As a fleeting art form in which the human body is the medium, dance of the past can only be understood through images, written accounts, oral histories, and information gleaned from dance and movement today. Understanding Shiva Nataraja and the temple culture of the Cholas offers useful perspectives on dance in that period.
The significance of dance in the image and narrative of Shiva Nataraja relates to his cosmic power, which is represented in a dynamic pose that appears to radiate energy. It recalls the narrative of Shiva’s victorious “dance of bliss” (ananda tandava) in the forest near Chidambaram. In addition, it links Shiva to the Chola tradition of triumphant warrior dances. So important was the dance of Shiva to the Cholas that Rajaraja I (r. 985–1014 CE) named a weight unit (adavallan) after Nataraja.
Dance, one of many offerings to the deity, was performed by temple dancers or devadasis, women who dedicated their lives to sacred movement. These women lived in the temple towns of the Cholas, and were considered married to the temple deity. Under Rajaraja I, the Bhrihadishvara temple in Thanjavur (Tanjore) was believed to have employed up to four hundred temple dancers.
Regarded with suspicion by British rulers, temple dance was banned in the early twentieth century. However, a group of artists recreated the dance into a stage art known today as Bharata natyam. In fact, Bharata natyam is based on the 108 positions of Shiva’s dance of triumph, which are described in the Natya Shasta (ca. second-sixth centuries), a text focused on the art of performance. Images of these positions—karanas—still exist on temples of Tamil Nadu today.