108 Karnas, the Art of Bharatanatya

The tiny drop of water fall from the heavens as the grey clouds cover the land. The lush green trees shimmer as the smell of wet earth awakens the soil. The rain comes down in a rhythmic pattern such that the sound adds to the rhythm in my being. I step out into the courtyard of this now silent temple to discover new emotion, new love, new bhakti in the form of the Lord who resides deep within the sanctum.

There is silence except for the beating raindrops on the wet rocky and the ghunguru on my feet. I face him, decorated in flowers and silks, seated on his throne surrounded by fiery lamp lights. I look up to Nandi, who within my imagination picks up the mridangam and starts to play. I slowly move, swirl and express my feeling, my devotion to the Lord within.

It is a conversation, delightful and profound, as I emote through my eyes and melt in my heart offering every known emotion up to him in abhinaya. There is sound that surrounds me, there is water that bathes me, there is wind that envelops me, there is earth that holds me steady, there is fire that enlightens me and there is space that gives me the freedom to move around it. The body arches, the fingers emote and my internal self wakes up to the divine sounds of deep meditation and complete bhakti that has been expressed by Patanjali for whom the great Lord Nataraja has performed.

In this emotional water fall, my heart beats hard, asking the Lord to come and dance with me. Such graceful moves, as we rest our hands on our hips, move around and raise it to the sky. Express the deep emotion that lingers within, in controlled meditation as it surfaces to the front and blossoms into an expressive art form that is divine dance, that is divine movement, divine experience as my body awakens to divine breath that fills my soul and bathes me in these pure waters from heaven.

The music echoes in my soul, the beat brings my self to drift away into this magical world where I am a form, a divine form made up of the most profound elements and I am the fortress in matter that houses the various devas within me at my energy centers. Its at this moment of heightened experience of bliss that the my perceptive world changes and the temples appears like an imaginary land in paradise.

Time has stopped, there is no world, there is no noise, there is no people, there is no chaos. There is the sun that lights up this floor and shimmers in the water drops making the whole ambiance appear rich and jeweled. There is the rain that gently tickles my being as the water drops slowly roll down my fingers. There is the wet earth that now lies cool and soft, as I stand on it and stamp it at regular intervals. There is the tiny lamps that light the fire in my heart, melting my being to just collapse in his arms in eternal bliss of divine love and overwhelming awe. And there are the divine gandharvas who play the mystical sounds of heaven, so profound and sweet, so pure and unique that it makes my heart jump with childish excitement over this overwhelming experience. And there is he, in his brilliance with his matted hair swirling around him, as he constantly gets bathed by the ever flowing Ganges who resides in his locks. There is he who has sharp and clear eyes, yet warm and loving and full of divine enlightenment that i can barely move away from. And there is he, with the jeweled snake move around him in grace. There is he, fragrant and all empowering enveloping the whole universe around him as he dances ash clad wrapped in tiger skin with divinely handsome charm that could dissolve a woman's being into itself. There is he, who makes all time stop and takes me into that void where my senses fail, my being fades, my body lets go and my consciousness witnesses is all powerful self, so gentle and yet so kind, so compassionate and yet so energetic.

To all the forms of his, to all the directions that he protects, to the elements that sustain me, to the great devas who reside within me, to the enigmatic yet charming world of the celestials, to the divine and mystical world of the sages, to this pantheon of invisible yet enchanting beings of superior intellect and charm, I bow in misery of being just a human.


Based on the divine Natya of Bharata, which expounds on the various postures, gestures and expression of dance, this is a feeble attempt to meditate upon oneself as one performs the 108 Karnas that have been meticulously carved and documented on the temple walls of Chidambaram, Thiruvannamalai and Tanjavur for our understanding. This is an attempt to deeply understand the movement of the body, the state of the self emotionally and in discipline as one performs this art form in an imaginary world, which I cant perceive and yet I believe truly exists and has been documented in our scriptures. I have attempted to present to you within the limitations of language and yet with creative imagination, the feeling of supreme bliss that we can attain if we try hard enough with every breath.


Photo Courtesy:
Arjun Kumar - Facebook


Grace of Lord Nataraja at the Pancha Sabhas

The world that Shiva Nataraja paints to us is very different from what we get to see around us daily. It requries some amount of imagination or divya dristi to view this realm and for that it requires emotion and belief that that world exists to start with. :)

Reading about the dance of Nataraja and the Pancha sthalas where he has given great performances to supreme beings like Vishnu, Narada, Adhisesha, Agastya, Vyagabhadra and Patanjali to name a few one begins to wonder what kind of a realm that would have been! They make great references to the Ratna Sabha, Chitra sabha, Rajata Sabha, Tamra Sabha and the Kanaka Sabha where the great Lord is known to have performed the Tandava either to please his audience or to overpower Kali.

There seems to be no immediate connect between gold, silver, ruby, copper and earth (murals) to the great dance except that the location of this event now hosts a great hall boasting of such grandeur in metal or earth. Thinking about the form of expression in dance and its relation to the grand hall that hosts the performance, the Lord is adorned in these temples in various poses of Tandava. The location now houses an idol of the Lord himself in this climactic form frozen in Gold, silver, copper or painted on to the murals that fade away into the background to blind pilgrims.

But lets stop for a second and imagine this very same location without the Hall that was built by great and rich kings who patronized these temples transforming them such that what remains in the lesser mortals mind is not the form of the Tandava being performed but the metal in which it has been made!

Situation: Shiva Kalyanasundareshwarar

During the marriage of Shiva and Parvati, Lord Vishnu himself descends to view this great event. All the great intellects, siddhars, rishis and celestial beings are here to view this wedlock. The beauty of the divine couple turns everyone breathless with excitement and reverence as the great Lord ties the knot with his beloved. The ambiance is charged for it is Lord Vishnu who gives Parvati in hand to Lord Shiva who accepts her has his wedded wife. With the conch shells blowing and the drums beating, the universe echos just one note, the primordial sound of creation. The intensity is high and the great souls themselves have been driven to excitement and high emotion. The sheer brilliance of the moment, the shimmering lights, the shining glow on the faces of these great beings makes this an exalted experience that one cannot forget, for it is not driven by time but its driven by high blissful emotion that renders any great soul who is a part of this pantheon a complete slave to this supreme blissful state.

And then Lord Shiva dances... for all those assembled in this great hall of charm and brilliance shining strong like a million suns glowing together, a small mortal version of which we see on earth today. Imagine the extravaganza, I cant explain it... the riches, the enigma, the mysticism on each face, the clarity in their eyes, the glowing skin and the frangrance of flowers as it falls to the great floor where the Lord performs... the dance begins, not with the theatrical performance we have reduced it to but with reverberation all around as Nandikeshwar beats the mridangam and Lord Shiva's shalangai take the beat on. The music is in the drums, the feeling of natya is in his vigor, the victory of Nataraja is in the primordial sound of the damaru as he dances on shaking it vigorously, his eyes twinkling, the ganges flowing over, the snake trooping on with a gem studded hood. The air is in motion, there is silence for its not just this hall but all of nature, all of the universe that witnessed this grand performance of life, of dance, of vigor, of movement, of grace and of enlightenment. This feeling of bliss where all divine imagination takes over mere worldly troubles and the form of Shiva Tandava Nataraja echoes in Abhaya is known as the Ananda Tandava.

Situation: Urdhva Tandava in the forest by night

In the darkness of the night, the crescent moon lights up the dance floor where two graceful performers come together to perform one of the greatest dances ever. There is silence around, like a lull before the storm and not even the whispering wind can be heard. Its a challenge, of life and of grace, of form and of art, of performance and of intensity. 2 forces bring together the most powerful form of art, performing art, dance and the ode of expression of subtle intensity.

This is a dance of vigor, of energy and of power that can shatter everything around and yet there is synergy, there is music, there is rhythm and there is bliss. In a time when few are awake to witness, in a place where few dare to go, in a moment where few await the elixir in the rays of the crescent moon...there is a dance of motion and vigor and beat to experience.

What an amazing picture it paints to see two forms dance and move around, with the moonlight glowing in their matted locks, which flow across cutting through the air as they challenge each other to the next step. Powerful eyes that meet, chemistry rolls forth and sure steps guide these two forms to move in harmony, sparking wilderness between themselves. The night is on fire, the spirit world is awake and witnessing this brilliant performance, and the night sky luminates the dance floor. This is expression in the art of Bharata, expression in the art of yoga that transforms the dancer into a supreme being, into Shiva and Kali. Such motion and vigor brings the earth to tremor, brings the universe to unrest as the Lord dances on engulfing all into himself.

What remains now of this experience is the presence of 5 halls that leave the intrigued pilgrim wondering about the mysticism that once ruled these lands as they look up to a frozen Nataraja at the South end of the temple.


The magical world of Thiruvannamalai

The aura:
An imposing form that towers over the landscape which appears to stay still and aloof even as my car speeds ahead to make it to the great shrine at its foothill. The feeling of excitement rises as one sets eyes on the hill, its sheer presence brings alive happiness, bliss, love for life, love for the Lord. The sun dances on, casting its light on the mountain through the spots in the clouds that bring this mystical world of charm and secrecy to the wandering devotee. What a picture it creates to just view the enormity of this hill as the car speeds on into this little land of divinity.

The temple:
Walking on the rocky floor of the temple, there is peace reigning supreme. The people have not yet started to come and the sun has not burnt the rock floor. The sound of the wind echoes as it plays through the carved pillars and walls of this ancient temple that houses the very form of Lord Arunachala. Gopurams rise imposingly into space, bringing to earth a divine ship of mystery that is shrouded by time. One step after the other makes oneself breathless as the great stone walls lead the way into the sanctum. Walking past the main entrance, the imposing Gopuram displays a magical world of dance, of song, of movement, of motion as 108 dancing sculptures dance down into my vision. The great lord of Bharata presents in silence for those who wish to see the 108 Karnas of Bharatnatya. Within the inner courtyard stand idols, larger than imagination, graceful in attire representing the iconography of Lord Shiva.

The courtyard presents a feeling of peace within these ancient rocky walls. On one end is the sacred tank with water to purify oneself, on the other leads the passage into the main sanctum, around is the chill in the pure air that sings and ahead is the imposing peak of Arunachala, towering, magestic, overwhelming, silent. An enchanting thought crosses my mind to wonder, was this the same hill that was firey and ablaze in the Krita Yuga, that shined brighter than the sun as a golden peak in the Treta Yuga, that held its purity in shimmering copper in the Dwapara yuga and now stands jewelled with a beaded string of rocky bolders in the Kali Yuga! Be it the temple, or the greenery, or the tank or the drifting clouds, my eyes stayed locked on the very form of Arunachala.

Lord Arunachala resides deep within the sanctum, in his chamber surrounded by oil lamps, visited by all. He resides at the center of this jewelled crown of fire that flickers around him. His presence envelopes me as I break into tune, singing the little bit of Rudram that springs from my heart. No one moves, no one pushes, the air is still and all that I can feel and see is this opportunity that allows me to recite the Rudram to the lord, loud and clear that it kills any other noise that dare storm this sacred interior. Few moments of bliss and my heart dances around as I walk past these walls. On the South side Lord Nataraja dances on, such grace and beauty that it makes a difference to a thirsting devotee who would have just loved to immerse herself in the divine vision of his natya performance. To be even apasmara is a blessing, to feel the Lord's feet on oneself is a blessing and to be granted his favor to give a performance and enjoy that grace is pure liberation.

The magic of the hill:
The cool air sings, the trees sway and the wind blows gently bringing with it the song of the birds and the pleasant smell of the herbs around. The rocky path leads on into the thin forest that has recently been fed by waters from the heavens. Its green and fulfilling with tiny creatures starting out on another busy day, scarcely aware that they live in paradise. In this quiet, on this earth live plenty of greater beings, invisible yet present, flying around the great hill worshiping the Lord in his entirety. Higher intellects swing by floating through the air as they do Pradakshina around this great hill. The bright light of the sun merges with the light of these celestial beings who grace this earth with their presence increasing the purity of this land and the people who visit it. Its strange that while the feet stay on this hill and while we lesser devotees be a part of its self, the mind lingers into clean thought, the mind is quiet, the mind is at peace with itself and no harmful ideas spring up. The purity of the hill, the clarity in the air, the divinity within this earth wipes out all the dirt from the mind, for a little while as long as the feet stay in touch with its divine soil. What a magical world of divinity and how subtle this truth that while i am there, I think clean!

The silence in Skandashram:
The mind is quiet, the room is dimly lit with the sunlight that penetrates through the narrow windows open to the world outside. The garden is in full bloom, the trees are in song with birds awakening us to this world where nature is an integral part of our lives. I sit here in silence imbibing this peace, this pleasing world for I know it wont last long. The eyes close to listen to the wind, to the birds, to the stream of water and probably to the rhythm of the rudram that continues to ring within my head. There is rhytm in this universe, there is rhythm in these strange sounds of nature and there is silent music to listen to only when the mind stops to rest. And when that happens, the great lord performs, the dance of grace, vigorously moving to present to us a firey wall of flames that burns us to ash, sacred ash, to nothing merging us to his very being.

To the great Lord Arunachaleshwara, I bow in all humility, still clinging to his blissful world of frangrance, magic, rhythm and dance.

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