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Śiva Consciousness In Temples And Performing Arts

Who is Śiva?

Om Namaste Astu Bhagavān Visweswarāya

Mahādevāya TryaṂbakāya TripurāṆthakāya

Trikāgni Kālaya Kaālagni Rudrāya

NilakaṆṬāya Mrutyunjayāya Sarveshwrāya

Sadāshivāya Śriman Mahādevāya Namah

My paper describes the sweep of Siva Consciousness across the world through temple sculptures, bhakti literature, poetry, musical forms, dance, and theatre. These are the skeletal iron grids which have held up the awesome majestic form of Cosmic Nataraja for centuries.

Śiva is the centre of the Universe, the Bindu, the point of singularity.

Śiva is a pillar of fire raging from the nether regions to the infinite space, with no beginning or end. Śiva is the Linga, a symbolic form of this fire. The concept of Ardhanariswara, where Śiva eternally places his wife Parvati on His left flank is the highest honour given to women. Śiva sends a message that man and woman are equal, dependent on each other for progeny and karmic activity in every life. This paper explores the spread of Śiva Consciousness through temples, bhakti literature, poetry, music, theatre, and dance.

Kings and Temples

Those in temporal power commanded the construction of temples embedded with sculptures that tell the tales from the Puranas and cosmic play of the gods. The sculptures were created to educate, invoke piety and awe in lay devotees.

The sculptures were poetry and Pauranik literature carved in stone for posterity. The temple idols and bas-relief sculptures were proof of the sophistication of the culture and civilization of the society down the ages. The Chola Kings were Śiva devotees, and they built many magnificent temples dedicated to him.

(Figure 1: Credit: Istock – Brahadeeshwara temple)

As early as two thousand years ago, Śiva temples dotted entire Bhārat from Kedārnāth in Uttarākhand to Rāmeswaram in Land’s End of the peninsula. Temples in Kashmir and Kāshi became throbbing centres of Saivism. The greatest royal dynasties like the Chola, Pāndyan, Pallavas and Vijayanagar Rayas have left behind majestic temples with astounding architectural details like the Brihadīswara at Thanjāvur and Gangaikoṇdaśolapuram. The Pāndyan kings built the Suṇdareśwara and Mīnakshi temples at Madurai. Vijayanagar Rāyās decorated their kingdom with best of ornamental pillars, idols, and towering temples like Mallikārjuna.Nāyaks were the patrons of Kāśi Viśwanātha Temple at Tenkāsi, Rāmanāthapuram Temple at Rāmeshwaram. All these temples were in adoration of Śiva the Supreme lord of the Universe. They stand proudly till today and thousands of Śiva devotees throng these temples on every festive occasion. There are twelve Jyotirlingam (12 Fire Temples) temples and five Paṇchabhūtha (Five Elements) temples dedicated to Śiva which loomed all over the country as evidence of the massive following of this Supreme Divinity.

Week-long annual festivities were held for artistes to perform. Theatrical dramas were performed by male actors. Every temple included a performance area where the spectators sat in front of an elevated stage. Temple doors, pillars, and bas-relief sculptures in Śiva temples like Chidambaram display dance postures.

Bhakti Literature

Bhakti is a personal affection one feels for a deity. Bhakti elevates the notion of spiritual consciousness encouraging the pursuit of knowledge and increasing yearning for closer connect with the Supreme. This yearning finds expression in traditions like literature, temples and as an outreach, performing arts. Each expression of devotion leads to another, and all are intertwined to build this enormous offering of devotion.

From the 4th century a massive movement of devotional literature poured from the stylus of poets, saints, philosophers, and royalty. The bhakti movement was an outpouring of song and poetry eulogising the attributes of Śiva, the legends surrounding Him. From the snowy mountains of Kashmir to the Land’s End of this peninsula, waves of religious fervour washed over seekers from north to south.

Kashmir the sacred land of Śiva, saw enlightened philosophers like Somadevā, Vasugupta, Kalāṭṭa Bhaṭṭa and Abhinavaguptā who brought to light ancient texts and Shastras like Śiva agamas which are rules of Śiva worship, Śiva Sutras and other texts leading to a system which came to be known as Kashmiri Śaivism. Ratnākara of Kashmir wrote a magnum opus, Hara Vijaya (Victory of Śiva). Poets personified themselves in various bonds including child, lover, and slave to express their ardent devotion.

(Figure 2: Mediacron – Acharya Abhinava Gupta Shaiva Tantric Guru from Kashmir)

The Śiva Agamas is a text revealed to Rishis and Munis of that Yuga thousands of years ago. When Mahadeva was in meditation in Mount Meru, the rishis approached Mahadeva to reveal divine cosmic secrets of leading a meaningful life. They received this wisdom as an aural message streaming from Śiva’s aura.

Lal Ded was a mystic yogini who took sannyās from Siddha Srikanta or Sed Bayu, a Śaivite Guru. She spread the teachings of Trika Śaivism in Kashmir through her sayings or vākh.

Her vākhs became popular among the lay devotees and village folk who could understand the simple words which cloaked esoteric truth.

“She urged a simple and spontaneous realisation of this ultimate reality by turning inwards”

Śiva is the sole reality and witness/In whichever direction you look.”

[Kaul Shonaleeka, Life Lessons from Lal Ded, Aleph 2019]

“It would be hard to deny the important role played by emotions in the religious and philosophical landscape of India, from the remote past to the present. The emotional attitude pervades most — if not all — intellectual and religious discourses of Indian culture. In a variety of knowledge traditions, emotions often provide a basis for the affective unfolding of conscious thought, thereby revealing its depth and intensity; emotions also constitute the most tangible and fundamental attitude in mankind’s quest for the sacred and self-discovery”.

[Emotions in Indian Thought-Systems an Introduction, Purushottama Bilimoria and Aleksandra Wenta]

The massive bhakti movement swept the country from the fourth century when poets and saints worshipped Siva with their inspired outpouring and whose music still rings in our ears today.

ĀdiŚankarāchārya (c 8thCE), a young poet-saint established four mutts or monasteries who would uphold and preach the dharma of Śiva Consciousness. Travelling on foot four times around the country, he sanctified Sringeri in the south, Dwāraka in the West, Jyotir Mutt in the North, and Puri in the East.

(Figure 3: Credit: Voyager – Jagadguru Adi shakaracharaya)

The heads of these Mutts were titled Śankarāchārya and they were the Shaivite strongholds who wield power till today. He composed devotional hymns in Sanskrit which combined the essence of bhakti mārgam or path of devotion.

The saints whose potential lay in their devotion and skill with words, expressed bhakti in poetry and song. Sixty-three Nāyanārs wrote inspired poetry on their visit to the Śiva temples. Their musical works are called Thevarams which recorded the origin of 276 temples, name of the deities, legends about the sacred tank, tree, the location and so on.

RājaRāja Cholan commanded his minister to collect the Thevarams and compile them into volumes and preserve it for posterity. He ruled that idols of the 63 Nāyanārs should be installed in all Śiva temples.

Nandanār, a field labourer is barred from going into the temple at Thirupunkur. As an outcaste he is not permitted to enter the temple but desperately tries to get a glimpse of the sanctum from the street. A huge Nandi sits blocking the way. He pleads to Śiva’s vehicle to move just a an inch so he can get a direct view. We see even today that the Nandi is turned away to the right giving a clear view of the Lingam inside the sanctum. This poignant story is described by the musician-composer Gopalakrishna Bharati in his natakam NandanarCharitram.

(Figure 4: Credit: Navarangindia – Thirupunkur Temple where Nandi moved towards right so that Nandanar could have darshan of the lingam inside the sanctum without getting inside the temple)

Karaikal Ammaiyār was a poet revered as a Nayanar who deliberately shed her physical beauty and took on extreme asceticism in her attempt to become a ghoul like Śiva’s attendants. Her ten verses (padikam) on Śiva at Tiruvālangādu is best known. This temple is believed to be the earthly spot where Śiva danced the UrdavaTāndavam.

(Figure 5: Flickr – Urdhva Tandava of Bhagavan Śiva)

The Nāyanārs in the South and poet-saints across the country were a formidable wall which protected Sanātana dharma from opposing faiths.

Sundarar, a venerated Nāyanār celebrated his devotion to Śiva in his Tevaram PonnarMeniyane where he describes Śiva as:

“Radiant form, tiger skin around his waist,

As He danced, red matted hairlocks

With a crescent moon, swirling around him

O precious gem of Thirumazhapādi”

We should also note that Nāyanārs hailed from all strata of Tamil society and three women poets were included in the list. This silent social acceptance indicated that there was awareness of Śiva’s message of parity and male-female equality. The poets celebrated their connection with Śiva as child, father, mother, friend, or lover.

This intense longing in a woman’s heart caused by separation from her lover became a significant theme in bhakti texts and dance. The soul (Jīvātma) was represented as the seeker of union with the (Paramātma) the Supreme.


When a poet composes and the musicians sing, the dancer must dance.

As early as the 9th century we have evidence of highly sophisticated evolution of dance and theatre. The Natya Sastra by Bharata Muni written approximately between 200 BCE to 200 CE.

It is believed that Brahma created the NātyaSāstra by culling aspects from the four Vedas and named NātyaSāstra as the Fifth Veda open to all castes.

It was Śiva and Pārvati who introduced Tāndava and Lāsya into the dramatic production of Bharata Muni. Śiva is therefore venerated as the God of Dance.

As the arts evolved, the themes of performances evolved into a religious and spiritual experience where lay devotees could watch Puranic stories being enacted in front of them. They could now understand and appreciate the messages given by the poems and songs.

History books and texts by historians hail the ‘Golden Era’ of the Gupta period of (4th to 6th CE). The ‘Golden Era’ of Thanjavur Marathas goes unheard by our historians. A treasure of literature, music, dance, and theatre was created by a battalion of poets and dramatists whose works languish on dusty shelves of the Saraswati Mahal Library. The works were mainly scholarly Telugu and Sanskrit texts on philosophy, religion, new texts and commentaries on music, dance, and theatre.

In the seventeenth century (1636 -1855 CE) when the Thanjavur Marāthās began their rule, a massive movement of Śiva bhakti washed over the region. The kings were deeply religious, spiritual scholars of Sanskrit, music, and poetry who worshipped Śiva Tyāgesa of Thiruvārur. Jai ŚivŚambho was their clarion call.

Their compositions on the various aspects of Śiva in hundreds of Padams, Prabandhams and yakśagānams in Telugu, Sanskrit, Marathi and Hindi had the pandits and devotees in thrall. From amorous content where the king was praised and adored, dancers began to perform legends and glory of Śiva. The play Sankara Kali Samvādham which describes the contest between Śiva and Kāli and Sankara Pallaki Seva Prabandham became popular.

The completely spiritual play MrutyunjayaChiranjīvi is the story of sixteen-year-old Mārkandeya, his intense faith in Siva and Śiva’s killing of Yama.

Śahaji Bhosle II composed a plethora of epithets to shower on his dear Śiva. He describes in couplets, Markandeya’s journey to twenty-three Śiva temples.

Beginning with Kashi, he says

Vāsavādinirjrāchitha deva Devakāshivishveshapāhimām

The Marathi-Sanskrit yakshaganam has an amazing collection of epithets describing the divine form of Śiva. KarpūraGātra, Sundara Vakktra, Sadāsavagotra, Girija Ardhakāya, Amararāya, Shubhotkarshādhīya, Bhavānishaya, Mahādbhutadaivata, ArdhatanuStripurshārthasamyukta, Sasmita Priyabhashana.

New words have been created for weapons, His one thousand holy names, saints who have sung about him, His ornaments, and valorous actions. The MrutunjayaChiranjīviyakśaganam has truly all elements which glorify and hail Śiva and Parvati.

The following verse of Todaya Mangalam is also fromMrutyunjaya Chiranjeevi. [Translated by the writer for her current National Tagore Fellowship project, “Design and Rhetoric of Maratha Yakshaganas”-Unpublished]

Jaya nāradādiVidheyageya

Jaya jaktavidheya


Jaya smithaarimāyajayaṣubothkarṣadhyeya

Jaya BhavānisahāyajayanamaṣivāyaII 2 II

(Whom Narada praises as a skilful Master

Immortal king, in union with the mountain daughter

A charming auspicious smile, and foes are tame

Let us live protected by chanting Śiva’s name)

[The translation is by the writer as part of her project as National Tagore Fellow-unpublished]

Śahaji would never have meals until the service at Śiva -Tyāgeśa temple in Thiruvarur was completed. A relay of bells will ring and after the last bell reaches the palace, he will sit down for his meal. The Marātha Rājas were devoted to Tyāgeśa of Thiruvārur, Brihadīswara and Chandramouliswara of Thanjāvur, and exerted themselves to renovate temples and offer worship on all festival days. They became role models for the lay people and Śiva bhaktas. Each of the twelve Thanjavur rajas contributed towards Bharatiya culture, literature, and arts. Tulja I composed Śivakāma-Sundari Parinayam a play on the wedding rituals of the deities. Other rajas who contributed were Pratapsinh and Serfoji II whose plays were performed with music and dance a temple dance-theatre by male Brahmin Bhāgavatas of the Melattur Bhāgavata Mela. The bhāgavatas were respected and honoured in the palace. Lay devotees could see the cosmic play and stories enacted by them, as education and entertainment. Devotees thronged the temples to worship and witness the bhāgavatas.

Palace dancers were exponents of the spiritual padas composed by the kings. Devadasi dancers were a special feature of Śiva temples. They were part of the worship and rituals and enjoyed a high status and respect. The temples gifted grain and land to the women of this unique cult. At the death of a ritual devadasi, the temple mourns, shuts for a day and a fire torch lit from the temple’s sanctum is taken to light the funeral pyre.

Sadir dancers who were attached to the palaces danced to the Śiva padas composed by the Marātha rājas.The palace dancers of Śahji Bhosle II performed his Śankara Pallaki Seva Prabandham at the Brihadeeswara temple for 200 years.

The famous Tanjore Quartet brothers who lived during this time were honoured as palace vidwans. They composed immortal compositions like Varnams, padam saddressed to Śiva and Kavuthvams for Sadir dancers several of which are still performed today by Bharata Natyam dancers.


Those who needed interpretation to understand the metaphysical and impenetrable Puranas listened to the kathakārs or story tellers

While story telling by bhāgavatās called katha kālakshepam was an established art, the Maratha influence transformed it into a musical art with instruments, rhythms and abhinaya or expression. Many Marāthi poets added abhangas or simple bhajans in racy rhythms to add variety to the performance.

The Harikathākar retold stories of Śiva and other deities interpolated with relevant songs. They used abhinaya or expressive dance for greater appeal. There were many types of storytelling. These sessions ended with a Nāmasaṇkīrthanam or congregational singing of holy names which energised the ambience with spiritual fervour.

Purana Pāthanam was reading out slokas and explanation of the meaning and context. A Pauranik had complete knowledge of Sāstras, Purānās, Itihasas, and Vedantic philosophy. The storytellers explained the story, the moral instructions behind the legends and myths. To give them relevance, they related them to mundane life situations. It was an evening of education, information and entertainment which evoked bhakti in the hearts of the listeners. The younger generation were thus introduced to religious scriptures at an early age.

There was Prasangam by Oduvars who specialised in the singing style of Tevarams and were the custodians of the Tirumurai, the 12 volumes of Shaivite Tamil religious literature.

Śiva consciousness thus spread through literature, poetry, music and dance throughout the country and these arts were the strong skeletal grids that has upheld the fervour and preserved knowledge over the centuries.

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Conference on Shaivism

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