I first visited Nataraja Temple at Chidambaram in 1970 when I was at Annmalai University Engineering College. I left the College within few days due to various reasons and then completed my Bachelor of Engineering Course from MIT, University of Mysore. Subsequently as a professional working for Praga Tools Ltd., a Government of India Company under Ministry of Defence; I visited Pondicherry officially a number of times. And as Chidambaram is just 75 km away from Pondicherry, I always made it a point to visit the Temple. Very recently I have visited Nataraja Temple with my wife. This is a very important place of pilgrimage for us and we have returned home very happy after the pilgrimage. Having written about many other Temples spread over the country, I should have written about Chidambaram Nataraja Temple much before…better late than never and hence this article.
Chidambaram Nataraja Temple is also known as Thillai Nataraja Temple. It is 75 km from Pondicherry and 235 km from Chennai. The temple complex spread over 50 acres is in the heart of Chidambaram city. It is an ancient and historic temple dedicated to Lord Shiva and Lord Govindaraja Perumal, one of the few temples where both the Shaivite and Vaishnavite deities are enshrined in one place. To the followers of Shaivism (Saivism) or the saivaite, the very word koil refers to Chidambaram. In the same way, to the followers of Vaishnavism it refers to Srirangam or Thiruvarangam. The Sangam classics refer to Viduvelvidugu Perumtaccan, respected clan of traditional Vishwakarmas, as being the chief architects of the temple renovation. There have been several renovations in its history, particularly during the days of Pallava / Chola emperors in ancient and pre-medieval periods.
The temple has 9 gateways and four of these have towering pagodas or gopurams each with 7 levels in the East, South, West and North. The eastern pagoda has all the 108 postures (karnams) of the Indian classical dance form – Bharathanatyam sculpted on it.
There are 5 sabhas or diases or halls:
The Chit sabha is the sanctum sanctorum housing Lord Nataraja and his consort Goddess Shivagamasundari.
The Kanaka sabha is in front of the Chit sabha, from which the daily rituals are conducted.
The Nrithya sabha or Natya sabha is to the south of the temple's flag mast (dwaja sthambam) where the Lord is said to have danced with Goddess Kali – an embodiment of energy and established His supremacy.
The Raja sabha is a 1000-pillared hall which symbolizes the yogic chakra of thousand pillared lotus or Sahasraram which in yoga is a 'chakra' at the crown of the head and is a seat where the soul unites with God. This chakra is represented as a 1000-petalled lotus. Meditating by concentrating at the Sahasrara Chakra is said to lead to a state of union with the Divine force and is the pinnacle of yogic practice.
The Deva sabha houses the Pancha moorthis (pancha - five, moorthis – deities) namely the deities of Lord Ganesh - the remover of hurdles, Lord Somaskanda, a form where the Lord is in a seated posture with his consort, the Lord's consort Sivananda nayaki, the Lord Muruga and the deity of Chandikeswarar - the principal and chief of the devotees of the Lord.
The 9 gateways signify the 9 orifices in the human body. The Chit sabha or Ponnambalam, the sanctum sanctorum represents the heart which is reached by a flight of 5 stairs called the Panchaatchara padi - pancha meaning 5, achhara – indestructible syllables – "SI VA YA NA MA", from a raised anterior dias - the Kanaka sabha. The access to the sabha is through the sides of the stage (and not from the front as in most temples).
The Ponnambalam or the Sanctum sanctorum is held by 28 pillars – representing the 28 agamas or set methodologies for the worship of Lord Shiva. The roof is held by a set of 64 beams representing the 64 forms of art and is held by several cross-beams representing the innumerable blood vessels. The roof has been laid by 21600 golden tiles with the word SIVAYANAMA inscribed on them representing 21600 breaths (that one takes in a day). The golden tiles are fixed using 72000 golden nails which represent the number of nadis (nerves) that exist in human body. The roof is topped by a set of 9 sacred pots or kalasas, representing the 9 forms of energy.
Apart from the five sabhas are, the shrines for the original Shivalingam worshipped by Saints Patanjali and Vyagrapathar – called the Thirumoolattaneswarar and his consort Umaiyammai Umaiya parvathi, the shrines for the 63 prime devotees of Lord Siva – or the Arubathu moovar, the shrines for Sivagami – an embodiment of knowledge or Gyanasakthi, for Lord Ganesha – in his manifestation of one who removes hurdles, for Lord Muruga or Pandiya nayakan – in his manifestation of one who holds the three forms of energy – Itchai or "desire" represented by his consort Valli, Kriya or "action" represented by his consort Deivayanai and Gnana or "Knowledge" represented by the spear He carries to destroy ignorance.
There are also several smaller shrines in the temple complex and there are water bodies in and around the temple. The largest water body is Sivaganga. This large tank is in the third corridor of the Temple opposite to the shrine of Goddess Sivagami.
The Chidambaram temple complex houses a shrine for the Lord Govindaraja Perumal and his consort Pundareegavalli Thaayar. This shrine is claimed to be the Thillai Thiruchitrakootam and is one of the 108 divyadesas – or the key shrines of Vishnu, which have been sanctified (mangala saasanam) by hymns (the Naalayira divya prabantham) sung by the chief devotees of Lord Vishnu (called the Aalwars).
Chidambaram Natraja Temple is one of the five holiest Shiva temples, each representing one of the five natural elements; Chidambaram represents akasha (aether). The other four temples in this category are: Thiruvanaikaval Jambukeswara, Trichy (water), Kanchi Ekambareswara (earth) Kanchipuram, Thiruvannamalai Arunachaleswara (fire), Thiruvanna malai and Kalahasti Nathar (wind), Kalahasti.
The word Chidambaram is derived from chit, meaning "consciousness", and ambaram, meaning "sky" (from aakasam); it refers to the chidaakasam, the sky of consciousness, which is the ultimate aim one should attain according to all the Vedas and scriptures. Another theory is that it is derived from chit plus ambalam. Ambalam means a "stage" for performing arts. The chidakasam is the state of supreme bliss or aananda and Lord Nataraja is the symbolic representation of the supreme bliss or aananda natanam. Saivaites believe that a visit to Chidambaram leads to liberation. Yet another theory is that it is derived from the word chitrambalam, from chithu meaning "play or dances of God" and ambalam meaning "stage".
A unique feature of this temple is the bejeweled image of Nataraja. It depicts Lord Shiva as the Lord of the dance Bharatanatyam and is one of the few temples where Shiva is represented by an anthropomorphic murthi rather than the classic, anionic Lingam. The Cosmic Dance of Lord Nataraja symbolises the motion of the universe as sustained by Lord Shiva.
Aragalur Udaya Iraratevan Ponparappinan (alias Vanakovaraiyan) rebuilt the Siva temple at Chidambaram around 1213 AD. The same Bana Chief also built Tiruvannamalai temple. The temple has been traditionally administered by an endogamous group of shiavite brahmins called Dikshitars, who also officiate as its priests.
The story of Chidambaram begins with the legend of Lord Shiva strolling into the Thillai Vanam (Vanam meaning forest and thillai trees - botanical name Exocoeria agallocha, a species of mangrove trees - which currently grow in the Pichavaram wetlands near Chidambaram). The temple sculptures depicting the Thillai trees date back to the 2nd century CE).
In the Thillai forests resided a group of saints or 'rishis' who believed in the supremacy of magic and that God can be controlled by rituals and 'mantras' or magical words. The Lord strolls in the forest with resplendent beauty and brilliance, assuming the form of 'Pitchatanadar', a simple mendicant seeking alms. He is followed by his Grace and consort who is Lord Vishnu as Mohini. The rishis and their wives are enchanted by the brilliance and the beauty of the handsome mendicant and his consort. On seeing their womenfolk enchanted, the rishis get enraged and invoke scores of 'serpents' (Sanskrit: Nāga) by performing magical rituals. The Lord as the mendicant lifts the serpents and dons them as ornaments on his matted locks, neck and waist. Further enraged, the rishis invoke a fierce tiger, which the Lord skins and dons as a shawl around his waist. Thoroughly frustrated, the rishis gather all their spiritual strength and invoke a powerful demon Muyalakan - a symbol of complete arrogance and ignorance. The Lord wearing a gentle smile, steps on the demon's back, immobilizes him and performs the Ánanda Thaandava (the dance of eternal bliss) and discloses his true form. The rishis surrender, realizing that this Lord is the truth and he is beyond magic and rituals.
About Ananda Thaandava: Adhisesha, the serpent who serves as a bed for the Lord in his manifestation as Vishnu, hears about the Änanda thaandava and yearns to see and enjoy it. The Lord blesses him, beckons him to assume the saintly form of 'Patanjali' and sends him to the Thillai forest, informing him that he will display the dance in due course. Patanjali who meditated in the Himalayas during krita age joins another saint, Vyagrapathar / Pulikaalmuni (Vyagra / Puli meaning "Tiger" and patha / kaal meaning "feet" – referring to the story of how he sought and got the feet and eyesight of a tiger to help climb trees well before dawn to pick flowers for the Lord before the bees visit them). The story of sage Patanjali as well as his great student sage Upamanyu is narrated in both Vishnu Puranam as well as Siva Puranam. They move into the Thillai forest and worship Lord Shiva in the form of Shivalinga, a deity worshipped today as Thirumoolataneswarar (Thiru - sri, Moolatanam - primordial or in the nature of a foundation, Eswarar- the Lord). Legends say that Lord Shiva displayed his dance of bliss (the Aananda Thaandavam) - as Nataraja to these two saints on the day of the poosam star in the Tamil month of Thai (Jan – Feb).
The Ananda Tandava posture of Lord Shiva is one of the famous postures recognized around the world by many. This celestial dancing posture tells us how a Bharathanatyam Dancer should dance.
The demon under Nataraja's feet signifies that ignorance is under his feet
The Fire in his hand (power of destruction) means destroyer of evil
The raised hand signifies that he is the savior of all life.
The Ring at the back signifies the cosmos.
The drum in his hand signifies the origin of Life.
These are the main things that the Nataraja murti and the celestial dance posture depict. A rare type of thandava posture is seen in Melakadambur temple nearby, 32 km from Chidambaram. Here in Karakoil, Nataraja is dancing on a bull.
Chidambaram is also referred to in various works such as Thillai (after the Thillai forest of yore in which the temple is now located), Perumpatrapuliyur or Vyagrapuram (in honour of Saint Vyagrapathar).The temple is supposed to be located at the Lotus heart of the Universe": Virat hridaya padma sthalam. On the spot where the Lord displayed his dance of bliss, the Änanda Thaandavam - a spot exactly south of the "Thirumoolataaneswar temple", today is the Ponnambalam/ Porsabai (Pon meaning gold, Ambalam/Sabai meaning stage) housing the Lord Shiva in his dancing form. The Lord is also hence referred to as the Sabhanayakar, meaning the Lord of the Stage.
This gold-roofed stage is the sanctum sanctorum of the Chidambaram temple and houses the Lord in three forms:
The "form" - the anthromorphological form as an appearance of Lord Nataraja, called the Sakala thirumeni.
The "semi-form" – the semi-anthropomorphological form as the Crystal linga of Chandramouleswarar, the Sakala nishkala thirumeni.
The "formless" – as the Space in Chidambara Rahasyam, an empty space within the sanctum sanctorum, the Nishkala thirumeni.
Chidambaram also is one of the five places where Lord Shiva is said to have displayed his dance and all these places have stages / sabhas. Apart from Chidambaram which has the Por sabha, the others are the Rathina sabha at Thiruvaalangadu (rathnam – ruby / red), the Chitra sabha at Courtallam (chitra – painting), the Rajatha sabha or the Velli ambalam at Madurai Meenakshi Amman Temple (rajatha / velli – silver) and the Thaamira sabhai at Nellaiappar Temple, Tirunelveli (thaamiram – copper).
May Lord Shiva shower his blessings on you and your family,
May happiness and peace surround you with his eternal love and strength.