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Lord of the Dance

HUMANITIES, November/December 2002 | Volume 23, Number 6

“The flaming circle in which he dances is the circle of creation and destruction. . . . The Lord holds in two of his hands the drum of creation and the fire of destruction. He displays his strength by crushing the bewildered demon underfoot. He shows his mercy by raising his palm to the worshiper in the “fear-not” gesture and, with another hand, by pointing at his upraised foot, where the worshiper may take refuge. It is a wild dance, for the coils of his ascetic’s hair are flying in both directions, and yet the facial countenance of the Lord is utterly peaceful and his limbs in complete balance.”

The words of religion scholar Diana Eck describe the Hindu god Shiva in one of his three incarnations: Nataraja, Lord of the Dance. This vision of Shiva first was made accessible to his worshipers through bronze sculptures created between the ninth and thirteenth centuries in southern India. The rulers were the Chola and their temples were the center of culture.

“The Sensuous and the Sacred: Chola Bronzes from South India” opens November 10 at the Smithsonian’s Arthur M. Sackler Gallery in Washington, D.C. It focuses on temple bronzes created for the worship of Shiva and Vishnu, a deity known as the protector of the world and the restorer of morality. The exhibition runs through March 9 at the Sackler and then travels in April to the Dallas Museum of Art and in July to the Cleveland Museum of Art.

In early temples devoted to Shiva and Vishnu, stone images of the deities were enshrined in a sanctum off-limits except to those of the privileged classesmonarchs, priests, and Brahmin. In the sanctum the worshiper received grace by darshan, the act of seeing and being seen by the god. Those who could not go inside the temple were unable to receive grace.

According to scholar Vidya Dehejia, it was “around the sixth century that the deity began to assume a public persona not unlike that of a human monarch. The deity was required to appear in public and to preside over a number of festivities. The large, heavy stone image in the sanctum could not be carried to fulfill these functions, so the production of smaller and lighter processional images of deities began.” By the end of the eighth century, the images were being made in bronze.

The heyday of temple bronzes lasted four hundred years after the Cholas emerged as a significant ruling power around 850, when Vijayalaya Chola captured the town of Tanjavur and established a new line of monarchs. Under the Chola, bronze casting was perfected using the same lost-wax technique used today in India. The Cholas built enormous temples and commissioned hundreds of bronze deities that changed Hindu religious practice.

As portable bronze sculptures, the gods became accessible to the most lowly of worshipers. “Nandanar, one among the sixty-three saints of Shiva, was one such worshiper,” writes Dehejia. “He came from an untouchable community that provided leather for drums and animal gut for musical instruments used in the temples.” When he arrived from a pilgrimage to a famous temple, Nandanar was denied entry. As the story goes, Shiva commanded the priests to admit Nandanar into the sanctum where he disappeared under the raised foot of Shiva. “For the many devotees barred entry into the temple or stopped short of the main shrine, the portable image carried in procession through the streets of the town provided an outlet for joyous darshan.”

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Funding Information

The American Federation of Arts has received $261,263 in grants from NEH to produce “The Sensuous and the Sacred” with accompanying catalog, website, public programs, and curricular materials.