Shiva Nataraja
Overall: 29 1/4 × 21 × 9 in. (74.3 × 53.3 × 22.9 cm)

Habits of Mind

  • DEVELOP GRIT Develop endurance / grit / desire to rework ideas / open to a range of ideas and solutions/ possess self-discipline and self-confidence


3, 4, 5


Social Studies

Shiva, King of the Dance

Discussion through works of art encourage how to approach ambiguous and complex ideas, thoughts, and feelings. The MFAH offers a democratic space where students and teachers can develop, practice and articulate these habits of mind. Remember that the quality of the conversation is what is important, not finding the artist’s “answer.” Slow down and take the time to make careful observations. Talk about what you notice, and try to avoid jumping to conclusions and interpretations. Be sure to give enough time for silent looking and thinking.

Connecting to the Work of Art

The artist who created this bronze Shiva is unknown. Many bronzes depicting Shiva Nataraja were produced in South India during the Chola Dynasty (880–1279). The Chola rulers were great patrons of the arts and were deeply devoted to Shiva as Lord of the Dance.  Chola period sculptures conform to iconographic conventions, so sculptures from different centuries can look similar. Artists followed guidelines that determined size and proportions according to the deity’s hierarchical importance. As a result, the artist’s use of symbols and the intricacy and quality of craftsmanship are more important than originality.

Shiva, god of time, destruction, and creation, is the most popular and dramatic of the Hindu deities.One of Shiva’s many names and guises is the evocative Shiva Nataraja, Lord of dance and cosmic movement. The image of Shiva Nataraja gives concrete expression to the Hindu idea of endless motion and change in the physical world. Shiva dances the eternal, ceaseless energy of the cosmos, setting forth all movement and change, creation and destruction.

Shiva’s multiple arms suggest protection over the worshiper. In his upper right hand, he holds an hourglass-shaped drum that beats the rhythm of his dance. The drum represents sound, a vehicle of speech, divine truth, and revelation. The beating drum also conveys the sound of resonating space at the dawn of creation, a symbol of life. In Shiva’s upper left hand burns a flame, an element that destroys the world in Indian mythology. Life and death exist side by side in Shiva’s paradoxical nature.

In the “fear not” mudra (gesture) of reassurance, Shiva bestows protection and peace with his second right hand, while his lower left hand points to his uplifted leg. Shiva’s elevated leg, imitating an elephant’s trunk, represents his elephant-son Ganesha, who is “remover of obstacles.” Shiva Nataraja dances atop a dwarf demon, Apasmars Purusa, the embodiment of human ignorance and forgetfulness. As Shiva sets all life in motion with his dance, he assures people that once ignorance is stamped out, so will the pain of life, death, and rebirth. Shiva Nataraja shows his followers that an ever-changing world provides a path for peace.

Representing eternal energy, Shiva Nataraja’s flying arms and legs, swaying torso, and stamping feet depict the cycle of creation and destruction in the universe. The dramatic movement of his body contrasts his balanced head and immobile, masklike countenance, which signifies the peace the deity brings. In a single pose, Shiva resolves opposite forces, simultaneously transmitting eternal motion and complete serenity. Intricate jewelry and body ornaments emphasize Shiva’s smooth form. Dynamic and elegant, bronze was a material that defined the aesthetic of South India.

This sculpture is an outstanding example of Indian bronze casting produced with the “lost wax” process.The complete image was first molded in wax and attached to a series of wax tubes to provide venting. The wax sculpture was then coated with clay mixed with ground charred husks, cotton, and salt. Three coatings of clay were applied, with the outer coating the thickest. The clay mold was then heated, to allow the wax to melt out. A perfect mold of the original wax sculpture remained after heating. Next, molten bronze was poured into the clay mold through the space created by the inserted tubes. When the metal cooled, the clay mold was broken away. After the tubes were cut off, the bronze sculpture’s surface was cleaned.

A statue of Shiva Nataraja would have resided in a temple to be used for individual devotion, rituals, or festivals, or placed in a shrine in a private home for protection and good luck. Decorated with resplendent costumes, jewelry, and flower garlands, this statue of Shiva would have been carried in public processions on wooden poles inserted through the holes in its base.


  • Describe this object as though you were talking to someone who has never seen it. What is the subject matter? What is it made of?

  • This sculpture depicts Shiva Nataraja, an important Hindu god. What is Shiva’s body doing? How would you describe this activity?

  • As Shiva performs his dance of ecstasy, he enters a state of total peace and serenity.How would you describe Shiva´s expression?

  • This sculpture exemplifies the skill of Indian artists in the complicated process of lost-wax bronze casting. The shape and details, such as the jewelry and body ornaments seen here, were first modeled in wax. Next, the artists attached a series of tubes to this wax statue and covered it in layers of clay. The clay mold was then heated, so that the wax melted out. The artists then poured molten bronze into the clay mold through the space created by the inserted tubes. When this metal cooled, they broke away the clay molds and cut the tubes off. In the final step, the artists smoothed and cleaned the sculpture. How would you describe the surface of this sculpture?

  • What other objects do you notice are included?


  • Let’s unpack some of the symbols we’ve described.What might the drum in the right hand mean? In his upper hand he holds an hourglass-shaped drum that beats the rhythm of his dance. The drum also represents the sound of speech and the sound of life at the beginning of creation.

  • What about the flame?What associations do you have with fire? The flame burning in Shiva´s upper left hand is an element that destroys the world. The presence of this powerful force illustrates how destruction and creation exist side by side in Shiva´s paradoxical nature.

  • Shiva’s gestures also carry significance. Notice the open palm facing you. Shiva bestows protection and peace with his lower right hand in the "fear not" mudra (gesture) of reassurance. The front left hand points to the raised left foot, a source of salvation. What gestures might you use to indicate peace?

  • Let’s talk about what the Shiva is dancing on.What if I told you this was a dwarf demon representing human ignorance and forgetfulness? What might that mean?

  • We’ve discussed the symbols in the sculpture representing creation, destruction, reassurance and salvation. Now let’s consider Shiva’s dance in relation to these symbols.

  • Shiva´s dynamic arms, swaying torso, and raised leg depict the Hindu idea of endless motion and change in the physical world. Are there ideas or experiences that are impossible to articulate verbally?

Connecting to the Classroom

  • Once the students begin discussion, lead them into the idea that parts of the sculpture are meant to be in motion and the other parts of the sculpture are static. What does this make you think about? How does that represent life? How is it similar to the life around us?

  • This is Shiva Natajara, known as the King of Dance. Does knowing that change the way you see the sculpture? How does dance affect different cultures? Why do you think dance plays an important role in cultures around the world? What about in your culture?

  • Life and death play an important role in understanding this sculpture. The tranquility of the Shiva represents a path towards peace and overcoming the trials of life. In small groups or with a partner, discuss something in your life that you had to overcome and describe how you succeeded.

  • Many people look to a treasured person, pet or object to pick them up when they are down. In your journal describe someone or something in your life that you look to in order to overcome your personal struggles.


  • Dance plays an important role in many cultures. How does dance play a part in your culture? Research the various ways in which dance functions in cultures. Create a poster board or write a paper about this importance.

  • Write a brief composition about a time in your life that you needed to overcome something difficult. What was the situation and what things did you do or what steps did you take to be able to overcome that situation?

  • Create a dance, song, rap, poem, picture, sculpture, etc. that is based on ideas of life/death or the universe. How does it represent your point of view and how would you express your feelings about it? What lead you to your idea and how can you relate it to your life?

Subject Matter Connection

In the discipline of Social Studies, students need to be able to think conceptually and differentiate between which patterns and ideas are common across societies. Students need to be able to recognize those ideas— whether economic, social, and political—that are not bound by time and place, and how a group’s perspective may affect the historical interpretation of those ideas and principles.

Resources Available to Order

The Learning Through Art program is endowed by Melvyn and Cyvia Wolff.

The Learning Through Art curriculum website is made possible in part by a grant from the Institute of Museum and Library Services.

All Learning and Interpretation programs at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, receive endowment income from funds provided by the Louise Jarrett Moran Bequest; Caroline Wiess Law; the William Randolph Hearst Foundation; The National Endowment for the Humanities; the Fondren Foundation; BMC Software, Inc.; the Wallace Foundation; the Neal Myers and Ken Black Children’s Art Fund; the Favrot Fund; and Gifts in honor of Beth Schneider.