Shiva Nataraja, 13th century
Overall: 29 1/4 × 21 × 9 in. (74.3 × 53.3 × 22.9 cm)
Gift of Carol and Robert Straus

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

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.

Curriculum Objectives

  • Describe how individuals, events, and ideas have changed communities past and present

  • Explain the significance of cultural celebrations in local community

  • Create brief compositions that establish a central idea

  • Explain the communal significance of artists and their cultural heritage

  • Express ideas orally based on knowledge and experience






Social Studies


Develop Grit

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.


  • Look closely at this sculpture; it is a detailed work of art with complex symbolic imagery. Scan it from top to bottom, noting any details that stand out to you as particularly intriguing or noteworthy. How would you describe this object?
  • This is a sculpture of Shiva, a very important Hindu deity. What visual evidence has the artist provided to clue us into Shiva’s exalted status?
  • Shiva is sometimes referred to as King of the Dance. Observe the way this artist has depicted him, especially his pose and dress. How would you characterize this dance? Do you feel motion or stillness; peace or chaos?
  • Consider Shiva’s pose, and the position of his many limbs. How are his legs and front-facing arms arranged? If his limbs were arranged differently—for example, outstretched and evenly spaced—would the sculpture have a different tone?
  • Imagine the balance necessary to strike such a pose. Would this be a difficult pose to strike?
  • Look closely at Shiva’s expression. What emotions or thoughts does it seem to communicate?
  • How would you characterize the materials used in this sculpture? Look closely at the surface of the material, as well as the fine details and the complex structure. How might the sculpture feel different if it was made out of another material, like rough stone or transparent glass?


  • Like many religious sculptures from the Chola period, this sculpture is in fact a symbol of Shiva, containing visual clues for the deity’s strengths and attributes. In Shiva’s outstretched left hand, he holds a flame. What might flame represent? What associations do you have with that element?
  • In his rightmost hand, Shiva holds a small drum. Why might he be holding a drum? What contexts do drums usually appear in, in your experience? Can you think of any symbolic meaning the drum may hold in this context?
  • Shiva’s lower right hand is outstretched towards the viewer, with its palm open. Look closely at this gesture; try copying it with your own hand. What might it symbolize?
  • Look at Shiva’s pedestal. The deity is standing on a small demon, crushing it beneath his feet. What might that symbolize?
  • Consider all of the imagery together. Taking all of these separate symbols into account, how would you summarize Shiva’s powers and attributes? What might the deity represent? How did this artist communicate those powers through the sculpture?


  • 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.

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