Thillai Nataraja Temple, Chidambaram
Thillai Nataraja Temple, Chidambaram or Chidambaram temple is a Hindu temple dedicated to Lord Shiva located in the town of Chidambaram, East-Central Tamil Nadu, South India. The temple is known as the foremost of all temples (Kovil) to Shaivites and has influenced worship, architecture, sculpture and performance art for over two millennium. The Sangam classics list chief architect Viduvelvidugu Perumtaccan as directing an early renovation of the shrine.
A major shrine of Lord Shiva worship since the classical period, there have been several renovations and offerings to Chidambaram by the Pallava, Chola, Pandya, Vijayanagara and Chera royals in the ancient and pre-medieval periods. The temple as it stands now is mainly of the 12th and 13th centuries, with later additions in similar style.
Its bronze statues and stone sculptures depicting various deities and the famous Thillai trees (Excoecaria agallocha) of the surrounding forest reflect the highpoints of early Chola and Pallava art while its famed gold plated gopuram towers are medieval structural additions by the royals Aditya I, Parantaka Chola I, Kopperunchinga I, Krishnadevaraya and Jatavarman Sundara Pandyan. King Kocengannan Chola was born following prayers his parents offered at the temple and later in his life he refined its structure. The shrine gave the town its name.
The deity that presides here is Thillai Koothan (Thillai Nataraja - Shiva, The Lord of Dance). Chidambaram is the birthplace of the sculpture and bronze image representation of Lord Shiva as the cosmic dancer, a Tamilian concept and motif in Chola art that has since become notable as a symbol of Hinduism. The shrine is the only Shiva temple to have its main deity represented in this anthropomorphic form, as the Supreme Being who performs all cosmic activities. The consort deity here is Sivakami Amman (form of Amman - mother goddess and female energy). Two other forms of Lord Shiva are represented close to this in the vimana (inner sanctum) of the temple - as a crystallised lingam - the most common representation of Lord Shiva in temples, and as the aether space classical element, represented with empty space and a garland of fifty one hanging golden vilvamleaves (Aegle marmelos).
Lord Shiva is captured in pose as Nataraja performing the Ananda Tandava ("Dance of Delight") in the golden hall of the shrine Pon Ambalam. The sculptures of Chidambaram inspired the postures of Bharatha Natyam. The Chidambaram complex is admired for its five famous halls (ambalam or sabhai), several grand smaller shrines to the Hindu deities Ganesh, Murugan, Vishnu and Sivakami Amman which contain Pandyan and Nayak architectural styles, and for its endowment from many water tanks, one of which links it to the Thillai Kali temple.
Chidambaram is one of the five Pancha Bootha Sthalams, the holiest Shiva temples each representing one of the five classical elements; Chidambaram represents akasha. Chidambaram is glorified in Tirumular's Tirumandhiram and was visited by Patañjali and Pulikaal Munivar. It is the primary shrine of the 275 Paadal Petra Sthalams - Shiva Sthalams glorified in the early medieval Tevaram poems by Tamil Saivite Nayanar saints Tirunavukkarasar, Thiruganasambhandar & Sundarar.
Hailed in the Tiruvacakam series by Manikkavacakar, these very volumes of the Tirumurai literature canon were themselves found in secret chambers of the temple. The Periya Puranam, a biography of these Nayanar saints by Sekkizhar commissioned by emperorKulothunga Chola II, was written in the shrine's Thousand Pillared Hall. In Kanda Puranam, the epic authored by Kachiyappa Sivachariar of Kanchipuram, the Chidambaram shrine is venerated as one of the three foremost Shiva abodes in the world, alongside Koneswaram temple of Trincomalee and Mount Kailash.
It can lay claim to many unique features. The Trimurti or Trinity of Hinduism, Brahma the Creator, Vishnu the Preserver and Shiva the Destroyer are all worshipped within one complex.
Shiva, who is the presiding deity of this temple, is worshipped here in three aspects: as form; as formless form; and as formless. Besides being one of the largest temples in India, it is one of the very few temples practicing the Vedic tradition and rituals, where all other temples follow the Agamic doctrine of worship. The Vedic doctrine centers on the performance of the Yagna or fire sacrifice. This doctrine has been preserved by a community of hereditary priests is an unbroken, oral tradition. Called Deekshithars, they have been the guardians of the temple and its traditions since prehistoric times.
At the time of the Chariot Festival the main murti or image of the shrine, the Nataraja himself, is taken out for the procession, whereas in other temples special festival murtis are taken in procession, while the main murti remains in the temple sanctum.
This temple is open to all, without discrimination. The temple instructs visitors not to photograph or film any deities under worship.
The traditional name of the temple complex, Chidambaram Tillai Nataraja-koothan Kovil, alludes to the environment of its location and its origins and significance in Saivite worship. The mangrove of ancient Tillai trees (Exocoeria agallocha) of the forest surrounding the shrine when it was first built inspired the shrine's name and early artistic inspiration; the Tillai trees of the nearby Pichavaram wetlands, the second largest mangrove in the world, extends to the temple area. The shrine is venerated as Tillai ambalam, literally meaning Tillai Open Stage, the open space surrounded by Tillai Vanam (the Tillai forest) - the original name of this area.
The name of the town of this shrine, Chidambaram comes from the Tamil word Chitrambalam - "small hall/stage"; also spelled Chithambalam, from citt/chitthu and ambalam - meaning "wisdom of this open stage/atmosphere". The shrine is where some devotees believe they will attain liberation, or chitaakasam - "wisdom/consciousness of the sky". "Nataraja" or "Koothan" mean "Lord of Dance".
The story of Chidambaram begins with Lord Shiva strolling into the Thillai Vanam (vanam meaning forest and thillai trees - botanical name Exocoeria agallocha, a species of mangrove trees - which currently grows in the Pichavaram wetlands near Chidambaram). In the Thillai forests resided a group of sages or 'rishis' who believed in the supremacy of magic and that God can be controlled by rituals and mantras or magical words. Lord Shiva strolled in the forest with resplendent beauty and brilliance, assuming the form of Bhikshatana, a simple mendicant seeking alms. He was followed by His consort, Vishnu as Mohini. The sages and their wives were enchanted by the brilliance and the beauty of the handsome mendicant and His consort. On seeing their womenfolk enchanted, the rishis got enraged and invoked scores of serpents (nāgas) by performing magical rituals. Lord Shiva lifted the serpents and donned them as ornaments on His matted locks, neck and waist. Further enraged, the sages invoked a fierce tiger, whose skins and dons were used by Lord Shiva as a shawl around His waist and then followed by a fierce elephant, which was devoured and ripped to death by Lord Shiva (Gajasamharamurthy).
The rishis gathered all their spiritual strength and invoked a powerful demon Muyalakan - a symbol of complete arrogance and ignorance. Lord Shiva wore a gentle smile, stepped on the demon's back, immobilized him and performed the Ánanda Tandava (the dance of eternal bliss) and disclosed his true form. The sages surrender, realizing that Lord Shiva is the truth and He is beyond magic and rituals.
Throughout all of eternity Lord Vishnu, the preserver, rests on Shesha, the Cosmic Snake, in Vaikuntha. Once his weight suddenly seemed to have greatly increased. Shesha asked Vishnu “why are you so much heavier, Lord?” The Lord answered “I have had a vision of Shiva dancing his Cosmic Dance. I have expanded with happiness at the sight.” Shesha requested Vishnu to tell him all about Shiva’s Dance. And Lord Preserver told him everything.
In the forest called Daruvanna lived a community of Rishis or Seers in a hermitage. Through the performance of rituals they had achieved great knowledge and power, but they had not realized the importance of Divine Grace. Shiva requested Vishnu to accompany him to enlighten the Rishis, by showing them human power and knowledge were helpless without Divine Grace. To accomplish this purpose the two deities applied their power of Maya or Illusion.Shiva entered the hermitage of the Rishis as Bhikshatana or Mendicant. With dazzling beauty, wearing only a mendicant’s sandals or padukai, the wives and daughters of the Rishis fell madly in love with him, forgetting everything else, and completely loosing themselves.
Vishnu transformed himself into a beautiful woman called Mohini and an alluring dancer. As soon as the Rishis saw Mohini dance before them, they too lost all sense and rationality and with desire burning in their hearts they followed Mohini around like madmen.
When some of the Rishis realized what was happening they became enraged and started a great magical fire sacrifice against Shiva-Bhikshatana. First they called from the fire tiger, but when it attacked Lord Shiva he laughed, and killed the ferocious animal with his hands, tearing off its skin and wearing it for a loincloth. Next the Rishis send poisonous snakes, which he draped around his arms and neck, as jewelry. Then Shiva prepared to perform his Cosmic Dance. His two other arms appeared and his third eye shone in his forehead. The Rishis called a fierce dwarf from their magical fire, but Shiva’s dancing foot simply took him for a pedestal and danced. Finally the Rishis send the fire itself to destroy the Cosmic Dancer, but he just took it on to his left hand. And from the mantras that the Rishis used against him he made his anklets. Then the Lord danced his Tandava or Cosmic Dance.
Its full power made the Rishis fall to the ground. It made Vishnu shake, and even Parvati, the goddess consort of Shiva, who joined them to witness her husband’s dance, was overcome with fear. But the Lord danced smiling, showing his raised foot. The Rishis understood the Lord’s Divine Grace, and attained realization. They started to dance themselves and all of creation danced with them.
After Vishnu has told Shesha about his vision of Shiva’s Cosmic Dance, Shesha longs for only one thing: to see Shiva’s dance himself. Vishnu grants him permission to leave him for a while, so Shesha too will be able to experience Shiva’s dance.
After Shesha performed austerities for long ages, Shiva appeared before him, and offers him the fulfillment of any wish. Shesha has only one wish: to witness Shiva’s Tandava.
In fulfillment of Shesha’s wish, Shiva announced to him that he will dance at the appropriate and tangible moment on earth in the Sabha in the Tillai forest. This forest is situated on the middle point of the earth, and constituted its heart centre, the Lotus Space. Through it passes the main energy nadi, or vein, of our mother planet. This place is called Cit Ambara, the Ether of Consciousness. Shiva told that he, Shesha, would be born on earth from human parents, and that he would be called Patanjali. After growing up; he will travel to Tillai, where he will meet another saint, called Vyagrapada the Tiger footed. And both will perform tapas and worship, until the appointed time for Shiva to perform his Cosmic Dance in the Sabha has arrived.
As Patanjali reached the Tillai forest he found on the southern bank of the lotus pond the saint Vyagrapada, worshipping the Mulasthana Linga and performing austerities. Vyagrapada had come to the Tillai forest following the advice of his father Rishi Madhyandina. To worship the Mulasthana Linga he used to gather flowers in the early morning, but however early he collected the flowers, insects had already damaged them. Deeply upset that his worship was not as complete or perfect as he aimed for, he cried to Lord Shiva to help him. In answer to his prayer Shiva gave him tiger claws for hand and feet, enabling him to find his way through the thick forest at night to gather flowers long before daybreak, before the insects could inflict their damage.
From then on both saints did the worship and the austerities together, as they waited for the appointed time for Shiva to dance in the Sabha. As that time approached also the 3000 munivars (later called Deekshithars) arrived in the forest to await the Lord’s dance.
When that day arrived, it was announced with the sound of drums and conches. A rain of flowers fell from heaven, and in the Sabha appeared a light of a thousand suns and moons. In the middle of this light mass appeared Shiva’s form, dancing his Ananda Tandava, and showing his Lotus Foot. His is an un-earthly beauty, while his peaceful smile shines on all. He was together with Parvati, who witnessed his dance. All those present, Devatas, demons and humans rejoiced, almost fainting, and all joined in his dance.
Then Shiva offered the two saints to make a wish. They wished that Shiva would forever perform his Ananda Tandava or Dance of Bliss in the golden Sabha of Chidambaram, for the entire world to experience. So that any human who desired this could also reach His lifted Lotus Foot and realize liberation.
Soon after the king Sveta Varman came to the Tillai forest. This king was forced to give up his kingdom after being infected with a skin disease called ‘white spot’, a form of leprosy. Lord Nataraja ordered the two saints Vyagrapada and Patanjali to let the king take a bath in the lotus pond, now called the Shiva Ganga, that he may be healed. After re-emerging from the water the king’s skin had become golden, his name becoming Hiranya Varman or ‘golden coloured’. And he was taken to the Sabha to see Nataraja’s Ananda Tandava. Overtaken with emotions the king fell on earth and offered his life-long service to the Dancing Shiva.
He was consecrated by the 3000 munivars, and received from Vyagrapada the Tiger banner, signifying his kingship and valor. The king then rebuilds the temple and the city around it and established the main festivals of the yearly cycle in the temple.
To Saivites, primarily in Tamil Nadu, the very word koil refers primarily to Chidambaram Tillai Natarajar.
Chidambaram is a temple complex spread over 40 acres (160,000 m2) in the heart of the city. The main complex to Lord Shiva Nataraja also contains shrines to deities such as Shivakami Amman, Ganesh, Murugan and Vishnu in the form Govindaraja Perumal. Chidambaram's earliest structures were designed and erected by ancient craftsmen called Perumtaccan. The golden tiled roof for the Chit Ambalam (the vimanam) was laid by the Chola King Parantaka I (907-950 CE) following which he was given the title - Thillaiyambalathhukku pon koorai veiyntha thevan, meaning the one who constructed the golden roof). Then, kings Rajaraja Chola I (reign 985-1014 A.D.) and Kulothunga Chola I (1070-1120 A.D.) made significant donations to the temple. Gold and riches to the temple were donated by Rajaraja Chola's daughter Kundavai II while Chola king Vikrama Chola (1118-1135 A.D.) made donations for the conduct of the daily rituals.
Donations of gold and jewels have been made by various kings, rulers and patrons to the temple from 9th to 16th century - including the Maharaja of Pudukottai, Sethupathy (the emerald jewel still adorns the deity) and the British.
Naralokaviran, the general of king Kulothunga Chola I was responsible for building a shrine for child saint Thirugnana Sambanthar and installed a metal image inside it. He constructed a hall for recitation of Tevaram hymns and engraved the hymns in copper plates.
The temple is the only great temple complex to date mainly from the later Chola period, and contains the earliest examples of a number of features that are found in many later temples, including "the earliest known Devī or Amman shrine, vŗtta (dance) mandapa, Sūrya shrine with chariot wheels, hundred-and-thousand pillared mandapas, even the first giant Śiva Gangā tank".
A classical Shiva temple as per Agama rules will have five prakarams (closed precincts of a temple) or circuits each separated by walls one within the other. The outer prakaram will be open to the sky except the innermost one. The innermost one will house the main deity as well as other deities. There will be a massive wooden or stone flag post exactly in line with the main deity. The innermost prakaram houses the sanctum sanctorum (karuvarai in Tamil).
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, Sanskrit: Vyaghrapada - "Tiger-Footed").
The temple is supposed to be located at the lotus heart of the Universe: Virat hridaya padma sthalam.
This gold-roofed stage is the sanctum sanctorum of the Chidambaram temple and houses the Lord in three forms:
· The "form" - the anthropomorphic form as an appearance of Nataraja, called the Sakala-thirumeni.
· The "semi-form" – the semi-anthropomorphic form as the Crystal linga of Chandramaulishvara, the Sakala-nishkala-thirumeni.
· The "formless" – as the space in Chidambara-rahasyam, an empty space within the sanctum sanctorum, the Nishkala-thirumeni.
Significance of the temple design
A. Chit Sabha with the Golden Roof
B. Kanaka Sabha
C. The four Gopurams
D. Nritta Sabha
E. Deva Sabha
F. Thousand Pillars Hall or Raja Sabha
G. Shrine of the Mulasthana Lingam
H. Shrine of Brahma-Chandikeshvara
I. The flag mast of the Nataraja temple
J. Shrine of Vishnu Govindaraja
K. Shrine of the Navagrahas, the Nine planets
L. Mukkuruni Vinayaka temple
N. Hundred Pillars Hall
O. Temple of Devi Shivakamasundari
P. Pandya Nayakam temple, dedicated to Murukan
Q. Shivaganga, the holy tank
R. The temple of the Nine Lingas
S. The Yaga Shala, where Yajnas are performed
T. The Kalyana Mandapam, or Marriage Hall. The gallery dedicated to the 63 Nayanmars or Saints
V. The East entrance to the temple with the 21 steps and the two Purushamriga or Sphinxes guarding on either side.
The layout and architecture of the temple is replete with philosophical meanings.
· Three of the five Panchaboothasthala temples, those at Kalahasti, Kanchipuram and Chidambaram all stand on a straight line exactly at 79 degree 41 minutes East longitude - truly an engineering, astrological and geographical wonder. Of the other two temples, Tiruvanaikkaval is located at around 3 degrees to the south and exactly 1 degree to the west of the northern tip of this divine axis, while Tiruvannamalai is around midway (1.5 degree to the south and 0.5 degree to the west).
· The 9 gateways signify the 9 orifices in the human body.
· The Chitsabai 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 Kanakasabai. The access to the Sabhai is through the sides of the stage (and not from the front as in most temples). The Chit sabha roof is supported by four pillars symbolic of the four Vedas.
· 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 21,600 golden tiles with the word SIVAYANAMA inscribed on them representing 21600 breaths. The golden tiles are fixed using 72,000 golden nails which represents the no. of nadis exists in human body. The roof is topped by a set of 9 sacred pots or kalasas, representing the 9 forms of energy. The artha mandapa(sanctum) has six pillars denoting the six shastras (holy texts).
· The hall next to the artha mantapa has eighteen pillars symbolizing the eighteen Puranas.
The temple has nine gateways, and four of these have gateway towers or gopurams each with 7 storeys facing the East, South, West and North. The South gopuram called the Sokkaseeyan Thirunilai Ezhugopuram was constructed by a Pandya king identified from the presence of the dynasty's fish emblem sculpted on the ceiling.
The Pandyas sculpted two fishes facing each other when they completed gopurams (and left it with one fish, in case it was incomplete). The earliest and smallest of the four is West gopuram constructed around 1150 and there are no reliable evidence on the construction. The sculptures show goddess fighting the buffalo-demon and war like Skanda astride his peacock. The North Gopuram was initiated around 1300 A.D. with the brick portion constructed by the Vijayanagara king Krishnadevaraya (1509-1530 A.D.) in the 16th century. The East Gopuram, was claimed to have been constructed by the Pallava King Koperunsingan II (1243-1279 A.D.) as per epigrahical records and was repaired by Subbammal, the mother-in-law of the famous philanthropist Pachaiyappa Mudaliar (1754-1794 A.D.).
The idols of Pachaiappa Mudaliar and his wife Iyalammal have been sculpted on the eastern gopuram. The Pachaiappa Trust to date has been responsible for various functions in the temple and also maintains the temple car. The eastern gopuram is renowned for its complete enumeration of 108 poses of Indian classical dance – Bharathanatyam, detailed in small rectangular panels along the passage that leads to the gateway. Each gopuram has around fifty stone sculptures, with each repeating some portions from the other.
There are 5 ambalams or sabhas (halls) inside the temple.
· Chit Ambalam or Chit Sabhai, which is the sanctum sanctorum housing Lord Nataraja and his consort Sivakami Sundari, and gave the temple town its name.
· Pon Ambalam or Kanaka Sabhai – the golden hall in front of the Chit Ambalam, from where the daily rituals are conducted.
· Nrithya sabhai or Natya sabhai, a 56-pillared hall lies to the south of the temple's flag mast (kodi maram or dwaja sthambam) where Nataraja out danced Kali and established his supremacy
· Raja sabhai or the 1000-pillared hall which symbolizes the yogic chakra of thousand pillared lotus or Sahasraram 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 hall is open only on festive days
· Deva Sabhai, which houses the Pancha moorthis (pancha - five, moorthis - deities, namely the deities of Ganesh, Somaskanda (seated posture of Lord Shiva with Pavarthi and Skanda), Sivananda Nayaki, Muruga and the image of Chandikeswarar.
· The shrines for the original Shivalingam worshipped by the saints Patanjali and Vyagrapathar – called the Thiru Aadhimoolanathar and his consort Umaiyammai or Umaiya parvathi.
· The shrine of the 63 nayanars of Lord Shiva – called the Arubaththu moovar.
· Shrine of Sivagami.
· Ganesha shrine
· Shrine of Muruga or Pandiya nayakan
There are also several smaller shrines in the temple complex.
Govindaraja Swamy Shrine
The Govindaraja shrine is dedicated to Vishnu and is one of the 108 holy temples of Lord Vishnu called divyadesam, revered by the 7th-9th-century saint poets of vaishnava (those worshipping Lord Vishnu) tradition, alwars.
Kulashekara alwar mentions this temple as Tillai Chitrakutam and equates Chitrakuta of Ramayana fame with this shrine.
King Kulothunga Chola II is believed to have uprooted the presiding Govindraja image from the shrine. The shrine has close connections with the Govindaraja temple in Tirupati dating back to saint Ramanuja of the 11-12th century. Ramanujar fled to Tirupati with the utsava (festival image) of the temple to escape punishment. Down the centuries, King Krishnappa Nayak (1564-1572 A.D.) was instrumental in installing the image of Govindaraja back in the temple. There was lot of resistance from the shaivites (those worshipping Shiva) against placing the Vishnu image in a revered Shiva temple, but the king was unmoved and the image was installed in the present form. There is no satisfactory evidence of co-existence of the Shiva and Vishnu shrines within the same temple built during the same time - there was a dispute even in last century during 1849 A.D. regarding the rights on the Govindaraja idol and Alwar Sannidhi (sanctum of azhwars) between Vaishnavas and Dikshitars and the position of Vaishnavas was upheld by the district court.
The Chidambaram temple is well endowed with several water bodies within and around the temple complex.
· Sivaganga tank is in the third corridor of the temple opposite to the shrine of Shivagami. It is accessed by flights of stone steps leading from the shrine.
· Paramanandha koobham is the well on the eastern side of the Chitsabhai hall from which water is drawn for sacred purposes.
· Kuyya theertham is situated to the north-east of Chidambaram in Killai near the Bay of Bengal and has the shore called Pasamaruthanthurai.
· Pulimadu is situated around a kilometer and a half to the south of Chidambaram.
· Vyagrapatha Theertham is situated on to the west of the temple opposite to the temple of Ilamai Akkinaar.
· Anantha Theertham is situated to the west of the temple in front of the Anantheswarar temple.
· Nagaseri tank is situated to the west of the Anantha thirtham.
· Brahma Theertham is situated to the north-west of the temple at Thirukalaanjeri.
· Underground channels at the shrine drain excess water in a northeasterly direction to the Shivapiyai temple tank of the Thillai Kali Temple, Chidambaram. Due to poor maintenance, it has not been in use.
· Thiruparkadal is the tank to the south-east of the Shivapiyai tank.
The Chidambaram temple car is, perhaps, the most beautiful example of a temple car in all of Tamil Nadu. This car, on which Lord Nataraja descends twice a year, is drawn by several thousand devotees during the festivals.
The legend of the temple is same as the legend of Ānanda-tāndava. Adhisesha, the serpent who serves as a bed of Lord Vishnu, hears about the Änanda thaandava and yearns to see and enjoy it. Lord Shiva beckons him to assume the saintly form of sage 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, Vyaghrapada or 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 Purana as well as Shiva Purana. They move into the Thillai forest and worship Lord Shiva in the form of lingam, 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 (January – February).
The Ananda Tandava Posture
The Ānanda-tāndava posture of Nataraja represents pancikritya functions of the godhead believed to have created the dynamic force to create the world.
· The demon under Lord Nataraja's feet signifies that ignorance is under His feet.
· The fire in His hand (power of destruction) means He is the destroyer of evil.
· The raised hand (Abhaya or Pataka mudra) signifies that He is the savior of all life forms.
· The arc of fire called Thiruvashi or Prabhavati signifies the cosmos and the perpetual motion of the earth.
· The drum in His hand signifies the origin of life forms.
· The lotus pedestal signifies Om, the sound of the universe.
· His right eye, left eye and third eye signify the sun, moon and fire/knowledge, respectively.
· His right earring (makara kundalam) and left earring (sthri kundalam) signify the union of man and woman (right is man, left is woman).
· The crescent moon in His hair signifies benevolence and beauty.
· The flowing of river Ganges through His matted hair signifies eternity of life.
· The dreading of His hair and drape signify the force of His dance.
Another notable point of this posture is that it is based on the six point star. Nataraja's head forms the topmost point of the star, while His spreading hair and right hand form the upper side points. His drape and raised left leg form the lower points, and His right leg that rests on the demon Myalagga forms the lowest point. Surrounding this is the arc of fire.
Religious significance of the temple
Pancha Bhoota Stalam refers to the five Shiva temples, each representing the manifestation of the five prime elements of nature - land, water, air, sky, fire. Pancha indicates five, Bhoota means elements and Stala means place. All these temples are located in South India with four of these temples at Tamil Nadu and one at Andra Pradesh. The five elements are believed to be enshrined in the five lingams and each of the lingams representing Lord Shiva in the temple has five different names based on the elements they represent. In the temple, Shiva is said to have manifested himself in the form of sky. The other four manifestations are Prithivi Lingam (representing land) at Ekambareswarar Temple, Appu Lingam (representing Water) at Thiruvanaikaval, Agni Lingam (representing fire) at Annamalaiyar Temple and Vayu Lingam (representing air) at Srikalahasti Temple.
Aathara Stala indicates the Shiva temples which are considered to be divine impersonification of Tantric chakras associated with human anatomy. Nataraja temple is called theAnthaga stalam associated with Anthagam - the third eye.
Pancha Sabhai refers to the five places where Lord Shiva is said to have displayed His cosmic dance and all these places have stages or ambalams, also known as Sabhai. Apart from Chidambaram which has the Ponna Ambalam - the Golden Hall, the others are the I-Ratthina Ambalam - the Jeweled Hall at Thiruvaalangadu (rathinam – ruby / red jewelled), the Chitra Ambalam - the Painted Hall at Thirukutralam (chitra – painting), the Velli Ambalam - the Silver Hall at Madurai Meenakshi Amman Temple (velli – silver) and the Thaamira Ambalam - the Copper Hall at Nellaiappar Temple, Tirunelveli (Thaamiram – copper).
Religious work and saints
There is no reference to the temple in Sangam literature of the 1st to 5th centuries and the earliest mention is found in 6th century Tamil literature. The temple and the deity were immortalized in Tamil poetry in the works of Thevaram by three poet saints belonging to the 7th century - Thirugnana Sambanthar, Thirunavukkarasar and Sundaramoorthy Nayanar. Thirugnana Sambanthar has composed 2 songs in praise of the temple, Thirunavukkarasar aka Appar 8 Tevarams in praise of Nataraja and Sundarar 1 song in praise of Nataraja. Sundarar commences his Thiruthondar thogai (the sacred list of Lord Shiva's 63 devotees) paying his respects to the priests of the Thillai temple - "To the devotees of the priests at Thillai, I am a devotee".
The works of the first three saints, Thirumurai were stored in palm leaf manuscripts in the temple and were recovered by the Chola King Rajaraja Chola under the guidance of Nambiandarnambi. Manikkavasagar, the 10th century saivite poet has written two works, the first called Tiruvasakam (The sacred utterances) which largely has been sung in Chidambaram and the Thiruchitrambalakkovaiyar (aka Thirukovaiyar), which has been sung entirely in the temple. Manikkavasagar is said to have attained spiritual bliss at Chidambaram. The Chidambaram Mahatmiyam composed during the 12th century provides the subsequent evolution and sanskritization of cults.
The Chidambara Rahasiyam
During the daily rituals, the Chief priest, of the day, himself in a state of Godliness - Shivohambhava (Shiva - the Lord, in His Sandhi form -Shivo-, aham – me / us, bhava - state of mind), parts the curtain, indicating the withdrawal of ignorance and reveals the space, and The Lord’s presence.
The Chidambara Rahasya, is hence representative of that time when one, in total surrender, allows God to intervene and remove our ignorance, even as we get to 'see and experience' His presence and hence - bliss.
Temple administration and daily rituals
During the year, according to the progression of the sun through the twelve signs of the zodiac, and in interaction with the monthly cycle of the moon, the temple celebrates many different festivals for the different deities that reside in the complex. The two main festivals though are the two great Chariot Festivals, performed for the presiding deity, Shiva Nataraja. As all other temples officiate only one chariot festival for the presiding deity, this is one more characteristic that sets this temple apart from others.
The more important of the two is performed at midwinter, in the month of Margali in the Tamil calendar. That is between the middle of December and the middle of January of the Western calendar. The festival is called Margali Tiruvadirai, the holy star Arudra in the month Margali, after the star under which this festival takes place.
The second festival is called Ani Tirumanjanam. It is celebrated at the time of mid-summer, between the middle of June and the middle of July. It is officiated under the star Uttara Phalguni. The dates of the festivals are calculated according to the lunar calendar, so the actual dates in the Western calendar vary every year.
The festival lasts eleven days and gives the participants a spiritual experience through visual impact. The progress of the daily processions is designed as a visual yoga. The festival begins with the flag hoisting ceremony, performed in the early morning of the first day. After due invocation and the chanting of mantras by the Deekshithars, the banner of Shiva, displaying his vahana or vehicle, the divine bull Nandi, is hoisted on the flag mast in front of the Sabha, situated just in the third courtyard.
In the evening of the same day the first procession is taken out of the Panca Murti, the five deities. The main deity in the procession is Somaskanda, Shiva with Uma, his consort, and the baby Skanda, or Murugan, their second son. The second deity is Devi, the goddess. The third is Skanda as mature god with his two Shaktis or wives. The fourth deity is Ganesha, Shiva’s first son, with the elephant face. And the fifth is Chandikeshvara. Though a human birth, such a devotee of Shiva, he attained liberation and semi-divine status, because of the Lord’s grace.
This first day the murtis proceed without vahanas or vehicles. Every procession is repeated the following morning.
The second day Somaskanda’s vehicle is the Moon.
The third day the main murti is seated in the Sun.
The fourth day Shiva is Bhutapati, the Lord of the Demons and the Elements.
The fifth day Shiva is seated on Nandi, the divine bull, but actually his vehicle that day is the gopuram, the temple tower, which is above him during this procession.
The sixth day Shiva’s vehicle is the elephant, a reminder that he overcame the evil power that had taken the form of an elephant.
The seventh day Shiva, his consort Uma and the baby Skanda are seated on Mount Kailasa, the holy mountain which is his throne. It shows the ten-headed demon Ravana as having been subdued by Shiva, when Ravana tried to shake the mountain, to get his way before the Lord.
On the eighth day of the festival Shiva appears as Bhikshatana, the Mendicant who caused such havoc among the Rishis and their wives of the Daruvanna. His begging bowl is stretched out toward us, begging us to give up our attachments and selfishness.
Then, on the ninth day we reach the highlight of the festival. The murti of Nataraja himself and of Parvati Devi are brought from the sanctum and carried on the shoulders of the Deekshithars and the devotees to the great chariots that have been made ready, and await them in the East Car Street. The chariots are pulled by the public around the four car streets of the city in a festive mood. An event that takes almost the whole day.
In the evening the images or murtis are again taken on the shoulders of the devotees, and are carried to the Hall of Thousand Pillars. There during the night from approximately 2.30 in the early morning till just before sunrise, a holy ablution or Abhishekam is performed.
The following morning all can see the Lord and Goddess dancing together as they are brought back to the sanctum.
The eleventh day of the festival is characterized as ‘carnival’. The five murtis are taken in the procession in a special palanquin, decorated with flowers and glass beads. Thus the festival is concluded in a festive and relaxed mood.
A unique feature of this temple is the bejeweled image of Lord Nataraja as the main deity. It depicts Lord Shiva as the master of Koothu-Bharata Natyam and is one of the few temples where Lord Shiva is represented by an anthropomorphic murthi rather than the classic, anionic Lingam.
At Chidambaram, the dancer dominates, not the linga as in other Shiva shrines. The Chitsabha houses a small sphatika (crystal) linga (Chandramoulisvara), believed to be a piece that fell from the crescent adorning Lord Shiva's head and installed by Adi Shankara. The linga is associated with the intangible fifth element, akasha (ether or space), the eternal infinite expanse where the dance of Lord Shiva takes place daily puja is offered to the linga and also to a small gem-carved figure of Ratnasabhapati.
Chidambaram offers a combination of the three apects of Shaiva worship - of the form Lord (Nataraja), of the form and the formlessness (linga) and of the formless omnipresence. The last is suggested by a "Chidambara rahasya", a chakra inscribed on a wall and blackened by applying "punugu" (civet) and over which hangs a string of golden villa (bael) leaves. This can be viewed through the square chinks when the priest draws aside the dark "curtain of ignorance".
The temple is managed and administered hereditarily by the Chidambaram Dikshitar – a class of Vaidika Brahmins whom, legends say, were brought here from Mt. Kailas, by Patanjali, specifically for the performance of the daily rituals and maintenance of the Chidambaram temple.
The Dikshithars were supposed to be 3000 were called Tillai Muvayiram. Today they number around 360. These Dikshithars follow the Vedic rituals, unlike the Sivachariyars or Adhisaivars who follow the agamic rituals for the worship of Shiva and they sport a specific lopsided-to-the-left half shaved head. The rituals for the temple were collated from the Vedas and set by Patanjali, who is said to have inducted the Dikshithars into the worship of Lord Shiva as Nataraja. Every married male member of the Dikshithar family gets a turn to perform the rituals at the temple and can serve as the chief priest for the day. Married Dikshithars are also entitled a share of the temple's revenue. Though the temple is said to have been given endowments of almost 5,000 acres (20 km2) of fertile land – having been patronized by various rulers for several centuries, it is managed almost entirely by privately run endowments.
In ancient times the Deekshithars, the community of hereditary priests were known as Muvariyavar, or the 3000 of Tillai. The Chidambaram Mahatmyam recounts of their arrival in Tillai just as Lord Nataraja started his dance there. Thus they were the chosen guardians of the Lord’s worship and of the temple from its very conception.
Their relation to Lord Nataraja is a very intimate and powerful one, which is expressed by the legend that once the 3000 were requested by Brahma to perform a Vedic sacrifice in heaven. At their return they counted to make sure all had returned safely. But however they counted, they found only 2999. All were very upset, until a voice from the Sabha called out and announced that He Himself, Lord Nataraja, was the 3000th Deekshithars.
Although considered as among the Shiva Brahmans or Ayars, they form a completely separate group. Not only is their philosophy and temple doctrine different from other social groups and other temples, but also their way of life is very different from the society around them.
A Deekshithar has to wear his hair long, with a tonsure all around the rim. The hair is pulled to the left side and tied into a bun. This reflects their awareness of cosmology. It also expresses some aspects of the temple philosophy. They follow the teaching of Baudhayana Maharishi. Male and female energies are inseparable and both essential for the process of cosmos. The Deekshithars acknowledge their female side by wearing their hair long and in a bun, on the left side of the body, which is considered the female side.
The Chidambaram temple is unique in countless ways, but one outstanding feature is without doubt the way in which its priestly community is organized. It is possible the oldest and longest functioning democracy in the world. The community is called Podu Deekshithars, which means ‘the gathering of Deekshithars’. Every Deekshithar has one vote in the general assembly, which takes place every twenty days. The daily management is in the hand of a team of nine members, one of which will be selected to be the Secretary of the temple for one year. The duties of the Secretary of the temple are to preside over all the activities in connection with the daily management, as well as to represent the temple towards the outside world. All ritual duties in the temple are performed through a strict rotation system. Special honorary functions, like presiding over the great Chariot Festivals, or other special ritual functions are accredited by drawing a name from the list of community’s members.
Deekshithars have always been known for their scholarship, and although the fast changes of the present era put a lot of strains on the ability of the community to maintain its tradition, many are facing this challenge by combining the pursuit of an academic career with serving their Lord in the temple routine.
Although the Deekshithars are known as the 3000 of Tillai, now the community counts about a thousand members, men, women and children, of which more than three hundred are, initiated priests.
There was a time when the Deekshithars did not need to depend on the devotees for their income, but nowadays they form priest-client relationships.
The day begins with the chief priest of the day, performing required rituals to purify himself and assume the Shivoham bhava (Shiva-hood), after which he enters the temple to do the daily rituals. The day begins with Lord Shiva's footwear (padukas) brought at 7:00am from the palliyarai (bedroom) to the sanctum sanctorum in a palanquin accompanied by devotees with cymbals, chimes and drums. The priest then performs the daily rituals with a yajna and a 'Gopujai' (worship of a cow and her calf). Worship (Puja) is done 6 times in a day. Before each puja, the spadika linga (crystal linga) or the semi form state of Lord Shiva is anointed with ghee, milk, curds, rice, sandal paste and holy ash. This is followed by presenting the naivedhyam or offering of freshly prepared food and sweets to the deity and the diparaadhana, a ritual of showing varied and decoratively set lamps, the reciting of Vedas in Sanskrit and thePanchapuranam (a set of 5 poems from a set of 12 works in Tamil – called the panniru thirumurai). The puja ends with the priest parting the curtains of the sanctum sanctorum to reveal the Chidambara Rahasyam (sanctum).
Before the 2nd puja, apart from the regular anointing of the crystal linga, a ruby Nataraja deity (the Rathinasabhapathy) is also anointed. The 3rd puja is at around 12.00 noon, after which the temple closes until around 4:30pm. The 4th puja is performed at 6.00 PM, the 5th at 8:00pm and the last puja of the day is performed at 10:00 pm, after which Lord Shiva’s footwear is taken in a procession for Him to ‘retire’ for the night. Before the 5th puja at night, the priest performs special rituals at the Chidambara Rahasya, where he anointed the yantra with aromatic substances and offers naivedyam. The last puja, called the arthajaama puja is performed with special fervor. It is believed that the entire divine force of the universe retires into the deity, when he retires for the night.
The seven pujas of the daily ritual cycle of the temple relate to the seven energy centers or chakras in the human body, and are designed to inspire in the devotees the awakening of the different yoga energies connected to them. The daily cycle is also a reflection of the cycles of cosmos, eternally going on in the universe.
06.45 in the early morning Shiva, represented by his holy sandals or padukai, is taken in a palanquin from a small shrine in the northwestern corner of the inner courtyard called the ‘Bedchamber’ of the god and goddess, to the Chit Sabha. This is called the Awakening Ceremony.
08.30 -- 09.00 In the Kanaka Sabha the Deekshithar who has the duty for that day, performs a fire sacrifice according the Vedic doctrine.
10.00 -- 11.00 For the Crystal Linga and for the Ruby Nataraja the Deekshithar on duty performs Abhishekam or holy ablution with several holy substances, like milk, honey and sacred ashes.
11.30 -- 12.00 Puja is performed by offering burning lamps and puja objects, which are part of the ‘protocol’ like a small silver umbrella, a silver mirror, etc. The same puja ritual is repeated.
20.00 -- 20.30 the same puja is repeated, together with chanting of Sanskrit Mantras and the signing of ancient Tamil hymns.
22.00 -- 22.30 Puja with lamps, hymns and music, after which Shiva, represented by his holy sandals, is taken in a procession with the small palanquin to join his consort in the Bedchamber.
The ringing of the bells recreates the sacred sound OM, which is the root and origin of the creation. The lamps represent the different forms and aspects of the divine energy that evolve from the One Absolute in the process of creation and manifestation.
The several ritual objects which are shown before the Nataraja are part of what is called ‘protocol’.
The ceremony of the return of Shiva’s sandals to the Bedchamber in the evening at 10 o’clock takes on special significance and grandeur once a week, on the Friday evening. Where the seven daily rituals which are performed in the Sabha before the Nataraja are the key to the understanding of the cycles of cosmos, the seventh ritual reveals the ultimate secret.
Fire burning, bells ringing, and finally his Cosmic Dance…… Then, the cosmic energy of Nataraja is carried in a small palanquin around the courtyards accompanied by drums, instruments, singing and chanting. Finally to join the cosmic energy of Shakti, his consort, in the Bedchamber, realizing the cosmology.
The Diskshithars are the one and fully responsible for the administration and pooja. Simply they mentioned their surname as the Sri Natarajar Temple Trustee and Pooja forever. Dikshithars life and temple tied as the nail and flesh relationship.
A whole year for men is said to be a single day for the gods. Just as six poojas are performed in a day at the sanctum sanctorum, six anointing ceremonies are performed for the principal deity - Nataraja in a year. They are the Marghazhi Thiruvaadhirai (in December - January ) indicating the first puja, the fourteenth day after the new moon (chaturdasi) of the month of Masi (February - March) indicating the second pooja, the Chittirai Thiruvonam (in April- May), indicating the third pooja or uchikalam, the Uthiram of Aani (June–July) also called the Aani Thirumanjanam indicating the evening or the fourth puja, the chaturdasi of Aavani (August - September) indicating the fifth puja and the chaturdasi of the month of Puratasi (October - November) indicating the sixth pooja or Arthajama. Of these the Marghazhi Thiruvaadhirai (in December - January) and the Aani Thirumanjanam (in June - July) are the most important.
These are conducted as the key festivals with the main deity being brought outside the sanctum sanctorum in a procession that included a temple car procession followed by a long anointing ceremony. Several hundreds of thousands of people flock the temple to see the anointing ceremony and the ritualistic dance of Shiva when he is taken back to the sanctum sanctorum. Lord Shiva, in his incarnation of Nataraja, is believed to have born on full moon day in the constellation of Ardra, the sixth lunar mansion. Lord Shiva is bathed only 6 times a year, and on the previous night of Ardra, the bath rituals are performed on a grand scale. Pots full of milk, pomegranate juices, coconut water, ghee, oil, sandal paste, curds, holy ashes, and other liquids and solids, considered as sacred offering to the deity are used for the sacred ablution.
There are references in Umapathy Sivam's Kunchithaangristhavam that the Maasi festival also had the Lord being carried out in procession; however this is not in vogue these days.
Constructed to signify where Tamil Shaivites identify the centre loci of the universe to be, the shrine, dedicated to Lord Shiva, has witnessed several significant events in the history of Tamil Nadu. A powerful legacy of Dravidian art, its structures and sculptures have attracted pilgrims to Chidambaram for over two millennium. The birthplace of Nataraja when Shaivite worship was highly popular during the Sangam period, Chidambaram had gained a reputation for holiness across the continent by the third century CE and the admiration of the Tamilakkam royals of the early Cholas, Chera dynasty and the early Pandyan Kingdom. Built by the early Cholas to one of their family deities - Nataraja-Koothan - it served as the king and queen's state temple and seat of their monarchs' coronations. The Chola royals underlined their non-partisan approach to religious iconography and faith by also patronizing the Srirangam Ranganathaswamy temple dedicated to Vishnu - their other Kuladheivam or "abode of family deity". Chola King Kocengannan who reigned in the first half of the 2nd century CE was born after his parents King Subhadevan and Kamaladevi worshipped in the Thillai Golden Hall (Pon Ambalam). He expanded the shrine in his later life and added to unfinished decorations.
Saints Patañjali Tirumular and Vyaghrapada famously worshipped Nataraja at the shrine. The travelling Pallava-Chola king Simhavarman (II or III) who reigned in the 5th-6th century CE was cured of leprosy by bathing in the Shivagangai tank and in gratitude made extensive repairs and additions to the temple. He changed his name to Hiranyavarman or "golden bodied."
The Puranas, Sangam literature and the Tirumurai canon join several epigraphs and murals in highlighting the brilliance of the temple site and the devotion of Patañjali, Vyaghrapada-Pulikaalmunivar and patanjali to Nataraja at Thillai. The sthala puranam as well as umapathi sivacharya's koyil puranam give an account of how an ancient chola prince of kritayugam or first of epochal ages. Worshipped The Lord's feet at Chidambaram and being blessed with a vision of His were further helped by saint Vyaghrapada to consecrate a place of worship therewith. The temple murals and some cholan and pandyan literature refer to this sthala puranam. The chidambaram mahatyam as well as koyil puranam by the same author discuss as to how this prince who was presented with dhataki or atti garland and tiger flag in which Lord Indra would take abode to make him ever victorious was blessed with vision of lord and further attained mukti at this spot. This is very credible because all ancient literature and documents report that tiger flag and atti or dhataki (grislea tomentosa) garland as being emblematic with cholas. Some sangam period works also passingly refer to the krita age king's war with demons and his victory against them. The king also went by name Vyaghraketu after being gifted with the tiger flag.
Later during the 4th or 5th century .C.E, a pallava king called Simha Varman who was also a nayanmar saint by name Aiyatikal Kaadavarkon made some compositions and bathed in the tank and attained mukthi at tiru-perum-ppatra-puliyur or chidambaram. Aragalur Udaya Iraratevan Ponparappinan had refurbished most of the parts and rebuilt some parts of the temple around 1213 AD.
At periodical intervals (12 years in general), major repairs and renovation works are carried out, new facilities added and consecrated. Most old temples have also 'grown' over periods of time with additional facilities, more outer corridors and new gopurams (pagodas) were added by the rulers who patronized the temple. While this process has helped to keep the temples 'alive' as places of worship, from a purely archeological or historical perspective these renovations have unintentionally lead to destruction of the original works - which were not in sync with the latter and usually grander temple plans.
To this general trend, Chidambaram temple is no exception. The origins and developments of the temple are hence largely deduced from allied references in works of literature and poetry, the verbal information passed over generations by the Dikshithar community and from what little, of inscriptions and manuscripts that are available today.
The temple site is very ancient one is known to have been crafted time and again by the ancient craftsmen guild known as perumtaccans. The reference to the same is available in sangam literature as well as other documents. The tevaram trio in particular has held this site to be of great sanctity with some like tirugnanasambandar and sundarar out of devotion being reluctant to set their foot in the place "because it would be an insult to the lord to put one's foot on his abode". The sangam works refer to the temple being favoured by all the three ancient crowns of south, the Neriyan (cholas), chezhiyan (pandyas) and uthiyan (cheras), even if the temple was in what was traditionally chola country.
The early history of the temple lies hidden in the mists of time. It reached its present form under the patronage of the kings of the Chola dynasty in the 11th, 12th and 13th centuries. From the aerial view we can see the total surface area of the temple covers 13 hectares or 35 acres. Placing it among the largest temples in the whole of India. It is designed with five concentric Prakaras, or circumambulatory temple courtyards. These are associated with the Five Elements. The innermost Prakara is not visible. It lies within the sanctum with the golden roof, and can only be entered by the Deekshithars. The architecture and the rituals of this temple reflect its history and doctrine.
Where we now find this beautiful and ancient temple, was once an impenetrable forest of Tillai trees, which is a kind of mangrove. This forest gave Chidambaram its first and most ancient name, Tillai. Within this sprawling forest was a lotus pond, and at the southern bank of this pond existed a Svayambhu Linga. A linga is a representation of Lord Shiva which unites both the concepts of Form as well as of Formless in itself. In modern terms this formless-form might be called an abstraction.
Svayambhu means ‘self existent’, signifying that the linga was not made by human beings, but came into existence by itself, from nature. To this lotus pond in the Tillai forest came two saints, named Vyagrapada and Patanjali. They came from very different backgrounds and from very different directions, but they came for the same reason: to witness Shiva’s Cosmic Dance. It had been foretold to them that if they would worship the linga on the bank of the lotus pond in the forest, Lord Shiva would come to perform His Dance.
Eventually this great event took place. Nataraja came to perform His Dance on a Thursday, when the moon was in the asterism Pushan, in the Tamil month of Tai, long before the Christian era. This dance is called the Ananda Tandava or Dance of Bliss. The saints achieved liberation, and on their special request Shiva promised to perform His Dance for all time at that place.
The story of the origin of the worship of Shiva Nataraja in Chidambaram is told in the Chidambaram Mahatmyam. The Sacred History of Chidambaram, which is part of the Skanda Purana, one of the 18 great Puranas or collections of mythology. From one of the saints, Vyagrapada, which means Tiger Footed, Chidambaram received its second name, Puliyur, meaning ‘City of the Tiger’.
Its third name, Chidambaram, refers to the philosophy and doctrine of the temple. Cit means consciousness or wisdom. Ambaram signifies ether in Sanskrit, but in Tamil the ambalam means hall. The name unifies two aspects of the doctrine. Meaning both Hall of Wisdom, as well as the place of the Ether of Consciousness.
The edifice which now includes within its garbhagriha or sanctum this Svayambhu linga form of Shiva, situated on the southern bank of the sacred pound, is called Mulasthana. This Sanskrit term means ‘place of origin’ or ‘root place’. It can be found in the third courtyard, within the Nataraja temple proper. Facing east, it is a conventional temple with a garbha-griha or sanctum containing the linga, and an ardha-mandapa, a hall in front of the sanctum.
In this ardha-mandapam we find the images of the two saints, Vyagrapada and Patanjali. They stand with their hands folded, worshipping. A sanctum placed at an angle to the linga shrine, facing south, houses the consort of Shiva, the goddess Uma-Parvati. On the western wall of the shrine we find a relief sculptured of the Kalpa Vriksha or Wishing Tree of Paradise. This shrine achieved its present form probably under the middle and later Cholas in the 11th and 12th century.
The main edifices of the temple are the five Sabhas or Halls: the Cit Sabha, Kanaka Sabha, Deva Sabha, Nritta Sabha, and the Raja Sabha.
At the centre of the temple is situated the sanctum sanctorum or holy of holiest, called the Cit Sabha or Cit Ambalam. This means the ‘Hall of Wisdom’. It is the main shrine where Lord Shiva Nataraja accompanied by his consort Parvati performs His Cosmic Dance, the Ananda Tandava or Dance of Bliss.
The world is the embodiment of the Virat Purusha, the colossal human form. Chidambaram is the centre of this form, the place of the heart, where Shiva performs the Cosmic Dance.
The Chidambaram temple is laid out as a Purusha. For this reason the devotees may approach the central shrine from two sides. As blood flows to and from the heart. The nine stupas topping the golden roof represent the nine orifices of the human body, and also symbolize the nine Matrikas or goddesses. The roof is made of 21.600 tiles, representing inhalations and exhalations of breath. The links and side joints symbolize the connecting veins.
The five main steps at the entrance to the shrine stand between the devotees and the image of Shiva, covered in silver. They are the five seed words or syllables of the mantra.
By chanting these syllables, the devotee can cross the ocean of bondage and attain to the Lord. The granite plinth of the shrine is called Parvadam, because it does duty for Mount Kailasa in providing a support for Lord Shiva. On all special occasions puja or worship is performed to this plinth.
The name, Hall of Consciousness or Hall of Wisdom, refers to the quality of wisdom which pervades the atmosphere, bestowed upon the worshippers by the Dance of the Lord. His boon is the experience of the Cosmic Dance.
A unique feature is that the structure of the actual Sabha is made of wood, which has so far not been botanically classified. It is rectangular in form and here Shiva is worshipped in his three aspects:
As Form: Nataraja the murti or image of Shiva
As Formless-Form: The crystal linga called Chandramaulishvara
As Formless: The yantra which is the Akasha Linga
From the platform opposite the Sabha one can see the image of the Dancing Shiva, situated in the middle of the Sabha. Shiva is facing south, unlike most other Hindu deities. This signifies he is the Conqueror of Death, dispelling the fear of death for the humanity.
The Crystal Linga called Chandramaulishvara is Shiva as Formless-Form. This Crystal Linga was formed from the essence of the crescent moon in Shiva’s matted hair, for the purpose of daily worship. This murti is taken from its keeping place at the feet of the Nataraja six times a day, and abhishekam of holy ablution is performed to him in the hall called Kanaka Sabha in front of the Cit Sabha.
Immediately to the proper right of the Nataraja is the Chidambaram Rahasyam, the ‘mystery’ of Chidambaram. Here, behind a silk curtain which is black on the outside and red on the inside, is the Akasha Linga, in the form of a yantra. An abstract geometrical design, on which the deity is invoked. Behind the curtain, before the yantra, hang a few strands of golden vilva leaves. This signifies the act of creation. One moment nothing exists, the next instant all has been brought into existence. At regular timings the curtain is removed to allow the devotees to worship the Akasha.
The Cit Sabha houses one more unique form of Shiva. This is the Ratna Sabha Pati, the Ruby Lord of the Sabha: a replica of the Nataraja murti in ruby form. This murti appeared out of the fire of the sacrifice in response to the devotion of the Deekshithars.
Once a day, as part of the 10.00 o’clock morning puja ritual, after the abhishekam of the Crystal Linga, abhishekam is also performed to the Ruby Shiva. As conclusion of this ceremony the Ruby Nataraja is placed on the edge of the Parvadam of the Kanaka Sabha and Mangala Arati is offered. This is the burning of camphor on a special plate which is shown both in front and behind the Ruby Nataraja. This brings out the special quality of translucence of this murti, creating a mystical spectacle for the onlookers.
Nobody knows when the worship of Nataraja was established here, or when the Cit Sabha was build. The original wooden structure is doubtless the oldest structure in the temple complex, as the shrine of the Mulasthana Linga is a later construction under the Chola Kings. The Sabha has no features that could help to date it. It is unique and no other structure is known like it anywhere else in Indian architecture. Analysis by the C 14 method would be unreliable because it is known to have been regularly renovated during the centuries. But the origins of the temple of Shiva Nataraja in Chidambaram definitely lie back in prehistoric times.
According to the mythology the temple was first constructed by a king called Shveta Varman. This king was healed of leprosy by bathing in the sacred pond in the Tillai forest and witnessed the Cosmic Dance. The first gilding of the roof of the Cit Sabha and the instituting of the temple and the formal worship of the Nataraja are all attributed to this King.
The first historical references can be found in the Skanda Purana, especially in the Suta Samhita part. Here Shanmukha, the six-faced son of Shiva and Parvati, is described as worshipping his parents in Chidambaram, before going to do battle with a demon called Surapadma. This text can be dated to the second century BCE.
The Cit Sabha, Shiva’s dance and Chidambaram are also prominently mentioned in the Tirumantiram of Tirumular, an important religious and philosophical text in ancient Tamil, dating from the beginning of the Christian era. A few centuries later the temple and its Lord are often mentioned by poets of the Tevaram, especially Appar and Sambandar (7th century) and by Manikavasakar (8th century).
The first historical kings to claim having gilded the roof of the Cit Sabha are the Chola Aditya I (871-907) and his son Parantaka I (907-955). By this time the temple had already become important. How the gilding of the roof was done is a knowledge that was sadly lost with time. But it is without doubt one of the great technical achievements of ancient times.
Immediately in front of the Cit Sabha is the Kanaka Sabha, or golden hall. Its roof is made of copper, although Kanaka means gold. This is the gold of spiritual treasure: to experience Shiva’s dance from so near.
The public can enter certain areas of the Kanaka Sabha for worship of the Nataraja and the Akasha Linga at specified hours of the day. It is a controversy whether this Sabha was originally constructed together with the Cit Sabha, or some time later.
The Nritta Sabha is the shrine in the form of a ratha or chariot, pulled by two stone horses. It is situated opposite the Cit Sabha, in the third courtyard. It is the place of the dance contest between Nataraja and the goddess Kali.
Shiva conquered the goddess, who would not calm down after she destroyed a powerful demon, by lifting his right leg straight up towards the sky. This dance is called the Urdhva Tandava. Then and there Kali suddenly remembered who she really was, the peaceful Parvati, consort of Shiva, and she was able to leave her furious mood and returned to her peaceful self. This scene is depicted in the sanctum inside the Sabha. We see Shiva performing his Urdhva Tandava, his leg lifted straight above his head, Kali calmed down in one corner, both accompanied by Vishnu playing the talam, the instrument which is used to accompany dance.
The chariot form of the Sabha commemorates Shiva as Tripurasamhara murti, the Destroyer of the Three Demon Cities. Several divine powers joined together to create Shiva’s chariot. Thus the sun and moon became the wheels, the Vedas the horses etc.
After destroying the Three Cities he descended from his chariot, having landed opposite the Cit Sabha, and ascended into the Sabha to commence His Dance. From this the Nritta Sabha is also called Edir Amabalam or opposite hall.
This Sabha has several distinguishing features aside from its shape and its function. Its columns are unique to the chariot hall.
They are square, and although carved from the hardest granite they are covered with exquisite miniature relief’s, depicting dancers,
musicians and all kinds of mythological figures.
musicians and all kinds of mythological figures.
One other feature sets this edifice apart from any other hall within the temple complex and from all other temple halls in India. This Sabha is mysteriously connected to the Sphinx. Just under the floor surface of the raised platform which is the body of the Sabha is a belt or pattika, surrounding the whole Sabha. Here we see lions and sphinxes alternating in pairs, girdling the Sabha.
Also the pillars of the two pavilions on the western side of the Sabha are supported by four sphinxes which function as caryatids.
The Nritta Sabha is considered by tradition the second oldest building in the complex, without any real indication of its age. It is reported in inscriptions as having been renovated by the Chola King Kulottunga I in the 11th century.
The Deva Sabha can be found in the third prakara or courtyard. The festival deities are kept during the year, and worship is performed for them daily. This is done inside the Sabha, and is not open to the public. The age and history of this Sabha is also hidden in the mists of time. There is some evidence the Deva Sabha was once used as an audience hall by visiting kings of the different governing dynasties of the Cholas, Pandyas and others during the several phases of history.
The Raja Sabha is the Thousand Pillar Hall in the second courtyard. It is the architectural representation of the Sahasradara, or Crown Chakra which is the seventh spiritual energy point in the astral body. The Nataraja and the goddess Sivakamasundari, his consort, dance here on the 9th and 10th day of the Chariot Festival.
About this Sabha too, we have very little historical information. It is first mentioned as the place where the medieval poet Sekkilar premiered his great work on the lives of the 63 Nayanmars or Saiva saints, the Periya Purana, before the Chola king Kulottunga II or III, in the 12th century.
Its base is encircled by reliefs of dancers and musicians, as it were participating in a procession. The most imposing feature of the temple, which can be seen soaring above the plain from miles away, are the four temple gateways or gopurams, located in the second wall of enclosure at the cardinal points. They are considered among the earliest examples of such structures and are in their present form dated to the 12th and 13th century. Scholars disagree about the dates of individual gopurams, or about which one was build first. Some consider the west gopuram as oldest, some the east gopuram.
In between the sculptures decorating the inside of the west gopuram we find a musician playing a standing double drum. This could point to an early date for this gopuram.
On the outside of the granite bases of the gopurams are found sculptures of many important as well as less well known deities in niches in a particular order. The inside walls of passages through all the four gopurams are decorated with the 108 karanas, the dance movements of Shiva, from the Natya Shastra, the world’s most ancient treatise on dance, drama and theatre. Besides in Chidambaram these karanas are depicted in only four other temples, all in Tamil Nadu.
The four gopurams, together with the golden dome of the central shrine are the five towers which represent the five faces of Shiva, with the Cit Sabha symbolizing the masterful face.
In the innermost courtyard, at a right angle with the golden Sabha, we find the shrine of Vishnu, as Govinda Raja. Reclining on the Cosmic Snake, he is in the yogic state of consciousness, enjoying the vision of Shiva’s dance. The coexistence of the worship of both Vishnu and Shiva within one temple is unique.
Within the inner courtyard, to the east of the Sabha, we find a small shrine which houses the murtis of both the Creator god Brahma, of the Hindy Trinity, and Chandikeshvara, a deified saint. The presence of Brahma (a deity almost never worshipped) establishes the worship of all three deities of the Hindu Trinity with-in the one complex.
The temple of goddess Shivakamasundari, consort of Shiva, is situated on the west side of the Shivaganga tank. A flight of steps leads down into its courtyard. The goddess is worshipped here as the Jñana Shakti: the energy and power of wisdom. On the frontal portion of the pillared hall, on the ceiling of the right and left wings, the finest eye-capturing fresco paintings of approximately a thousand years old, illustrate the Leelas or Sacred Deeds of Shiva. The galleries surrounding the temple are decorated with a procession of dancers and musicians, sculptured in relief. This temple was possibly build in the 11th century under the Chola king Kulottunga I.
The Shiva Ganga is the sacred water place or tank. It is famous for healing the ancient king Sveta Varman of his skin disease. His skin became golden after which he was called Hiranya Varman.
In this tank we find a stone representation of the Linga of Tiruvanaikaval, which represents the Element Water. In the dry season it becomes visible as the water level in the tank is reduced.
The Pandya Nayaka temple is dedicated to Murugan, the second son of Shivan and Parvati. This shrine is also shaped as a chariot, pulled by horses and elephants. This temple was according to tradition build by a king of the Pandya dynasty from Madurai, which superseded the rule of the Cholas in the 13th century. His name was Sundarar Pandya, and the temple is named after him.
In the middle of the 18th century this temple was renovated with the support of Dutch merchants, who had a trading post in nearby Porto Nuovo. According to an inscription on copper plates they donated a share of their profit for this purpose.
There are several inscriptions available in the temple and referring to the Chidambaram temple in neighbouring areas. Most inscriptions available pertain to the periods of Cholas - Rajaraja Chola I (985-1014 CE), Rajendra Chola I (1012-1044 CE), Kulothunga Chola I (1070-1120 CE), Vikrama Chola (1118-1135 CE), Rajadhiraja Chola II (1163 -1178 CE),Kulothunga Chola III (1178-1218 CE) and Rajaraja Chola III (1216-1256 CE). Pandya inscriptions date from Thribhuvana Chakravarthi Veerapandiyan, Jataavarman Thribhuvana Chakravarthi Sundarapaandiyan (1251-1268 CE) and Maaravarman Thribhuvana Chakravarthi Veerakeralanaagiya Kulashekara Pandiyan (1268-1308 CE). Pallava inscriptions are available for king Avani Aala Pirandhaan Ko-pperum-Singha (1216-1242 CE). Vijayanagara Kings mentioned in inscriptions are Veeraprathaapa Kiruttina Theva Mahaaraayar (1509-1529 CE), Veeraprathaapa Venkata Deva Mahaaraayar, Sri Ranga Theva Mahaaraayar, Atchyutha Deva Mahaaraayar (1529-1542 CE) and Veera Bhooopathiraayar. One of the inscriptions from the descendant of Cheramaan Perumal nayanar, Ramavarma Maharaja has been found.
The sacred Chidambaram Sri Sabanayagar Temple, which is also described as Boologa Kailaasam and Chithakasam
Sri Sivagamasundari Samaedha Sriman Anandha Nataraja Moorthy's Chitsabha Samprokshana Chithvilasa Maha Kumbhabishekam is about to happen in a great way On the auspicious day of Manmadha (Tamil) year Chithirai month 18th day (01-May-2015) Friday morning between 7:00 AM and 8:30 AM Hastha Nakshthra, Thrayodhasi Thithi, Amirtha yoga, Rishabha Lagna.
The temple was severely vandalised during Malik Kafur's invasions of South India between 1311 and 1325. A garrison was set up within the temple precincts and the walls were fortified during the Carnatic Wars between the East India Company and the French and the Anglo-Mysore Wars that the British fought with Hyder Ali and Tipu Sultan.
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