A major celestial event in the night sky about 1000 years ago gave birth to the concept of depicting Lord Siva as Nataraja, the Cosmic Dancer. According to senior archaeometallurgist and dance exponent Dr Sharada Srinivasan, ancient South Indians, who witnessed a supernova explosion in 1054 CE, had depicted Lord Siva as the Cosmic Dancer or Nataraja. They had also conceptualised the observations of the constellation Orion and its star Betelgueuse or Alpha Orionis to present a pictorial representation to the God of Destruction.
Dr Sharada and late astrophysicist Dr Nirupama Raghavan had conducted a series of studies on the origin of Nataraja and his worship in various temples, particularly in Tamil Nadu. They based their findings on archaeometallurgy, a subject that deals with metals of yore, and archaeo-astronomy, the study of stars, constellations and galaxies as observed by our ancestors.
According to her, the notion of "cosmic dance" entered the human mind influenced by the developments in the sky. A close observation of the Orion constellation and its star Alpha Orionis conjures up the picture of a dancing lord, Nataraja. And she dates back the origin of the concept to the eleventh century, the period of the Chola kings, who patronised Nataraja idols in bronze.
"At one level, Chola bronzes represent an intensely visual culture of the activities of gods; of seeing and being seen as they were carried out in procession, followed by concealment in the sanctum. The art of processional bronzes emerged in the Tamil country, in the sixth to twelfth centuries, out of the creative foment of Bhakti worship when the saint-poets composed passionate hymns praising their chosen deities," she points out in an interview with this correspondent.
The interplay between duality, of microcosm and macrocosm, and of the reconciliation of opposites seems to also be brilliantly captured in Chola bronzes. The superbly crafted eleventh century Ardhanariswara in Chennai’s Government Museum epitomises the complementarity of the male and female halves of Siva. Saiva Siddhanta ritual associated with Chola temple worship itself oscillated between the intimate communion with the pillar-like stone lingam representing Siva within the sanctum, and the public processional worship of metal deities such as the dancing Siva outside the sanctum during festivals.
According to Dr Sharada, the repertoire of the contemporary ‘classical’ dance form of Bharata Natyam, reconstituted from the wreckage of the abolished devadasi temple dance tradition of sadir, similarly oscillates between the inner space of abhinaya (expressive dance) and the outer space of an impersonal, geometric rendering of pure dance.
"Arudra/Ardra darisanam is a 10-day annual festival in Chidambaram in December related to the moon being full in the lunar asterism of the naksatra ardra (the reddish star Alpha Orionis), associated with the wrathful aspect of Siva. The constellation of Orion and surrounding stars is bathed in the soft glow of the full moon when it is high in the sky at Chidambaram. A thousand years ago, devoid of the present smog and light flares, the stars must have been even brighter in the tropical night sky," she explains.
Another annual festival at Chidambaram, the Brahmotsavam of Ani Thirumanjanam, which is related to the lunar asterism of Uttara Nakshatra around June-July, seems to have begun in the mid-eleventh century from inscription.
The Indian zodiac of 360 degrees is divided into 27 parts based on the moon’s sidereal period such that a nakshatra denotes the longitudinal position of the moon within 13 degrees 20 minutes. "Thus, by using astronomical software, Dr Nirupama Raghavan could ascertain that in 1054 AD the moon would have been full in Uttara Nakshatra on July 11.
This is uncannily close to the date that Chinese astronomers
recorded the crab supernova explosion of July 4! Although this is a preliminary finding, it could suggest a perceived metaphoric link between an observed cosmic phenomenon and notions of cosmic dance," Dr Sharada said supporting her thesis.
Indeed, a drawing from a Tamil manuscript sourced by Raja Deekshitar of Chidambaram shows how the Nataraja icon itself was probably traditionally visualised within the stars around Orion.
Moreover, the star chart for 1054 CE fitted well the iconometric design of a Nataraja image from Kankoduvanitham archaeometallurgically fingerprinted to the mid-11th century CE. "In the image, the hypothetical position of the crab supernova which exploded in 1054 CE lies near the top left of the head, close to the crescent moon. Chinese records suggest that the crab supernova came into view with a morning
crescent moon near it and was visible for 23 days, being four times as bright as Venus. Even American Indians are believed to have made cave paintings of a supernova with a crescent moon," she said.
I have posted as a separate blog posts the other two write ups on the orion system!