In art of the Hindu tradition, deities are depicted with multiple arms to illustrate divine power. Shiva Nataraja's four arms each take a different position or hold symbolic objects, showing his strength and constellation of skills.
Shiva's earrings represent Shiva's male and female aspects.
Shiva and his consort Parvati (Uma) are united in this sculpture reflecting the harmonious male and female aspects of the divine.
On Shiva's right ear is an earring depicting a makara, a mythical water creature.
His left ear is adorned with a circular earring worn by women. The pair represents Shiva's male and female aspects. He is sometimes depicted with his consort Parvati (Uma) as a half-male, half-female form, illustrating the cosmic balance of male and female energies.
The story of Shiva's triumph in the forest near Chidambaram recounts the snake as one of the malicious forces hurled at the deity by the enraged sages of the forest. Shiva takes the snake and coils it around himself, thereby neutralizing it as a weapon.
Shiva wears an article of clothing around his waist called a veshti in south India. This garment is also worn by Hindu priests. Across his torso is the sacred thread of the Brahmin priestly class.
Demon of Ignorance
The demon of ignorance is shown here pinned down tightly by Shiva's right foot. He looks blissfully up at the conquering Lord Shiva, despite his defeat. In the story of the Chidambaram forest, this demon was one of the weapons the sages launched against Shiva, who handily crushes the demon, thereby declaring his triumph over ignorance.
Shiva's left foot is lifted as part of the "dance of bliss," raised in elegant strength across his body. Like a member of royalty, his ankles, arms, chest, and ears are adorned with jewelry.
The left hand points downward to indicate sanctuary for the soul of the devotee.
The open palm of Shiva's right hand forms the abhaya mudra, or hand gesture, signifying that the worshipper need have no fear.
It is with this hourglass-shaped damaru drum that Shiva beats a rhythm that brings the universe into creation. As both the creator and destroyer, Shiva and his drumming play an essential role in the cycle of the universe.
The tiny figure perched in Shiva's hair is the River Ganga (Ganges) in the form of a goddess. In response to devastating drought, Ganga agreed to descend to Earth, where Shiva received her in his matted locks to soften the impact of her landing.
Matted Locks (Jatas)
Matted locks or jatas are worn by religious ascetics. These locks reflect Shiva's role as a yogi who sometimes meditates for hundreds of years high in the Himalayan mountains. The lower half of Shiva's jatas fly out toward the halo of fire as he performs his dynamic dance.
Above: A holy man wears his hair in matted locks, or jatas.
Shiva's third eye represents his cosmic knowledge. In one of the saint Sundarar's hymns to Shiva, he sings of Parvati (Uma), covering Shiva's two eyes in a flirtatious game, with the universe plunging into darkness as a result. To bring light back to the universe, Shiva created his third eye.
Shiva is associated with the moon in a number of different narratives and wears the crescent moon in his locks.
Ring of Cosmic Fire
The oval ring around the figure of Shiva Nataraja represents the cosmic fire he uses to destroy the universe as part of the cycle of destruction and creation. Each flame has three points. In the eleventh and twelfth centuries, a round circle of fire with flames of five points became standard for the Shiva Nataraja image.
Shiva Nataraja; Image courtesy of Dallas Museum of Art.
Flame of Destruction
Poised in one of Shiva's hands is a flame of the cosmic fire he uses to end the universe in its cycle of creation and destruction.
The lotus flower, indigenous to South and Southeast Asia, represents purity in the Hindu, Jain, and Buddhist traditions. The flower grows from the depths of muddy water to emerge above its surface, pristinely beautiful. This pedestal is a double lotus, with petals pointing upward and downward.