Chidambaram: abode of the Dancer Supreme

Among the numerous grand temples of India, the one dedicated to Lord Nataraja in Chidambaram occupies a special place in the hearts not only of the religious minded, but also students of history, art, architecture, and above all, of the fine-arts, especially dance. The tradition associated with this temple of the Divine Dancer, is that of the sages Vyaghrapada and Patanjali, great devotees of  Siva, performing penance here. The reward for their sincere prayer is that Siva performs the Ananda Tandava at this sacred spot forever.

This temple-complex is unique as it is one of the 275 “paadal petra sthalam” (Siva temples in which the deities have been eulogised in the hymns of the Nayanmar-s or Saiva saints) and at the same time, also one of the 108 “divya desam” (Vishnu temples in

which the deities have been praised by the Azhwar-s or the Vaishnava saints). Lord Nataraja here has received the encomiums of many Nayanmar-s like Appar, Tirugnanasambandar and Sundaramoorti Nayanar. Kulasekhara Azhwar and Tirumangai Azhwar have waxed eloquent on Lord Vishnu enshrined here as Govindarajaswami.

A moving episode connected with the history of this temple is that of Nandanar, an ardent devotee of  Nataraja who could not enter the temple because of social restrictions prevalent at that time. His greatest wish was to see Lord Nataraja. It is believed that Nandanar went through an ordeal by fire, following a dream in which Lord Siva appeared. Subsequently, he visited the temple and finally merged with the deity there. This moving account has been immortalised in the Tamil work Peria Puranam composed by Seikkizhar in the Chola times of the 12th century AD. Manikkavachakar, another great Saivite saint also sang in praise of this deity and attained salvation here.

Chidambaram is one among the five sacred places in South India associated with the five elements (Panchabhoota sthalam-s). The Nataraja temple in Chidambaram represents space or Akasa. Ananda natana prakasam (Kedara raga, Misra Chapu tala) is Muthuswami Dikshitar’s panchalinga kriti on akasa. It describes the Ananda tandava of Lord Nataraja in the chitrambalam. He is identified with the dance of divine consciousness within the subtle space of the human heart. In the chittaswara for this kriti, Dikshitar has woven the swara-s and the sollu-s so skillfully that they conjure up visions of the dance of Siva in our mind’s eye.

Near the shrine of Nataraja is the famous ‘Chidambara Rahasyam’ (secret of Chidambaram) which is the empty space within the sanctum sanctorum indicating space or Akasa. The sacred ‘Chidambara Rahasyam’ is garlanded with golden vilva leaves (the sacred leaves offered to Lord Siva). The curtain in front of the Chidambara Rahasyam, which represents ignorance, is lifted ceremoniously thrice a day during worship and lamps are waved in front.

Chidambaram is one of the five important holy places or sabha-s where Siva manifests as Nataraja. Of these the Kanaka Sabha (golden hall) at Chidambaram is the first and the most famous. The others are the Rajata Sabha (silver hall) or the Meenakshi-Sundareswarar temple in Madurai, the Ratna Sabha or the Ratnasabhapati temple at Tiruvalangadu, the Tamra Sabha (copper hall) or the Nelliappar temple, Tirunelveli, and the Chitra Sabha or the Kuttralanatha Swami temple in Kuttralam.

Inside the Chidambaram templetoo, there are five sabha-s – Kanaka Sabha, Chit Sabha or Jnana Sabha, Nritta Sabha, Deva Sabha and the Raja Sabha. Of these, the Nritta Sabha enshrines a beautiful image of Nataraja in the Oordhva Tandava pose. Situated in the second circumambulatory passage (prakara) of this temple, this shrine belongs to the Chola era and has been made in the form of a chariot with wheels and horses pulling it. Incidentally, there is a very well-wrought stone image of Oordhava Tandavamoorti on the side of the east gopuram of this temple.

Like many other large temple-complexes of South India, the temple in Chidambaram too is the result of architectural expansion spanning several centuries. Many dynasties like the Cholas, Pandyas and Vijayanagara, to mention only a few, have contributed substantially to the architecture and iconography of this remarkable temple. Nataraja was the family deity of the kings of this dynasty. Parantaka Chola I (907-955 AD), described poetically in an inscription as “a bee at the lotus feet of Lord Purantaka (Siva)” was the monarch who covered the roof of the Nataraja temple with gold. Rajaraja Chola I (9851014 AD), one of India’s greatest emperors, was also a devotee of Lord Nataraja. A mural of the 11th century in the Brihadeeswara (Rajarajeswaram) temple in Tanjavur constructed in his reign, depicts this ruler with his queensworshipping the image of Nataraja at Chidambaram. According to tradition, it was during his time that the Tevaram hymns (Tamil stanzas composed by Appar, Tirugnanasambandar and Sundaramoorti Nayanar) which had hitherto been lost, were re-discovered inside the Chidambaram temple.

The numerous inscriptions found on the walls speak of the donations made over the centuries. In particular, the contributions in the 10th -11th century of Kulottunga Chola I, his son Vikrama Chola and their army general Naralokavira are outstanding. A bi-lingual epigraph (partly in Sanskrit and partly in Tamil),  records the phenomenal contribution of Naralokavira.

The separate shrine for Sivakamasundari, the consort of Lord Nataraja, near the Sivaganga tank, looks like a separate templein itself. Scholars have opined that this shrine belongs to the 12th century, and that it was mostly the contribution of Naralokavira in the reigns of Kulottunga I and Vikrama Chola, as seen from his inscription. Of very special interest here are the sculptures, in a series, of dancers along with musicians, some playing on various musical instruments. Numerous paintingsof the Nayak times are seen in the mandapa of this shrine.

The most eye-catching features of the Chidambaram temple are the four lofty gopuram-s in the four cardinal directions which carry many sculptures including those of ladies in various dance postures. Of these, the west and east gopura-s have special features by way of sculptures of karana-s in accordance with the Natya Sastra of sage Bharata, as they are accompanied by inscriptions in the Sanskrit language and the Grantha script of the Chola times of the twelfth century AD mentioning the name of the particular karana depicted. All the 108 karana-s, as performed by a female figure, are found in this temple. The thousand-pillar hall (also called the Raja Sabha), shaped like a chariot, also has some well-carved sculptures of dancers and musicians on the basement.

“Bhooloka Kailasa” (Kailasa on earth) is how the Nataraja temple in Chidambaram, one of the foremost temples for Saivites is referred to. By way of tradition, rituals, legends, devotion, philosophy, history, art, architecture, sculpture, inscriptions – this temple stands unmatched.

(The author is a historian focussing on temple art and architecture)