Friday, October 28, 2011

Thillai Nataraja Temple, Chidambaram:

Thillai Natarajah Temple, Chidambaram  is a Hindu temple dedicated to Shiva located in the town of Chidambaram, East-Central Tamil Nadu, South India. The temple is known as the foremost of all temples(Kovil) to Saivites and has influenced worship, architecture, sculpture and performance art for over two millenium. The Sangam classics list chief architect Viduvelvidugu Perumtaccan as directing an early renovation of the shrine. A major shrine of Shiva worship since the classical period, there have been several renovations and offerings to Chidambaram by the Pallava, Chola, Pandya, Vijayanagara and Chera royals in the ancient and pre-medieval periods. Its 2nd century BCE bronze statues and 2nd century CE stone sculptures depicting various deities and the famous Thillai trees (Exocoeria agallocha) of the surrounding forest reflect the highpoints of early Chola and Pallava art while its famed gold plated gopuram towers are medieval structural additions by the royals Aditya I, Parantaka Chola I, Kopperunchinga I, Krishnadevaraya and Jatavarman Sundara Pandyan. King Kocengannan Chola was born following prayers his parents offered at the temple and later in his life he refined its structure. The shrine gave the town its name.


Constructed to signify where Tamil Shaivites identify the centre loci of the universe to be, the shrine, dedicated to Shiva, has witnessed several significant events in the history of Tamil Nadu. A powerful legacy of Dravidian art, its structures and sculptures from the 2nd century BCE have attracted pilgrims to Chidambaram for over two millenium. The birthplace of Nataraja when Shaivite worship was highly popular during the Sangam period, Chidambaram had gained a reputation for holiness across the continent by the third century CE and the admiration of the Tamilakkam royals of the early Cholas, Chera dynasty and the early Pandyan Kingdom. Built by the early Cholas to one of their family deities - Nataraja-Koothan - it served as the king and queen's state temple and seat of their monarchs' coronations. The Chola royals underlined their non-partisan approach to religious iconography and faith by also patronizing the Ranganathaswamy Temple dedicated to Vishnu - their other Kuladheivam or "abode of family deity". Chola King Kocengannan who reigned in the first half of the 2nd century CE was born after his parents King Subhadevan and Kamaladevi worshipped in the Thillai Golden Hall (Pon Ambalam). He expanded the shrine in his later life and added to unfinished decorations. Saints Patañjali Tirumular and Vyaghrapada famously worshipped Nataraja at the shrine.The travelling Pallava-Chola king Simhavarman (II or III) who reigned in the 5th-6th century CE was cured of leprosy by bathing in the Shivagangai tank and in gratitude made extensive repairs and additions to the temple. He changed his name to Hiranyavarman or "golden bodied.

The Puranas, Sangam literature and the Tirumurai canon join several epigraphs and murals in highlighting the brilliance of the temple site and the devotion of Patañjali, Vyaghrapada-Pulikaalmunivar and patanjali to Nataraja at Thillai. The sthala puranam as well as umapathi sivacharya's koyil puranam give an account of how an ancient chola prince of kritayugam or first of epochal ages. worshipped the lord's feet at chidambaram and being blessed with a vision of his was further helped by saint vyaghrapada to consecrate a place of worship therewith. The temple murals and some cholan and pandyan literature refer to this sthala puranam. Later during the 4th or 5th century .C.E, a pallava king called simha varman who was also a nayanmar saint by name aiyatikal kaadavarkon made some compositions and bathed in the tank and attained mukthi at tiru-perum-ppatra-puliyur or chidambaram.

At periodical intervals (12 years in general), major repairs and renovation works are carried out, new facilities added and consecrated. Most old temples have also 'grown' over periods of time with additional facilities, more outer corridors and new gopurams (pagodas) were added by the rulers who patronized the temple. While this process has helped to keep the temples 'alive' as places of worship, from a purely archeological or historical perspective these renovations have unintentionally lead to destruction of the original works - which were not in sync with the latter and usually grander temple plans.
To this general trend, Chidambaram temple is no exception. The origins and developments of the temple are hence largely deduced from allied references in works of literature and poetry, the verbal information passed over generations by the Dikshithar community and from what little, of inscriptions and manuscripts that are available today.

The temple site is very ancient one is known to have been crafted time and again by the ancient craftsmen guild known as perumtaccans. The reference to the same is available in sangam literature as well as other documents. The tevaram trio in particular have held this site to be of great sanctity with some like tirugnanasambandar and sundarar out of devotion being reluctant to set their foot in the place "because it would be an insult to the lord to put one's foot on his abode". The sangam works refer to the temple being favoured by all the three ancient crowns of south, the Neriyan (cholas), chezhiyan (pandyas) and uthiyan (cheras), even if the temple was in what was traditionally chola country. 

Chidambaram is a temple complex spread over 40 acres (160,000 m2) in the heart of the city. The main complex to Shiva Nataraja also contains shrines to deities such as Shivakami Amman, Ganesh, Murugan and Vishnu in the form Govindaraja Perumal. Chidambaram's earliest structures were designed and erected by ancient craftsmen called Perumtaccan.


Fig. West Tower
The temple has 9 gateways, and four of these have gateway towers or gopurams each with 7 storeys facing the East, South, West and North. The South gopuram called the Sokkaseeyan Thirunilai Ezhugopuram was constructed by a Pandya king identified from the presence of the dynasty's fish emblem sculpted on the ceiling. The Pandyas sculpted two fishes facing each other when they completed gopurams (and left it with one fish, in case it was incomplete). The earliest and smallest of the four is West gopuram constructed around 1150 and there are no reliable evidence on the construction. The sculptures shows goddess fighting the buffallo-demon and warlike Skanda astride his peacock. The North Gopuram was initiated around 1300 A.D. with the brick portion constructed by the Vijayanagara king Krishnadevaraya (1509-1530 A.D.) in the 16th century. The East Gopuram, was claimed to have been constructed by the Pallava King Koperunsingan II (1243-1279 A.D.) as per epigrahical records and was repaired by Subbammal, the mother-in-law of the famous philanthropist Pachaiyappa Mudaliar (1754-1794 A.D.). The idols of Pachaiappa Mudaliar and his wife Iyalammal have been sculpted 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 eastern gopuram is renowned for its complete enumeration of 108 poses of Indian classical dance – Bharathanatyam, detailed in small rectangular panels along the passage that leads to the gatewayk. Each gopuram has around fifty stone sculptures, with each repeating some portions from the other. 


There are 5 ambalams or sabhas (halls):
  • Chit Ambalam or Chit sabhai, which is the sanctum sanctorum housing Nataraja and his consort Sivakami Sundari, and gave the temple town its name.
  • Pon Ambalam or Kanaka sabhai – the golden hall in front of the Chit Ambalam, from where the daily rituals are conducted.
  • Nrithya sabhai or Natya sabhai, a 56-pillared hall lies to the south of the temple's flag mast (or kodi maram or dwaja sthambam) where Nataraja outdanced Kali and established His supremacy.
  •  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 hall is open only on festive days.
  • Deva sabhai, which houses the Pancha moorthis (pancha - five, moorthis - deities, namely the deities of Ganesh - the remover of hurdles, Somaskanda, a form where the Lord is in a seated posture with his grace and consort, the Lord's consort Sivananda nayaki, Muruga and the deity of Chandikeswarar - the principal and chief of the devotees of Shiva).
  • Naralokaviran, the general of king Kulothunga Chola I was responsible for building a shrine for child saint Thirugnana Sambanthar and installed a metal image within. He constructed a hall for recitation of Thevaram hymns and engraved the hymns in copper plates


Fig. Chidambaram Temple view
  • the shrines for the original Shivalingam worshipped by Saints Patanjali and Vyagrapathar – called the Thiru Aadhimoolanathar and his consort Umaiyammai  or Umaiya parvathi
  • the shrines for the 63 prime devotees of Lord Siva – or the Arubaththu moovar
  • the shrines for Sivagami – an embodiment of knowledge or Gyanashakthi
  • 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.

Significance of the temple design

Fig. Drawing of the main gopuram and detailed plan of the central structure.
  • The place where temple located is the center point of world's magnetic equator.
  • Three of the five Panchaboothasthala temples, those at Kalahasti, Kanchipuram and Chidambaram all stand on a straight line exactly at 79 degree 41 minutes. East longitude - truly an engineering, astrological and geographical wonder. Of the other two temples, Tiruvanaikkaval is located at around 3 degrees to the south and exactly 1 degree to the west of the northern tip of this divine axis, while Tiruvannamalai is around midway (1.5 degree to the south and 0.5 degree to the west).
  • 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 Chit sabha roof is supported by four pillars symbolic of the four Vedas.
  • The Ponnambalam or the Sanctum sanctorum is held by 28 pillars – representing the 28 agamas or set methodologies for the worship of 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 21,600 golden tiles with the word SIVAYANAMA inscribed on them representing 21600 breaths. The golden tiles are fixed using 72,000 golden nails which represents the no. of nadis exists in human body. The roof is topped by a set of 9 sacred pots or kalasas, representing the 9 forms of energy. The artha mandapa(sanctum) has six pillars denoting the six shastras (holy texts).
  • The hall next to the artha mantapa has eighteen pillars symbolizing the eighteen Puranas.
  • Sri Nataraj Mandir at Satara is a replica of of this temple.

The Ananda Tandava Posture: 

The Ananda Tandava posture of Nataraja represents pancikritya functions of the godhead believed to have created the dynamic force that created the world.

  • 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 (Abhaya or Pataka mudra) signifies that he is the savior of all life.
  • The Ring at the back, or the arc of fire called Thiruvashi or Prabhavati signifies the cosmos and the perpetual motion of the earth.
  • The drum in his hand signifies the origin of Life.
  • The lotus pedestal signifies "Om", the sound of the universe.
  • His right eye, left eye and third eye signify the sun, moon and fire/knowledge, respectively.
  • His right earring (makara kundalam) and left earring (sthri kundalam) signify the union of man and woman (right is man, left is woman).
  • The crescent moon in his hair signifies benevolence and beauty.
  • The flowing of river Ganges through his matted hair signifies eternity of life.
  • The sreading of his hair and drape signify the force of his dance.
These are the main things that the Natarajar murti and the celestial dance posture depict.
Another notable point of this posture is that it is based on the six point star. Nataraja's head forms the topmost point of the star, while his spreading hair and right hand form the upper side points. His drape and raised left leg form the lower points, and His right leg that rests on the demon Myalagga forms the lowest point. Surrounding this is the arc of fire. 


During 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.


A whole year for men is said to be a single day for the gods. Just as six poojas are performed in a day at the sanctum sanctorum, six anointing ceremonies are performed for the principal deity - Nataraja in a year. They are the Marghazhi Thiruvaadhirai (in December - January ) indicating the first puja, 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 uchikalam, the Uthiram of Aani (June-July) also called the Aani Thirumanjanam indicating the evening or the fourth puja, the chaturdasi of Aavani (August - September) indicating the fifth puja 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. These are conducted as the key festivals with the main deity being brought outside the sanctum sanctorum in a procession that included a temple car procession followed by a long anointing ceremony.Several hundreds of thousands of people flock the temple to see the anointing ceremony and the ritualistic dance of Shiva when he is taken back to the sanctum sanctorum. Siva in his incarnation of Nataraja is believed to have born on full moon day in the constellation of Ardra, the sixth lunar mansion. Siva is bathed only 6 times a year and on the previous night of Ardra, the bath rituals are performed on a grand scale. Pots full of milk, pomegranate juices, coconut water, ghee, oil, sandal paste, curds, holy ashes, and other liquids and solids, considered as sacred offering to the deity are used for the sacred ablution.

There are references in Umapathy Sivam's Kunchithaangristhavam that the Maasi festival also had the Lord being carried out in procession, however this is not in vogue these days.
Natyanjali is a prominent festival celebrated during February every year when Bharatnatyam dancers from all over the country converge to present dance offering to Nataraja.
Courtesy: Wikipedia

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