Dancing Siva Never Dances Alone: UF Dissertation Project Receives Tedder Funding

Jodi Shaw (Ph.D. Candidate, Asia) is currently an American Institute of Indian Studies Language Fellow (2017-2018) studying Tamil in South India. This is in preparation for her upcoming research in the fall of 2018 when she will travel to Chidambaram, Tamil Nadu in order to gather oral stories, as well as visit the archives of the French Institute of Pondicherry for her dissertation entitled, “The Goddess and Dancing Śiva in the Multiple Ritual Worlds of Chidambaram.” For this purpose, she has generously been awarded a Tedder Family Doctoral Fellowship in the Humanities through UF’s Center for the Humanities and the Public Sphere.

The Center for the Humanities & the Public Sphere, with the support of the Tedder Family Endowed Research Award in the Humanities, offers select UF doctoral candidates working on humanities topics, especially those that are interdisciplinary. This fellowship may be used to cover research expenses, including travel, related to their dissertation project.

Shaw was asked to describe her project, and she wrote the following:

Śiva Naṭarāja (Lord of Dance), along with his consort, is the central deity of the Chidambaram temple (a Hindu religious, cultural, and intellectual hub for over ten centuries). In the 20th century he was transformed from a significant South Indian God to a trans-global phenomenon representing Indian art, philosophy, and science. As the globally recognizable Dancing Śiva he inevitably dances alone. However, in Chidambaram he is never alone. One form of the Great Goddess is always by his side, while another form is crucial for his ritual efficacy. Naṭarāja is the central focus, but the Goddess is everywhere in this great temple town.

The motorcycle is part of Shaw’s “Goddess is everywhere and Siva never dances alone” hypothesis. Gainesville is used to seeing motorbikes like this, but instead of a gator sticker on the back of windshields, here they are of the goddess Nataraja and Sivakamasundari on motorcycles, auto rickshaws, and cars.

Previous Chidambaram related scholarship (Natarajan 1994; Younger 1995; Smith 1996; Handelman and Schulman 2004) emphasizes the importance of the Goddess, but always as a subject for further study. Such studies focus instead on the imperial building projects, the ritual specialists, the elite literature, and the stories of Śiva Naṭarāja. My research asks: what happens when you tell the story with a different emphasis and thus from a different perspective? I focus on two forms of the Goddess found in Chidambaram: Śivakāmasundarī (The Lovely One Whom Śiva Desires) who is always beside him, and Tillai Kāḷi Amman (Mother Kāḷi of the Tillai/Mangrove [forest]) who resides in her own temple in what was once the outskirts, or border (ellai) of Chidambaram.

I contend one cannot understand Chidambaram or Dancing Śiva without the Goddess. She is integral to devotional, ritual, and philosophical Śaivism (a sectarian branch of Hinduism). I also argue that to understand Chidambaram, Śiva as Naṭarāja, and the Goddess, it is essential to include the voices and practices of non-elites, especially women, who are traditionally left out of the historical archives. Their voices and practices undergird the nexus of ritual life. This is evident in how women of the hereditary priestly community are considered equal to Śivakāmasundarī as well as in the devotional work many locals perform on a daily basis. Their versions and interpretations of the temple tales are a missing piece of the story of a temple which has been sung about since the 7th century, receives throngs of visitors every year, and is home to one of the most recognizable images from India. Another feature I highlight is the importance of Tillai Kāḷi. According to local scholars, her worship is compulsory for the completion, and therefore efficacy, of Naṭarāja worship (Dikshitar 1969; Natarajan 1994). Thus, while Śiva is always consorted, I posit it is in Chidambaram where his ritual efficacy is contingent on two forms of the Goddess. In other words, Dancing Śiva is far from being a solo dancer.

My research asks: how does turning to Goddess stories, to marginalized voices, and to the practices of regular people grow our understanding of Hindu Goddesses, of women in India, and of Dancing Śiva? To that end, I engage with diverse stories such as those told through temple rituals, temple structures, Tamil texts, and, most importantly orally. Working with untraditional, as well as traditional sources I critique the global interpretation of Naṭarāja as a solo dancer along with the ingrained assumptions that stories are most worthwhile when told by elite men.