The early history of
the temple lies hidden in the mists of time. It reached
its present form under the patronage of the kings of the
Chola dynasty in the 11th, 12th and 13th centuries. From
the aerial view we can see the total surface area of the
temple covers 13 hectares or 35 acres. Placing it among
the largest temples in the whole of India. It is
designed with five concentric Prakaras, or
circumambulatory temple courtyards. These are associated
with the Five Elements. The innermost Prakara is not
visible. It lies within the sanctum with the golden
roof, and can only be entered by the Deekshithars. The
architecture and the rituals of this temple reflect its
history and doctrine.
Where we now find this
beautiful and ancient temple, was once an impenetrable
forest of Tillai trees, which is a kind of mangrove.
This forest gave Chidambaram its firs and most ancient
name, Tillai. Within this sprawling forest was a lotus
pond, and at the southern bank of this pond existed a
Svayambhu Linga. A linga is a representation of Lord
Shiva which unites both the concepts of Form as well as
of Formless in itself. In modern terms this
formless-form might be called an abstraction.
Svayambhu means ‘self
existent’, signifying that the linga was not made by
human beings, but came into existence by itself, from
nature. To this lotus pond in the Tillai forest came two
saints, named Vyagrapada and Patanjali. They came from
very different backgrounds and from very different
directions, but they came for the same reason: to
witness Shiva’s Cosmic Dance. It had been foretold to
them that if they would worship the linga on the bank of
the lotus pond in the forest, Lord Shiva would come to
perform His Dance.
Eventually this great
event took place. Nataraja came to perform His Dance on
a Thursday, when the moon was in the asterism Pushan, in
the Tamil month of Tai, long before the Christian era.
This dance is called the Ananda Tandava or Dance of
Bliss. The saints achieved liberation, and on their
special request Shiva promised to perform His Dance for
all time at that place. For the full narration of the
myth the reader is referred to chapter III.
The story of the
origin of the worship of Shiva Nataraja in Chidambaram
is told in the Chidambaram Mahatmyam. The Sacred History
of Chidambaram, which is part of the Skanda Purana, one
of the 18 great Puranas or collections of mythology.
From one of the saints, Vyagrapada, which means Tiger
Footed, Chidambaram received its second name, Puliyur,
meaning ‘City of the Tiger’.
Its third name,
Chidambaram, refers to the philosophy and doctrine of
the temple. Cit means consciousness or wisdom. Ambaram
signifies ether in Sanskrit, but in Tamil the ambalam
means hall. The name unifies two aspects of the
doctrine. Meaning both Hall of Wisdom, as well as the
place of the Ether of Consciousness.
The edifice which now
includes within its garbhagriha or sanctum this
Svayambhu linga form of Shiva, situated on the southern
bank of the sacred pound, is called Mulasthana. This
Sanskrit term means ‘place of origin’ or ‘root place’.
It can be found in the third courtyard, within the
Nataraja temple proper. Facing east, it is a
conventional temple with a garbha-griha or sanctum
containing the linga, and an ardha-mandapa, a hall in
front of the sanctum.
In this ardha-mandapam
we find the images of the two saints, Vyagrapada and
Patanjali. They stand with their hands folded,
worshipping. A sanctum placed at an angle to the linga
shrine, facing south, houses the consort of Shiva, the
goddess Uma-Parvati. On the western wall of the shrine
we find a relief sculptured of the Kalpa Vriksha or
Wishing Tree of Paradise. This shrine achieved its
present form probably under the middle and later Cholas
in the 11th and 12th century.
The main edifices of
the temple are the five Sabhas or Halls: the Cit Sabha,
Kanaka Sabha, Deva Sabha, Nritta Sabha, and the Raja
At the centre of the
temple is situated the sanctum sanctorum or holy of
holiest, called the Cit Sabha or Cit Ambalam. This means
the ‘Hall of Wisdom’. It is the main shrine where Lord
Shiva Nataraja accompanied by his consort Parvati
performs His Cosmic Dance, the Ananda Tandava or Dance
The world is the
embodiment of the Virat Purusha, the colossal human
form. Chidambaram is the centre of this form, the place
of the heart, where Shiva performs the Cosmic Dance.
The Chidambaram temple
is laid out as a Purusha. For this reason the devotees
may approach the central shrine from two sides. As blood
flows to and from the heart. The nine stupas topping the
golden roof represent the nine orifices of the human
body, and also symbolize the nine Matrikas or goddesses.
The roof is made of 21.600 tiles, representing
inhalations and exhalations of breath. The links and
side joints symbolize the connecting veins.
The five main steps at
the entrance to the shrine stand between the devotees
and the image of Shiva, covered in silver. They are the
five seed words or syllables of the mantra.
By chanting these
syllables, the devotee can cross the ocean of bondage
and attain to the Lord. The granite plinth of the shrine
is called Parvadam, because it does duty for Mount
Kailasa in providing a support for Lord Shiva. On all
special occasions puja or worship is performed to this
The name, Hall of
Consciousness or Hall of Wisdom, refers to the quality
of wisdom which pervades the atmosphere, bestowed upon
the worshippers by the Dance of the Lord. His boon is
the experience of the Cosmic Dance.
A unique feature is
that the structure of the actual Sabha is made of wood,
which has so far not been botanically classified. It is
rectangular in form and here Shiva is worshipped in his
Form Nataraja the murti or
image of Shiva
Formless-Form The crystal linga called
Formless The yantra which is the
From the platform
opposite the Sabha one can see the image of the Dancing
Shiva, situated in the middle of the Sabha. Shiva is
facing south, unlike most other Hindu deities. This
signifies he is the Conqueror of Death, dispelling the
fear of death for the humanity.
The Crystal Linga
called Chandramaulishvara is Shiva as Formless-Form.
This Crystal Linga was formed from the essence of the
crescent moon in Shiva’s matted hair, for the purpose of
daily worship. This murti is taken from its keeping
place at the feet of the Nataraja six times a day, and
abhishekam of holy ablution is performed to him in the
hall called Kanaka Sabha in front of the Cit Sabha.
Immediately to the
proper right of the Nataraja is the Chidambaram
Rahasyam, the ‘mystery’ of Chidambaram. Here, behind a
silk curtain which is black on the outside and red on
the inside, is the Akasha Linga, in the form of a
yantra. An abstract geometrical design, on which
the deity is invoked. Behind the curtain, before the
yantra, hang a few strands of golden vilva leaves. This
signifies the act of creation. One moment nothing
exists, the next instant the All has been brought into
existence. At regular timings the curtain is removed to
allow the devotees to worship the Akasha. he Ether which
is the vehicle of the Absolute and Consciousness.
The Cit Sabha houses
one more unique form of Shiva. This is the Ratna Sabha
Pati, the Ruby Lord of the Sabha: a replica of the
Nataraja murti in ruby form. This murti appeared out of
the fire of the sacrifice in response to the devotion of
Once a day, as part of
the 10.00 o’clock morning puja ritual, after the
abhishekam of the Crystal Linga, abhishekam is also
performed to the Ruby Shiva. As conclusion of this
ceremony the Ruby Nataraja is placed on the edge of the
Parvadam of the Kanaka Sabha and Mangala Arati is
offered. This is the burning of camphor on a special
plate which is shown both in front and behind the Ruby
Nataraja. This brings out the special quality of
translucence of this murti, creating a mystical
spectacle for the onlookers.
Nobody knows when the
worship of Nataraja was established here, or when the
Cit Sabha was build. The original wooden structure is
doubtless the oldest structure in the temple complex, as
the shrine of the Mulasthana Linga is a later
construction under the Chola Kings. The Sabha has no
features that could help to date it. It is unique and no
other structure is known like it anywhere else in Indian
architecture. Analysis by the C 14 method would be
unreliable because it is known to have been regularly
renovated during the centuries. But the origins of the
temple of Shiva Nataraja in Chidambaram definitely lie
back in prehistoric times.
According to the
mythology the temple was first constructed by a king
called Shveta Varman. This king was healed of leprosy by
bathing in the sacred pond in the Tillai forest and
witnessed the Cosmic Dance. The first gilding of the
roof of the Cit Sabha and the instituting of the temple
and the formal worship of the Nataraja are all
attributed to this King.
The first historical
references can be found in the Skanda Purana, especially
in the Suta Samhita part. Here Shanmukha, the six-faced
son of Shiva and Parvati, is described as worshipping
his parents in Chidambaram, before going to do battle
with a demon called Surapadma. This text can be dated to
the second century BCE.
The Cit Sabha, Shiva’s
dance and Chidambaram are also prominently mentioned in
the Tirumantiram of Tirumular, an important religious
and philosophical text in ancient Tamil, dating from the
beginning of the Christian era. A few centuries later
the temple and its Lord are often mentioned by poets of
the Tevaram, especially Appar and Sambandar (7th
century) and by Manikavasakar (8th century).
The first historical
kings to claim having gilded the roof of the Cit Sabha
are the Chola Aditya I (871-907) and his son Parantaka I
(907-955). By this time the temple had already become
important. The place where kings were crowned, and where
to worship and receive counsel. How the
gilding of the roof was done is a knowledge that was
sadly lost with time. But it is without doubt one of the
great technical achievements of ancient times.
Immediately in front
of the Cit Sabha is the Kanaka Sabha, or golden hall.
Its roof is made of copper, although Kanaka means gold.
This is the gold of spiritual treasure: to experience
Shiva’s dance from so near.
In this Sabha are most
of the daily rituals of worship for Nataraja performed.
The Yagna of the morning rituals. The rituals with lamps
and ritual objects. And the abhishekam of the Crystal
Linga and Ruby Nataraja. The public can enter certain
areas of the
Kanaka Sabha for worship of the
Nataraja and the Akasha Linga at specified hours of the
It is a controversy
whether this Sabha was originally constructed together
with the Cit Sabha, or some time later.
The Nritta Sabha is
the shrine in the form of a ratha or chariot, pulled by
two stone horses. It is situated opposite the Cit Sabha,
in the third courtyard. It is the place of the dance
contest between Nataraja and the goddess Kali.
Shiva conquered the
goddess, who would not calm down after she destroyed a
powerful demon, by lifting his right leg straight up
towards the sky. This dance is called the Urdhva
Tandava. Then and there Kali suddenly remembered who she
really was, the peaceful Parvati, consort of Shiva, and
she was able to leave her furious mood and returned to
her peaceful self. This scene is depicted in the sanctum
inside the Sabha. We see Shiva performing his Urdhva
Tandava, his leg lifted straight above his head, Kali
calmed down in one corner, both accompanied by Vishnu
playing the talam, the
instrument which is used to
The chariot form of
the Sabha commemorates Shiva as Tripurasamhara murti,
the Destroyer of the Three Demon Cities. Several divine
powers joined together to create Shiva’s chariot. Thus
the sun and moon became the wheels, the Vedas the horses
After destroying the Three Cities he descended
from his chariot, having landed opposite the Cit Sabha,
and ascended into the Sabha to commence His Dance. From
this the Nritta Sabha is also called Edir Amabalam or
This Sabha has several
distinguishing features aside from its shape and its
function. Its columns are unique to the chariot hall.
They are square, and although carved from the hardest
granite they are covered with exquisite miniature
relief’s, depicting dancers,
musicians and all kinds
of mythological figures.
One other feature sets
this edifice apart from any other hall within the temple
complex and from all other temple halls in India. This
Sabha is mysteriously connected to the Sphinx. Just
under the floor surface of the raised platform which is
the body of the Sabha is a belt or pattika, surrounding
the whole Sabha. Here we see lions and sphinxes
alternating in pairs, girdling the Sabha.
Also the pillars of
the two pavilions on the western side of the Sabha are
supported by four sphinxes which function as caryatids.
The Nritta Sabha is
considered by tradition the second oldest building in
the complex, without any real indication of its age. It
is reported in inscriptions as having been renovated by
the Chola King Kulottunga I in the 11th century.
The Deva Sabha can be
found in the third prakara or courtyard. The festival
deities are kept during the year, and worship is
performed for them daily. This is done inside the Sabha,
and is not open to the public. The age and history of
this Sabha is also hidden in the mists of time. There is
some evidence the Deva Sabha was once used as an
audience hall by visiting kings of the different
governing dynasties of the Cholas, Pandyas and others
during the several phases of history. No other
The Raja Sabha is the
Thousand Pillar Hall in the second courtyard. It is the
architectural representation of the Sahasradara, or
Crown Chakra. Which is the seventh spiritual energy
point in the astral body. The Nataraja and the goddess
Sivakamasundari, his consort, dance here on the 9th and
10th day of the Chariot Festival.
About this Sabha too,
we have very little historical information. It is first
mentioned as the place where the medieval poet Sekkilar
premiered his great work on the lives of the 63
Nayanmars or Saiva saints, the Periya Purana, before the
Chola king Kulottunga II or III, in the 12th century.
Its base is encircled
by relief’s of dancers and musicians, as it were
participating in a procession.
The most imposing
feature of the temple, which can be seen soaring above
the plain from miles away, are the four temple gateways
or gopurams, located in the second wall of enclosure at
the cardinal points. They are considered among the
earliest examples of
such structures and are in
their present form dated to the 12th and 13th century.
Scholars disagree about the dates of individual
gopurams, or about which one was build first. Some
consider the west gopuram as oldest, some the east
In between the
sculptures decorating the inside of the west gopuram we
find a musician playing a standing double drum. This
could point to an early date for this gopuram.
On the outside of the
granite bases of the gopurams are found sculptures of
many important as well as less well known deities in
niches in a particular order. The inside walls of
passages through all the four gopurams are decorated
with the 108 karanas, the dance movements of Shiva, from
the Natya Shastra, the world’s most ancient treatise on
dance, drama and theatre. Besides in Chidambaram these
karanas are depicted in only four other temples, all in
The four gopurams,
together with the golden dome of the central shrine are
the five towers which represent the five faces of Shiva,
with the Cit Sabha symbolizing the masterful face.
In the innermost
courtyard, at a right angle with the golden Sabha, we
find the shrine of Vishnu, as Govinda Raja. Reclining on
the Cosmic Snake, he is in the yogic state of
consciousness, enjoying the vision of Shiva’s dance. The
coexistence of the worship
of both Vishnu and Shiva
within one temple is unique. The worship of Vishnu was
established in the earliest times and was originally
performed by the Deekshithars themselves. In the later
medieval period, with a shifting political situation
under pressure of Muslim invasions, there was possibly a
discontinuation of the worship for a
after which it re-instated by the king Achyuta Raya
(1539) of the Vijayanangara empire. The worship of
Vishnu Govinda Raja has since then been in the hands of
Vaishnava priests, and was no longer performed by the
Within the inner
courtyard, to the east of the Sabha, we find a small
shrine which houses the murtis of both the Creator god
Brahma, of the Hindy Trinity, and Chandikeshvara, a
deified saint. The presence of Brahma (a deity almost
never worshipped) establishes the worship of all three
deities of the Hindu Trinity with-in the
The temple of goddess
Shivakamasundari, consort of Shiva, is situated on the
west side of the Shivaganga tank. A flight of steps
leads down into its courtyard. The goddess
worshipped here as the Jñana Shakti: the energy and
power of wisdom. On the frontal portion of the pillared
hall, on the ceiling of the right and left wings, the
finest eye-capturing fresco paintings of approximately a
thousand years old, illustrate the Leelas or Sacred
Deeds of Shiva. The galleries surrounding the temple are
decorated with a procession of dancers and musicians,
sculptured in relief. This temple was possibly build in
the 11th century under the Chola king Kulottunga I.
The Shiva Ganga is the
sacred water place or tank. It is famous for healing the
ancient king Sveta Varman of his skin disease. His skin
became golden after which he was called Hiranya Varman.
In this tank we find a
stone representation of the Linga of Tiruvanaikaval,
which represents the Element Water. In the dry season it
becomes visible as the water level in the tank is
The Pandya Nayaka
temple is dedicated to Murugan, the second son of Shivan
and Parvati. This shrine is also shaped as a chariot,
pulled by horses and elephants. This temple was
according to tradition build by a king of the Pandya
dynasty from Madurai, which superceded the rule of the
Cholas in the 13th century. His name was Sundarar
Pandya, and the temple is named after him.
In the middle of the
18th century this temple was renovated with the support
of Dutch merchants, who had a trading post in nearby
Porto Nuovo. According to an inscription on copper
plates they donated a share of their profit for this