Chidambaram is one of the five holiest Shiva temples, each representing one of the five natural elements; Chidambaram represents akasha (ether). The other four temples are: Thiruvanaikaval Jambukeswara, Trichy (water); Kanchi Ekambareswara (earth) Kanchipuram; Thiruvannamalai Arunachaleswara (fire), Thiruvanna malai; and Kalahasti Nathar (wind), Kalahasti. Chidambaram is around 220 kms from Chennai.
The Chidambaram temple complex spread over 50 acres is in the heart of the city. It is an ancient and historic temple dedicated to Bhagwan Nataraja (Shiva) and Bhagwan Govindaraja Perumal, one of the few temples where both the Shaivite and Vaishnavite deities are enshrined in one place.
The word ‘Chidambaram’ is derived from chit, meaning “consciousness”, and ‘ambaram’, meaning “sky” it refers to the chidaakasam, the sky of consciousness, which is the ultimate aim one should attain according to all the Upanishads and Brahmasutras.
People also say it is derived from chit + ambalam. Ambalam means a “stage” for performing arts. The chidakasam is the state of supreme bliss or aananda and Bhagwan Nataraja is the symbolic representation of the supreme bliss or aananda natanam. Saivaites believe that a visit to Chidambaram leads to liberation.
A unique feature of this temple is the bejeweled image of Nataraja. It depicts the 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 Bhagwan Nataraja symbolises the motion of the universe as sustained by Bhagwan Shiva.
The story of Chidambaram begins with the legend of Bhagwan 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.
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. Bhagwan strolls in the forest with resplendent beauty and brilliance, assuming the form of Bhikshu, a simple mendicant seeking alms. He is followed by his grace and consort who is Bhagwan 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’ by performing certain rituals. Bhagwan 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 Bhagwan Shiva skins and dons as a shawl around his waist.
Then the rishis gather all their spiritual strength and invoke a powerful demon Muyalaka – a symbol of complete arrogance and ignorance. Bhagwan Shiva wearing a gentle smile, steps on the demon’s back, immobilizes him and performs the Ánanda Tandava (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.
Adhisesha, the serpent who serves as a bed for Bhagwan Vishnu, hears about the Änanda tandava and yearns to see and enjoy it. Bhagwan Shiva 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. T
he story of sage Patanjali as well as his great student sage Upamanyu is narrated in both Vishnu Puranam as well as Siva Puranam. Legends say that Bhagwan Shiva displayed his dance of bliss (the Aananda Tandavam) – as Nataraja to these two saints. The Ananda Tandava posture of Bhagwan 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 (damru) in his hand signifies the origin of life. Thus the celestial dance posture of Nataraja murti convey a deeper meaning.
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 Tandavam, one can find the idol of Bhagwan Shiva in his dancing form. This gold-roofed stage is the sanctum sanctorum of the Chidambaram temple and houses him in three forms:
The “form” – the anthromorphological form as an appearance of Bhagwan Nataraja, called the Sakala thirumeni. The “semi-form” – the semi-anthropomorphological form as the crystal linga of Chandramouleswara, the Sakala nishkala thirumeni. The “formless” – as the Space in Chidambara Rahasyam, an empty space within the sanctum sanctorum, the Nishkala thirumeni.
Aragalur Udaya Iraratevan Ponparappinan (alias Vanakovaraiyan) rebuilt the Siva temple at Chidambaram around 1213 AD. Inscriptions claim the site was built by various Pandya kings and local rulers. The walls and east gopura (gateway) were said to be built by Kulottunga III, who reigned from 1178 to 1218 CE.
The Nataraja temple was constructed between c. 1175 and c. 1200 CE. The twin sacred chamber was, however, adorned with copper sheets covered in gold by successive Chola kings. The shrine is preceded by a dance hall and large entrance porch with columns (mandapa).
The two most common forms of Shiva’s dance are the Lasya (the gentle form of dance), associated with the creation of the world, and the Tandava (the violent and dangerous dance), associated with the destruction or dissolution of weary worldviews – weary perspectives & lifestyles. In essence, the Lasya and the Tandava are just two aspects of Shiva’s nature; for he destroys or dissolves in order to create, only to build again.
“Chidambara Rahasyam” translates to the Secret of Chidambaram. A carved stone lattice with little openings obstructs the full view of this shrine. After the priest shows the main aarti or flame to Bhagwan Nataraja, he takes the flame to the Chidambara Rahasyam shrine and directs attention to it and allows devotees to catch sight of the secret.
The secret of Chidambaram temple or Chidambara Rahasyam lies in the curtain of golden bilva leaves hung to indicate the Lord’s presence in the space. This garland is the source of a wealth of knowledge as it indicates that God permeates everywhere and is formless. The Chidambara Rahasyam, hence represents the time when one totally surrenders to God and prays to remove the ignorance.
The outermost prakaram is home to the grand SivakamiAmman temple, the Sivaganga tank and the 1000 pillared hall or the Raja Sabha, where Nataraja is brought during two annual festivals.
The vast Sivakami Amman shrine is a temple of uniqueness. Ceilings on the mukhamandapam of this temple have paintings from the Nayaka period. There are friezes of dancers, drummers and musicians all along the enclosing walls of this temple.
The 100 pillared hall, in the outermost prakaram is also of artistic value, as is the shrine of Subramanya, which dates back to the Pandya period. The Subramanya shrine is also in the form of a chariot, and is referred to as the ‘Pandya Nayakam’.
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. Each is a gigantic masterpiece in itself – about 250 feet in height, with seven tiers. The Western tower is the oldest one. The eastern gopuram has all the 108 postures (karnams) of the Bharatiya dance form – Bharathanatyam sculpted on it.
The towers are embellished with images from Bharatiya itihasa. From the second tier onward, on each of the gopuram, are seen images of various manifestations of Shiva such as Bhikshatana, Kankala (both being ascetic forms), Kalyanasundara, Somaskanda etc. (bestowers of prosperity).
The Chidambaram temple complex houses a shrine for Bhagwan Govindaraja Perumal and his consort Pundareekavalli Thaayar. This shrine is claimed to be the Thillai Thiruchitrakootam and is one of the 108 divyadesas – or the key shrines of Vishnu.
Chidambaram Temple Design
The layout and architecture of the temple is replete with philosophical meanings.
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 Panchakshara padi – pancha meaning 5, akshara – indestructible syllables – “SI VA YA NA MA”, from a raised anterior dais – the Kanakasabai. The access to the sanctum sanctorum is through the sides of the stage (and not from the front as in most temples).
The sanctum sanctorum is held by 28 pillars – representing the 28 agamas or set methodologies for the worship of Bhagwan 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. Tantra shastra says humans have the average number of breaths per day at 21,600, of which 10,800 are solar energy, and 10,800 are lunar energy. These numbers relate to Prana, the life energy. The pranic energy that is absorbed in this way through breathing circulates in the body through 72000 nadis or subtle arteries.
The 21,600 golden tiles are fixed using 72000 golden nails which represents the number of nadis that exist in human body. The roof is topped by a set of 9 sacred pots or kalasas, representing the 9 forms of energy (light, sound, heat, kinetic, gravitational, elastic, chemical, nuclear and electrical).
This sanctum, the center of power and energy of the temple, is enclosed by five concentric spaces or prakaras, circumambulatory courtyards. They represent the five primordial elements- Ether, Air, Fire, Water and Earth- from the center outwards respectively. They also symbolize the five koshas, or sheaths of the human body. These are, from most subtle to gross, the Anandamaya kosha or sheath of bliss; the Vijnanamaya kosha or sheath of wisdom; the Manomaya kosha or sheath of thought; the Pranamaya kosha or sheath of life energy; and the Annamaya kosha, the sheath of food, which is our material body.
Every day seven rituals are performed in the sanctum for the worship of Bhagwan Nataraja. These rituals relate to the seven chakras and represent the development of the individual consciousness through the seven energies of the chakras and the seven steps of human development.
06.45: Muladhara chakra, the awakening ceremony. Shiva is symbolically taken from his nightly resting place with the energy of willpower, the goddess Iccha Shakti, to the main sanctum.
08.30: Svadhistana chakra, the fire ritual.
10.00: Manipuraka chakra, worship of the Ruby Nataraja.
11.30: Visuddhi chakra, midday worship.
18.00: Anahatha chakra, worship at dusk.
20.00: Ajna chakra, evening worship.
22.00: Sahasrara chakra, the Kundalini merges with the energy in the crown chakra. Shiva is ritually returned to the resting place for the night. This represents the process of avarohana, the descend of the Kundalini back to its seat of origin.
Visiting this temple is a yogic experience. Seeing the murthi of Nataraja in dance form awakens one’s consciousness. By meditation or sadhana (practice) one becomes part of that consciousness. The process of transition from that conscious state to getting merged (dissolved) with the super consciousness and liberated from the cycle of birth and death is Laya. Laya is not destruction but dissolution. Hence, Shiva is rightly known as Layakaraka.
The nearest airport to Chidambaram is Trichy which is 195 kms away. Chidambaram is connected by road from Chennai (220 kms) and also has a rail link.
(Featured image source)
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