If Chidambaram figures in your itinerary, it is because you want to
visit its Shiva temple! For Chidambaram is a small town, barely 5 sq
km in area with nothing to recommend it except the temple. But what a
temple! This famous shrine is dedicated to the Hindu god Shiva, known
as Nataraja, Lord of Dance when he performs the tandava, the cosmic
dance of destruction.
The architecture of the temple, the exquisite beauty of its icon
makes it the highlight of the temple circuit. Shiva is the third
member of the divine trinity that includes Brahma the Creator and
Vishnu the Preserver – and upon Lord Shiva is enjoined the task of
Apocalypse. An enraged Shiva unleashes total destruction when he
performs the Roudra Tandava, the devastating dance of death that not
merely destroys but sets the scene for the creation of a new universe.
The temple at Chidambaram is exceptional in more ways than one – it
is the only temple where Shiva is enshrined as Nataraja, the Lord of
Dance and where Shiva and Vishnu share sacred space. It also has the
cachet of being one of the five holiest shrines for Saivites, devotees
of Shiva. Another feature unique to Chidambaram’s Nataraja temple is
it is open to people of all races and religions. Nataraja- the icon:
“Siva’s cosmic dance…magnificent bronze sculptures of dancing
figures with four arms whose superbly balanced and yet dynamic
gestures express the rhythm and unity of life.”- Fritjof Capra, The
Tao of Physics.
The three eyes of the god represent the sun, moon and fire. The deity
has four arms, in the rear right hand, he holds a drum (damaru) the
symbol of sound and creation as from it emanates the sounds that gave
birth to music. The palm of the front right hand is raised in a
gesture of protection and blessing. The rear left hand holds a pot of
fire signifying destruction while the other points downwards to the
left foot raised in a dance pose. The hand is the source of divine
grace and bliss while the raised foot represents salvation. The right
foot firmly represses Mauyalka, embodiment of human cruelty and
ignorance, victory over whom leads to salvation. Surrounding the
figure of the dancing god is an aureole of flames, representing
wisdom, truth and the vital forces of creation sustained by the cosmic
energy generated by the divine dancer. And so, the dance becomes a
metaphor of life, wherein are balanced good and evil, creation and
Nobody is still quite certain when and how the temple came to be –
but it does date back to the early decades of the Christian era and is
an amalgam of architectural styles typical of the region. Spread
across 40 acres defined by a gopuram on each side, the ancient
Nataraja temple sits square in the middle of Chidambaram. Its
brilliant gold plated roof beckons both religious and secular visitors
who flock to see the resident deity, the magnificent image of Nataraja
frozen in a moment of sheer lyrical grace. The exquisite image of
Shiva lost in the rapture of dance is breathtaking in its beauty and
leaves an indelible impression on all those fortunate enough to see
The Nataraja Temple has five halls, Kanaka Sabha, Chit Sabha, Nritta
Sabha, Deva Sabha and Raja Sabha. Shiva Nataraja and his consort
Parvati Sivakami preside over the garba-griham or the sanctum
sanctorum in the Kanaka Sabha while the sanctum of the Chit Sabha
houses the Akasalingam (Lingam of Space). Interestingly, there is no
image or representation of Shiva because here the god is worshipped in
his all-encompassing `formless’ state.
The Hall of Dance, the Nritta Sabha is the most outstanding of all
the halls – designed like a horse drawn chariot; it has 56 pillars
portraying 108 poses of Bharatnatyam, the classical dance form
associated with Shiva and with Tamil Nadu. Festivals were organised in
the Deva Sabha, the hall of the gods. The thousand pillared pavilion,
the Rajya Sabha was the venue for victory celebrations and
thanksgiving ceremonies during the reigns of the Pandya and Chola
A short walk from the Nataraja Temple is the Thillai Kaliamman
temple, dedicated to the Goddess Kali. The Kaliamman temple was built
sometime between 1229 AD and 1278 AD by the Chola King Kopperunjingan.
The Natyanjali Dance Festival is held on the temple grounds in
February with performances by eminent dancers. The 5 day long festival
is held during the Mahashivratri celebrations in February, and
attracts the finest classical dancers who perform in the `prakararam’
in the temple grounds.
You can spend a few hours, a few days or a few years at Chidambaram –
all depends on how much Nataraja captivates you!
Best time to visit
The climate here is tropical and the best time to visit this place is
in the winter months any time between September and February.
Chidambaram’s secret! The garland of sacred bilva leaves hanging in
the sanctum actually represents the invisible `chakra’, symbol of the
divine union of Shiva and Parvati as Nataraja and Sivakami and is
known as Chidambaram’s Rahasyam (secret)!
Leaves of the bilva or bel tree, (Indian wood apple, Aegle marmilos)
are always offered to Shiva in a tradition begun by Lord Vishnu
himself. Legend tells us that once, when Vishnu ran out of offerings
while worshipping Shiva, the goddess Lakshmi came to his rescue and
using the powers of her austerity created the Bel tree, the leaves of
which were then used by Vishnu to complete his pooja.
The Nataraja Temple is opened from 6:00am to 1:00am and 4.00pm to
9:00pm. The Kali Temple is opened from 7:00am to 12 Noon and then
6:00am to 9:00pm.