Sunday, March 20, 2011

The Divine Dancer & The Royal Dancer

--Where Lord Nataraja Changed His Dancing Posture

Lord Mahadeva, in the pose of the Cosmic Dancer, is called Nataraja. The concept of Nataraja is a unique contribution of Indian thought to world culture. It is learnt that no other culture of the world has visualized the cosmic creation in its unending rhythmic cycle of creation, sustenance, dissolution, concealment and bestowal of grace
[The Pancha Kritya as Vedanta calls it] as the Indian culture has in the image of Shiva as the Cosmic Dancer.

It was the late art historian, Ananda Coomaraswamy [popular as the Boston Brahmin] who coined the now famous adage of ‘The Cosmic Dance of Shiva’ in the 1920s to describe the Nataraja imagery. According to this concept, Shiva with swirling locks dances over the dwarf demon of ignorance, Apasmara, under the right foot, with the left leg extended and with flayed arms holding the drum and fire to signify creation and destruction respectively, surrounded by a ring of perpetual fire symbolizing cosmic cycles. Fritjof Capra in his book ‘Tao of Physics’ wrote that ‘for modern physicists, Shiva’s dance is the dance of subatomic particles’. So popular has been the concept of Nataraja that the Time Magazine from America had the picture of Nataraja on its cover in the 90s. Nataraja has been appropriated as the logo of the London-based Global Environment Movement [GAEA]

When one thinks of the Tandava Nritya of Lord Shiva, one is automatically reminded of the Nataraja Temple in Chidambaram. But there are other places in India where Shiva chose to dance the CosmicDance. For example, Madurai is one such place where Shiva performed the ‘Urdhva Tandava’. Shiva has a penchant for dancing and has sometime chosen the burning ghat as a dance stage, evening as the time to dance as in ‘Sandhya Thandava’. The main purpose of dance is to show his own rejoicing in victory when good overcomes evil.

The Meenakshi Temple at Madurai is one of the 51 Shakti Peethas and is hailed as the seat of Budha, Mercury. It is one of the Pancha Sabhas or Five Halls, of Lord Nataraja and is celebrated as the Rajatha Sabha [Silver canopied ] where Lord Shiva performed his mighty Tandava Nritya for the sake of his devotees Maharshi Patanjali and Sage Vyaghrapada at the time of his wedding with Goddess Meenakshi. It is said that Devi Shakti had incarnated Herself as a Pandyan princess and married Lord Shiva.

The performance of Urdhva Thandava by Lord Shiva in the Rajatha Sabha of the Meenakshi Temple has some special features. It is here that Devi accepted defeat in a dance competition with her husband and Shiva was crowned ‘Nataraja’—The King of Dance. Normally, Nataraja is portrayed with his left leg raised but in Madurai he performs a rare type of dance with his right leg raised straight up so that it almost touches his right ear while the left foot stands on earth. The Lord performed this type of dance under the Silver Canopy [Rajatha Sabha], the same awning as on the Holy wedding Day years ago. This deviation, it is said, was to oblige a Pandyan King who was a great devotee of Lord Shiva. This is how it happened according to an interesting local legend [Sthala Purana].

When Madurai was ruled by the Pandyan Kings, there was a ruler by name Rajashekara Pandyan who was a great devotee of Lord Shiva. He was a highly qualified king having mastered 63 arts out of the well-known 64 Arts, called ‘Chatushasthi Kalas’ in Sanskrit. The one subject which he omitted learning was Dance as he thought it was only a feminine art and not a fit subject for men to learn. One fine day when he was ruling the Royal Court, an old man entered the Royal Hall and teased the king that his neighbor, a Chola King, had learnt all the 64 Arts and had established superiority and had earned the title ‘Sarva Vidya Parangata’. Piqued at this comparative exposure, Rajashekhara felt humiliated and made up his mind to learn dancing. However, on second thoughts he felt that he was too old to learn dancing and expressed his apprehension to the old man about his inability to learn dancing. The old man [Who it is learnt was Lord Shiva Himself in the garb of an old man] ridiculed his idea and told the king that he himself would teach dance in such a way that the king should find it easy to learn. So, the dancing class started well and progressed. Within a short time, the king learnt all the basics of dancing. Thereafter it was only a matter of constant and rigid practice and there was no need for the teacher.

The teacher had taught him one particular type of dance called ‘Koothu’ which required hard and continuous practice because it involved gyration with only one foot on the ground. One day while the going was tough and painful, Rajashekhara remembered Nataraja. It occurred to him that while he found it painful to perform the dance with only one foot on the ground, that too only for a few minutes, how much more painful it should have been to his Lord Shiva who has been standing only on one foot for ages. He thought he should do something to ease the pain of his Lord. He therefore decided to go to the Rajatha Sabha of the Meenakshi Temple and make an earnest and humble appeal to the Lord to interchange the posture.

On one Shivaratri night he emboldened to go to the Meenakshi Temple. After performing several poojas to the Lord, he strode to the Rajatha Sabha, stood before Lord Nataraja and submitted ‘Oh Lord! If you do not change the posture now, tonight, before my eyes and if you do not put your waiving foot down and throw your painful standing foot up, I shall perish. I shall throw myself upon this upturned sword’. So saying, he planted the royal sword of his, point up. As he prepared to leap forward to his death, the air was suddenly filled with divine music followed by clashing of cymbals and playing of celestial orchestra—all in symphony. Wonder of wonders! The Lord had changed His posture. The awe-struck king, wallowing in the grace showered upon him, now divinely mad with his achievement, made a fervent appeal “Oh Lord! Grant me this favour. From today onward, let your posture be like this for all future generations to see”. With tears of joy coming out of his eyes, Rajashekhara prostrated again and again.


ARTICLE NO. 399---Meenakshi Temple,Madurai--Where Lord Nataraja Changed his dancing posture.
Created: Friday, July 13, 2007


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