From time immemorial
Chidambaram has been
considered the centre of the Universe. Mythology says that Cosmic Dancer
Lord Shiva's dance was witnessed by sage Patanjali, the author of the
science of Yoga here. Indian tradition holds that culturally all the dance
forms of India emanated from Nataraja.
The Five Important Sabhas
The "Nrityamurtis" (or dancing images) of Shiva are prevalent in all parts of India and markedly so in Southern India. Ellora and Chidambaram are superb examples. 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 ('Ratna Sabhai' the hall of rubies), Tirunelveli ('Tamra Sabhai' the hall of copper) and Kutralam near Tirunelveli ('Chitra Sabhai' the hall of pictures). Other dance halls of significance are 'Adri Sabhai' (the Himalayas), 'Aadi Chit Sabhai' (Tiruvenkaadu near Chidambaram) and 'Perur Kanaka Sabhai' (Patteeswarar temple at Perur near Coimbatore).
Nataraja was the family deity of the Cholas who had covered the Sabha with gold and made it the 'Kanaka Sabha' (golden hall); the deity is called "Kanakasabhapati". The roof of the Chidambaram Kanakasabha was rebuilt in the days of the King Paraantaka Chola I (908-948 AD)
The 108 dance postures carved on either side of a Gopuram in the Chidambaram temple correspond largely with the 108 dance-modes described by Bharata in his Natya Shastra. These 108 sculptures, which also contain the descriptions engraved in Sanskrit as found the Natya Shastra are reproduced in the Madras Epigraphis's Annual Report for 1913-14. The Saivagamas state that Shiva danced in a hundred and eight modes, but describe only nine modes.
The most important of these Sabhas is that at Chidambaram. The "Naadaanta" dance mode of Shiva shows him with his right leg firmly planted on the back of the wriggling "MuuyaLaka" ("Apsmaarapurusha", the evil personified), his left leg raised high up in a slant, his front left hand in the 'Dola' - or 'Gaja-Hasta' pose pointing to the raised foot, the front right hand in the 'Abhaya' pose, the back right and left hands carrying a kettle-drum and a ball of fire respectively; the whole composition is placed on a well-decorated pedestal where the ends of the circular or elliptical 'Prabhaa' ('Tiruvaasi' in Tamil) meet.
The Tamil text called "Unmai-Vilakkam" explains the symbolism underlying this cosmic dance of the great god in this manner: "Creation arises from the drum; protection proceeds from the hand of hope (the Abhaya pose in the front right one): from fire proceeds destruction: the foot held aloft gives Mukti"
Thus, all the five-fold activities of the Lord ('Pancakrtyas') are embraced, the 'Tiruvaasi' round him symbolising the act of obscuration ('Tirobhaava').
Significance Of Naadaanta Dance
The Naadaanta dance of Nataraja before the assembly (Sabha) in the golden hall of Chidambaram or Thillai, the centre of the Universe, first revealed to Gods and Rishis after the submission of the latter in the forest of 'Taaraka', as related in the "Koyil-Puranam". The essential significance of Naadaanta dance is as follows: "Our Lord is the Dancer, who, like the heat latent in firewood, diffuses His power in mind and matter, and makes them dance in their turn".
The dance represents His five activities ('Pancakritya'), viz., 'Srishti' (overlooking, creation, evolution), 'Sthiti' (preservation, support), 'Samhaara' (destruction, evolution), 'Tirobhava' (veiling, embodiment, illusion, and also giving rest), 'Anugraha' (release, salvation, grace). These are the activities of the deities: Brahma, Vishnu, 'Rudra', Maheshvara and Sadaashiva. Bronze cast image found at Tiruvelangaadu (Now in Madras Museum)
The "Prabhaamandala", the Jatas, the upper cloth tied round the chest and the Damaru are broken and lost in this image. The head is ornamented with peacock feathers, the 'Dhurdhura' flowers, a skull, a cobra and the crescent moon 'Kottappaadi' bronze, which is now kept in Puja at the temple of the village.
There are five Jatas on each side of the Shiva image of Kottappaadi and between each pair of them are worked out flowers and the figure of Ganga. The Devi stands nearby on a separate pedestal in the 'Tribhanga' posture and has her left hand let down and the rights arm bent and held in the 'Kataka' pose.
Nataraja of Tirucchengaattangudi has four arms, three eyes and a 'Jataamakuta' on the head. One of the right hands is held in the Abhaya pose and the other carries a 'Damaru'. One of the left arms is held in the 'Gajahasta' pose and other hand carries fire in it. The left foot rests upon a 'Pitha', somewhat bent. The great toe of the right foot rests also on the 'Pitha'.
This cosmic activity is the central motif of the dance... Chidambara Mummani Kovai says: "O my Lord, Thy hand holding the sacred drum has made and ordered the heavens and earth and other worlds and innumerable souls. Thy lifted hand protects the 'Chetana' (consciousness) and Achetana Prapanca, which Thou hast created. All these worlds are changed by Thy had'nt bearing fire. Thy sacred foot, planted on the ground, gives abode to the tired soul, struggling in the toils of Karma. It is Thy lifted foot that grants eternal bliss to those that approach Thee. These Five-Actions are indeed Thy handiwork."... This is His dance. Its deepest significance is felt when it is realised that it takes place within the heart and the self: the Kingdom of God is within.