I wrote this article some time back for The Hindu’s special on dance but I sent it in rather late and so it did not make it to that supplement. The paper however has carried it today (1/6/18).

The Nataraja at Keezhvelur, accompanied by his orchestra. Pic courtesy Sukanya Sankar

Mine is a one-horse village by name Pathai in Thirunelveli District. The neighbouring one, Karuvelamkulam, is even tinier. Its Vishnu temple was in a state of collapse, even while its Siva temple, dedicated to Soundarapandiswarar, managed to survive.

Of late, better times have come to both villages and Karuvelamkulam wears a festive look, especially during festivals dedicated to Siva. The reason for this is the Nataraja in the temple – whose greatness has been suddenly discovered by others but was known to ‘us locals’ for quite some time. Thanks to the Lord of Dance, even the Vishnu temple is looking better maintained these days.

The Nataraja here is a large icon with a unique tilt of the head. The reason behind this is a rather moving tale. It is said that the sculptor who made the Chidambaram Nataraja made three more, installed at Chepparai, Kattarimangalam and Karisoozhndamangalam. He wanted to make one more when a ruler, eager that other potentates should not get such Natarajas made for temples in their territories, had the sculptor’s hand cut off. The poor man wandered about until he arrived at Karuvelamkulam where he came to know of a prediction that the Nataraja icon for the shrine would be made by a one-armed sthapathi. Inspired, he tied a ladle to the maimed arm and got on with the work. The end result was this Nataraja, so charming that the sculptor pinched the idol’s cheeks. Clefts on both sides of Nataraja’s face are said to commemorate that token of affection.

There are several other Natarajas that differ from the conventional representation. In Madurai, also known as the Velliambalam or Rajata Sabha, Nataraja is a large granite idol with ten arms, and more importantly, the right foot is raised and not the left. At the Ratna Sabha, in Thiruvalangadu, where Karaikkal Ammaiyar sang of the Lord, the deity is in Urdhva Tandava pose, with a foot raised to his head. At Kuttralam in Thirunelveli, which is celebrated as Chitra Sabha, the Nataraja is a painting on a wall. The daily anointments are done to the reflection of the deity, as seen in a mirror placed opposite! Some temples in Thirunelveli have a chandana Nataraja – which is covered in sandal paste.

The largest Nataraja, measuring 8 ft, is at Konerirajapuram. It is said that the Lord himself came in answer to a sculptor’s prayer, and became the idol. A mole on the left arm and a scar on the leg, which was caused by a king who tried to test the idol and it began to bleed, are held up as evidences of such a divine transformation. With a proportionately large Sivakami keeping Him company, this deity never leaves His sanctum. Other bronze idols are taken out in a procession instead.

Like the Karuvelamkulam Nataraja, the one at Thiruvatpokki too has a unique positioning of the head – it appears to be gazing upwards, almost as though in a moment of ecstasy the Lord threw back His head. Getting to this temple is tough – you need to climb 1,000 steps, avoiding monkeys on the way. But what you get to see there makes it worthwhile. If you are tempted to turn back halfway, remember that Muthuswami Dikshitar and before him the Nayanmars made it up there.

Yet another unique depiction of Nataraja is at Kizhvelur, the temple dedicated to Siva as Kedili Appar or Akshaya Linga. The sanctum is accessed by a small set of steps thereby making it a kattu malai – a built hillock. The twin shrines to Akshaya Linga and Tyagaraja (here known as Devanayaka) are where most people stop to pray. But in a niche by itself is an exquisite Nataraja – multi-armed and with His feet crossed, the right leg lifted just enough to show the sole fully to all devotees. If that is not unusual enough, what is around is even more breathtaking. Apart from a serenely smiling Sivakami who stands by Her Lord, the icons below are several small figurines – each not more than six inches. This is a complete orchestra, the performers all being divine personages. Brahma is playing on what looks like an udukkai, Vishnu plays a drum, Lakshmi is keeping time with Her hands while Saraswathi plays the veena. Tumburu and Agastya add to the ensemble. It is doubtful if such a frieze exists anywhere else.

Some of the Atta Veerattanams too have unusual Siva icons. Thirukkadaiyur has a magnificent and giant idol of Siva as Kala Samharamurthy, which is in almost a dance posture with one foot lifted to press Yama down. The Vazhuvur icon of Siva as Gajasamharamoorthy is also like a dance pose. It is interesting that this village itself is a crucible of classical dance.