This poised sculpture of Nataraja belongs to the medieval era and originated in South India under the patronage of the Chola Dynasty in 12th century CE. It is 96.0 cm tall, 82.8 cm wide and 28.2 cm in depth. It is currently on display at the National Museum, New Delhi in the gallery of Chola Bronzes.
Archeometric, iconographic and literary evidence shows that the bronze representations of Shiva’s Ananda tandava first appeared in the Pallava period between 7th century CE and mid 9th century CE. Pallava productions of the Nataraja in bronze were borrowed heavily from the Nataraja wooden sculptures. The later Chola craftsmen began experimenting with the greater tensile strength of metal and thus began to produce figures that were flared and dynamic as opposed to the Pallava sculptures that were close-set and linear. This Nataraja can hence be dated to the era of the Chola dynasty. Tanjavur or Tanjai was the capital of the imperial Cholas, both in the political and ceremonial sense. Further, the physical and symbolic centre of the capital was a temple dedicated to Shiva, built during the reign of Rajaraja Chola. The temple was associated very closely with the royals. For example, it was named ‘Rajarajeshvara temple’ after the incumbent king. As the family and state deity, Shiva was the most important authority in the religious, political, and cultural world of the Cholas and their subjects. Although Shiva was depicted in many divine roles, it was the Shiva Nataraja which became a symbol of Chola power. This sculpture would be clothed and ornamented and played a very important role in the various temple rituals. Many Shiva temples in southern India have a separate Natana Sabha where the image of Nataraja would have been placed.
The Chola period is well known for its metal sculpture. It is known for the high standard of aesthetic and technical skill achieved by their craftsmen during this period. Metal sculptures both in the South and North India were made using the lost-wax process. While South India produced solid sculptures, North India produced hollow ones. Most metal sculptures produced in the South would be made of an alloy of five metals; copper, silver, gold, tin, and lead. Within the literature of Shaivite iconography, the dancing Shiva was depicted as either angry or calm. In either example, his cosmic dance would signify the cyclical creation and destruction of the universe. He is usually depicted with four arms carrying a Danda ie staff, Gaja ie an elephant symbol, a flame which signifies destruction and its counterpart, the Damru (drum), which signifies creation. His front right hand is in the Abhaya mudra, asking his devotees not to fear in his presence. He is shown wearing a snake ornament and dancing on Muyalaka the dwarf who signifies ignorance and evil.
Nataraja is regarded as the 'Lord of Dance' and his dance is a manifestation of his panchkrityas or the five activities of Shiva that are creation, preservation, destruction, veiling and grace.
On the forearm of his right hand is placed a bhujanga-valaya which is a bracelet shaped like a coiled snake. The left leg of Nataraja is raised diagonally towards the right one with its foot up in the air denoting the path of salvation. The image of Shiva is encircled in a prabhamandala, that is a circle of fire. Adorning the head of the lord is a crown of coiled hair (jatamukuta), embellished with the river Goddess Ganga, a snake, jewels, flowers, a crescent moon, and a human skull. Several jatas emerge from the crown on either side spreading horizontally, touching the prabhamandala. Shiva is adorned with a pearl necklace, a yajnopavita that is a sacred thread worn by Brahmins, a urassutra (a chest band), rings in the hands, anklets, and a Makara-kundala in the right ear and Patra-kundala on his left ear. The former refers to an earring shaped like a Makara that is a mythical fish-like creature, while the latter refers to earrings shaped as coconut or palmyra leaves.
Between the Pennar and Kaveri rivers is the key religious site associated with Shiva in his form as 'Lord of the Dance': the temple city of Chidambaram. The Cholas believed Chidambaram was the earthly home of Shiva and the sacred place where he performed the 'dance of bliss' (Ananda Tandava). The central religious story behind Nataraja takes place in the Tillai forest of Chidambaram, described in the songs of seventh-century poet-saints as the setting for a variety of divine and demonic activities. Shiva came to the forest in the form of Bhikshatana, a wandering beggar to trick and humiliate the sages who neglected proper worship. In the battle that ensues, the sages send creatures such as a demon and a snake, to attack him. Shiva dramatically defeats these malevolent forces and performs his victorious 'dance of bliss.' Scholar Padma Kaimal has observed that the Shiva Nataraja image and narrative may also be linked to the warrior dances of the Cholas.