The scene was Tillai a forest of tillai (=Excoecaria Agallocha) shrubs -- the place where Childambaram is situated in Tamilnadu today. Vyaghrapada was the learned son of a great ascetic. He came to Tillai to perform penance. There he saw a Siva-linga under a banyan tree near a sacred tank. He consecrated another Siva-linga near another tank west of the original, and worshipped both the images. The flowers he plucked for worship were spoiled by honey bees since he had to gather them after dawn. He prayed to the Lord that he might be provided with the eyes, claws and feet of a tiger so that he may collect flawless flowers for worship. His request was granted. Hence his name was Vyaghrapada (vyAghra = tiger; pAda = feet) . One day in yogic trance he had a vision of the Lord’s dance in a forest. He yearned to see it in reality and awaited that great day when it would happen.
Lord VishNu reclining on AdiSesha (the serpent-seat of God) was one day in an uncommon mood which both Lakshmi and AdiSesha noticed. Asked about it, the Lord narrated a long story. The previous night he accompanpied Lord Siva to the Daruka forest to test the piety of the Rishis there. The two Lords, Siva and VishNu, assumed the disguise of a naked beggar, begging for food (bhikshATana-mUrti) and of a beautiful voluptuous woman (Mohini). The Rishi wives and the Rishis lost their senses on seeing this (divine) pair and went after them. When the Rishis discovered who the intruder was who disturbed the balance of their wives, they set up in anger an unholy sacrifice out of which they pulled one after the other, a tiger, a ball of fire, a serpent and a monster and hurled these at Siva. The latter PEELED OFF THE SKIN OF THE TIGER AND WORE IT ROUND HIS WAIST. HE CAUGHT HOLD OF THE BALL OF FIRE IN HIS LEFT HAND AND HELD IT ALOFT. HE CALMED THE SERPENT AND WORE IT ROUND HIS NECK AS AN ORNAMENT. By this time he had begun to dance in joy. So when they set up the monster against him, he DWARFED THE MONSTER, STOOD ON IT ON ONE LEG AND CONTINUED HIS DANCE. VishNu and the others were charmed by this Ananda-tANDava (=joyous divine dance) of the Lord. The Rishis were blessed and the two Lords of the Trinity disappeared.
Hearing the rapturous narration of this by Lord VishNu, AdiSesha wanted to be blessed to see this dance of the Lord. He was accordingly asked to do a penance. He did. At the end of it he was born as the son of anasUyA one of the models of chastity, the wife of Maharishi atri) on Earth. One tradition says he fell from heaven into the folded hands of anasUyAwhen she prayed for a son. So he was called Patanjali (pat = fall; anjali = folded hands). The other tradition says AdiSesha emerged from anasUyA’s hand as a serpent. The frightened anasUyA dropped the hooded serpent and so he was Patanjali (= one who had been dropped from the palm). In this form he went to Tillai and joined Vyaghrapada and told him his desire to see the Lord’s dance. The ‘tiger-sage’ was delighted to see this ‘serpent-sage’ with the same purpose as himself. Patanjali also established another hermitage and another Siva-linga and worshipped both his linga and the original linga of Tillai
Several years passed on in this manner. Then on a Thursday with the Sun in Capricornus and Moon in Pushya (Praesepe cluster, in the modern language of Astronomy) - that was the thai-poosam day -- the Lord manifested Himself and danced before them in the presence of the Mother Goddess Parvati. The two sages relished it to their heart's content and prayed that the Lord should stay permanently at Tillai so that all of humanity may see this Ananda tANDava and be blessed. And so He stands there even today as naTarAja, the King of Dancers, along with His consort. It is only in this form (and certain allied forms like bikshATana-mUrti) that Siva is ever seen in temples; other wise He is always worshipped as an abstraction in the linga form.
When the final pralaya (pra = special, laya = merging) of everything in the universe takes place, it happens by the will of maheSvara, (the Great Lord, Siva, in this instance) and it happens at the end of the day (kalpa) of BrahmA. The only witness to this is Mother Goddess. Hence her name maheSvara-mahA-kalpa-mahA-tANDava-sAkshiNIin LalitA-sahasranAma. The tANDavadance then is full of joy of completion of the five kRtyas (Actions) of the Divine.
nirguNa and saguNa --
the Linga and the icon
The Siva-linga is the nearest expression for the attributeless (= nirguNa) character of the absolute. The Siva-lingarepresents the Transcendental Absolute when everything else has merged into it. The Siva-naTarAja-icon represents the fullest expression of the dynamic saguNa (= with attributes) character of God in action through PrakRti (God's Energised Power)
The dance of Siva represented in the form of naTa-rAja is symbolic of the dynamic aspect of the Ultimate Reality. The art of dancing by the finite human is a meagre attempt to express the mystery of the Cosmic Rhythm in the movements of the physical body. But the divine dance is a supreme reflection and creative expression of the rhythm which underlies the whole universe and thus becomes a unique contribution of Indian thought to the world’s culture. It has an applied symbolism of the five-fold gamut of divine activities sRSTi (Creation, Evolution), sthiti (Preservation, Sustenance), saMhAra (Destruction, Dissolution), tirodhAna (Concealment, Illusion, indicating Bondage) and anugraha (Grace, indicating Release or Moksha). For more on the five-fold functions of the Lord, go to Vinayaka and also to Devotion to theGuru.
The rear right arm which carries the Damru (drum) is indicative of Creation. It represents through its vibration the alternation of consciousness between the manifest (universe) and the unmanifest (absolute). From the Damaruka evolved the seven notes of music as well as the eleven mAheSvara-sUtras (which is the foundation of all grammar of language). These are the concluding strokes Siva made on his drum as he stopped dancing, stopped whirling round and round. The front right hand with palm raised is a gesture of protection to those in the whirl of life. It is called the Abhaya Hasta.The rear left hand which holds the pot of fire is indicative of samhAra or destruction. The front left hand extends across the chest, in a majestic sweep, its fingers pointing graciously and beautifully to the tip of the left leg, which is raised in a dancing posture.
This leg is called Kunchita-pada. (Kunchita = raised, lifted or bent). It is the tookiya tiruvaDi in Tamil. The posture of this (front left) hand is called Gaja-hasta, meaning it is like an elephant’s trunk. The hand points to the uplifted foot, which grants the ultimate release, namely Moksha. In this sense this hand is also the Varada-hasta (the boon granting hand). That the fingers of this hand point exactly to the tip of the left leg is demonstrated twice every year when the abhisheka (ritual bathing of the icon) is performed for the icon in the 1000-pillared hall. Then one can see that the milk poured on the left hand drops down exactly at the tip of the raised foot. The right foot (UnRiya tiruvaDi, in Tamil, meaning, 'the placed foot') that presses on the wriggling apasmAra purusha (the Evil personified and dwarfed by the Lord) - called Muyalakan in Tamil scriptures, - represents the fifth function of the Lord, namely Concealment. The Lord dances on the remains of ego and ignorance so that the worshipper is free of the concealed evil of these two. The Monster Muyalakan is also conceived as mahA-mAyA which is the cause for all birth and death. It is also the cause for the three states of consciousness, namely, waking, dreaming and sleeping. The raised foot indicates the fourth state beyond these three and that is why it is indicated by His own left index finger of the right hand as the only refuge. (For a further esoteric explanation of the Divine Feet in the advaita tradition, go to Devotion to the Guru).
The ecstatic and vibrant nature of the dance, with the Lord whirling round on the one right leg is indicated by the matted hair (jata) flying on both sides of the head in waves one above the other and by a piece of cloth, partly around the waist and partly thrown over the left shoulder also flying in the air.
What a grand conception! It is actually a fantastic synthesis of science, religion and art. We may adapt from the ‘Dance of Shiva’ by Ananda K. Coomaraswamy, and exclaim:
How amazing is the range of thought of the rishi-artists who brought forth the image of this reality, a key to the complex tissue of life, a theory of nature, universal in appeal to the philosopher, the lover, the artist of all ages and of all countries! Here is perpetual movement, perpetually poised-- the rythm of the spirit. There cannot be a more exact or more wise creation of the image of that Energy which Science must postulate behind all phenomena. If we would reconcile Time with Eternity, we can scarcely do so otherwise than by the conception of the alternations implied by the drum and by the fire In the night of Brahma, Nature is inert and cannot dance till Siva wills it. He rises from his rapture, and, dancing, sends through inert matter pulsing waves of awakening sound, and lo! matter also dances appearing as a glory round about Him. Dancing, He sustains its manifold phenomena. In the fulness of time, still dancing, he destroys all forms and names by fire and gives new rest. This is poetry, but none the less, science!