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Photographer's Note

Chidambaram is one of the most ancient and most celebrated of shrines in India. It is of great historic and cultural significance. Chidambaram is associated with Nataraja, (Shiva) in his Ananda Tandava pose (the Cosmic Dance of bliss) in the cosmic golden hall and the hall of consciousness (Chit Sabha). Shiva is also worshipped in the "formless form" of the Chidambara Rahasyam, while the temple is known for its Akasa Lingam, an embodiment of Shiva as the formless Space. The word "Koyil" or temple in the Tamil Saivite tradition refers to none other than the Chidambaram Nataraja temple.

Antiquity: The origins of this vast temple are buried in antiquity. Literature talks of a tradition of Shiva (Nataraja) worship in existence even as early as the Sangam period , and the Tamil Saints have sung its fame when an established worship tradition was in place. The later Chola King adorned the roof of the shrine with gold, and the other Chola Kings treated Nataraja as their guardian deity and made several endowments to the temple as temple inscriptions testify. The Pandya Kings who followed them, and the later Vijayanagar rulers made several endowments to the temple. There is a stone image of Krishnadevaraya in the North Gopura which he is said to have erected. In the wars of the 18th century, this temple was used as a fort, especially when the British General Sir Eyre Coote unsuccesfully tried to capture it from the Mysore Kings. During this period, the images of Nataraja and Sivakamasundari were housed in the Tiruvarur Tyagaraja temple for safety.

Muthuswamy Deekshitar, one of the foremost composers in the Karnatic Music tradition sings the glory of this temple in his kriti 'Ananda Natana Prakasam'. The Alwar Poems of the Naalayira Divya Prabandam sing the glory of Vishnu, whose image is also housed in this temple, and his shrine is referred to as 'Tiruchitrakootam'. Adi Sankara is said to have presented a Spatika Lingam which is still under worship in this temple. Sekkizhaar's Periya Puranam, describing poetically the life of the Saivite Saints (63 in number) was composed in the 1000 pillared hall, and was expounded by the author himself in the presence of the Chola emperor Kulottunga II, who had comissioned the work, amidts great festivity and fanfare.

Each of the four most revered Saivite Saints has worshipped at Chidambaram, and the bulk of Manikkavacakar's work is in praise of Shiva at Chidambaram. Accordingly, their images are placed in the temple entrances corresponding to their points of entry into the temple. (Sambandar - South, Appar - West, Sundarar - North and Manikkavacakar - East).

Legends associated with this temple: Aadi Sesha, the serpent (couch) of Vishnu, heard from Vishnu the grandeur of Shiva's cosmic dance. Filled with irrepressable desire to witness this dance in person at Chidambaram, Seshan descended to the earth as Patanjali (the one who descended). Vyagrapaadar, another devotee of Shiva prayed to obtain the tiger's claws so that he could obtain with ease the sacred Vilva leaves meant for Shiva's worship at Chidambaram. At the appointed hour, Shiva (with Sivakami) granted to Patanjali( master of Yoga) and Vyagrapaadar, a visual treat in the form of his Cosmic Dance of Bliss, to the accompaniments of music played by several divine personalities in the Hindu pantheon. This Dance of Bliss is said to have been witnessed by Vishnu, and there is a Govindaraja shrine in the Natarajar temple commemorating this. The dance of bliss of Shiva, is also said to have been enacted upon Shiva's (Bhikshatana) victory over the married ascetics of Daruka Vanam.

Yet another legend, commemorating the dance duel between the doyens of dance Shiva and Kali is associated with Chidambaram. Shiva is said to have lifted his left foot towards the sky in the Urdhuva Tandava posture, a definite male gesture, which out of adherence to protocol, Kaali could not reciprocate, thereby causing Shiva to emerge victorious, delegating Kaali to the status of a primary deity in another temple in the outskirts of Chidambaram. This legend is portrayed in the Nritta Sabha, one of the halls within the Chidambaram temple.

There is another recent legend associated with this temple. The sacred Tamil works of the Nayanmaars had been missing for several years, and it was during the period of Raja Raja Chola (the builder of the Grand temple at Tanjavur) that formal research was initiated to trace these fine works of devotional literature. These works of the Saivite Saints - rich in musical content were recovered in a dilapidated state in one of the chambers in this vast temple, after the monarch brought images of the Saint trinity in procession to the temple.

Nataraja: The dance of bliss, or the Ananda Tandavam of Shiva is said to symbolize the five divine acts (pancha krityas) of creation, sustenance, dissolution, concealment and bestowment of grace. The dance of Shiva has been frozen in metal and held in worships in Nataraja Sabhas, in virtually all of the Saivite temples in Tamilnadu. Five of the foremost Sabhas (Pancha Sabhai) are at Chidmbaram (Kanaka Sabhai the hall of gold), Madurai (Rajata Sabhai the hall of Silver), Tiruvalangadu near Chennai (Ratnasabhai the hall of rubies), Tirunelveli (Tamrasabhai the hall of copper) and Kutralam near Tirunelveli (Chitrasabhai the hall of pictures). Other dance halls of significance are Adri Sabhai (the Himalayas), Aadi Chitsabhai (Tiruvenkaadu near Chidambaram) and Perur Kanakasabhai (Patteeswarar temple at Perur near Coimbatore).

Architecture: The Chidambaram Natarajar temple is a specimen of the assimilation of several architectural styles. The innermost sanctum of the temple, houses the grand images of Shiva (Nataraja) and Parvati (Sivakami) in the ChitSabha or the hall of consciousness, adjoining which is the KanakaSabha or the Golden Hall, both these structures resting on a raised platform. The innermost prakaram surrounds this holiest of shrines, and to the South West of Nataraja, is the shrine of Govindaraja Perumaal facing the East.

The Chitsabha, the holiest shrine in the temple, is a wooden structure supported with wooden pillars, with a hut shaped roof. It is in this hall, that the images of Nataraja and Sivakami are housed, in front of a set of two curtains, the inner (invisible) one being red in color, the outer one being black in color. To the right of Shiva, is the revered Chidambara rahasyam - or a representation of emptiness garlanded with golden vilva leaves. The curtain in front of the Chidambara Rahasyam, representing Shiva (and Parvati) in the formless form (Aroopam) is lifted ceremoniously during worship services, with offerings of lamps. Also in the Chitsabha are images of Ratnasabhapati (Nataraja of Ruby), the Spatika Lingam of Chandramauleeswara, Swarnakarshana Bhairavar, Mukhalingam etc.

The Golden Hall, or KanakaSabha is immediately in front of the ChitSabha, both being on an elevated platform as mentioned before, with silver panelled doors in front. The ChitSabha itself is a meter or so higher than the Kanakasabha and is reached by a flight of 5 silver plated steps, marking the five aksharas (or syllables) of the Panchakshara Mantram (the five syllabled Namasivaya).

Across from the Nataraja shrine in he second prakaram is the Nritta Sabha or the hall of dance with some fine pillars, housing an image of Shiva in the Urdhva tandava posture, winning over Kaali in a dance duel, and an image of Sarabheswara, another form of Shiva. The Nritta Sabha with fine pillars is in the form of a chariot drawn by horses. The Deva Sabha or the house of Gods is also in the second prakaram, housing festival images of the Pancha Murtis (Somaskandar, Parvati, Vinayaka, Subramanya and Chandikeswara) and other deities. Mulanathar, or the representation of Shiva as a Lingam is housed in the second prakaram.

The outermost prakaram is home to the grand Sivakami Amman 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 in its own right. 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 thousand pillared hall has witnessed several grand events in history. This hall is also designed in the form of a chariot. Its entrance features two elephants, and on the basement there is a frieze of dancing figures. The 100 pillared hall, also 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'.

Perhaps the most magnificient structures in the temple are the four lofty gopurams or towers in the four cardinal directions, piercing the walls of the outermost prakaram. Each is a gigantic masterpiece in itself - about 250 feet in height, with seven tiers. The Western tower is the oldest one. In the towers, on either side of the gateways there are representations of the 108 poses of the classical Bharata Natyam Tradition as enunciated in the Classic Natya Sastra. The towers are embellished with images from Hindu mythology. 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), Kalyanasundarar, Somaskandar etc. (bestowers of prosperity). There are no representations of Nataraja on the temple towers, as this image is reserved for the innermost shrine alone.

Worship protocol: Six worship services are offered in this temple each day at the shrine of Nataraja - the last of which is the ArdhaJaama Puja (the most special one), where the padukas (footwear) of Nataraja are ceremoniously taken to the Palliarai (night chamber) of Shiva and Parvati after elaborate rituals. It is believed that the entire pantheon of divine figures in the Hindu system of beliefs is present during this occasion. The first puja in the morning involves the waking up of Shiva, and a transport of the padukas back to the main shrine, followed by fire rituals and ablutions to the crystal Shivalingam. The worship services that follow at about 9:30, and then at noon, and at 5 in the evening and at 7 pm involve a combination of rituals involving ablutions to the Crystal Lingam and the ceremonial show of lamps to Nataraja and Sivakami amidst the chanting of Vedic and Tamil hymns. The Shiva Agama system of temple rituals followed in almost all of the Saivite temples in Tamilnadu, is not followed at Chidambaram. It is a unique worship protocol said to have been prescribed by Patanjali that is followed at this temple.

Festivals: Two annual Bhrammotsavams at Chidambaram are of great significance, as they involve colorful processions of festival deities in the car streets. The grandest of these occurs in the month of Margazhi (Dec 15 - Jan 15), concluding on the full moon day corresponding to the Arudra Darisanam festival (Arudra Darisanam is celebrated in Saivite temples all over Tamilnadu). This ten day festival at Chidambaram involves a grand scheme of traditional observances commencing with the hoisting of the temple flag on the first day, followed by colorful procesions of the five deities (Pancha Murthys) on the first eight days on various mounts. The fifth day features Mount Kailasam, while the sixth day features the elephant mount. It is only on the ninth day that Nataraja leaves his sanctum, and is taken in a procession through the car streets, in the grand temple car. This is a special occasion and crowds throng to see it. Local fishermen communities traditionally offer gifts to Nataraja during this procession. Nataraja then returns to the Raja Sabha of the temple, where in the pre-dawn hours of the next day, while the moon is full, special abhishekams are performed to Nataraja, in the presence of thousands of devotees, and this ritual is followed by the royal audience of Nataraja in the Raja Sabha. In the afternoon, Nataraja returns to the shrine ceremoniously from the Raja Sabha, amidst an enactment of the Ananda Tandavam or the Dance of Bliss.

The second of the Bhrammotsavams happens in the month of Aani, and it concludes with Aani Tirumanjanam on the tenth day, in a manner similar to Arudra Darisanam in Margazhi. It is interesting that these annual Bhrammotsavams or festivals happen in the months immediately preceding the summer and winter solstices (ie. Gemini and Sagittarius).

Live dance performances have been introduced to the temple recently, in the form of annual dance festivals.

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Photo Information
  • Copyright: Balwant Thanki (Balwant) Gold Star Critiquer/Gold Note Writer [C: 105 W: 3 N: 84] (588)
  • Genre: Places
  • Medium: Color
  • Date Taken: 2007-10-30
  • Categories: Architecture
  • Exposure: f/7.1, 1/200 seconds
  • More Photo Info: view
  • Photo Version: Original Version
  • Date Submitted: 2008-02-10 10:07
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Additional Photos by Balwant Thanki (Balwant) Gold Star Critiquer/Gold Note Writer [C: 105 W: 3 N: 84] (588)
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