Nataraja is a depiction of the Hindu God Shiva as the cosmic dancer who performs his divine dance (called Tandavam) to destroy a weary universe and prepare for its renewal, by the god Brahma who starts the process of creation. The two most common forms of Shiva’s dance are the Lasya (the gentle form of dance), associated with the creation of the world, and the Tandava (the violent and dangerous dance), associated with the destruction of weary worldviews – weary perspectives and lifestyles. In essence, the Lasya and the Tandava are just two aspects of Shiva’s nature; for he destroys in order to create, tearing down to build again. (Wikipedia)
The Nataraja dances within the universe of illusion. The locks of his hair stand out in many strands as he whirls around in his dancing frenzy. His locks are decked with a crescent moon, a skull, and are interspersed with the sacred river Ganges.
The fiery ring surrounding Shiva, prahabhamandala, represents the universe with all its illusion, suffering and pain. The outer edge is fire the inner edge the waters of the oceans.
The goddess of the Ganges is here shown nesting in Shiva’s dreadlocks. The river Ganges that flows in Nataraja’s hair originally flowed in heaven. When the heavenly Ganges was needed on earth, she was unwilling to fall to earth because she realized that her fall from heaven would be too much for the earth to withstand. Shiva as Nataraja agreed to break the violent power of the sacred Ganga’s fall by catching her in his tangled hair, breaking the fall with his hair on its way to the Himalayas and Northern India.
The crescent moon in his matted hair keeps Kama, the god of nightly love, alive. Through the waxing and the waning of the moon, Shiva creates different seasons and rejuvenates life.
Nataraja wears a snake coiled around his upper arms and neck symbolizing the power he has over the most deadly of creatures. Snakes are also used to symbolize the Hindu dogma of reincarnation. Their natural process of molting or shedding their skin is symbolic of the human souls transmigration of bodies from one life to another.
In the back right hand Shiva often holds an hourglass shaped drum or damaru. The drum represents the rhythmic sound to which Nataraja dances and ceaselessly recreates the universe. The front right hand is in the abhaya-mudra (the “fear not” gesture, made by holding the palm outward with fingers pointing up). (Chicago Art Institute)