Temples of Tamil Nadu - Chidambaram Temple

by V.A.Ponmelil (All rights reserved by the author)

The Chidambaram temple located at 250 Km to the south of Chennai in Tamil Nadu. It is the most well known saivite temple with main deity as Nataraja enshrined in the Chitsabha or the Hall of Consciousness in the Anand Tandavam or the dance of bliss posture. It is also one of the most ancient and most celebrated shrines in India. Lord Shiva is also worshipped in the formless form of the Chidambara Rahasyam.

The temple is known for its Akasa Lingam, an embodiment of Shiva as the formless Space. The place is one of the Panchabhoota Stalams representing the five elements such as wind at Kalahasti, water at Tiruvanaikka, fire at Tiruvannamalai, earth at Kanchipuram and space at Chidambaram.

The Chidambaram was one of the 5 dance Halls of Shiva (Kanakasabhai).The other dance halls are Madurai, Tiruvalankadu, Tirunelveli and Kutralam. When people refer to 'koil', the word mainly denotes the temple in Chidambaram. It is also referred as Thillai, Puliyur, Chittambalam, Vyagrapuram and Pundareekapuram.

The temple occupying an area of about 51 acres has four imposing towers on its four sides. Each of these towers rising to about 135 ft is comprised of 7 storeys apart from 13 copper 'Kalasam' (finials).

The innermost sanctum of the temple, houses the grand images of Shiva (Nataraja) and Parvati (Sivakami) in the ChitSabha or the hall of consciousness. The Chitsabha which is the holiest shrine in the temple has a wooden structure supported with wooden pillars and a hut shaped roof. 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 is lifted ceremoniously during worship services. There are also the images of Ratnasabhapati, the Spatika Lingam of Chandramauleeswara, Swarnakarshana Bhairavar, Mukhalingam etc.

The ChitSabha itself is a meter or so higher than the Kanakasabha and is reached by a flight of 5 silver plated steps, marking the five aksharas or syllables of the Panchakshara Mantram.

The Nritta sabha has the image of Shiva in the Urdhva tandava posture, winning over Kaali in a dance duel, and an image of Sharabheswara, another form of Shiva.

The Nritta Sabha looks like a chariot drawn by horses.

The Deva Sabha or the house of Gods is also in the second prakaram, housing festival images of the Pancha Murtis such as Somaskandar, Parvati, Vinayaka, Subramanya and Chandikeswara.

 The outermost prakaram has the grand Sivakami Amman temple, the Sivaganga tank and the 1000 pillared hall or the Raja Sabha. The Subramanya shrine is also in the form of a chariot, and is referred to as the 'Pandya Nayakam'.

Rishi Madyandinar’s son worshipped the Lingam, in the forest of Thillai. He used to get up before daybreak and get flowers for Shiva. One day when he gets up, it was too dark to get the flower and in the daybreak the flowers were all polluted by the bees. This made him grief stricken. Lord Shiva gives him the eyes and limbs of a tiger so that he could see in the dark and climb trees easily to collect the flowers. Thus he came to be known as 'Vyagrapadar' and the forest where he lived as 'Vyagrapuram' or 'Puliyoor'.

During the same time, the rishis living in the forest known as 'Tharukavanam' became very arrogant about their knowledge and Shiva wishes to teach them a lesson. He appeared as a handsome mendicant with Vishnu as his wife Mohini and this created chaos in 'Tharukavanam' as the wives of the rishis fell under the spell of this charming, handsome Shiva while the youthful rishis fell for the allure of Mohini.

The older rishis being very angry decides to destroy the pair. They created a sacrificial fire from which came a tiger. Lord Shiva killed the tiger and tied its skin around his waist. Then a poisonous serpent was created which was worn by Shiva around his neck. The demon Muyalakan was sent against the lord whom he crushed under his feet. Then the sacrificial fire was sent which was put on the lord’s hand. Later, frustrated rishis sent the vedic mantras which the Lord Shiva worn around his ankles.

The rishis admitted their defeat and the lord revealed himself by dancing “Oorthava Thandavam” with his matted hair unfurling in all eight directions. When the Lord Vishnu described this incident to Adishesha, the serpent wanted to see this dance, taking the leave of Vishnu went to Lord Shiva and prayed him to grant the honour of witnessing his dance. Shiva advised him to go to Vyagrapuram where he would perform this dance one day. Adishesha was reborn as Patanjali and approached Vyagrapadar telling him his quest. Both of them prayed the lord Shiva again. On an auspicious day the celestial beings arrived at Thillai and assembled where Vyagrapadar had his temple. Lord Shiva appeared with one of his right hands beating the drums and the other hand bestowing grace. With His left hand holding the fire and the other pointing to his right leg trampling Muyalakan under the foot he stood with his left leg raised in a dancing pose. Goddess Kali who was the guardian of the forest in Thillai, refused to allow Lord Shiva to dance in her place. Lord Shiva therefore challenged her to a dance competition on the condition that if he wins then she would be banished from that area.

The competition began with Naradha playing the veena, Nandikeswara playing the drums and other celestial musicians accompanying with their instruments. Lord Shiva danced with his hair flung in all directions. With the 'vedas' as his anklets, the serpent as his waist band, the tiger skin as his attire with Ganga and the crescent moon on his crest, he performed the 'Ananda thandavam'.

At one stage, Lord Shiva took a pose with his left foot raised above his head but modesty prevented Goddess Kali matching the same pose. Thus having lost the competition took her residence in the northern end of Chidambaram in the Thillaiamman temple. It is believed that every devotee who comes to Chidambaram after worshipping at the Natarajar temple must visit this temple too.

There are two annual Bhrammotsavams at Chidambaram celebrated with great significance involving the colorful processions of festival deities in the car streets.


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