The festival of Dancing Siva
(Nataraja and Kalamukhas)
DR. R. Nagaswamy

A festival, mentioned in one of the temple digests1 of Tamilnad, seems to indicate a connection between the Kalamukha concept and Nataraja image. It would be interesting to note the festival first, before the significance of the same is studied.

The Festival of Black-paste: Krshna-gandha-utsava

The image of Nrittamurti with his consort is brought to the Asthana mandapaaudience hall of the temple on the 8th day of the festival. In the later half of the night,raksha (protective thread),is fastened to both the images of Nataraja and Sivakami and then the images are decorated with beautiful garments, jewels, and flower garlands and taken out in procession around the temple and finally placed in the mandapa. In its presence, vinoda - dance is performed.

On the next day, some rites are performed during day time. In the evening two seats onw over hte other with paddy and rice are placed in front of them with a lotus design drawn on them. Black agaru (fragrant) paste is placed in a receptacle on that seat. A series of rituals are performed beginning with Vighnesvara puja (worship of Ganesa), followed by recitation of punyaha (chanting of auspicious day). A Santi kumbha (pot with the chanting of Santi) is placed and invocation of peace-Santi, is recited. This is followed by preparation of a fire altar and offering of different materials in fire, invoking Mahesvara in it.

The black-paste is now mixed with sandal and other fragrant material and a special worship is offered to it. This worship of black - paste is akin to the worship of images. It is offered seats, dhupa, dipa, neivedya etc., after invoking in them, the Panca Brahmams (Tatpurusha, Aghora, Sadyojata,Vamadeva and Isana are the Panca Brahmams) the shadangas( the six limbs of the body). Homa is also performed in the fire. After these pujas are over, the receptacle with the black paste is taken around the temple in procession to the accompaniment of Vedic chant, music and dance and later brought into the sanctum. The black-paste is smeared on the main Linga.

Then the paste is brought to the mandapa and placed in front of the Nataraja and Sivakami images. Again a special invocation is made to the black -paste. The images of Nataraja and Sivakami are invoked with dhyana slokas meditative verses, and then the black-paste is smeared over the forehead of Nataraja, with the Aghora hymn. Then the same is applied to tuft, hands, and all other parts of the body, chanting the Sadyojata hymn. It is also applied to the images of Goddesses, on the forehead and the neck with Vamadeva hymn. The black-paste is then applied to other images as well.

Once the black-paste is applied to all the images, the Acarya, the worshipping priests, the devotees and the dancers are presented the black-paste to wear it on their foreheads and other parts of the body. The Nataraja and Sivakami are then properly decorated and placed on a Ratna-simhasana (jewelled seat) and taken out in procession. The Acarya is seated to the right of the deity. The King proceeds to the left in front of the image. The musicians, dancing girls, and other dancers divide themselves into two groups, one on either side of the images and proceed singing and dancing with their musical instruments. They proceed upto seven houses sapta grha paryantam natitva, and then return to the temple.

On return to the temple, the images are placed in the mandapa. The black-paste is wiped out, a ritual bath is given and then another paste, this time white, is made from karpura, sandal and other fragrant materials and applied to the images. The bronzes are decorated with fresh clothing and new floral garlands and a special puja performed. The images are again taken in procession to the front of the Gopura or the flag post with singing and dancing on either side of the deities . Then the images are brought back and placed in the mandapa and the rest of the night spent in witnessing dance.

On the next morning the images of Nataraja and Sivakami are taken out in procession to the banks of the river and after due worship (as per Tirthavari), are brought in procession around the village and taken to the temple. A special pranaya kalaha, festival is conducted in front of the gopura and later the images are taken silently, inside, and then the festival is brought to an end by placing the images in their original position.

This extraordinary festival of applying black- paste, goes by the name "black-fragrant-festival" (krshna-gandha-utsava) and is performed in all temples to this day. Interestingly the festival is also called Nrtta-murti-utsava, "festival of dancing Siva".

Kriya-krama-dyotika of Aghora siva

The procedure to be adopted in conducting the Black-paste festival is found in the text, kriya- krama- tyotika by Aghora sivacarya. This text is most popular in Tamilnad and is followed by a large number of temples. It is also dated in the later Chola period in 1158 CE.2. The author gives the saka era of the composition of the text and furnishes good examples of festivals prevalent in later Chola period when the images of Siva Nataraja were very popular. The association of black-paste with Nataraja in this festival assumes significance. As has been mentioned earlier, the black-paste festival and the festival of Cosmic dancer are part of and identical with one and the same festival, according to the text

The festival was not a new introduction in the time of Aghora siva as he specifically states that he was only compiling the digest from the earlier texts. True to his statement he cites a large number of works that preceded him as authorities and these citations also set the lower limit to their dates. A large number of agamas and paddhati texts are thus cited by Aghora siva.The following among the texts mentioned by him deserve special attention. 1. Kamika-agama 2. Karana-agama 3. Kirana-agama 4. Makuta-agama 5. Cintya-agama 6. Suksma-agama 7. Candra-jnanottara-agama 8. Paramesvara- agama 9. Suprabheda-agama 10. Rauara-agama 11. Ajita-agama 12. Vira-agama 13. Yogaja-agama 14. Kalottara-agama

In addition Aghora siva refers to the following Paddhatis which can now be dated earlier than him (1158). Siddhanta-sara (is it identical with Isana-siva-gurudeva-paddhati?) Uttunga-siva-paddhati Soma-sambhu-paddhati and Isana-siva-gurudeva-paddhati

Other texts cited by Aghora siva are:- Sakalagama samgraha, Siddhanta-sekhara, Vidyesvara-samhita, Bhima-samhita, Santana-samhita, Mantra-bhashya, Agneya-tantra, Isvara-bhashya and so on.

Aghora-siva cites as many as nine agamic texts for the Nrttotsava alone3. The following are the texts he cites for the nrttotsava connected with the festival of black-paste.

Kamika, Karana, Cintya, Sukshma, Kirana, Makuta, Mantra-bhashya, Trikanta-sekhara and Bhima-samhita.

These citations show that the black-paste festival was common to most of the Agamic texts and consequently celeberated in most of the temples and was prevalent long before 11th cent. Aghora siva adds new information from each text by carefully selecting the citations and thus has done yeomen service to the history of religious faiths.

The Black-paste and its meaning

The Karanagama gives the process of preparing the black paste4and also the reason why the festival is conducted. Sandal paste and thick agaru paste should be mixed with Jaggry in proportion. The mixture should be placed in a brass vessel and heated up. A lid should be placed over the vessel and the smoke arising from the burnt mixture should be collected in the lid. This should be mixed with cow's ghee and made into the Black-paste for use in the festival.

This agama says that all living beings are covered with three kinds of impurities the anava (egoism), kanmam (past actions), andmaya (innate) and these are further classified into gross and subtle impurities. The gross impurity, mainly the egoistic impurity is placed at the feet of the guru while the other the subtle ones are placed at the feet of the Dancing God. The Black-paste represents the impurities weiling the living beings. Dancing Lord Siva removes the impurities. Siva performs the dance (Tandava) for protecting the world and he dances assuming the Aghora form. After the removal black-paste removed and the deity given ritual bath- snapana, the Nrtta-festival is conducted. The application of Black-paste and its removal are parts of the Nrtta festival and symbolize the removal of mala. The mala is ignorance out of which the impurities arise. The ignorance is like a demon and deserves to be wiped out and that is what the Lord does while dancing. The apasmara at the feet of the Lord personifies this ignorance. As the removal of ignorance is a terrific-ghora phenomenon, the Lord assumes the Aghora form. The Nrtta performed by Siva is called the Aghora dance. Worship is therefore performed to the south facing Aghora face of the mula Linga. The devotees will stand, looking into the southern face of Linga. The elimination of the black-paste itself is Nrtta says this Agama thus pointing out that processional festivals conducted in temples are based on philosophy. A point of interest is that Nataraja is called Nrtta-nayaka.

Sthulam sukshmam dividha proktam anavadi malam tridha 
Guroh padatalodhastad sthulam anava - samyutam   
Nrttesa-padamadhke malasuksmam iti smrtam

Aghora rupam   asthaya   sarva-loka-priyavaham 
Tandavam kurute  yasmat jagat-raksheti hetuna 
Aghora vigraham nrttam sannidheh kuru kardamam

Aghora varna siddhyarttham yaksha-kardama lepanam 
Kardamalepana tyagat tirtthtotsavam viseshatah 


The Kiranagama states that Siva's Aghora form is called Natyesa5 and so the festival is Nrttotsava. The application of black-paste symbolizes blackening the figure of Aghora. Aghora form is the peaceful form, Santa rupa, benign and peaceful existance. Siva's essential nature is Santa described as his heart and the hymn - Aghorebhyah ghora ghoratarebhyah namaste astu rudra rupebhyah - is called hrdaya mantra. It is the mantra used in this rite.

Aghora vigraham Sambhoh natyesa iti kathyate  
Iti sastreshu niscitya nrttarupeti kathyate
Tasya krshnatva siddhyartham yaksha-kardama-lepanam  
Aghoram  santam iti uktam tad-bhavad hrdayam vibhoh 
Tena mantrena yuktatvat aghora hrdayam Sivam .

Bhujanga trasita dance The Makutagama speaks of five different types of dances in this connection6 They are called:-

1.Bhujanga-trasa-rupam 2.Bhujangali-khilam ( Bhujanga-lalitam?) 3.Bhujanga-Bhairavam 4.Bhujanga-valayam 5. Bhujanga-kuncitam (Bhujanga-ancitam?)

Three out of the 108 dance karanas are listed under Bhujanga catagories in Bharata's Natya sastra7 They areBhujanga-trasitam (karana 24), Bhujanga-trasta-recitam (karana 35), and Bhujanga -ancitam (karana 40). Describing the Bhujanga-trasita karana, Bharata states "the kuncita leg should be raised and thigh turned to the side in three fourth profile. The waist and the knee should also be twisted similarly." Bharata has not mentioned anything about the position of the hands. Abhinava Gupta, the great commnetator on Bharata's Natya sastra gives valuable information on this karana. First he says Nritta is of remote antiquity - without a beginning anadi siddha. This karana is named after the pose of frenzied reaction of a man, who notices a snake by his leg, hurriedly lifts it out of fear and throws his hands out in reflex to ward of the reptile.

As mentioned earlier Bharata`s Natya-sastra lists three dance karanas associated with the bhujanga variety - Bhujanga-trasita, Bhujanga-trasta-recita, and Bhujanga-ancita. The Kamikagama also lists three Bhujanga varieties of Siva`s dance namely Bhujanga-trasa, Bhujanga-lalitam and Bhujanga-Bhiaravam Bhujanga-trasita form corresponds to the Nataraja image. The Bhujanga-lalita is also a variation of the same karana in that the text says the lifted leg should be slightly above the knee. It is identical with Urdhva-janu form. The third one is the Bhujanga-bhairava which is identical with the Urdhva-tandava.8 In the Tevaram of Saint Sambandar (7th cent) a form of special dance is mentioned as bhujanga-raga-manatattan.9 The 10th cent Tamil text Kalladam10 mentions the dance of Siva as Bhujanga-murai-tukki i.e. the bhujanga category of dance. It is obvious the Bhujanga variety of Dance has been very popular in the south atleast from the 7th cent, if not earlier.

The seven dances and Kalyana-sundara-nrtta

The citation by Aghora siva from Kamikagama speaks of seven types of dance in the context of Nrttotsava. They are called1. Ananda tandavam 2. Sandhya-tandavam 3. Gauri-tandavam 4. Tripura-tandavam 5. Kali-tandavam 6. Muni-tandavam 7. Samhara-tandavam This Agama holds Kali-tandava different from Ananda-tandavam. Kamikagama gives another interesting information about dance. It states that all dances of Siva are meant for pleasing Uma-Parvati and so the Kalyana-sundara form is also a form of Tandava. It is called Kalyana- sundara-nrtta and for this purpose the text gives the dhyana-sloka of Kalyana-sundara.11

The following verses found in the text make this clear. 

Kathyate Sivasastreshu nrttam sapta vidham bhavet
Ananda-tandavam purvam sandhya-tandava-tat-param  
Gauri-tandavam  evam tu tatha tripura-tandavam 
Kali-tandavkam caiva muninanam tasya tandavam 
Samhara tandavam  caiva ityete sapta tandavam 

Tandavam sarvam evam tu uma tandava mangalam    
Uma sampritika caiva kalyana vidhina-krta
Kalyana-sundaram tasmat sarva-mangala mangalam 
Kalyana-sundara dhyanam nrtta-rupam iha ucyate 
Kalyana-sundaram nrttam bhedam caiva na vidyate

The question then would arise whether the festival called Nrtta-utsava refers to what is now called Ananda-tandava form or any other form of dancing figure? The text is clear so far as Nrttotsava is concerned which is held for the Nataraja image as seen from the following meditative verses, dhyana-slokas

Sankirnat-jatam-indu-hema kurari mundasthi devapaga
Svetarka-druma-raja pincaka-dharam vaiyaghra krityam param  
Sarpam savya-kare-abhayam dhamarukam vamam prsaryanyakam 
Vamegnim dadhanam sayana-bharita apasmara prshte sthitam 
Vajri-krtya sva-dakshinan-tu caranam cauddhrtya vamam padam   
Madhyastha dhvaja kinkini mani tula koti-sphurat-padukam  
Dakshe nakra sukundalam sruti-pute vame tu patranvitam
Bhasma-aliptam uma-yutam tri-nayanam vande natesam sivam 

i.e. "I salute Siva Natesa, who with his matted locks of hair flowing around; with golden crescent moon on his head, with a skull, Ganga, white arka flower, and the feather of a crane on his head; wears the tiger's skin around his waist as a silken garment, his right hands holding a snake, the abhaya mudra and a little drum: while one of the left is extended and the other wields a fire; stands on the back of Apasmara; his right leg planted firmly and the other lifted up and the central chain of bells balances between the legs; wears a nakra kundala on the right ear and a patra kundala on the left, performs dances accompanied by Uma."

Syama dvinetra dvibhuja  tribhangi
savya-apasavya sthita  kuncitanghri
Savyotpala va katakanvita va 
hastavalamba parmesvari syat 

i.e "Paramesvari should have two hands; the right holding utpala flower or kataka mudra while the left will remain in extended avalambita pose; She stands in tribhanga with one leg straight and the other slightly bent. Her colour is blackish-green"12

The festival of Dancing Siva The two dhyana slokas leave no doubt that the dancing forms worshipped in this context is exactly identical with the what is now known as Nataraja and Sivakami. I have already shown that Aghora siva only codified what was already prevalent before his time and not introduce any thing new. Also may be noted that all epigraphs of 10th to 13th cent. call the consort of Siva as Uma Paramesvari, a term used in this dhyana sloka.

Aghora siva again cites Kamikagama, in this context which gives the significance of hand gestures and symbols held by Nataraja. According to this verse damaruka stands for creation (srishti); the hand in bhujanga pose sustains (sthithi) the world; the fire in the other hand stands for dissolution(samhara); the kuncita leg stands for veiling (tirobhava) and the abhaya hand bestows grace (anugraha). These five acts of Siva are called the five Acts- panca kritya

damarukam srshti-rupam tu bhujangam sthiti rupakam 
samharam agni rupam tu tirobhavam tu kuncitam  
abhayam anugraham capi panca-krtyam svarupakam13 

The association of the five sacred acts with the dancing form is thus not of the age of the Cholas but far earlier, as it is found in Kamikagama. Any suggestion of political or willful import of these concepts by the Cholas will come into conflict with historical and agamic texts.14 This text also says that the dance (festival) is for the protection of all living beings, from the worms to the highest living creature and hence it is called Ananda nrttam, the dance of Bliss.

Another philosophical concept mentioned in this text, is the three fold form of Siva. One is called Mahesa, the second is called Sadasiva and the third is Nishkala Siva. The Mahesa form is visualized with limbs - Sakala(with body, hands etc); The Sadasiva form is with and without form Misra; and the third category is Nishkala Siva without any attributes. It is this form that is called Ananda rupa. So in the context of Nrttotsava (festival of Dancing Siva) it is the Ananda tandava form that is visualized, says the text.

Mahesam sakalopetam vimisram tu Sadasivam Nishkalam Sivam ekam tu Anandam tridha bhavet tasmat ananda rupam tu Nrttamurtih ihoccyate

From the foregoing it is seen the important festival dedicated to Nataraja image and his consort is connected with the black paste, its removal and Ananda-tandava which is connected with protection of all the beings and is not a ferocious dance.

I have drawn attention to two points of importance in this discussion. First, the place of Black-paste and the other the worship of the southern face of the Linga, namely the Aghora murti


It is in this connection the role of Kalamukhas in Tamil nad deserves special . There is an excellent study by Lorenzon on Kalamukhas and Kapalikas. For a detailed account of the sect the reader is invited to refer to that book. I have also drawn attention to the various Saiva subsects including the Kalamukhas and their philosophy. They were followers of Vedic tradition, worshipping the Aghora face of the Linga. On account of colouring their face with deep-red sandal paste and worshipping the Aghora face they were called Kalamukhas, Kalananas, and Asita vaktra i.e ones with black face. References to their presence in Tamilnad in the Chola territory as at places like Kodumbalur are found from the 9th cent. CE.15

It may also be mentioned that in sculptural representations, the Ananda-tandava form of Siva occurs immediately above the image of Dakshinamurti in the southern niche of the main temple. I have shown that the first temple to show this feature is the Sadayar temple near Trichy 16.The application of black paste on the devotees face and worshipping Nataraja on the southern face etc. seem to indicate a connection with the Kalamukhas. This aspect needs further detailed study. It is also necessary to point out that bronze images were made essentially for festivals in temples and hence go by the name utsava vigrahas i.e festive images. Their significance can not be studied without reference to their philosophical meaning within the festive context. A careful study of the dance festival of Nataraja stands for the summum bonum of Saiva philosophy.