Iconographic Representation of Adavallan/Dancing Shiva inspired by Karaikkal Ammai’s Poetry

The Radio broadcast of Dr. R. Kalaikkovan, Founder, Dr. M. Rajamanikkanar Centre for Historical Research, Thiruchirapalli (approximately 30 years ago), titled ‘ADAVALLAN’, was published in the previous post. That Talk has been the trigger factor for this post.

In spite of being repetitive, I tend to provide the same introduction of the Speech, that was written in the last post. This introduction would aid in explaining the path of this research.

In the Speech, he had dealt with the history of transformation or elevation of Shiva as the ‘Supreme Deity of Dance’, capturing the baton from other deities.

The 30 minute address, was by itself an extensive research on Adavallan. Like all other Talks by Dr. Kalaikkovan, this one was also a treasure trove of Facts and Evidences. Dr. Kalaikkovan makes the listener travel in a time machine, to experience in virtual reality, the evolution of the Dance of Shiva into the ultimate ‘Ananda Thandavam’, in the 10th century Tamil Iconography. The varied literary, sculptural and historical evidences on Dance, Dancers, Instrumentalists and Deities from Thamizhagam, as provided by the Speaker, cover a very long span of more than 1000 years- Sangam period to Chola renaissance.

Precisely, the engrossing speech has helped me understand the concept of Adavallan and the transformation of Shiva as the Lord of Dance, with evidences from Tamil Literary sources, spread across a millennia, starting from Tolkappiyam, the oldest known Grammar Book in Tamil. Additionally, it is a fascinating fact that the Distinct Sculptural Representation of Adavallan- Dancing Shiva in his Ananda Thandava Pose, has overwhelmed Historians, Philosophers and Scientists alike.


Dance/Koothu has been an integral part of the Tamil society from the centuries before common era till today. The oldest surviving Tamil Grammar text Tolkappiyam lists precisely the various kinds of Koothu and its performers. Koothu is a performance based on a story, a Dance Drama.

Dance/Koothu and its different forms, travelled from Tolkappiyam through the Post Sangam period of Epic literature, with Silappadhikaram providing a large scale description of all things related to Koothu, apart from Music, Dance and Performances. The word ‘Koothu’, discussed in Tolkappiyam, explained elaborately in Silappadhikaram, and featured in Bhakthi Literature, takes a special place in the inscriptions of the Medieval Cholas and continues to be a distinctive part of the Tamil Dance sphere in the 21st century CE, as ‘Therukkoothu’.

Silappadhikaaram, commonly believed to fall between 250 CE to 550 CE, is a perfect example of a literary work or Drama (classified as ‘Kaappiyam’ in Tamil), that glows as a complete ‘Theatre’, in terms of a Performing Art. The author/composer/poet Ilangovadigal, transports the reader into the depth of the story, and inspires to travel along with the characters. A fine ‘Theatre’, needs to captivate the audience with a good story that is emoted well. Silappadhikaram is a culmination of an immersing plot, intellectual screen play, distinct characters, emotions that create the perfect vibe with the spectator, a revolutionary female protagonist, and most importantly literary skills at its finest. It showcases the exemplary quality of Theatrical prowess that has been part of writers and poets in Thamizhagam from several previous centuries.

While Silappadhikaram (Silambu from now on) a written text, adapts itself very well to a Theatrical performance, ‘Arangetru Kaathai’ of Silambu is an all time Reference Book on Theatre. Arangetru Kaathai, which elucidates Dancer Madhavi accomplishing her maiden performance, also educates the reader on the ‘Golden Standards’ expected of a Dancer; the proficiency of the Teacher, who guides the Dancer and the expertise needed from the Musician and different kinds of Instrumentalists. Specifications of the stage layout to curtains to jewellery and many more aspects are also provided in detail. Additionally, the basics of Music and Dance are poetically described, which is a documentation of the highly developed stature of Performing Arts in Tamil Land as early as Silambu times.

Dance is a general term, that could denote the aesthetic movement of the body to a rythm or the movements of the leg and hand classified as Karanas. With the written evidence of Silambu as an outstanding store-house on details regarding Dance, including Koothu and its different forms, Dance travelled into Bhakthi Era with ease, but, with a major transformation.

Look at these verses in ‘Vazhakkurai Kaathai’ in Silambu.

அடர்த்தெழு குருதி அடங்காப் பசுந்துணிப்
பிடர்த்தலைப் பீடம் ஏறிய மடக்கொடி
வெற்றிவேல் தடக்கைக் கொற்றவை அல்லள்
அறுவர்க் கிளைய நங்கை இறைவனை
ஆடல்கண்டு அருளிய அணங்கு சூருடைக்
கானகம் உகந்த காளி தாருகன்
பேருரம் கிழித்த பெண்ணும் அல்லள்
செற்றனள் போலும் செயிர்த்தனள் போலும்
பொற்றொழிற் சிலம்பொன்று ஏந்திய கையள்
கணவனை இழந்தாள் கடையகத் தாளே 
                          (வழக்குரை காதை : 35-44)

A raging Kannagi arrives at the entrance of the court of Pandian Nedunchezhian,seeking justice for her husband’s unjust killing. Shaken by her angry posture, the Guard rushes to the King and reports-

‘A Lady waits at the gate. She is not Kotravai, who stands upon the head of a buffalo, with fresh blood oozing out, with her victorious spear in hand;

She is not Kali- the youngest of the seven virgin Goddesses, who dwells in the Forest; the one who made Shiva Dance, and the Lady who tore the mighty demon Darukan.’

Ilangovadigal, the author of Silambu, defines Kali through the voice of the Guard, – in four different connotations-

  1. she is youngest of the seven virgin sisters
  2. she is the one who literally blessed Shiva to be winner of the Dance contest
  3. she belongs to the Forest
  4. she is the Dame who tore Darukan to pieces.

Anangu – ‘iraivanai aadal kandu aruliya Anangu’ could mean, the Lady who let Shiva lead the Dance floor. A verbatim translation would mean – Anangu who saw the Dance of the Lord and blessed Him be the Supreme Dancer from then on; She who held the Supreme position, gave away Her position to Shiva.

This is an important narration, that throws the first literary flash of light on the Dance fight between Shiva and Kali in the forest. Nowhere is there any mention of Her defeat. The distinct change of Guard gets a very subtle note.

Dr. R. Kalaikkovan explains in detail in his book ‘Pen Theiva Vazhipaadu’, that Anangu possessed the authority as the Deity of Dances, from earlier times. After a competition, the baton was transferred to Shiva. The literary evidence on the transformation of Shiva as the God of Dances is clearly recorded in Silambu’s ‘Vazhakkurai Kaathai’ and the subsequent poetry of Karaikkal Ammai. (pgs.15-23, Dr. M. Nalini and Dr. R. Kalaikkovan, Pen Theiva Vazhipaadu – Thotramum Valarchiyum)

However, the late Sangam work Kalithogai introduces Shiva as the Eternal Dancer. In ‘Kadavul Vaazhthu’ or Invocation to God of Kalithogai, He dances the Kodukotti, Pandarangam and Kabaala koothu. In Kabaala Koothu, He dances with the skull in his palm. He wears the skin of a tiger in his waist and garland made of kondrai flowers hangs from his neck.

Dr. Kalaikkovan expounds in his Radio Talk-

Religion was part of the lives of people during the Sangam Age. We come to know from classics like Kalithogai, Paripadal and Thirumurugatruppadai, in the last years of the Sangam period, that Religion takes a larger and developed role in the society.

Next, with the Epic period of Silappadhikaram, Religion expands in the form of numerous Temples and worship flourishes.

With this background in mind, the works of Sambandhar, Navukkarasar and Karaikkal Ammaiyar have to be analyzed.

Thus, ‘Dance’ in Tamil Land has had a very long evolutionary trail. Initially, in the form of Koothu, it was performed by the common man in praise of native Gods (kotravai and velan to name a few); a few centuries later, Gods themselves became Dancers. Gradually, Shiva overthrows Kali and takes full hold of the Art Form. With the Bhakti movement, He is hailed as the most prominent Dancing God.

Karaikkal Ammai delicately points out the transformation of Shiva as the Supreme Dance Deity, in her poetry.

விழுது நிணத்தை விழுங்கியிட்டு

வெண்தலை மாலை விரவப்பூட்டிக்

கழுதுதன் பிள்ளையைக் காளியென்று

பேரிட்டுச் சீருடைத் தாவளர்த்துப்

புழுதி துடைத்து முலைகொடுத்துப்

(mootha thiruppathigam stanza 5)

One of the ghosts named its child, ‘Kali’. The name of Kali, the terrifying fighter-dancer still echoes in the forest of Thiruvaalangadu, where presently Shiva performs his powerful Dance.

சுழலும் அழல்விழிக் கொள்ளிவாய்ப்பேய்

சூழ்ந்து துணங்கையிட் டோடிஆடித்

தழலுள் எரியும் பிணத்தைவாங்கித்

தான்தடி தின்றணங் காடுகாட்டிற்

(mootha thiruppathigam stanza 7)

Shiva dances in the forest of Thiruvalangadu, where Anangu used to Dance.

கணங்கள் கூடிப் பிணங்கள்

மாந்திக் களித்த மனத்தவாய்

அணங்கு காட்டில் அனல்கை

யேந்தி அழகன் ஆடுமே.

(mootha thiruppathigam stanza 13)

Shiva dances with Fire on his Palm, in the Forest that belonged to Anangu.

These verses of Karaikkal Ammai, in contiuance to Silappadhikaram, validates that Literature is a phenominal historical evidence. Here, Ilangovadigal’s creation and Ammai’s composition provide evidences to the change of Guard in the Dance scene of Thamizhagam, in the mid centuries of the first millenia.

Next, as an extension to Ammai’s ‘Eternal Dancer of Thiruvaalangaadu’, the ‘Koothada vallan’ of Thirunaavukkarasar (Thirunaagechara Thiruthaandagam) and ‘Ponthillai Koothan’ of Thirumoolar (Thirukkoothu Dharisanam), Shiva dances through the Bhakthi Era and evolves as ‘Adavallan’ in the Ananda Thandava Pose.

Consequently, the continued prominence of the Dance of Shiva through several previous centuries, emerged as the Crowning Sculptural Excellence, during the era of the Medieval Cholas.

Dr. Kalaikkovan highlights in his talk, that the combination of three karanas, bhujangathrasitham (24), bhujangathrastharechitham (35) and bhujanganchitham (40) – all related to the leg lift due to ‘bhujanga’ – the presence of snake, might have resulted in the ecstatic Pose that the Cholas canonised for generations hitherto to come.

Karaikkal Ammai – the Radial Point

Keeping Karaikkal Ammai’s powerful poetry as the radial point, I intend to analyse and elaborate on the evidences provided by Dr. Kalaikkovan before and after Ammai, in context of Evolution of Shiva as the Eternal Dancer. There have been numerous speculations on the poets, who sang Kalithogai and whether, ‘Kadavul Vaazhthu’ was a later addition. If ‘Kadavul Vaazhthu’ of Kalithogai was a later addition, then Karaikkal Ammaiyar could be the first Poet to have projected Shiva as the fierceful Dancing God, in control of the Universe.

Each of the stanzas of the first Pathigam of Thiruvaalangadu shows that Thiruvaalangadu is the place where Shiva performed His Dance-

ஆடும் எங்கள் அப்பன் இடம் திருவாலங்காடே‘.

In the second Pathigam of Thiruvaalangadu, she admires the Dancer and addresses Him with different names-

‘அழகன் ஆடுமே/ குழகன் ஆடுமே/ பெருமான் ஆடுமே/ பரமன் ஆடுமே’

Yet, there is very little Dance related information in Ammai’s hymns.

Nevertheless, Ammai in her Thiruvaalangaattu Mootha Thiruppathigam, makes the reader watch the Supreme Dance of Shiva and presents a clear physical picture of the celestial performer with his unique ‘accessories’, thus providing an iconographic portrayal of Adavallan in words, to continue in stone and bronze, several hundred years beyond her life.

What aspects of her verses come close to the Chola ‘Dancing Shiva’ or what narratives of Ammai seem to have been adapted by the Chola Rulers through their Sculptors, is an interesting search. Beyond this, to explore the literary and historical sources from which Ammai could have adapted the philosophy of the Dance of Shiva in the graveyard, and one that she vociferously professed as the Supreme Dance of the Lord, would be a continued pursuit.

The stone sculpture of Adavallan at Thirunallam (Konerirajapuram) Temple, restored and renovated by Chola Queen Chembian Madevi in the 10th century.

The first Temple rebuilt by Chembian Madevi with her innovative architectural inclusions was Thirunallam. (For innovations of Chembian Madevi, refer post – chembian madevi- pioneer who introduced Ammai in Tamil Temples.) Among those innovations, she gives the Lord of Dance a special position by placing Adavallan in his distinct niche, surrounded by Ganas as instrumentalists. Watching His Dance are three special souls – Kali his Dance rival, Bringi the three legged hermit and Karaikkal Ammai, His Demon Devotee.

This is a first of its kind stone sculpture with almost all Agamic components in place, the Lord posing in Ananda Thandava, says Dr. Kalaikkovan.

Massive bronze Adavallan at the same temple, installed by Chembian Madevi.

The magnificent bronze sculpture is so far known to be the biggest in medieval history of its kind.

Glimpses of Ananda Thandava in Karaikkal Ammai’s works

The quintessential requisites of a Dance performance are manifested in all of Karaikkal Ammaiyar’s three works, but Thiruvaalangaattu Mootha Thiruppathigam provides a view of several elements of Dance and Music.

  • The Dancer – Shiva
  • The Stage – Thiruvaalaangaadu
  • The Dance – Mootha Thiruppathigam elates the reader narrating the ecstatic Dance of Shiva
  • Music – She talks about the 7 basic musical notes- thutham, kaikkilai, vilari, thaaram, uzhai, ili, osai (mootha thiruppathigam stanza 9)
  • The Instrumentalists – Ganas/Attendants
  • The Instruments – She mentions all 4 kinds of instruments- wind, string, percussion vessels and skin-head percussions (mootha thiruppathigam stanza 9).

Her songs are certainly a Devotee’s delight to watch in awe, the Cosmic Dance of Shiva – who is crowned as the Lord of Dance, in her thoughts, verses and devotion.

What is important here to us is, whether she provides any glimpse of the Pose of Ananda Thandavam that the medieval Cholas culminated in their ADAVALLAN ? What Karanas amongst the 108 are seen in Ammai’s hymns? Also, what other physical aspects of Chola Adavallan (almost 4 centuries later) could have been adapted from her verses?

Here is a brief analysis from Karaikkal Ammaiyar’s works – Thiruvaalangaattu Mootha Thiruppathigam (திருவாலங்காட்டு மூத்த திருப்பதிகம்), Thiru Irattai Manimaalai (திருவிரட்டை மணிமாலை) and Thiru Arputha Thiruvandhaathi (திருஅற்புதத் திருவந்தாதி), with respect to the sculptural iconography of Chola Adavallan, elements of which, could have originated from her words.

Both the Pathigams of Thiruvaalangaatu Mootha Thiruppathigam recreate the scenes of the graveyard in the night, where the Lord displays his fiercest steps.

The verses below say-

மண்டலம் நின்றங் குளாளம்இட்டு வாதித்து வீசி எடுத்தபாதம்

அண்டம் உறநிமிர்ந் தாடும்எங்கள் அப்பன் இடந்திரு ஆலங்காடே.

(mootha thiruppathigam stanza 4)

He stands in Mandala (half squat basic position in Dance) and performs ‘Ullaalam’ and throws his leg to reach the skies.

Urthuva Thandavam – By ‘veesi edutha paadham’ followed by, ‘andam ura nimirndhaadum’, Ammai shows the throw of the foot upwards. That’s a forceful, fearsome movement, which clearly declares his ‘Urthuva Thandavam’.

Lalatathilakam -The Karana that falls closest to ‘edutha paadham andam ura nimirndhaadum’ -‘Urthuva Thandavam’ could be Lalatathilakam. This falls under ‘Vrishchika Karana’ category – where the leg is flexed like the pincer of a scorpion. But, in Urthuva Thandavam, the leg is lifted upright towards the skies.

Ullalam – Arivanaar’s ‘Pancha Marabu’, an extensive Treatise on Dance and Music, is mentioned by Adiyaarkku Nallaar (14th century CE) in his commentory of ‘Silappadhikaram’. The period of Pancha Marabu is not known. If it is a Dance and Music Manual before 14th century CE, the explanation of ‘Ullaalam’ could be a commentary to Ammai’s usage. The Text talks about ‘Ullaalam’ in two places-

a. One, in the Music Section- as an equivalent to melodic variations given by a singer or an instrumentalist (Under Isai Marabu- sub division Ganda Marabu);

b. Two, in the Dance Section- as a leg movement in Dance. (Under Avinaya Marabu- sub division Kaalthozhil Marabu)

Ullaalam as a leg movement is explained as – குஞ்சித்த காலைச் சுற்றி யொற்றி அணைய வைப்பது- that could randomly translate to ‘lifting the bent foot and taking it to the other side in a rotating movement.

In this juncture, Dr. Kamil V. Zvelebil’s remarks, in his book- ‘Ananda Tandava of Siva Sadanrittamurti’, on the sculpture of Shiva Karana at Mahendravarma Pallava’s Rock cut temple at Siyamangalam (Avanibhajana Pallaveshwaram) shows a possible connect. He opines,

the left leg, lifted and bent (kuncita) with the simultaneous twist of the left hip to the front, is absolutely clearly present in this carving, and, what more, the snake which is responsible for the technical term under which the mode goes (i.e. bhujangatrasita ‘frightened-by-snake’) is also quite forcefully present, with its hood raised.

pg.17, Ananda-Tandava of Siva-Sadanrttamurti

Dr. Kalaikkovan reiterates in his Radio Talk that, the Dance of Shiva portrayed in Siyamangalam is the first Dance Sculpture in the sculptural history of Tamilnadu, known till today. This is the pioneer sculpture to all Ananda Thaandava sculptures of this Southern State of India.

In his article in varalaaru.com on Rajaraja’s depiction of Adavallan in Thanjavur Rajarajeshwaram Temple Paintings, he writes-

இறைவனின் பார்சுவ வலப்பாதம் கீழே குப்புறக் கிடக்கும் முயலகன் முதுகின் மீது ஊன்றியிருக்க, இடக்கால் குஞ்சித்த பாதத்துடன், புஜங்கத்ராசிதமாய் வலப்புறம் வீசப்பட்டுள்ளது.

அஞ்சைக்களக் கோயில், நம்மை மறந்தாரை நாம் மறக்க மாட்டேமால்! – 2 
இரா.கலைக்கோவன், மு.நளினி

  • The right leg of the Lord is in Parsuvam pressing the back of Muyalagan, and the left leg in a bent position (Kunchiththa kaal), is thrown to the right side in bhujangathrasitham.

If ‘Ullaalam’ in Karaikkal Ammai’s verse denotes music, then Shiva stands in Mandala position, sings Ullaalam and throws his Leg towards the skies.

If Ullaalam could be taken as a leg movement, (kaalthozhil marabu) then –

*a. Shiva stands in Mandala position

*b. bends one of his legs (kunchiththa kaal as in Panchamarabu), rotates it and throws it to the other side, that could lead to bhujangathrasitha or Anandha Thaandava

*c. next, lifts his leg to reach the skies, that fetched Him victory over Kali

Apart from *a. the Mandala position, the most important start position of a Dancer, there are two vigorous movements- *b. and *c.

Could these be ‘freeze shots’ of two of the several intense strokes, of a self-lost acrobatic Dancer amidst the Dead in the Grave? Freeze shots are a proud outcome of technological feat in today’s Camera World.

Did Ammai try to show through her verses, the extra-ordinary instance that froze in her mind while watching the eternal Dance of Shiva, her eyes never missing each ecstatic moment? The same freeze shots of the Cosmic Dancer that couple of centuries later, the Pallava sculptors at Siyamangalam (early 7th century) portrayed; And continued to portray in Panaimalai, Mamallapuram, Kanchi Kailasanathar Temple and many other places, each time beating their previous masterpieces.

Another instance, this time in Arputha Thiruvandhaathi, she asks the Lord to be cautious while performing his aggressive Dance; the narratives suggest this could be Urthuva Thandavam.

  • When you bang your feet on the floor the nether world shatters
  • When you raise high, your Head smashes the clouds
  • When your arms that are adorned with bracelet move, the directions scatter
  • The World cannot survive, O Lord, Dance with Care

The exact ‘leg lift’ of the Karana is not mentioned here, still the vigorous movements and the powerful strokes in these verses have made many scholars feel, this could be Urthuva Thandava in progress.

அடிபேரிற் பாதாளம் பேரும் அடிகள்

முடிபேரின் மாமுகடு பேரும் – கடகம்

மறிந்தாடு கைபேரின் வான்திசைகள் பேரும்

அறிந்தாடும் ஆற்றா தரங்கு

(arputha thiruvandhaathi stanza 77)

Ammai asks Shiva to be careful while performing his stormy strokes, that could destruct the world. She takes complete liberty in advising or even warning Him, in a caring mother’s tone.

In yet another verse of Mootha Thiruppathigam- With the sound of his anklets, Shiva lifts his leg in Vattanai. ‘Vattanai’ has been used by Thirunaavukkarasar and Thirugnanasambhandhar in their Thevaram hymns. The epic Manimegalai talks of Vattanai. Inscriptions in the temples of Thiruvaaimur mention the deity as ‘Vattanai Aadaludaiyar’ (Refer varalaaru.com). All usages of Vattanai refer to an element in Dance.

The phrase here is ‘kaaluyar vattanai’, which shows a further stretch of the leg.

கழல்ஒலி ஓசைச் சிலம்பொலிப்பக் காலுயர் வட்டணை இட்டுநட்டம்

அழல்உமிழ்ந் தோரி கதிக்கஆடும் அப்பன் இடந்திரு ஆலங்காடே.

(mootha thiruppathigam stanza 7)

The Dance of Shiva narrated by Ammai, a Trendsetter, led other Nayanmars to create their evolved narratives and later was adapted and captured by sculptors. That these were all Freeze Points of an ongoing elaborate performance, is further justified by the Hair of the Dancer that flows horizontally. A static Pose would not showcase hair that is wavy.

Tamil Bhakthi Movement

After the Post-Sangam Epic Period, Thamizhagam saw an earnest religious transformation, approximately from 4th to 5th century CE. For the Tamil society, already rich in its written Language and Literature that focussed more on Love and War, and less on religious bites, the Bhakti Movement raised by the devout Nayanmars (and Azhwars) brought in a huge cultural change.

Karaikkal Ammai is undoubtedly one of the esteemed pioneers of the Tamil Bhakti Movement. Her verses have inspired the works of other Nayanmars. Additionally, Ammai’s works that focus primarily on the Eternal Dance of Shiva can be seen as a stimulant to her successors in the Bhakti Movement and furthermore- Literature, Dance and Music that evolved from the same. Hence, her works may be seen as an inevitable catalyst in carrying forward the Legacy of the image of the Cosmic Dancer to its artistical best – Sculptures.

Navukkarasar converted Pallava King Mahendravarman I, (early 7th century- who installed the first Dancing Shiva sculpture of Tamilnadu in Siyamangalam) to Saivism. Such should have been the awe and reverence towards Lord Shiva and His Dance, conveyed by the hymns of Navukkarasar, that Mahendravarman erected the first sculptural marvel in his Cave temple.

Another Pallava King, who has made praiseworthy contribution to the portrayal of Dance sculptures in Karana forms was the most powerful Rajasimhan (Narasimhavarman II -early 8th century CE). Rajasimhan could be the first Southeast Asian Maritime Champion of the Tamil Trade, spreading as far as China, nearly 3 centuries before the massive maritime dominance of the Chola Champion Rajendra I, in the same waters. The Pallava King made his Sculptors transform the Poetry in words of the Nayanmars to Poetry in stone, and to carve the best Karanas in several of the classic temples he constructed.

Yet, the pioneer effort to literally carve a ‘Niche’ of the Ananda Thaandava of Shiva was Chembian Madevi, the Chola Queen’s achievement.

Interpretation of Ammai’s Dancing Shiva

Much has been discussed in the previous posts, on the stone sculptures of Dancing Shiva introduced by Chembian Madevi in the 10th century CE that show Karaikkal Ammai, sitting alongside Shiva watching his Dance. Chembian Madevi’s respect for the Devotion of Ammai made her bring in stone, the Demon Devotee along with the Lord.

The Timeless Pose of Ananda Thandava, elevated and glorified by the Cholas, could have been inspired by numerous factors. While reading the works of Ammai, one is pleasantly struck by her descriptions of the Dancing God, with ‘symbolic attributes’ that have become part of His iconography much later.

But, what features of the Dancing Shiva potrayed in the Chola Adavallan in the Ananda Thandava Pose were already specified by Ammai, prior to the sculptural glorification? Ammai’s poetry predominantly focuses on Shiva’s intense Dance in the graveyard in Mootha Thiruppathigam. In her other two works, she provides endless details on Puranic stories related to Shiva, thereby escalating the religious interpretations of her time to resonate through the glorious centuries of the Bhakthi Era.

The unambiguous admiration of Chembian Madevi for the Personality of Karaikkal Ammai is well visible in her sculptures. The admiration could be due to influence of the Dynamic Persona of Ammai, an epitome of Devotion that was reverred through centuries, but can be seen especially as an outcome of the reach of Ammai’s influential poetry. With the focus on Poetic verses, the several descriptions of the Dancer could not have missed the keen interest of Madevadigal, engrossed in creating a sculptural milestone with the Dance and the Eternal Dancer.

Dr. Kamil Zvelebil, aptly calls Shiva’s Ananda Thandava by several connotations like, ‘the Awesome Dance of Bliss’ and ‘the Dynamic Dance of Bliss’ and further feels it is ‘the dynamic dance of highest bliss’ (‘Ananda Tandava of Siva Sadanrittamurti’)

He asks in his book, “What are the diagnostic features of a well-defined ananda-tandava irrespective of whether the fabric of the icon is stone or metal, or whether it is a painting ?”

He has listed the basic iconographic features of Shiva in Ananda Thandava Pose. I have made a brief version of the list, from head to toe.

  1. Horizontally flowing matted hair
  2. In his hair, are found flowers, a skull, a snake, river Ganga on the right and crescent moon on the left
  3. Snakes around his right arm
  4. Woman’s earrings on the left ear and a man’s Makara Kundalam on the right ear
  5. Fire on the upper left palm and he holds ‘thudi’ or a double sided drum on his upper right arm
  6. Gajahastha (hands that resemble the trunk of elephant) in his lower left hand and Abhaya Mudra (gesture that shows protection) in his lower right hand
  7. Sacred thread
  8. Sash fixed around his waist that flutters
  9. A small chain with a tiny bell around his left calf
  10. Left leg raised towards the right
  11. right leg slightly bent, placed on Muyalakan
  12. And, the whole compostion of Ananda Thandava should be surrounded by a Fire Arch

The bronze sculptures of Advallan are always represented with the Fire Arch.

The list shows a much evolved and elaborate version of the features of Lord Shiva, performing the Ananda Thandava, developed through centuries of Karana based Pallava craftsmanship to novel Chola expertise.

Our search would be to trace these above mentioned features of Ananda Thandava in Karaikkal Ammai’s portrayal of the Lord of Dance.

Horizontally flowing matted hair

The first stanza of Mootha Thiruppathigam, talks about Lord Shiva’s flowing matted hair that sways in all eight directions.

தங்கி அலறி உலறு காட்டில் தாழ்சடை எட்டுத் திசையும்வீசி

அங்கங் குளிர்ந்தனல் ஆடும்எங்கள் அப்பன் இடந்திரு ஆலங்காடே.

(Mootha Thiruppathigam- kongai thirangi – stanza 1)

Another interesting aspect of Shiva’s hair is that, it is unknotted and it flows down. The phrases தாழ்சடை, சடைச்செம்பொன் நீள்முடி, தாழ்ந்த சடையானை- emphasise his long hair that flows down, making it flexible to sway in all directions. Later, Appar also illustrates this as ‘பணித்த சடையும் பவளம்போல் மேனியும்’.

In his hair, are found flowers, a skull, a snake, river Ganga on the right and crescent moon on his left

Below verses of Ammai’s Thiru Irattai Manimaalai, give details of His hair and its adornments. River Ganga flows and the crescent moon beautifies His Hair; The strands that flow horizontally are decorated with irukku, kondrai and vanni flowers; There is also a snake in his matted golden long hair (சடைச்செம்பொன் நீள்முடி) . There is no mention of a skull in the hair.

வளர்ந்துந்து கங்கையும் வானத் திடைவளர் கோட்டுவெள்ளை

இளந்திங் களும்எருக் கும்மிருக்குஞ்சென்னி ஈசனுக்கே.

(Thiru Irattai Manimalai stanza 1)

திரைக்கின்ற கங்கையும் தேன்நின்ற கொன்றையும் செஞ்சடைமேல்

விரைக்கின்ற வன்னியுஞ் சென்னித் தலைவைத்த வேதியனே

(Thiru Irattai Manimalai stanza 7)

snake on His matted hair-

பொராநின்ற கொன்றைப் பொதும்பர்க் கிடந்துபொம் மென்றுறைவாய்

அராநின் றிரைக்குஞ் சடைச்செம்பொன் நீள்முடி அந்தணனே

(Thiru Irattai Manimalai stanza 3)

சங்கரனைத் தாழ்ந்த சடையானை அச்சடைமேற்

பொங்கரவம் வைத்துகந்த புண்ணியனை – அங்கொருநாள்

(Thiru Irattai Manimalai stanza 6)

In Arputha Thiruvanthaathi, Ammai mentions about moon on His hair. In stanza 50, the crescent moon is on the right.


வலப்பால் அக்கோல மதிவைத்தான்

(Arputha Thiruvanthaathi stanza 50)

In stanza 71, moon is placed on the left. The interesting lines state two ‘Paavais’/women who have found place in his body- madapaavai/river Ganga on His hair and malaippaavai/Shiva’s spouse Umai, who takes the left half of the Lord.

இடப்பால வானத் தெழுமதியை நீயோர்
மடப்பாவை தன்னருகே வைத்தால் – இடப்பாகங்
கொண்டாள் மலைப்பாவை கூறொன்றுங் கண்டிலங்காண்
கண்டாயே முக்கண்ணாய் கண்.

(Arputha Thiruvanthaathi stanza 71)

Snakes around his right arm

He has Snakes not only on his matted hair as mentioned above. Snakes are also present around his waist and around his arms in the below noted verses-

around His waist- ஆடும் அரவம் அரையில்/aadum aravam araiyil

சூடும் மதியம் சடைமேல் உடையார் சுழல்வார் திருநட்டம்

ஆடும் அரவம் அரையில் ஆர்த்த அடிகள் அருளாலே

(Mootha Thiruppathigam- etti ilavam- stanza 11)

around His arms- அரவப் புயங்கன்/arava puyangan

காடுங் கடலும் மலையும் மண்ணும் விண்ணும் சுழல அனல்கையேந்தி

ஆடும் அரவப் புயங்கன்எங்கள் அப்பன் இடந்திரு ஆலங்காடே

(Mootha Thiruppathigam – kongai thirangi- stanza 8)

There seems to be no mention of woman’s earrings on the left ear and a man’s Makara Kundalam on the right ear.

Fire on the upper left palm

In several places, Shiva holding Fire on his Palm is mentioned. Three places are quoted here- Stanzas 8, 13 and 18 of Mootha Thiruppathigam.

காடுங் கடலும் மலையும் மண்ணும் விண்ணும் சுழல அனல்கையேந்தி

ஆடும் அரவப் புயங்கன்எங்கள் அப்பன் இடந்திரு ஆலங்காடே.

(Mootha Thiruppathigam- kongai thirangi- stanza 8)

கணங்கள் கூடிப் பிணங்கள் மாந்திக் களித்த மனத்தவாய்

அணங்கு காட்டில் அனல்கை யேந்தி அழகன் ஆடுமே.

(Mootha Thiruppathigam – etti ilavam- stanza 2)

முந்தி அமரர் முழவின் ஓசை முறைமை வழுவாமே

அந்தி நிருத்தம் அனல்கை ஏந்தி அழகன் ஆடுமே.

(Mootha Thiruppathigam- etti ilavam- stanza 7)

He holds damarugam or a double sided drum on his upper right arm

The verses below elucidate the depth of knowledge Ammai had in Music and the instrumental accompaniments in a good Dance Event.

Ammai’s songs are a store house of musical information. The list of instruments given by Ammai is quite long.

She refers to the seven basic notes in music -thutham, kaikkilai, vilari, thaaram, uzhai, ili and osai (kural) and specifies all four kinds of instruments – wind, string, percussion vessels and skin head percussions. Shiva sings with all music notes in place and He dances flawlessly playing those instruments or dances to the music of the instruments.

In Ammai’s verses, He holds Damarugam, the double sided drum, that is part of the later ‘Ananda Thandava’ sculptures.

துத்தங் கைக்கிள்ளை விளரிதாரம்

உழைஇளி ஓசைபண் கெழுமப்பாடிச்

சச்சரி கொக்கரை தக்கையோடு

தகுணிதம் துந்துபி தாளம்வீணை

மத்தளங் கரடிகை வன்கைமென்றோல் தமருகங்

குடமுழா மொந்தை வாசித்

தத்தனை விரவினோ டாடும்எங்கள்

அப்பன் இடந்திரு ஆலங்காடே. 

(Mootha Thiruppathigam- kongai thirangi- stanza 9)

Below she speaks of thudi and parai, two of the oldest percussion instruments of the Tamils.

கொடுவெண் மழுவும் பிறையுந் ததும்பக் கொள்ளென் றிசைபாடப்

படுவெண் துடியும் பறையுங் கறங்கப் பரமன் ஆடுமே.

(Mootha Thiruppathigam- etti ilavam- stanza 9)

Sacred thread

There are a few places in Thiruvirattai Manimaalai that acknowledge Shiva as ‘Anthanan’.

அராநின் றிரைக்குஞ் சடைச்செம்பொன் நீள்முடி அந்தணனே (stanza 3)

அந்தணனைத் தஞ்சமென்றாட்பட்டார் ஆழாமே (stanza 4)

She also addresses Him as ‘Vedhiyan’.

வேதியனை வேதப் பொருளானை வேதத்துக் காதியனை ஆதிரைநன்னாளானை (stanza 8)

In Arputha Thiruvanthaathi, she says He wears the sacred thread on his chest.

முப்புரங்கள் அன்றெரித்தான் மூவா நுதற்கண்ணான் தன்மார்பின் நூல் (stanza 32)

Other additional attributes like the sash fixed around his waist and a small chain with a tiny bell around his left calf must be later inclusions, in the Chola Adavlallan. For Ammai, the sash in the waist too is a Snake, as seen above.

Muyalagan doesn’t appear in Ammai’s verses. It might have been a later addition too. Tamilnadu’s first sculptural representation of Shiva as a Dancer in Mahendravarman I’s Siyamangalam (early 7th century CE), doesn’t have Muyalagan. The sculpture in Siyamangalam, is a perfect example of the lift of leg, as a foremost impulse created by the fright of snake. It is again a perfect adaptation of Sakaladhikaram, where Karkotaka the snake, appears while Shiva begins to dance under a banyan tree. The intelligent sculptor of Siyamangalam, re-emphasises this, with the presence of a snake near the feet of Shiva. Here, the motive seems to be the representation of Karkotaka. Muyalagan doesn’t appear, simply because he is not part of the sequence.

But, in another marvellous rock cut temple of the same Pallava King Mahendravarman in Thiruchirappalli – Lalithangura Pallaveswara Gruham, Muyalagan gets his place, but not with the Dancer Shiva. The Gangadhara panel in the temple, displays a mighty Shiva who stands elegant yet majestic. His right foot is placed on the head of Muyalagan, and Muyalagan’s left arm holds Shiva’s foot.

courtesy: tamilnadu-favtourism.blogspot.com and vikatañ.com

Karaikkal Ammai’s Dancing Shiva also wears two adornments on his feet – kazhal and silambu


ஆலாலம் உண்டிருண்ட கண்டத்தான் செம்பொற் கழல்

(thiruvirattai manimaalai stanza 10)

கழல்ஒலி ஓசைச் சிலம்பொலிப்பக் காலுயர் வட்டணை இட்டுநட்டம்

அழல்உமிழ்ந் தோரி கதிக்கஆடும் அப்பன் இடந்திரு ஆலங்காடே.

(Mootha Thiruppathigam -kongai thirangi- stanza 7)

கழற்கொண்ட சேவடி காணலுற்

றார்தம்மைப் பேணலுற்றார்

(thiruvirattai manimaalai stanza 11)


பேரிரவில் ஈமப்

பெருங்காட்டில் பேயோடும்

ஆரழல்வாய் நீயாடும் அங்கு

(arputha thiruvanthaathi stanza 51)


கண்ணுதலான் கோலத் திருவடியின் மேயச் சிலம்பு

(arputha thiruvanthaathi stanza 67)

kazhal and silambu in the feet, Shiva’s bracelet – ‘kadagam’ is cited in Arputha Thiruvanthaathi.


மறிந்தாடு கைபேரின்

வான்திசைகள் பேரும்

அறிந்தாடும் ஆற்றா தரங்கு

(Arputha Thiruvanthaathi stanza 77)

He wears the skin of spotted deer (on his waist) and the skin of the tiger lies on his shoulders.

புள்ளி உழைமான் தோலொன் றுடுத்துப் புலித்தோல் பியற்கிட்டுப்

பள்ளி இடமும் அதுவே ஆகப் பரமன் ஆடுமே. 

(Mootha Thiruppathigam stanza 16)

He also wears the skin of elephant

எண்ணினேன் யானேயக் கைம்மா உரிபோர்த்த

கண்ணுதலான் வெண்ணீற்ற அம்மானுக் காளாயினேன்

(Arputha Thiruvanthaathi stanza 7)


கைம்மாவின் ஈருரிவை

மூவுருவும் போர்த்துகந்த

அம்மானுக் காட்பட்ட அன்பு

(Thiruvirattai Manimaalai 16)

The composition of Ananda Thandava should be surrounded by a Fire Arch.

In all the three works of Ammai, Fire is a major element during the eternal performance. This, is apart from the Fire in the palm of the dancer.

A few examples –

‘Our Lord dances in the midst of Fire, yet His body is cool’-

அங்கங் குளிர்ந்தனல் ஆடும்எங்கள்

அப்பன் இடந்திரு ஆலங்காடே

(Mootha Thiruppathigam- kongai thirangi- stanza 1)

He dances amidst ‘the Fire of burning the dead in the grave’-

துள்ளிச் சுடலைச் சுடுபிணத்தீச்

சுட்டிட முற்றுஞ் சுளிந்துபூழ்தி

அள்ளி அவிக்கநின் றாடும்எங்கள்

அப்பன் இடந்திரு ஆலங்காடே 2

(Mootha Thiruppathigam- kongai thirangi- stanza 2)

This stanza is filled with Fire –

a. The ghost/ghoul, with eyes of Fire that roll

b. The ghost grabs the body that is burning in Fire

c. In such a grave, the Lord dances hurling Fire allover

சுழலும் அழல்விழிக் கொள்ளிவாய்ப்பேய் சூழ்ந்து துணங்கையிட் டோடிஆடித்

தழலுள் எரியும் பிணத்தைவாங்கித் தான்தடி தின்றணங் காடுகாட்டிற்

கழல்ஒலி ஓசைச் சிலம்பொலிப்பக் காலுயர் வட்டணை இட்டுநட்டம்

அழல்உமிழ்ந் தோரி கதிக்கஆடும் அப்பன் இடந்திரு ஆலங்காடே.

(Mootha Thiruppathigam – kongai thirangi- stanza 7)

‘Our God dances in Thiruvaalangadu, where the Fire of the dead glows like a Lamp’-

………………………………………..தக்கவர் இட்டசெந் தீவிளக்கா

முந்தி அமரர் முழவின்ஓசை திசைகது வச்சிலம் பார்க்கஆர்க்க

அந்தியில் மாநடம் ஆடும்எங்கள் அப்பன் இடந்திரு ஆலங்காடே

(Mootha Thiruppathigam – kongai thirangi- stanza 10)

‘We pray to our God, whose body glows with the radiance of Fire’-

தழற்கொண்ட சோதிச் செம் மேனிஎம்

மானைக்கைம் மாமலர்தூய்

(Thiruvirattai Manimaalai 11)

‘Our God who adorns the bones of the dead, dances in the Fire in the form of Flame/Light’-


என்பறாக் கோலத் தெரியாடும் எம்மானார்க்

கன்பறா தென்னெஞ் சவர்க்கு 2

(Arputha Thiruvanthaathi stanza 2)

‘In the darkest of nights, when You dance in the graveyard, in the mouth of Fire’-


பேரிரவில் ஈமப் பெருங்காட்டில் பேயோடும்

ஆரழல்வாய் நீயாடும் அங்கு

(Arputha Thiruvanthaathi stanza 51)

These are a few of the several instances, where Fire is associated with Shiva Himself. His Dance and the Stage are all surrounded by Fire and explained with idioms of Fire. He is glorified as the Eternal Dancer, performing the Dance where the Universe trembles- in the night, amidst the dead. Most importantly, the Light that illuminates His Dance is the Fire that burns the dead. He is surrounded by Fire and He is the Fire Himself.

The symbolisation of the Arch of Fire that surrounds the Ananda Thandava of Shiva, could have been sculpturally a later aesthetic or philosophical addition. But in the verses of Ammai, the feature of Fire and its significance to the Dance of the Shiva is astounding. Her words portray such a spectacular theatrical performance that, a reader, irrespective of his/her inclination towards religion, art or history would be spellbound by the Dance, the Dancer and the distinction of several elements related to both.

Other aspects of Shiva- thiruneeru/sacred ash on His body; kannudhal/third eye on forehead; mukkannaai/one with three eyes; irunda gandam/stained throat; aadhirai nannaalaan/His special day is Thiruvaadhirai; munbaayina thalai odugal korthavai/He wears the garland of skulls are all remarked upon in Ammai’s hymns.

Additionally, Karaikkal Ammaiyar brings several Puranic stories related to Shiva, to limelight in the Worship of the Tamils-

a. He hails superior to Thirumaal and Brahma (Arputha Thiruvanthaathi 19)

b. Destroys the Lord of Death-Yama (Arputha Thiruvanthaathi 80)

c. Reduces Kama/manmadhan to ashes (Arputha Thiruvanthaathi 89)

d. Ravana shakes Mount Kailash and Shiva restrains him with His toe (Thiru Irattai Manimaalai14)

e. He disguises Himself as Pichai Thevar (Arputha Thiruvanthaathi 74)

f. Shiva, the destroyer of Thiripuram, the three citadels of the demons (Thiru Irattai Manimaalai15; Arputha Thiruvanthaathi 27, 32, 34, 37)

g. Shiva’s war with Arjuna (Arputha Thiruvanthaathi 62)

h. One who possesses the Bull (Thiru Irattai Manimaalai 19)

i. He destroys the Demon in the form of Elephant and wears the skin (Arputha Thiruvanthaathi stanza 7; Thiru Irattai Manimaalai 16)

So far, the iconographic elements of Shiva, apart from those included in the evolution of Anandha Thandava of Adavallan were discussed. The purpose was to highlight Karaikkal Ammai’s depth of religious thoughts, creativity of poetic skills that should have been the result of immense knowledge of language- grammar and literature, extensive awareness of the ascendancy of Shiva worship, and conviction to create a well defined order of worship in one’s own mother tongue. All these and more, as early as 6th century CE especially by a young Woman, who rejected worldly pleasures for the Devotion of God.

Several of the basic features of the Chola Adavallan, presented in grandeur by Chembian Madevi had already been portrayed by Karaikkal Ammai in her three works. Ammai celebrates Shiva as the Cosmic Dancer and glorifies Dancing Shiva, as the core of Saiva Worship.

She was the Demon Devotee, who elevated the concept of Dance into Religion. She was instrumental in augmenting the Dance of Shiva to be an essential part of art and architecture, especially the Temple Architecture of the Pallavas and the Cholas.

The first time, the Cosmic Dancer in His evolved Ananda Thandava Pose, was addressed with an exclusive name, that referred to His excellence in Dance, and was documented in stone, was in the inscription of Madhuranthaka Uthama Chola, son of Chembian Madevi.

An inscription on the North wall of the Thiru Aalandhuraiyaar Temple (now called Vaathamoolesvara Temple) at Kizhapazhuvur, Thiruchirappalli Disctrict, that belongs to the 12th regnal year of Madhuranthaka, states-

‘ஆடவலாறை ஆட்டுகின்ற செம்பொற் கூடம் இட்டது’

A golden hall was built, for the purpose of religious swinging of Adavallar.

pg. 286, Inscription No. 681, South Indian Inscriptions volume 5

The Ecstatic Dancer of Ammai-

performed Karanas during the Pallava era;

revealed His Ananda Thandava Pose in the temples of Parantaka Chola (father-in-law of Chembian Madevi), in miniature stone sculptures and

enthralled the world with his magnificent Ananda Thandavam in exclusive life-size niches in the monumental temples of Chembian Madevi;

Madhuranthaka Uthama Chola, son of Chembian Madevi, proclaimed the Lord of Dance as ‘Adavallan’, for the first time in inscriptions;

It was Rajaraja I, the Great who passionately glorified the Dancing God as ‘Adavallan’, in all ways possible.

The evolution of the Dance of Shiva from the verses of Karaikkal Ammai to Rajaraja’s Adavallan, and claiming a place in Geneva based, European Council for Nuclear Research- Conseil Européen pour la Recherche Nucléaire (CERN), in the 21st century is truly extra ordinary, that only the Eternal Dancer of the Universe and beyond, can elucidate.


  1. Dr. R. Kalaikkovan and Dr.M. Nalini, Pen Deiva Vazhipaadu, Thotramum Valarchiyum

2. Kalaimanisiva, R, Karaikalammaiyar Vazhvum, Vakkum

3. நூல் அறிமுகம்: டாக்டர் மு.வளர்மதி, பறை – இசைக் கருவி ஓர் ஆய்வு

4. Dr. Kamil V. Zvelebil, Ananda-Tandava of Siva-Sadanrttamurti

5. C. Sivaramamurti, Nataraja in Art, Thought and Literature

6. Karaikkal Ammai, Pathinoram Thirumurai

7. கி.ஸ்ரீதரன், varalaaru.com, வட்டணை ஆடல் கண்ட திருவாய்மூர் திருக்கோயில் 

8. Dr. V.P.K. Sundaram, Panchamarapu

9. K.R. Srinivasan, The Pallava Architecture of South India/ ASI publication

10. Dr.R.Kalaikkovan and Dr.M.Nalini, varalaaru.com, ஆடற்கலை வாயிலாக அறியப்படும் தமிழின் தொன்மையும் தமிழர் பெருமையும் – 2 

11. Dr. R. Kalaikovan, varalaaru.com, தேர்க்குரவைகள்

12. Dr. V. Murugan, Tolkappiyam in English

13. Pgs 149-154, Dr. R. Kalaikkovan, தமிழக ஆடற்கலை, உலகத் தமிழ்ச் செம்மொழி மாநாடு  : கோவை-சிறப்பு மலர்

14. Vidwan K.M. Venkatramaiya, காரைக்கால் அம்மையார் அருளிச் செய்த அற்புத்த் திருவந்தாதி குறிப்புரைகளுடன், (published in 1949)

15. கலித்தொகை, நச்சினார்க்கினியர் உரையுடன்

16. pg. 286, Inscription No. 681, SII volume 5

17. S. Kamalakkannan, varalaaru.com, சோழதேசத்தில் ஒரு சேரர் கோயில் – 2 

18. https://www.vikatan.com/spiritual/temples/devotional-story-of-sculptures-may-5th-2020

19. Panchamarabu PDF

20. அறிவணார் இயற்றிய பஞ்ச மரபு : மூலமும் உரையும் இசைத்தமிழ் நூல் அடிக்குறிப்புகளுடன்

Video Link

Parai, Mother of Percussion

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