figures from the temple cars of South India
Text and photos:
Dr. Susil Pani, Pondicherry
This article appeared in narthaki.com, November 11, 2008. Reproduced here with permission
It is known that all the classical
Indian dance forms have evolved from Natyashastra, the treatise supposed
to have been written by sage Bharata. There are lot of evidences in the
form of postures and inscriptions in temples all over the Indian subcontinent.
The present study deals with the dancing figures seen in the temple cars
of South India. The present day temple cars are made from wood which decays
over a period of time. The temple cars are a big source of images telling
stories from Ramayana, Mahabharata, Puranas, Vedas, Upanishads, and other
scriptures. There are presently more than nine hundred temple cars in Tamilnadu
and Pondicherry. As it is not possible to cover all of them, only a representative
sample is taken for the study to include cars from Pondicherry, Thiruvannamalai,
Chidambaram, Kumbakonam, Nagapattinam, Avinashi, and Milam. The present
study has been broadly classified into dancing figures relating to Shiva,
Vishnu, Shakthi and others.
General view of a temple car
Dalamalika & Dwarapala
Shiva Nataraja: The Cosmic Dancer
Shiva as Nataraja is the cosmic
dancer. He is the master and source of all the dance forms. He is also
the source of all art forms - dance, music, drama, etc… Shiva as Nataraja
taught all the art forms to Bharata muni, the rishi from Bharat Desh (the
land of Bharata). Bharata muni is considered to be a rishi of the Vedic
era. Some consider that Bharata muni refers to a number of rishis of the
Vedic time. It is said that Lord Shiva instructed Bharata muni to write
the Natyashastra. It is considered as the fifth Veda after the Rig Veda,
Sama Veda, Atharva Veda and Yajur Veda. Natyashastra literary means natya
and shastra. Natya includes all art forms including dance, drama, music
etc, shastra means the knowledge or codification and rules and regulations
to be followed for the performance of Natya.
Most of the Shiva temples in south
India have a separate shrine for Nataraja inside their temple premises.
A separate hall called Nata mandapam is present next to the Nataraja shrine
for the dance presentations. The temple of Chidambaram has Lord Nataraja
as the main deity instead of the usual Shiva lingam.
Shiva is considered to have started
all the one hundred and eight tandavas. These are presented as one hundred
and eight Karanas. These are present in some of the temples including the
Brihadeeswara temple of Tanjore and the gopurams of the Nataraja temple
of Chidambaram. In the temple cars, the most common and most popular presentations
are the Ananda Tandava, Rudra Tandava, Urdhava Tandava and Chatura Tandava.
Ananda tandava is the Dance
of Bliss by Nataraja and forms the most common Tandava. Shiva in this form
is four handed. The right hand in front is in Abhaya mudra while the backhand
holds the damaru. The left hand in front usually is in Gajahasta and the
back hand holds the Agni. The left leg is raised in kunchita pose and the
right leg is firmly placed on the demon Apasmara. Shiva has a quiet,
smiling but serene face. Behind Shiva, one may see many flying Vidyadharas.
In some panels, one can see Goddess Parvati as Shivagamasundari next to
Lord Shiva. In the Dance of Bliss, Shiva is self contained. He is the source
of all creation, vibration and movement. The damaru represents this source.
The right hand in Abhaya mudra, presents blessings by the Lord, hence the
protection provided by him for the sustenance and maintenance of life.
The back hand holding Agni or fire destroys the old so that the new can
be created. The right leg is firmly placed on Apasmara - which shows the
lord having full control over the ego and all the sense organs. The raised
leg is the final path for salvation or moksha. The Lord delivers his devotees
from the illusion or maya of the outer senses and ego to realize the truth
and unite with the 'Divine.'
Shiva in Urdhava tandava
The Urdhava tandava
Shiva as Urdhava Tandavamurti is
very popular in the temple cars. It is usually presented in a panel of
images to include other gods and goddess. The story behind the panel presentation
is that long time ago, there was a great debate among the devotees of Lord
Shiva and Parvati as to who was a greater dancer. Hence to resolve the
issue a great competition was held between Lord Shiva and Goddess Parvati.
Other gods are seen to accompany this great event. Nandi is seen playing
the mridangam, Vishnu playing the cymbals, Saraswathi playing the veena,
Ganapati playing the tanpura and Brahma either playing a stringed instrument
or sitting as a judge. In the same panel, Parvati is seen in her Kali form,
in a fierce dancing posture. It is said that she could excel Lord Shiva
in all the tandavas. In the end, Shiva does Urdhava tandava. Urdha literally
means raised up; in this tandava, Shiva is seen to raise his right leg
vertically up with the foot of the leg facing the sky. This image of Shiva
is called Urdha Tandavamurti. He plays the damaru with two hands in front.
In some panels, the left leg is shown raised up; in one rare panel there
are two images of Lord Shiva one with right leg raised and another with
left leg raised placed side by side. Lord Shiva is seen with four arms
but sometimes with eight arms. Two hands play the damaru and other two
hands are in Suchi mudra.
Kali is seen with eight or ten hands
holding many arms in the same panel in a dancing posture. In some she is
seen accepting her Lord's supremacy as she is not willing to raise her
legs in the presence of men. In some she is seen below the image of Lord
Shiva with folded hands; sometimes she is seen angry and dismayed and feels
that Lord Shiva has tricked her as he is aware that she would not attempt
such a movement in front of men.
It is also an indication that women
in general should not attempt such extreme movement during dance presentation
while men are allowed to do so. In fact this type of tandava forms a main
dance item for the Mayurbhanj Chhau, Manipuri dance and some of the traditional
martial art dances from Kerala and Tamilnadu.
Brahma, Vishnu, Nandi and others
in Urdha tandava panel
Nandi is the vahana of Shiva - Parvati
as seen in the Urdha tandava panel playing the mridangam - a drum. He is
seen in zoomorphic form of having a human body with a bull's face, one
hand ready to strike the mridangam. He is also called as Nandikeswara -
Nandi with the power of Eswara (Lord Shiva). Nandikeswara is also the name
of the third century Indian author of the treatise Abhinayadarpana which
deals in great detail, the shastra of abhinaya. Even till date, this is
faithfully followed by all the classical Indian dancers for performing
Lord Brahma is seen sometimes with
three faces (the front one hidden) either playing some musical instrument
or seated on a lotus as a judge. Most of them have Goddess Saraswathi seated
next to him, seated on a lotus playing the veena. Lord Vishnu is seen to
be playing the cymbal or flute and supposed to maintain the tala of the
dance duel. Ganapati is seen sometimes playing some musical instrument
in the same panel.
Dancer between 2 yalis
Brahma playing the gini
It is said that the genesis of Ardhanariswara
form of Lord Shiva and Parvati is the form of the Urdha tandavamurthi.
At the end of the duel, Shiva and Parvati merge together to form Ardhanariswara.
In this form, the right half is that of Shiva and the left half is that
of Parvati. It declares that both are not separate but One. Shiva and Parvati
do not exist separately but as one consciousness. Shiva is the purusha
and Parvati is prakriti. While Shiva is the source, Parvati as Shakthi
is the force for all action. Hence both Shiva and Parvati need to be present
for all action, movement, vibration etc.
6 handed Shiva Nataraja in Chatura
Probably Sadashiva with 5 heads
and 10 arms in dancing posture
There is an exclusive panel of Shiva
tandava in the temple car of Villianur Shiva temple at Puducherry. In this
panel, Shiva is showing not only his Ananda tandava and Urdha tandava but
also his Chatura tandava. Shiva is seen as Sadashiva with five heads and
ten arms in a classic chouka posture in Chatura Tandavamurthi. He is seen
as eight handed Shiva in Urdha Tandavamurthi in the centre of the panel
and four handed Ananda Tandavamurthi. Nandi is seen to play the mridangam,
Saraswathi the veena, and Vishnu the gini (tiny cymbals).
Shiva in other dance forms
Gajasura Samhara Murti
In this image, Lord Shiva is seen
to dance on the head of the elephant headed demon called Gajasura. He is
supposed to have cut open the body of the elephant demon and danced on
his head. He is with eight arms with four arms holding open the elephant's
stomach, one hand holding the damaru, another holding agni and his torso
in extreme tribhanga with one leg bent up at the hip and bent at the knee
and the other leg firmly placed on the head of the asura. Goddess Parvati
is seen on the side holding a child.
Gajasura Samhara Murti
Shiva gana playing mridangam
The Shiva ganas and bhoota ganas
are the devotees of Lord Shiva and hence are depicted in dance posture
in the temple cars. In one image, a beautiful Shiva gana is seen seated
with a mridangam on his lap, the right hand striking the drum and the left
hand with a stick about to strike the other side. Some of the Shiva ganas
are seen to play the drum, blow the trumpet, or play a stringed instrument.
They are sometimes four handed.
Rare forms of Shiva
In a rare panel presentation Lord
Shiva is shown in six different dancing postures.
In the first figure he is wearing
the decorated mukuta and blowing a trumpet. The snake is around his neck.
He is wearing a diamond necklace; the left hand is in posture, on his left
is seated a Shiva gana with a knife and mace. Shiva is seated and the legs
are bent, a lion cub at his right foot and a lady on the left foot.
The second figure shows the Lord
with a sword and a shield in standing posture. He wears a mukuta decked
with ornaments and appears to do a war dance, with the snake draped around
In the third figure, Lord Shiva is
four handed, on a mythological animal (similar to makara) holding the snake
and shield in the left hand and sword and animal's mouth in the right hand.
He is seen to squat firmly on the yali.
In the fourth figure, he is seen
with a serene face, the snake around the neck, and two flying Vidyadharas
on his two back hands, the two front hands relaxed on the sides. The Lord
is seen resting on the right toes and left knee.
The fifth posture of Lord Shiva is
similar to the Narasimha avatar of Lord Vishnu. He has a lion's face with
the sword and shield in the back hands and a knife in the right front hand
and the left hand holding the snake.
In the last figure on the panel,
Lord Shiva appears to do a dance with the mace in two hands. He is decorated
with a mukuta, necklaces and decoration of beaded bridle around the waist
and the upper thighs and a dagger firmly placed on the right thigh, the
snake around the neck.
The entire panel of the six images
of the Lord was done by the artist depicting many aspects of
Being the son of Lord Shiva and Parvati,
Lord Ganesha is a master of dance. He is presented as dancing Ganesha and
called as Nritta Ganapati or Nadana Ganesha or Aadum Pillayar in Tamil.
In this form, he may have eight hands bearing the elephant goad, cakes,
noose, an axe, tusk, a quoit called valaya and a ring. One hand in dancing
pose, the legs are bent in Kunchita pose. Most of these figures are solitary
and independent. In some rare forms, he is presented as 'Pancha Mukha Nadana
Ganapati.' Here he has five faces and at the same time, is in dancing posture.
Rarely is he present in the Urdha Tandava panel playing some musical instrument.
In many of the dance presentations, Lord Ganesha is invoked by the Ganesha
Vandana, some specific tandavas are performed called Ganesha Tandava.
Dance poses of Vishnu
Balamurali Krishna: Lord Vishnu
is seen in many dancing poses in this Krishna avatar. He is seen as Balamurali
Krishna, playing the flute and enchanting the cows, gopis and the cowherd
boys. Hence he is seen in beautiful tribhanga posture, standing and playing
the murali (flute) while the calf, cows and others are surrounding him.
As Muralidara, Lord Krishna is seen to play the murali under the Kadamba
tree, drawing the gopis to him by his melodious music from his flute. In
some panels, Krishna is seen along with Radha, both in dancing posture,
while Krishna plays the flute.
Lord Krishna is said to have jumped
into the depths of river Yamuna to teach a lesson to Kalia, the great arrogant
serpent king. He is seen to dance on the hood of the serpent Kalia, while
holding the tail in the left hand. The right leg is firmly placed on the
head of the serpent. The left leg is slightly bent, the body in classic
tribhanga posture, the right hand in Abhaya hasta, blessing all those who
seek his protection. Two Nagakanyas with folded hands are seen on his side,
praying to the lord to spare the life of Kalia. Krishna destroys
all the dark forces of ego represented by the black serpent Kalia and on
surrender to him, he delivers and shows the path to the 'Divine.'
In many of these temple cars, the
devotees are shown dancing, like a dancing sadhu with a beard holding a
chouli in each hand .The chouli bearer and dwarapalas are also shown in
classic tribhanga postures.
Male chouli bearer dancing
lady playing the lute
Almost all temple cars have figures
of lute players. They are usually ladies standing in tribhanga with one
leg across the other, holding a stringed instrument and playing it with
both the hands. It could be a tanpura or veena.
Saraswati playing veena
Ganga Devi on makara
Parvathi as Kali
Kali in her fierce dance
Saraswathi, Ganga and Parvati
Saraswathi is usually seen to be
seated either on a raised platform or on a lotus. She is seen to play the
tanpura or the veena. She is sometimes presented along with Brahma in the
Urdhava tandava panel, otherwise independently. Her back hand may hold
a lotus or in Abhaya hasta and a scroll. Ganga Devi is usually presented
to be riding the mythological yali like figure called Makara. She is in
tribhanga and playing the veena. She is usually decorated with necklaces
around her waist and neck. Sometimes she is presented as descending, dancing
finely on the locks of hair of Lord Shiva in his Gangadharamurthi avatar.
In this independent panel, a Devi (mostly goddess Parvati) is seen in classic
chouka posture with the hands joined together about to rise together. I
have not included panels of 'Dasavatar' which is a very popular item of
Odissi dance. Invariably the temple cars of Vishnu have a panel devoted
to the ten incarnations of Lord Vishnu - the Dasavatar panel. The stories
from Ramayana, Mahabharata, Puranas etc., are presented as dance items
in all the Indian classical dances like Ashtanayaki, Sita Swayamvaram,
Rama killing Ravana, Suryastaka, Asthasambhu to name only a few. These
are also presented in the panels of the temple cars but will be out of
scope of this short presentation.
Dr. Susil Pani is an eye doctor
from the state of Orissa, now settled in the city of Puducherry. He comes
from a very illustrious family, his father being late Dr. Raghunath Pani
who was an educationist, writer, dramatist, composer, and musician - both
Carnatic Veena and Hindustani vocal singer. Dr. Susil Pani has been interested
in photography from his college days and has been taking pictures on a
variety of subjects. His interests include: Indian classical dance forms,
temple cars, temples, stage photography, nature, etc. He has already presented
the following in solo photo exhibits: Indian classical and folk dances,
spiritual significance of flowers, chariots of god: temple cars, general
photography. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org
Stapati Guru Sri Rajamani and Mr.
Bhuvansundaram: The Rathakaras
Prof. Vijay Venugopal: French Institute
Prof. Raju Kali Doss: Temple cars
Sangeeta Dash: Director Meera Dance