If Chidambaram figures in your itinerary, it is because you want to visit its Shiva temple! For Chidambaram is a small town, barely 5 sq km in area with nothing to recommend it xcept the temple. But what a temple! This famous shrine is dedicated to the Hindu god Shiva, known as Nataraja, Lord of Dance when he performs the tandava, the cosmic dance of destruction.
The architecture of the temple, the exquisite beauty of its icon makes it the highlight of the temple circuit. Shiva is the third member of the divine trinity that includes Brahma the Creator and Vishnu the Preserver – and upon Lord Shiva is enjoined the task of Apocalypse. An enraged Shiva unleashes total destruction when he performs the Roudra Tandava, the devastating dance of death that not merely destroys but sets the scene for the creation of a new universe.
The temple at Chidambaram is exceptional in more ways than one – it is the only temple where Shiva is enshrined as Nataraja, the Lord of Dance and where Shiva and Vishnu share sacred space. It also has the cachet of being one of the five holiest shrines for Saivites, devotees of Shiva. Another feature unique to Chidambaram’s Nataraja temple is it is open to people of all races and religions.
Nataraja- the icon: "Siva’s cosmic dance...magnificent bronze sculptures of dancing figures with four arms whose superbly balanced and yet dynamic gestures express the rhythm and unity of life."- Fritjof Capra, The Tao of Physics.
The three eyes of the god represent the sun, moon and fire. The deity has four arms, in the rear right hand, he holds a drum (damaru) the symbol of sound and creation as from it emanates the sounds that gave birth to music. The palm of the front right hand is raised in a gesture of protection and blessing. The rear left hand holds a pot of fire signifying destruction while the other points downwards to the left foot raised in a dance pose. The hand is the source of divine grace and bliss while the raised foot represents salvation. The right foot firmly represses Mauyalka, embodiment of human cruelty and ignorance, victory over whom leads to salvation. Surrounding the figure of the dancing god is an aureole of flames, representing wisdom, truth and the vital forces of creation sustained by the cosmic energy generated by the divine dancer. And so, the dance becomes a metaphor of life, wherein are balanced good and evil, creation and destruction.
Nobody is still quite certain when and how the temple came to be – but it does date back to the early decades of the Christian era and is an amalgam of architectural styles typical of the region. Spread across 40 acres defined by a gopuram on each side, the ancient Nataraja temple sits square in the middle of Chidambaram. Its brilliant gold plated roof beckons both religious and secular visitors who flock to see the resident deity, the magnificent image of Nataraja frozen in a moment of sheer lyrical grace. The exquisite image of Shiva lost in the rapture of dance is breathtaking in its beauty and leaves an indelible impression on all those fortunate enough to see it.
The Nataraja Temple has five halls, Kanaka Sabha, Chit Sabha, Nritta Sabha, Deva Sabha and Raja Sabha. Shiva Nataraja and his consort Parvati Sivakami preside over the garba-griham or the sanctum sanctorum in the Kanaka Sabha while the sanctum of the Chit Sabha houses the Akasalingam (Lingam of Space). Interestingly, there is no image or representation of Shiva because here the god is worshipped in his all-encompassing ‘formless’ state.
The Hall of Dance, the Nritta Sabha is the most outstanding of all the halls – designed like a horse drawn chariot; it has 56 pillars portraying 108 poses of Bharatnatyam, the classical dance form associated with Shiva and with Tamil Nadu. Festivals were organised in the Deva Sabha, the hall of the gods. The thousand pillared pavilion, the Rajya Sabha was the venue for victory celebrations and thanksgiving ceremonies during the reigns of the Pandya and Chola dynasties.
A short walk from the Nataraja Temple is the Thillai Kaliamman temple, dedicated to the Goddess Kali. The Kaliamman temple was built sometime between 1229 AD and 1278 AD by the Chola King Kopperunjingan.
The Natyanjali Dance Festival is held on the temple grounds in February with performances by eminent dancers. The 5 day long festival is held during the Mahashivratri celebrations in February, and attracts the finest classical dancers who perform in the `prakararam’ in the temple grounds.
You can spend a few hours, a few days or a few years at Chidambaram – all depends on how much Nataraja captivates you!
Chidambaram’s secret! The garland of sacred bilva leaves hanging in the sanctum actually represents the invisible ‘chakra’, symbol of the divine union of Shiva and Parvati as Nataraja and Sivakami and is known as Chidambaram’s Rahasyam (secret)!
Leaves of the bilva or bel tree, (Indian wood apple, Aegle marmilos) are always offered to Shiva in a tradition begun by Lord Vishnu himself. Legend tells us that once, when Vishnu ran out of offerings while worshipping Shiva, the goddess Lakshmi came to his rescue and using the powers of her austerity created the Bel tree, the leaves of which were then used by Vishnu to complete his pooja.