is one of the most ancient and most celebrated shrines in India located in
Cuddalore district, Tamil Nadu. It is of great
religious as well as historic and cultural significance. Chidambaram is
associated with Lord Nataraja or Shiva in his "Ananda Tandava"
pose (the Cosmic Dance of bliss) in the cosmic golden hall and the hall of
consciousness ('Chit Sabha').
Lord Shiva is worshipped here in the "formless form" of the Chidambara Rahasyam, and the temple is known for its "Akasha" Lingam (Sky Lingam), an embodiment of Shiva as the formless Space. This is one of the few temples where Shiva and Vishnu are enshrined under one roof.
Antiquity Of The Temple
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 (very earlier on in the Christian era), and the Tamil Saints have sung its fame when an established worship tradition was in place. The later Chola Kings (Aditya I and Parantaka I) 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 unsuccessfully tried to capture it from the Mysore Kings. During this period, the images of Nataraja and Shivakamasundari were housed in the Tiruvarur Tyagaraja temple for safety.
The Dedicated Poems
Muthuswami Deekshitar, one of the foremost composers in the Carnatic 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 Lord Vishnu, whose image is also housed in this temple, and his shrine is referred to as 'Tiruchitrakootam'.
Adi Shankara 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 1,000-pillared hall, and was expounded by the author himself in the presence of the Chola emperor Kulottunga II, who had commissioned the work, amidst great festivity and fanfare.
Each of the four most revered Saivite Saints (Appar, Sundarar, Sambandar and Manikkavacakar) 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 The Temple
Aadi Sesha, the serpent (couch) of Vishnu, heard from Vishnu the grandeur of Shiva's cosmic dance. Filled with irrepressible 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 Shivakami) granted to Patanjali 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 Nataraja 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.
The Legendary Dance Duel of Lord Shiva And Goddess Kali
Yet another legend, commemorating the dance duel between the doyens of dances 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, Kali could not reciprocate, thereby causing Shiva to emerge victorious, delegating Kali 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 Rajaraja Chola (the builder of the Grand temple at Thanjavur) 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.
Ananda Tandavam - Dance of Lord Shiva
The dance of bliss, or the Ananda Tandavam of Shiva is said to symbolize the five divine acts ("Pancha Krityas") - creation, sustenance, dissolution, concealment and bestowment of grace. The dance of Shiva has been frozen in metal and held in worship in Nataraja Sabhas, in virtually all of the Saivite temples in Tamil Nadu.
Five of the foremost Sabhas (Pancha Sabhas) are at Chidmbaram (Kanaka Sabha-the hall of gold), Madurai (Rajata Sabha-the hall of Silver), Tiruvalangadu near Chennai (Ratnasabha - the hall of rubies), Tirunelveli (Tamrasabha - the hall of copper) and Kutralam near Tirunelveli (Chitrasabha-the hall of pictures). Other dance halls of significance are "Adri Sabha" (the Himalayas), "Aadi Chitsabha" (Tiruvenkaadu near Chidambaram) and "Perur Kanakasabha" (Patteeswarar temple at Perur near Coimbatore).
Architecture Of The Temple
The original temple was built during the 6th-8th centuries. There are four tall Gopurams and on the eastern tower, rising to 40.8 meters, are carved the 108 dance poses of Bharatanatyam. The whole temple spreads to around 40 acres. The temple is built based on the strict "Kundalini Chakra" orientation and according to the "Shiva Siddhanta" philosophy.
The Chidambaram Nataraja temple is a specimen of the assimilation of several architectural styles. The Nataraja Temple has five halls - the Nritta Sabha, Deva Sabha, Kanaka Sabha, Chit Sabha and Raja Sabha
The Innermost Prakaram
The innermost sanctum of the temple, houses the grand images of Shiva (Nataraja) and Parvati (Shivakami) in the Chit Sabha 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 the Chit Sabha, and to the South West of Nataraja, is the shrine of Govindaraja Perumal facing east.
Chit Sabha- The Holiest Place Of The Temple
The Chit Sabha, 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 Shivakami 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 Lord Shiva (and Goddess Parvati) in the formless form ("Aroopam") is lifted ceremoniously during worship services, with offerings of lamps.
Worshipping the five eternal elements, the temple at Tiruvannamalai has a fire lingam, Kanchipuram has the earth lingam, Kalahasthi, the wind lingam, Jambhukeshvar (also spelt as Jambhukeshva) is water and Chidambaram, the sky lingam. So when the priest draws back the curtain from the inner shrine of the presiding deity in the Chit Sabha, there is no lingam or dancing Nataraja to be seen. Only space. This is the charming mystery of Chidambaram - 'Rahasyam'. The other meanings of this Rahasyam (secret) are passed on from disciple-Guru (teacher) basis, but can be found in books like 'Chidambaram mahatmyam' written in Sanskrit.
Also in the Chitsabha are images of Ratnasabhapati (Nataraja of Ruby), the 'Spatika Lingam' of Chandramauleeswara, Swarnakarshana Bhairavar, Mukhalingam, etc.
Kanaka Sabha Or The Golden Hall
The Golden Hall, or Kanaka Sabha is immediately in front of the Chit Sabha, both being on an elevated platform as mentioned before, with silver panelled doors in front. The Chit Sabha itself is a meter or so higher than the Kanaka Sabha and is reached by a flight of 5 silver plated steps, marking the five 'Aksharas' (syllables) of the "Panchakshara Mantram" (the five syllabled NamaShivaya).
Nritta Sabha Or The Hall Of Dance
Across from the Nataraja shrine in the 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 Kali 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.
Deva Sabha Or The House Of Gods
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 Chandikeshwara) and other deities. Mulanathar, or the representation of Shiva as a Lingam is housed in the second Prakaram.
The Outermost Prakaram
The outermost Prakaram is home to the grand Shivakami Amman temple, the Shivaganga tank and the 1000-pillared hall or the Raja Sabha, where Nataraja is brought during two annual festivals.
The 1,000-pillared hall (ayiram-kal- mandapam) of Raja Sabha, measuring 103m long and 58m wide witnessed the victory celebrations of the Chola and Pandya kings. It is a great place for meditation
The sacred water of the Shivaganga Tank, thronged by bathing pilgrims, has healing powers and has cured a king's leprosy.
Shivakami Ammam Shrine
The vast Shivakami 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 1000 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'.
The Towers In The Temple
Perhaps the most magnificent 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 Bharatanatyam Tradition as enunciated in the Classic Natya Shastra.
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), "Kalyanasundara", "Somaskanda", etc. (bestowers of prosperity). There are no representations of Nataraja on the temple towers, as this image is reserved for the innermost shrine alone.
Services Offered To The Lord
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 am, and then at noon, and at 5.00 pm in the evening and at 7.00 pm involve a combination of rituals involving ablutions to the Crystal Lingam and the ceremonial show of lamps to Nataraja and Shivakami amidst the chanting of Vedic and Tamil hymns.
The "Shiva Agama" system of temple rituals followed in almost all of the Shaivite temples in Tamil Nadu is not followed at Chidambaram. It is a unique worship protocol said to have been prescribed by Patanjali that is followed at this temple.
Two Annual Bhramotsavams At Chidambaram
Two annual Bhramotsavams 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' (December 15 - January 15), concluding on the full moon day corresponding to the Arudra Darisanam festival (Arudra Darisanam is celebrated in Shaivite temples all over Tamil Nadu).
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 processions of the five deities ("Pancha Murtis") 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 the royal audiences of Nataraja in the Raja Sabha follow this ritual. In the afternoon, Nataraja returns to the shrine ceremoniously from the Raja Sabha, amidst an enactment of the Ananda Tandavam (also spelt as Tandava) or the Dance of Bliss.
The second of the Bhramotsavams happens in the month of Aani (June-July), 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 Bhramotsavams or festivals happen in the months immediately preceding the summer and winter solstices (i.e. Gemini and Sagittarius).
The Natyanjali Festival
Live dance performances have been introduced to the temple recently, in the form of annual dance festivals. The Natyanjali festival dedicated to the Cosmic Dancer (Lord Shiva) is celebrated every year during February-March. Natyanjali festival opens on the auspicious occasion of the Maha Shivaratri day and of course in the right kind of venue - the 'Prakara' of the Chidambaram temple. The magnificent temple dedicated to Lord Shiva, built a thousand years ago, provides a beautiful backdrop for the event.
This is an opportunity for all dancers, from all over India, to perform and to pay their tribute to Lord Nataraja. Natyanjali festival is jointly organised by The Department of Tourism, Government of Tamil Nadu, The Ministry Of Tourism, Government of India and The Natyanjali Trust, Chidambaram. The festival lasts for 5 days.
Air: The nearest airport is at
Rail: Chidambaram is on the Chennai Tiruchirappalli main line, between Villuppuram and Thanjavur and is well connected by rail with Trichy, Madurai, Chennai, etc.
Road: Bus routes connect Chidambaram to various places in Tamil Nadu like Trichy, Madurai, Chennai, Thanjavur, Kumbakonam, Nagappattinam etc. Taxis, auto-rickshaws and city bus service are available for local transportation.
Accommodation is available at the moderate class and small budgeted hotels in Chidambaram.