Devi's Corner - Temples in Tamilnadu - Chidambaram Nataraja temple
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Chidambaram Nataraja temple

     Chidambaram Temple is a Hindu temple dedicated to Lord Shiva located in the heart of the temple town of Chidambaram, 78 km south of Pondicherry and 60 km north of Karaikal in Cuddalore District ot Tamil Nadu. To the followers of Shaivism (Saivism) or the saivaite, the very word koil refers to Chidambaram (to the followers of Vaishnavism koil refers to Srirangam or Thiruvarangam). The Pallava king Simhavarman (also known as Hiranyavarman, who lived in the 5th century CE) is a well known renovator of this temple.

     In Hindu literature, Chidambaram is one of the five holiest Shiva temples, each representing one of the five natural elements; Chidambaram is space. The other four temples in this category are: Thiruvanaikaval Jambukeswara (water), Kanchi Ekambareswara (earth), Thiruvannamalai Arunachaleswara (fire) and Kalahasti Nathar (wind).

     The Chidambaram Temple, dedicated to Lord Shiva (Siva) in His form of the Cosmic Dancer, Nataraja, is a temple complex spread over 40 acres (160,000 m2) in the heart of the city. It is an ancient and historic temple dedicated to Lord Shiva Nataraja and Lord Govindaraja Perumal, one of the few temples where both the Shaivite and Vaishnavite deities are enshrined in one place.

     The word Chidambaram may be derived from chit, meaning "consciousness", and ambaram, meaning "sky". 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 Lord Nataraja symbolises the motion of the universe as sustained by Lord Shiva. The temple has five courts. Aragalur Udaya Iraratevan Ponparappinan (alias Vanakovaraiyan) rebuilt the Siva temple at Chidambaram around 1213 AD. The same Bana Chief also built Tiruvannamalai temple.

     The story of Chidambaram begins with the legend of Lord Siva 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. The Lord strolls in the forest with resplendent beauty and brilliance, assuming the form of 'Pitchatanadar', a simple mendicant seeking alms. He is followed by his Grace and consort who is Lord 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 magical rituals. The Lord 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 the Lord skins and dons as a shawl around his waist. Thoroughly frustrated, the rishis gather all their spiritual strength and invoke a powerful demon Muyalakan - a symbol of complete arrogance and ignorance. The Lord wearing a gentle smile, steps on the demon's back, immobilizes him and performs the Nanda Thaandava (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.

     The Ananda Tandava posture of Lord Shiva is one of the famous postures recognized around the world by many (even people belonging to other religions having a liking towards Hinduism). This celestial dancing posture tells us how a Bharathanatium Dancer should dance.

The demon under Nataraja's feet signifies that ignorance is under his feet
The Fire in this 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 in his hand signifies the origin of Life.

     Adhisesha, the serpent who serves as a bed for the Lord in his manifestation as Vishnu, hears about the Ananda thaandava and yearns to see and enjoy it. The Lord 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.

     Patanjali who meditated in himalayas during krita age joins another saint, Vyagrapathar / Pulikaalmuni (Vyagra / Puli meaning "Tiger" and patha / kaal meaning "feet" - referring to the story of how he sought and got the feet and eyesight of a tiger to help climb trees well before dawn to pick flowers for the Lord before the bees visit them). They move into the Thillai forest and worship Lord Shiva in the form of Shivalinga, a deity worshiped today as Thirumoolataneswarar (Thiru - sri, Moolatanam - primordial or in the nature of a foundation, Eswarar- the Lord). Legends say that Lord Shiva displayed his dance of bliss (the Aananda Thaandavam) - as Nataraja to these two saints on the day of the poosam star in the Tamil month of Thai (Jan - Feb).

     Chidambaram is also referred to in various works such as Thillai (after the Thillai forest of yore in which the temple is now located), Perumpatrapuliyur or Vyagrapuram? (in honour of Saint Vyagrapathar).

     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 Ananda Thaandavam - a spot exactly south of the "Thirumoolataaneswar temple", today is the Ponnambalam/ Porsabai (Pon meaning gold, Ambalam/Sabai meaning stage) housing the Lord Shiva in his dancing form. The Lord is also hence referred to as the Sabhanayakar, meaning the Lord of the Stage.

     This gold-roofed stage is the sanctum sanctorum of the Chidambaram temple and houses the Lord in three forms:

the "form" - the anthromorphological form as an idol of Lord Nataraja, called the Sakala thirumeni.

the "semi-form" - the semi-anthropomorphological form as the Crystal linga of Chandramouleswarar, the Sakala nishkala thirumeni.

the "formless" - as the Space in Chidambara Rahasyam, an empty space within the sanctum sanctorum, the Nishkala thirumeni.

     Chidambaram also is one of the five places where Lord Shiva is said to have displayed his dance and all these places have stages/ sabhais . Apart from Chidambaram which has the Por sabhai, the others are the Rathina sabhai at Thiruvaalangadu (rathinam - ruby / red) , the Chitra sabhai at Courtallam (chitra - painting), the Rajatha sabhai or the Velli ambalam at Madurai Meenakshi Amman Temple (rajatha / velli - silver) and the Thaamira sabhai at Nellaiappar Temple, Tirunelveli (thaamiram - copper).

     The temple and the Lord were also immortalized in poetry by four poet Saints - Thirugnana Sambanthar, Thirunavukkarasar, Sundaramoorthy Nayanar, and Manikkavasagar. The collected works of the first three are called the Devarams. Thirugnana Sambanthar has composed 2 Tevarams in praise of the Lord at Chidambaram , Thirunavukkarasar aka Appar 8 Tevarams in praise of Nataraja, and Sundarar 1 Tevaram in praise of Lord Nataraja. Manikkavasagar has written two works, the first called Tiruvasakam (The sacred utterances) which largely has been sung in Chidambaram and the Thiruchitrambalakkovaiyar (aka Thirukovaiyar), which has been sung entirely in Chidambaram. Manikkavasagar is said to have attained spiritual bliss at Chidambaram. The works of the first three saints (Tevaram) were stored in palm leaf manuscripts in the temple and were recovered by the Chola King Arunmozhivarman, more famously called Sree Rajaraja Chola under the guidance of Nambiandarnambi.

The Gopurams      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. The eastern pagoda has all the 108 postures (karnams) of the Indian dance form - Bharathanatyam sculpted on it.

The Five Sabhais
     There are 5 sabhas or diases or halls:

the Chit sabhai, which is the sanctum sanctorum housing Lord Nataraja, his consort Goddess Shivagamasundari

the Kanaka sabhai - in front of the Chitsabhai, from which the daily rituals are conducted

the Nrithya sabhai or Natya sabhai, to the south of the temple's flag mast (or kodi maram or dwaja sthambam) where the Lord is said to have danced with Goddess Kali - an embodiment energy and established His supremacy

the Raja sabhai or the 1000-pillared hall which symbolizes the yogic chakra of thousand pillared lotus or Sahasraram (which in yoga is a 'chakra' at the crown of the head and is a seat where the soul unites with God. This chakra is represented as a 1000-petalled lotus. Meditating by concentrating at the Sahasrara Chakra is said to lead to a state of union with the Divine force and is the pinnacle of yogic practice)

the Deva sabhai, which houses the Pancha moorthis (pancha - five, moorthis - deities, namely the deities of Lord Ganesh - the remover of hurdles, Lord Somaskanda, a form where the Lord is in a seated posture with his grace and consort, the Lord's consort Sivananda nayaki, the Lord Muruga and the deity of Chandikeswarar - the principal and chief of the devotees of the Lord).

Other shrines
Apart from the five sabhais are:

the shrines for the original Shivalinga worshiped by Saints Patanjali and Vyagrapathar - called the Thirumoolattaneswarar and his consort Umaiyammai or Umaiya parvathi

the shrines for the 63 prime devotees of Lord Siva - or the Arubathu moovar

the shrines for Sivagami - an embodiment of knowledge or Gyanasakthi

for Lord Ganesha - in his manifestation of one who removes hurdles

for Lord Muruga or Pandiya nayakan - in his manifestation of one who holds the three forms of energy - Itchai or "desire" represented by his consort Valli, Kriya or "action" represented by his consort Deivayanai and Gnana or "Knowledge" represented by the spear He carries to destroy ignorance.

Water bodies in and around the temple
     Moorthi (Idol), Sthalam (Place) and Theertham (Waterbodies) signify the holiness of a temple. The Chidambaram temple is well endowed with several water bodies within and around it.

The temple complex on 40 acres (160,000 m2) houses the temple tank - called the Sivaganga. This large tank is in the third corridor of the temple opposite to the shrine for Goddess Sivagami.

The Paramanandha koobham is the well on the eastern side of the Chitsabhai from which water is drawn for performing pooja in the temple.

The Kuyya theertham is situated to the north-east of Chidambaram near Killai near the Bay of Bengal and has the shore called Pasamaruthanthurai.

The Pulimadu is situated around a kilometer and a half to the south of Chidambaram.

The Vyagrapatha theertham is situated on to the west of the Chidambaram temple opposite the temple of Lord Ilamai akkinaar.

The Anantha theertham is to the west of Chidambaram temple in front of the Anantheswarar temple.

The Nagaseri is the tank to the west of the Anantha theertham.

The Brahma theertham is to the north-west of the Chidambaram temple at Thirukalaanjeri.

The Siva piriyai is a tank to the north of the Chidambaram temple and opposite the Brahma chamundeswari temple (aka the Thillai Kali temple).

Thiruparkadal is the tank to the south-east of the Siva piriyai.

Significance of the 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 Panchaatchara padi - pancha meaning 5, achhara - indestructible syllables - "SI VA YA NA MA", from a raised anterior dias - the Kanakasabai. The access to the Sabhai is through the sides of the stage (and not from the front as in most temples).

The Ponnambalam or the Sanctum sanctorum is held by 28 pillars - representing the 28 agamas or set methodologies for the worship of Lord 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. The roof is topped by a set of 9 sacred pots or kalasas, representing the 9 forms of energy. (refer Umapathy Sivam's Kunchitaangristhavam)

Govindaraja Shrine
     The Chidambaram temple complex houses a shrine for the Lord Govindaraja Perumal and his consort Pundareegavalli Thaayar. This shrine is claimed to be the Thillai Thiruchitrakootam and is one of the 108 divyadesas - or the key shrines of Vishnu, which have been sanctified (mangala saasanam) by hymns (the Naalayira divya prabantham) sung by the chief devotees of Lord Vishnu (called the Aalwars) . Tillai Chitrakootam (but not the Givindaraja Temple in its current form) has been sung by Kulasekara Alwar and Tirumangai Mannan Alwar.

The Chidambara Rahasyam
     Lord Shiva in his manifestation of formlessness is worshiped in Chidambaram. The Lord is said to continuously dance in a state of eternal bliss "Aananda thaandava", with his consort Sakthi or energy called Sivagami. A curtain covers this space which when drawn reveals strands of golden 'Vilva' leaves hung to indicate the Lord's presence. The curtain is dark on its exterior side (indicating ignorance) and bright red on the interior side (indicating wisdom and bliss).

     Lord Nataraja at the Chitsabhai in Chidambaram. To the left of the Lord's idol is the Chidambara Rahasya - represented by strands of gold Vilva leaves. To the right is the idol of His Consort Goddess SivagamasundariDuring the daily rituals, the Chief priest, of the day, himself in a state of Godliness - Shivohambhava (Shiva - the Lord, in His Sandhi form - Shivo-, aham - me / us, bhava - state of mind), parts the curtain, indicating the withdrawal of ignorance and reveals the space, and the Lord's presence. The Chidambara Rahasya, is hence representative of that time when one, in total surrender, allows God to intervene and remove our ignorance, even as we get to 'see and experience' His presence and hence - bliss.

     The puranas (history passed on verbally and later written down) mention that Saint Pulikaalmunivar had directed significant amounts of temple works through King Simmavarman. Among the Pallava kings, there have been three kings by the name Simmavarman (in 275-300 CE, 436-460 CE, 550-560 CE ). As the temple was already prominent during the period of Poet-saint Thirunavukkarasar (whose time period has been estimated more or less accurately as the 6th century), Simmavarman most likely lived around 430-458CE, i.e. Simmavarama II. The pattayam or declaration made out on copper plates in Kottravankudi confirms this. However the Thandanthotta pattayam and other pattayams of the Pallava period refer to the Simmavarman in association with the Chidambaram temple. It is hence believed that Simmavarman was a prince of the Pallava dynasty who renounced his royal rights and came to live in Chidambaram. As Pulikaalmunivar and Simmavarman are reported to have been contemporaries, it is thought that the temple was constructed during that period. However, the fact that the Poet-saint Manikkavasagar lived and attained bliss at Chidambaram long before the Poet-saint Thirunavukkarasar and as the deity of Lord Nataraja and its unique posture and representation do not seem to compare well with other Pallava works of that period, it is probable that there would have existed a later saint also called Pulikaalmunivar and that the temple existed from Simmavarman.

     We know from the sangam literature that the Cholas were great devotees of this ancient shrine. The Chola King Kochengannan was said to have born after the King Subhadevan and Kamaladevi worshipped in the Thillai golden hall. Hence the temple with its golden hall is likely to have existed thousands of years before the present era. The temple architecture - particularly of the sanctum sanctorum does not conform to any of the other temple forms of the Cholas, Pandyas or the Pallavas. To an extent, this form has certain similarities with the temple forms of the Cheras but the earliest known links with the Chera dynasty is during the period of Poet-saint Sundarar (circa 12th Century ). Works in and referring to the Chidambaram temple are unfortunately only available from the 10 Century onwards.

     The South Gopuram was constructed by a Pandya King. This is evidenced by the presence of the fish emblem of the Pandyas that have been sculpted on the ceiling. Historically, the Pandyas are known to have sculpted two fishes facing each other when they complete the Gopuram (and leave it with one fish, in case it is incomplete). The South gopuram bears the two-fish insigna of the Pandyas. Subsequently, the Gopuram appears to have been redone by the Pallava King Koperunsingan I 1216-1242 CE, after retaining the first level. This Gopuram is called the Sokkaseeyan Thirunilai Ezhugopuram.

     The West Gopuram was constructed by Jadavarman Sundara Pandyan I 1251-1268 CE. The North Gopuram was constructed by the Vijayanagara King Krishnadevarayar 1509-1529 CE. The East Gopuram was first constructed by the Pallava King Koperunsingan II 1243-1279 CE.

     Subsequent repairs were carried out by Subbammal, who was the mother-in-law of the famous philanthropist Pachaiappa Mudaliar. The idols of Pachaiappa Mudaliar and his wife Iyalammal have been scuplted on the eastern gopuram. The Pachaiappa trust to date has been responsible for various functions in the temple and also maintain the temple car.

     The golden tiled roof for the Chitsabha is said to have been laid by the Chola King Parantaka I (907-950 CE) ("Thillaiyambalathhukku pon koorai veiyntha thevan"). King Paranthaka II, Rajaraja Chola I, Kulothunga Chola I are reported to have made significant donations to the temple. Rajaraja Chola's daughter Kundavai II is also said to have donated gold and riches to the temple. Later Chola kings Vikrama Chola (AD 1118-1135) is also reported to have made donations for conduct of the daily rituals.

     There have been donations of gold and jewels made by various kings, rulers and patrons to the temple - including the Maharaja of Pudukottai, Shri Sethupathy (the emrald jewel still adorns the deity), the British, etc.

     There are some references (oral and passed on through the generations of the Dikshithars) to an event when the Dikshithars of the temple apprehended attack and plundering of the temple by Malik Kafur in 1312 A.D. Several Dikshithars are said to have jumped down from the tall pagodas and ended their lives, preferring death than to see their sacred and much loved temple from being run over by Malik Kafur. Some other Dikshithars are said to have locked up the temple and carried the deities with a lot of protection to Alapuzha in Kerala. They returned soon after the fear of invasion receded.

     Just as six poojas are performed in a day at the sanctum sanctorum, six anointing ceremonies are performed for the principal deity - Lord Nataraja in a year. They are the Marghazhi Thiruvaadhirai (in December - January ) indicating the first pooja , the fourteenth day after the new moon ( chaturdasi) of the month of Masi ( February - March) indicating the second pooja, the Chittirai Thiruvonam ( in April- May), indicating the third pooja or uchi kaalam , the Uthiram of Aani (June- July) also called the Aani Thirumanjanam indicating the evening or the fourth pooja , the chaturdasi of Aavani (August-September) indicating the fifth pooja and the chaturdasi of the month of Puratasi ( October - November) indicating the sixth pooja or Arthajama. Of these the Marghazhi Thiruvaadhirai ( in December-January) and the Aani Thirumanjanam ( in June-July ) are the most important.

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