Only in 1902 was he to see, hear, and sense Sri Lanka again when he visited it for the purpose of fieldwork in Mineralogy (1902-06). This time, aged 25, he was accompanied by his wife, the first of four Western spouses who pursued various artistic careers in photography, vocal music, and dance. After his first divorce Coomaraswamy moved to Boston where he worked for the Museum of Fine Arts from 1917 until his death, first as Keeper of Indian Art, then as Curator, and finally as Fellow for Research in Indian, Persian, and Mohammedan Arts. His essay "The Dance of Shiva" goes back to his early Boston period and carries the traces of its then fashionable Orientalist milieu.

Edward Said points out that "... Orientalism ... deals principally, not with a correspondence between Orientalism and the Orient, but with the internal consistency of Orientalism and its ideas about the Orient ... despite or beyond any correspondence, or lack thereof, with a 'real' Orient." (3) This internal consistency had been well formulated by the Theosophical Society, established in 1875 in New York by the American Colonel Henry Steel Olcott and the Russian occultist Helena Petrovna Blavatsky. Its efficient infrastructure quickly built up a global network reaching from North America out to Europe, Russia, and south India, where its headquarters were founded in 1883 in Adyar, Madras (now Chennai). All the inspirational beacons quoted in "The Dance of Shiva" share this Theosophical inclusion in some part of their career. For example, the lyrical argument that summarizes the essential significance of the essay was borrowed from the Russian composer Alexander Scriabin (1872-1915). His Poem of Ecstasy (Boston Symphony Orchestra Programme, October 29, 1917) put into words what his music meant to express. Mysterium, his mega-work, envisaged seven days of multisensory performance in the foothills of the Himalaya, offering sunrise preludes, sunset codas, flames, fires, and perfumes in tune with the music, to culminate in rapturous "Bliss" that would dissolve the world. Scriabin's early death in 1915 prevented its realization. His ideas, however, were applied to several disciplines in the performing and fine arts. An example was set by one of the first alternative communities whose virtual world and lifestyle developed in the early 20th century. Anarchists, Nudists, Feminists, vegetarian Biogeneticists, cosmic Mystics, Theosophists, Freemasons, Marxists, and psychoanalytic Utopists all met in Ascona, southern Switzerland on Monte Verita, the "Mountain of Truth". Here, too, sunset, midnight, and morning dances were performed, choreographed by Rudolf Laban (1917). American pioneers in Oriental dance like Isadora Duncan and Ruth St Denis visited Ascona and contributed to the birth of "New Dance". Dancers of the Laban School of Dance such as Mary Wigman inspired Baron von der Heydt, art collector and patron, to acquire a Shiva Nataraja for himself in order to reflect meaningfully on the turbulent times between the two world wars. (4)

The Essay

The Essential Significance of Shiva's Dance is threefold: First, it is the image of his Rhythmic Play as the Source of all Movement within the Cosmos, which is represented by the Arch: Secondly, the Purpose of his Dance is to Release the Countless Souls of men from the Snare of Illusion: Thirdly, the Place of the Dance, Chidambaram, the Centre of the Universe, is within the Heart.

--Coomaraswamy, 1974, 93 [emphasis added]

With these words Ananda Coomaraswamy summarizes his interpretation of Shiva's dance. After an introductory image of Shiva as Eros Protagonos, a "primal rhythmic energy ..., no doubt the root idea behind all of these dances", this erotic perspective is not elaborated any further. Instead, Coomaraswamy distances Shiva's dance from the "frantic, intoxicated energy of a pre-Aryan hill-god" and enumerates three dances that do engage his attention. The first two are the evening dance witnessed by the goddess and Shiva's tandava on the cremation ground. The third dance, the nadanta, is his main focus. Careful reading shows that the author builds up his interpretation beginning with the last argument, therefore we will discuss its threefold significance in reverse order.

"Thirdly, the Place of the Dance, Chidambaram, the Centre of the Universe, is within the Heart." Local legends have been told and recorded for centuries in Tamil Koyilpuranams--"temple stories of old". However, Coomaraswamy is convinced that these myths have "after all no very close connection with the real meaning of the dance". Nevertheless, recent publications that are based exactly on such local sources, have revealed very enigmatic erotic sides of Shiva and his relation to sorcery, that Coomaraswamy chose to ignore, which we will follow up later. (5) Furthermore, Coomaraswamy holds that no matter how many images of Nataraja exist, they "all express one fundamental conception [E]ven without reliance on literary references, the interpretation of this dance would not be difficult we have the assistance of a copious contemporary literature, which enables us to fully explain not only the general significance of the dance, but equally, the details of its concrete symbolism." Exactly in this realm of the symbolic, today's critics question the ease with which he equates Indian primary and secondary sources, covering more than a millennium, with Western mysticism, philosophy, and Orientalist speculation. (6) At this point, it may suffice to observe that - even in Indian primary sources--many transmissions on the significance and concrete symbolism of Shiva's dance exist side by side. Therefore, we shall not propose any conclusive analysis; instead, our analysis will address the rhetorics of internal (in)consistencies.

"Chidambaram, the Centre of the Universe ..." as the place of Shiva's dance immediately poses its own problems. Even today, local legends, song books, and temple singers invoke Chidambaram before starting any performance, not as the Sanskrit chit-ambala, "hall of consciousness" but as the Tamil chirrampalam, "small hall", a contrast to which we will return later. Coomaraswamy invokes the Tirumantiram to substantiate his position without giving either the exact verse or the date of this basic text. Dating the Tirumantiram--the "Holy Mantra"--by the Tamil saint Tirumular is uncertain; a rough estimate indicates the middle or second half of the first millennium coinciding with the rise of devotional Tamil poetry during the Pallava period (c. 550--850 CE), The later Chola period (c. 850-1276) marks its codification and the institutionalization of the Shiva Nataraja cult. The verses apparently quoted from the Tirumantiram are 2722, 2769, and 2274. (7) Inconsistencies immediately spring up. Not only does verse 2722 say: "Everywhere is his form, everywhere is Shiva-Shakti, everywhere is Chidambaram, everywhere is his dance...", but also: "Everywhere where Shiva may be, there indeed, he dances his playful dance of Grace." No centre is indicated, directed, or preferred. The interpretation of this verse in Coomaraswamy's essay leaves another major question to be asked: what does "everywhere is Shiva-Shakti" mean? We will return to this theme later as well.

"... the Place of the Dance ... is within the Heart." No sources are supplied to support this line, except for further passages (without reference) from the Tirumantiram. Their Tamil original underlines once more Shiva's symbiosis with Shakti: verse 2769 states that "uniting the two in anantam, that is the one dance indeed". Verse 2274 projects Shiva's body to comprise the skies, featuring the demon Muyalakan as a "beautiful black spot", the eight quarters, and the three lights as his three eyes: this grand body indeed is to be understood as "his dance in performance". No reference is made here to the heart as his stage. For Coomaraswamy, though, these verses form a central nexus to his second proposition:

"Secondly, the Purpose of his Dance is to Release the Countless Souls of men from the Snare of Illusion ..." A number of quotes, taken without reference from both Tirumantiram and Unmaivilakkam, delineate its method. The time-gap between these two works of at least half a millennium remains unreflected. Basically, the heart must be cleansed from all else but the thought of God. A metaphor of the cremation ground mediates the method to this "empty, pure space". Shiva now dances on the cremation ground, destroying "not merely the heavens and earth at the close of a world-cycle, but the fetters that bind each separate soul". Coomaraswamy offers a footnote that directs his contemporaries to the French author Marcel Schwob (1867-1905) whose romantic inclinations led to the macabre, sadistic, and terrifying. His Livre de Monelle, combining Parisian tastes with his self-styled neo-pagan ways, incites to "[D]Jestroy, destroy, destroy. Destroy within yourself, destroy all around you. Make room for your souls and for other souls." More comparisons depict the "cleansing of the heart": a contemporary Bengali poem shows Kali dancing on a cremation ground that her devotee lovingly prepares in his/her heart.

Coomaraswamy then returns to south India, explaining the purpose of Shiva's dance. Shiva performs five actions, dancing as "Supreme Intelligence" in the soul; this results in Grace, merging countless souls into the Ocean of Bliss. In the words of Tirumular (no reference): "The perpetual dance is His play." The entire journey from the cleansing of the heart, through destruction on an interior cremation ground, where Shiva dances, is now transformed through a filter of the soul-as-playground, into Ecstasy. The Poem of Ecstasy, mentioned earlier, "will serve to explain it better than any more formal exposition what Scriabin wrote is precisely what the Hindu imager moulded." Sanskrit interpolations into the English translation from the Russian original explain the "self-realization" of the Spirit who is "playing, longing, creating, surrendering to bliss of love. ..." This spirit is "free, divine ... and learns the nature of His Divine being, ... comprehends himself: ... thou art all one wave of freedom and bliss." Through a "general conflagration", the "Spirit is at the height of being ... feels the tide unending of the divine power of free will." This passage is striking in its lack of correspondence to the Hindu devotional sentiment of divine ananda: here, the one "I" does not prevail, rather it "melts away" in bhakti, just like Shiva himself merges-in-love with his other, female half, the softspoken goddess. In contrast to this mood, Scriabin's poetic rapture takes us to "What menaced, now is excitement, what terrified, is now delight ... And the universe resounds with a joyful cry 'I am'."

Coomaraswamy's essay "Cosmopolitan View of Nietzsche" evokes the ideal "Superman" who does not spare himself. (8) Nietzsche is said to pronounce the "highest duty", namely that of "self-realization", in terms of "Physician, heal thyself, then wilt thou also heal thy patient." Thus, the Spirit who emerges cleansed from the interior cremation ground, purified in heart and soul, dancing towards a "divine power of free will", now encounters striking correspondences in the teachings of Chuang Tzu, Jesus, Socrates, and Ashvaghosha. As he realizes - through asceticism - the concept of jivan mukta, "liberation during (human) life-time" he, the Bodhisattva, Nietzsche, Manu, and Brahman meet in the sublime example set by Shiva. Ananda Coomaraswamy's conceptual tandava is not only global, it encapsulates the entire cosmos, according to his last, that is, his first proposition:

"First, it is the image of his Rhythmic Play as the Source of all Movement within the Cosmos, which is represented by the Arch." This proposition is dealt with in two separate sections of the essay.

"... the image of his Rhythmic Play as the Source of all Movement within the Cosmos" is identified as the nadanta dance performed by Shiva in the golden hall of Chidambaram. Coomaraswamy first gives an iconographic description of a "solitary" Nataraja -before investigating the one fundamental conception that unites all "South Indian copper [sic] images of Nataraja". His immanence "in mind and matter" is argued in a footnote, comparing Tamil sources with the medieval mystic Eckhart. The main text offers a correlation between the well-known "five activities" of Shiva, the so-called Panchakriya, and the iconography of the Nataraja bronze. Basically, Coomaraswamy's famous correlation rests upon the Tirumantiram, although he wrongly identifies it as belonging to later works. (9) Tirumantiram verse 2799 equates Nataraja's form with Shiva's cosmic five actions: "Creation" (Tarn, torram, Skt. srishti) emanates from the drum in his right hand (figure la), "Sustenance" (Tam. amaittal, Skt. sthiti) from the second right hand of protection (figure lb), "Contraction-back-into-himself" (Tarn. chankara, Skt. samhara) from the fire in his left hand (figure lc), "Veiling" (Tam. tirotayi, Skt. tirodhana) from the right foot pressing down (figure Id), and "Grace" (Tam. anukkiram, Skt. anugraha), indeed, is his left foot raised in dance (figure le).

"... which is represented by the Arch" forms the second part of Coomaraswamy's first proposition. Here, he leans heavily on the Unmaivilakkam and even later sources. Shiva's dance under the tiruvachi - the arch of flames that encloses the "Lord of the Dancers"--is understood as an iconographic, mystical representation of the (Tamil) letter aum. In one sweep of interpretation, this sacred syllable glosses prakriti--"nature, matter", purusha--"universal omnipresent Spirit", and, the individual soul positioned between these. (10) The rare epithet nadanta "eternal sound", naturally leads him to a conclusive aesthetic criticism where Shiva's dance oscillates with nature, metaphysics, science, religion, and art." This poetic vision survives, more tenacious than any other, so far. (12)

Ananda Tandava: Shiva's Dance

Space: "Being There"

Looking beyond the accepted reading of the ananda tandava demands pragmatic labour. To reorient one's focus of attention away from the urban, cosmopolitan, and global reception of this famous icon, travelling a few miles into the Tamil countryside will do. Here, Shaiva temples celebrate the "Dance of Shiva" as a yearly festival, held in the month of Markali (December--January). During that night He dances under the asterism of the Arudra star. From dawn onwards He gives "audience" to His devotees, never alone but always in the company of His beloved. (13) This festival is only a minor part of worship that maintains Shiva's perpetual presence on a daily basis. Shiva-the-Dancer receives relatively little ritual attention but for those festival days when he is carried around by his devotees in procession. In contrast, Shiva-in-the-Centre of the temple emerges in an abstract way from the yoni - the vulva of the universe. She, the Goddess makes him manifest as an indexical sign, a linga, expressing his "being there" (figure 2). The two, god and goddess, linga and yonipitha, are the mula "root" of the temple, its structure, worship, and wholesome power. No day can pass without ritual attendance on this divine androgynous presence. The sanctified substance resulting from daily rituals trickles down from the yonipitha into the outer corridor around the garbhagriha "womb chamber", the innermost shrine. Devotees make sure to catch its blessing by touching and applying the sanctified fluids to their body. Shiva Nataraja is just one of the many concrete emanations from the mulavigraha, literally the "root analysis", inviting attention, focus, and devotion. Therefore, Shiva Nataraja--after concluding his ananda tandava--drops his linga to the earth before he returns to the realm of the gods, reunited with the goddess, happily on his left side. Thus, mankind can worship their ananda everyday and draw counsel, direction, and purpose in life from their union.

Time: "Reaching Out, Reaching In"

Cosmic equations, so popular in Orientalist thought, start here, at the level of the linga. A complex system of time-tested, internal correspondences provides an alternative consistency, that does make sense in its concrete ritual applications, in contrast to general, globally accepted (in)consistencies. The linga encompasses the micro- and macro-cosmos: it connects the panchabbuta, " five elements of nature" to a concrete map of sacred shrines in south India, where devotees can go, worship, and emerge transformed by their experience. Thus, the linga materializes in different forms in different places: as "earth" in Kanchipuram, as "water" in Tiruvanaikkaval, as "fire" in Tiruvannamalai, as "wind" in Kalahasti, and as "ether" in Chidambaram.

This network of cosmic interrelations does not end here, it travels deep down into the human body through nerve centres, identified by yogic practices as chakras along the spine. In our body "earth" is present in the muladhara, "water" in the svadhishthana, "fire" in the manipura, "wind" in the anahata, and "ether" in the vishuddha chakra. (14) Shiva's five actions, mentioned earlier, find their own loci among these nerve centres where they connect the micro-cosmos of the human body with the five elements of the macro-cosmos. On these stages, hidden in the human body, Shiva plays out their joint transformations: "creation", "sustenance", "contraction", "veiling", and "grace", moving upwards from the lowest chakra at the base of the spine to that in the throat. Human incarnation is shaped by these five activities out of these five elements. This process is energized by maya shakti, "power of attribution" that marks life in its innumerable concrete manifestations. According to the logic of yoga it is possible to transcend these material transformations and move beyond, further along the spinal column through chit shakti, "power of consciousness", reaching the ajna chakra. This nerve centre is situated between the eyebrows and enables control over the previous states of concentration. It gives the "command" to reach the ultimate state of transcendence where life blossoms into a "thousand petalled lotus". Here, in the sahasrara chakra, all polarities are resolved into the primordial source (mahabindu).

Performances: "Making Come True"

Local treatises in Tamil and Sanskrit comment upon Shiva's tandava in the light of this yogic logic of five elements and five actions, resulting in five different dances. The monastery attached to the ancient Shiva temple in Tiruvavaduturai is headed by the 23rd Guru in a lineage that goes back to saint Tirumular, author of the Tirumantiram. The monastery's Encyclopaedia of Natarasa Peruman deals with the many dances performed by Shiva from several ritual angles. (15) Five shrines are described as places of pilgrimage: Tirunelveli, Madurai, Tirukkurralam, Tiruvalankatu, and Tillai (Chidambaram), as they form the stage for Shiva's various tandavas. Three out of these five dances figure the urdhva position where Shiva throws up his leg into an erect position, pointing to the sky (figure 3); two dances feature the well-known bhujanga trasita "scared by the snake" position, swaying one leg to one side in a diagonal position. Local legends tell their special story of Shiva's performance and praise its wholesome effects on devotees: the Lord, his Goddess, the sacred tree, and the temple tank make a site into a mukti sthala "a shrine where release from rebirth can be realized".

Claims to particular tandavas form an ongoing debate between these temples which cannot be resolved here. (16) However, when one follows the vegetative logic of Tirunelveli, the granary of Tamil Nadu, it is not difficult to imagine that Shiva Nellaiyappan "the Lord of Rice" dances the tandava of "Creation". Or, for that matter, to locate the "Dance of Sustenance" in Madurai at the river Vaikai where Shiva married Minakshi the fish-eyed goddess; or the "Dance of Destruction" with Shiva's "arrow of fire" burning Tripura (three cities), on the mountain peaks of Tirukkurralam: earth, water, and fire are evident here. The "Dance of Veiling" and that of "Grace" oppose the temples of Tiruvalankatu and Chidambaram in an old controversy: "...which dance happens where?" This is a complex and critical question. Both shrines show that gods, too, can come under the spell of veiling madness, and be cured of it. Tiruvalankatu holds the oldest claims to Shiva's urdhvatandava that cured Parvati of her demonic spell. The local story on their dance contest differs from the usual version:

Two demons appeared in the vataranya, "Northern Wilderness", around Tiruvalankatu. After eating close to everything they started to attack the gods as well. Parvati intervened, recalling goddess Chamunda who also killed two demons. The battle took a wrong turn: every drop of blood from the demons touching the earth generated new offspring. Therefore, Parvati decided to catch their blood and drink it. This method did work, but it started to affect the gentle goddess and turned her into a raging Kali. The gods got nervous and requested Shiva "to have a look". As he entered Parvati's territory she became furious and snapped at him: "Who are you? This land is mine, don't you have any fear to trespass; how did you sneak in?" Maha Vishnu, Brahma, and Narada trembled with fear: "When the goddess does not even recognize her own husband what do we head for? The world does not bear it if the two do not understand each other." They deliberated and came up with a remedy: "Both Shiva and Parvati are good dancers, let them 'dance it out' in contest." So it was to be.

The gods, sages, and mighty serpents take their seats, to watch the contest that is about to begin in the ratna sabha "Jewel Hall". Shiva faces south, and Kali north. Shiva opens the challenge by one difficult tandava; not difficult enough for the goddess, she duplicates his moves effortlessly. Shiva dances and dances up to 17 tandavas but the goddess proves to be his match. "This leads nowhere", thinks Shiva, "I have to come up with something clever, a trick, whatever." One of his earrings fallen to the ground catches his attention. He picks it up with his toes and throws up his leg to replace the jewel deftly. Kali is puzzled, taken unaware: "What tandava is this, it must be some tandava but I don't know which." As her concentration breaks, she suddenly feels tired; the contest has drained the demonic fire out of her body, and slowly, slowly she returns to her normal self. In a flash she spots the audience: the gods, the sages, and the snake who usually rests on the primordial waters. As people say: "she returned to her own thought", and, decided not to pursue the contest any further. (17)

This local myth forms an interesting contrast to the version where Kali loses the contest because of her inborn modesty. At Tiruvalankatu Kali is afraid of no one and nothing and turns back by herself into her gentle form. The dance has cured her demonic attack. The two aspects of the same goddess split and take up their respective quarters: Kali moves to her shrine at the large lake, while Parvati joins Shiva on his left side.

The temple at Tiruvalankatu is famous for healing patients of insanity and demonic attack. Family members visit the Kali shrine first, before tying a piece of cloth from the afflicted relative to the Banyan tree in the outer corridor of the main shrine (figure 4). This pilgrimage place is also considered to yield moksha "release from rebirth". Shiva's poetess devotee Karaikkalammaiyar (early 6th century) describes His extreme dances on the cremation ground: here, in Tiruvalankatu, we discover the anahata chakra "cremation ground of the heart". The theme of the demonic recurs when Shiva enters the daruvana "forest of pines" in Tillai as the lonely beggar Bhikshatana, effulgent with ascetic energy. While Parvati suffered in Tiruvalankatu, now Shiva is tired and accessible to sorcery. (18) His seduction of the wives of the sages is a story too well known to repeat here. (19) What does matter, is that the temple of Tillai/ Chidambaram holds the akasha linga "made of ether". This element relates to the vishuddha chakra inside the throat region that connects ether with the subtle element of sound, the activity of hearing; and that is ruled by Sadashiva as Ardhanarishvara, the "Lord Whose Left Half Is Woman" (figure 5). The daruvana holds the key to his ananda tandava.

Ananda - Happiness Happens

What happened there, in the forest of pines that made a crucial difference? Local legends tell of Shiva's intoxicating flute and drum that evoked a deep desire for his love in the wives of the sages. Ultimately, this led to a fire kindled by a desire for his death in their husbands. One malignant creature after the other attacked him: a tiger, a snake, an antelope. Shiva grabbed them, flaying them alive to adorn his naked body. Flames, an axe thrown at him, turned into playthings to amuse him. Finally, the purpose of their attack took a demonic shape: a black dwarf hurled himself at the god. His name is Apasmara alias Muyalakan--Shiva crushed the demon's spine and began to dance on his back. At that point he remembered his beloved Parvati, and, she came--immediately--to witness his tandava, danced amidst an arch of flames.

The generally accepted interpretation of Apasmara as "dwarf of ignorance" cannot be credited directly to Coomaraswamy's essay, although his emphasis on the "release of the soul from illusion" probably contributed largely to this vision. A few miles away from the urban, global context, Muyalakan/Apasmara yields other resonances. This demon does not pose a threat of "ignorance" (a-vidya) but of "lapse in memory", that is, apa-smara. Apart from its metaphoric meaning, apasmara is also a clinical term for epilepsy where the patient turns totally oblivious to his present, his past, and his identity. In the moment of an epileptic attack, body and mind convulse violently and become insensible to their surroundings. (20) Shiva, though, does remember. He remembers his beloved, the goddess who made him manifest. The etymological scope of the term smara is rich: it comprises "memory", but also what memory prefers to remember, namely "love". Smara is one of the many names of Kama, the god of love, and extends to "worship". In this context, Smara appears as Panchabana, the one who directs "five arrows". Which are these arrows and what do they bring about? The recurring number five now marks the five senses that become afflicted by loving devotion, but also the five elements and the five actions that mediate ritual worship. All taken together: arrows, senses, love, devotion, natural elements, and actions cause the entire universe to evolute by the powers of "attribution" (maya shakti) as well as to spur Creation to involute back into its source by the powers of "abstraction and consciousness" (chit shakti).

When Shiva cracks the spine of the demon Apasmara, he crosses the border of "veiling and sorcery" that rage in the anahata chakra of the heart region. Just like the Goddess did, in their dance contest at Tiruvalankatu, he remembers his true identity. In Tillai, while facing the lethal sacrificial fire, Shiva's smara, his "loving memory", restores him to a state of equilibrium, and gives him access to the vishuddha chakra, in the throat region. This transformation prompts him to dance, calling his Shakti to his left side. The entire Creation longs to see this dance of their reunion on an eternal, transcendental basis. Therefore Shiva Nataraja moves from the forest of pines to the golden hall of Chidambaram with Shivakami at his side, to dance the ananda tandava, "Dance of Bliss". Here, saint Tirumular saw Shiva dance his "Dance of Wonder", the arputta kuttu, in the "small hall" chirrampalam "between the eyebrows of his devotees". (21) The "secret (rahasyd) of Chidambaram", may well be hidden here, in the ajna chakra, where Shiva-Shakti enjoy their happiness as sat-chit-ananda--"being-consciousness-bliss".

In conclusion, what contrasts does the mesmerizing blend of global and local inner consistencies reveal on the Dance of Shiva? First of all, the image of Shiva Nataraja lives two different lives, side by side: locally, as a "mere" processional image that serves a festival purpose, taking manifold forms as a dancer according to many local legends, ritual spaces, and occasions; and in contrast, globally as dancing only his ananda tandava, a synonym of the "human condition". Second, the global Shiva Nataraja reigns supreme, while the local dancing Lord emanates from the Shiva linga in the main shrine. (22) Third, this central "root analysis" (mula vigraha) proposes its own metaphysics of the divine as "two-in-one": God and Goddess, Male and Female that underlie the cosmic processes of evolution and involution. Therefore, the local Nataraja never dances alone, his Goddess is always close. This "logic of practice" stands in sharp contrast to a global "Divine Free Will" that exclaims "I am" as its highest spiritual insight and experience. As a result, the global Nataraja lost his female half in the course of his diaspora. (23) Fourth are the irreconcilable methods to achieve this "ultimate experience" of ananda. While Coomaraswamy sets a global agenda of ascesis of the heart, soul, and spirit, the indigenous method offers smara--"memory, love, and worship". Its transformations are graded and firmly rooted in Life, weaving a sensuous web of micro-and macro-cosmos. (24) Shivakami is Shiva's saving grace, his memory of their union (shringara) beckons him forth (figure 6).

In a Hindu ritual context, Shiva-Shakti underlies both evolution and involution. God and Goddess like to "play" - taking these two cosmic processes as stakes in their game. As they join, separate, and unite again, the cosmos flexes with them--evoluting, involuting. Their lila comprises a deep play of memory (smara) and Eros (shringara). Its beginning and end meet in kundalini shakti, "life energy", creeping up along the spinal column, coiled as a snake at the base, swirling up to blossom into a "thousand-petalled lotus" in the topmost chakra. Shiva's various tandavas materialize as the outer manifestations of kundalini's ascent. Among them the ananda tandava comprises and transcends all earlier five chakras, unfurling among the brows of Shiva's devotees. This sixth chakra of the "small hall" might be the centre where "local" and "global" meet.

A return to one of the verses of Tirumantiram (2769) resets the stage for today's encounter and reflection on this "one dance indeed":
Chatti vativu chakala anantamum
Otta anantam umaiyaval meniyan
Chatti vativu chakalat teluntiran
Totta anantam orunataname.
The form of Shakti is all Anantam
Emerging Anantam is Umai's very own body
Once Shakti has taken a manifest shape,
The Anantam of the two uniting, that is the one dance indeed!


I would like to thank Rokus de Groot and Ranvir Shah for their critical reading of the first draft of this essay.


(1) Ananda K. Coomaraswamy, The Dance of Shiva: Fourteen Indian Essays, Munshiram Manoharlal Publishers, New Delhi, 1974. The essay "The Dance of Shiva", pp. 83-96 in this collection, forms the point of departure for our analysis here.

(2) Shiva Nataraja, Der kosmische Taenzer, exhibition at Museum Rietberg Zurich, November 16, 2008 - March 1, 2009; curator: Johannes Beltz., research consultant: Saskia Kersenboom. The exhibition was structured on the chapters "Natya - ritual drama", "Ayanarn--the course of time", and "Tandava--dance of transformation", by Saskia Kersenboom, in the exhibition catalogue, ed. Johannes Beltz, Museum Rietberg Zurich, 2008, pp. 38-80.

(3) Edward W. Said, Orientalism: Western Conceptions of the Orient, Penguin, Harmondsworth, 1995, p. 5.

(4) Monte Verita, Die Bruste de Wahrheit, eds. Gabriella Borsano et al., Armando Dado and Electa, Locarno and Milano, 1980, pp. 65-80. In 1926 Baron Eduard von der Heydt, banker to the former Kaiser William II, bought the entire Monte Verita. He donated the Chola bronze of Shiva Nataraja (figure I) to the Rietberg Museum.

(5) Don Handelman and David Shulman, Siva in the Forest of Pines: An Essay on Sorcery and Self-Knowledge, Oxford University Press, New Delhi, 2004.

(6) Padma Kaimal, "Shiva Nataraja: Shifting Meanings of an Icon", Art Bulletin (The College Art Associations), Vol. 81, No. 3 (1999), pp. 390-419.

(7) Tirumantiram, Tamil text and commentary, ed. G. Varatarajan, Palaniyappa Piratars, Chennai, 1985. Translations from Tamil by the present author.

(8) Coomaraswamy, op. cic, pp. 155-64.

(9) Cf. also David Smith, The Dance of Siva: Religion, Art and Poetry in South India, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 1996, p. 17. The correlation between the five activities normally ascribed to Shiva and his iconic form of Nataraja no longer occur in the time of the Unmaivilakkam, a manual for the instruction of young Shaivas.

(10) Ibid., p. 5. Smith emphasizes the historical role of the Dikshitar priests who claim to be of northern origin, their relation to Umapati's Unmaivilakkarn, and the different exegeses based on either Sanskrit or Tamil sources.

(11) Ibid., p. 100 for Dorai Rangaswamy's objection to Coomaraswamy's equation of Shiva's dance in Chidambaram with the nadanta.

(12) For the worldwide diaspora of Shiva Nataraja to all levels of society, see Pratapaditya Pal, "The Blessed and the Banal, Shiva Nataraja in the 20th Century", in Chidambaram, Home of Nataraja, edited by Vivek Nanda with George Michell, Marg Publications, Mumbai, 2004, pp. 128-38.

(13) Cf. the DVD on Arudra Darshanam in Cirkali, Tamil Nadu, 2007, included in the Shiva Nataraja exhibition catalogue, 2008.

(14) Cf. Ajit Mookherjee, Kundalini: The Arousal of Inner Energy, Thames and Hudson, London, 1982, pp. 39ff. for detailed descriptions.

(15) Natarasa Peruman (Encyclopaedia of Natarasa Peruman in Sivagamas, Silpas, Yantras, Pujas), ed. S. Narayanaswamy, Tiruvavaduturai Adheenam, Tiruvavaduturai, 2001.

(16) Work-in-progress by the present author under the title Shiva's Stage.

(17) From a Koyilpuranam book sold at the temple in Tiruvalankatu. Translation from Tamil by the present author.

(18) Cf. Bruce Kapferer, A Celebration of Demons, Exorcism and the Aesthetics of Healing in Sri Lanka, Indiana University Press, Bloomington, 1983, p. 50 on the dangers of "alone illness" tanikam dosa, inviting demonic attack.

(19) Cf. Handelman and Shulman, 2004, for a comparative study of daruvana myths.

(20) For a succinct description of apasmara as "epilepsy", see Sudhir Kakar, Shamans, Mystics and Doctors, A Psychological Inquiry into India and Its Healing Traditions, Unwin Paperbacks, London, 1982, pp. 244 and 268ff.

(21) Tirumantiram, op. cit., Tirumantiram Tantra 8, pp. 503-53. Tirukkuttu taricanam: i. chivananta kuttu (watched by the goddess), ii. chuntara kuttu (danced in the forest of pines), iii. porpati kuttu (Shiva's five-faced lingd), iv. porrillai kuttu (danced in the "Golden Tillai") and v. arputa kuttu (the "Dance of Wonder" in Chidambaram).

(22) Cf. Goethe, Johann Wolfgang, Poetische Werke, Gedichte und Singspiele II, Gedichte, Nachlese und Nachlass, Berliner Ausgabe, Aufbau Verlag, Berlin, 1980, p. 400: "...where the one mixes with the other ... there fear takes hold of me as well as painful disgust. Therefore, once and for all, for me the Linga is totally fatal." In Shiva Nataraja, exhibition catalogue, Introduction by Johannes Beltz, p. 37. fn. 92.

(23) Cf. Lata Mani, "Western Advaita", in Sacred Secular, Contemplative Cultural Critique, Routledge, New Delhi, 2009, pp. 106-16; cf. in contrast to decontextualization: Pierre Bourdieu, The Logic of Practice, Polity Press, Cambridge, 1990.

(24) Cf. Saskia Kcrsenboom, "Shringaranta--Eros Fragmented", in Music and the Arts of Seduction, ed. James Kippen, Eburon Press, Amsterdam, forthcoming.

Saskia Kersenboom Ananda's Tandava
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Title Annotation:PERSPECTIVES
Author:Kersenboom, Saskia
Publication:Marg, A Magazine of the Arts
Geographic Code:9INDI
Date:Mar 1, 2011
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