Dance as a form of Worship

The intimate association of dance with religion and as a ritual, a form of worship in the temples is well established. The institution of the Devad?sis, servants of the God, contributed in perpetuating and preserving the art. In ancient times, the system of dedicating young dancers to the temples as devad?sis seems to have prevailed.

Dance has special mention in two important Tamil works Silappadikaram and Manimekhalai of the Sangam age ( 500 B.C – 500 A.D ).
The sacred texts of the Shaivagamas prescribed the mode of worship and referred to the consecration of dancing girls in the service of the gods. The temples were not only places of communication between man and God, but also strongholds of the Arts.
In the beautiful Nata-Mandapas (dance-halls) of the magnificient temples, the devad?sis used to perform ritual dances as votive offerings to the presiding Dieties.

Sculptural and Historical Evidence


The present BharataN?tyam can be traced back to this form. It has been established from the sculptural evidence, that the technique of movement which this style follows can be traced back to the 5th century, the position common to the classical dance ( m?rgi style ) was the ardhamandali position (also called aramandi , with the out-turned knees. By the 10th century A.D. , this basic position was common to dance styles from Orissa to Gujarat and from Khajuraho to Trivandrum. From about the 10th century A.D. in sculptures of dance, we find that basic position of the lower limbs is common to relics in particularly every part of India.

After the 10th century, BharataN?tyam seems to have developed chiefly in the South and gradually came to be restricted to what is now known as Tamil Nadu. From chronicles we learn that the Chol? and the Pallava kings were great patrons of the arts. King Chola not only maintained dancers in the Temples in his kingdom, but was a very great connoisseur of music and dance. The tradition of the NatyaSh?stra appears to have been widesprread. The accuracy with which the artists of the Brihadeeshwara temple in Thanjavur have illustrated the karanas of the fourth chapter of the NatyaSh?stra is adequate proof of their understanding of the laws of the dance movement.

The magnificient temples built in the South during the rule of the Pallavas and the Cholas (4th century A.D – 12the century A.D)are a living testimony of their love for architecture, sculpture, paintings and primarily their belief in religion and devotion to the Gods. The Chola Kings maintained hundreds of Dancers in the temples. The tradition was nurtuted, sustained and kept alive by the successive Pandya, Nayakas and Maratha Rulers till the end of the 19th century. The Bhakti movement, the poets, the V?ggeyak?ras, the saints, the musicians and composers helped the growth of this art.

About the 14th century A.D. we find that technical illustrations of dance movements were made in the Sh?rangap?ni temple at Kumbakonam and in the four magnificent gopurams of theNatar?ja Temple in Chidambaram. Illustrations of the charis and the karanas are found in temples of Gangaikonda, Cholapuram, Kumbakonam, Madurai and Kancheepuram. The sculptural evidence can be supplemented amply by the Sh?stras, textual criticisms, historical chronicles and creative literature.
Between the 14th and 17th centuries, there was much repetition of dance poses already sclupted in the three main temples mentioned above.

Literary Evidence 

From the creative literature in Tamil, Telugu and Kanada, one can easily conclude that the dance was a vigorous and living art. During the Marath? rule ( AD 1674 – 1854 ) over Thanjavur the art of BharataN?tyam received considerable fillip.King Sh?haji ( 1684 – 1711 ) wrote nearly five hundred padams ( short poetic compositions ). These marathi padams are found in the form of palm-leaf manuscripts in the Telugu script. These manuscripts are preserved in the Saraswati Mahal Library at Thanjavur. King Tulaja II ( 1763 – 87 ) wrote the Sangitasamrita which deals with adavus, the basic dance steps, is a landmark in the dance literature. During the reign of King Serfoji II (A.D 1798-1832), the tradition of bharataN?tyam received its definite shape from the Thanjavur Quartet Chinayya, Ponnayya, Vadivelu and Sivanandam, the four brothers who were disciples of the composer Muthuswami Dikshitar, one of the trinity of Carnatic music.


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