Chidambaram is one of the holiest and most venerated temples in Tamilnadu dedicated to Lord Natarajah. When people refer to ‘koil’ (the Tamil word for temple) the word denotes the temple in Chidambaram. Chidambaram is referred to in Hindu scriptures by other names such as Thillai, Puliyur, Chittambalam, Vyagrapuram and Pundareekapuram. The temple has attained such sanctity and sacredness due to its antiquity and its association with so many miracles mentioned in Hindu scriptures. Many sages, saints and religious savants have sung in praise of the presiding deity.
The Eastern Tower
The Golden Roof (Ponnambalam)
Chidambaram is about 250 km south of Chennai (Madras) and is easily reached by rail and road. The town is situated on the main railway route between Chennai and Trichi about halfway between these two towns. There are buses from all the major towns of Tamilnadu to this temple town.
The temple occupies an area of about 51 acres. Four imposing towers rise on the four sides of the temple. Each of these towers rises to about 135 ft and are comprised of 7 storeys and are topped with 13 copper ‘Kalasam’ (finials). The entrances at the base of these towers are quite large rising at least to a height of 40 ft. The outer perimeter wall is about 30 ft high enclosing the outer ‘street’ (veedhi) and the inner enclosures (praharam).
The shrines of Mukkuruni Vinayagar, Katpaga Vinayagar, Subramanya, Somasundarar, Sivakamasundary and Pandyanayagar are all built along this outer ‘street’. The sacred tank ‘Sivaganga’ and the thousand-pillared mandapam – ‘Raja Sabah’ – are also situated along this ‘street’. The second ‘praharam’ (enclosure) is connected to the outer ‘veedhi’ by two entrances, one on the west and the other on the east.
On entering the second praharam you can see the shrine of Kalasamhara moorthy, Oorthavathandava moorthy, Luxmi and Thandayuthapani. The Flagstaff can be seen on the southern section and the ‘Nrithya sabah’ houses the idol of Oorthavathandava moorthy. The shrine of ‘Pollapillaiyar and the shrines for the four ‘Nayanmars’ Appar, Sundarar, Sambanthar and Manikkavasagar are seen here. The ‘Deva Sabah’ is also situated along this corridor.
At the entrance to the inner enclosure the golden roof of ‘Chittambalam’ comes into view. It is in this ‘manadapam’ that Lord Nadarajah performs his dance (the Anandathandavam) eternally. The Chitsabah and the Kanakasabah are linked together and are called ‘Ponnambalam’. This is also called as ‘Chittambalam’ and ‘Gnanasabah’. There is a small entrance to the right of the Dancing Siva (‘Nadarajah’). During ‘pooja’ the curtain hung at the entrance is drawn aside and ‘araathi’ is shown. There are no images inside but only a garland of golden ‘vilva’ leaves is seen. This represents the ‘Chidambara Rahasyam’ representing the Lord in the form of space. Chidambaram thus represents one of the five elements (ether) and is called ‘Aakasa sthalam’.As you stand in front of the ‘Chitsabah’ at the entrance to the inner circuit you can see the South facing Nadarajah and the East facing Govidaraja Perumal (Vishnu). There is no other temple in the south where you can see both the Saivite god Shiva and the Vaishnavite god Vishnu from the same spot.
Rishi Madyandinar had a son. He, under the direction of his father, came to the forest of Thillai and worshipped the ‘Lingam’, which had appeared there. He usually got up early before daybreak to collect flowers with which to perform his pooja. One morning he could not collect the flowers early as it was dark and cloudy and he could not see the flowers. After daybreak he went to collect the flowers and found that the flowers had been polluted by the bees and was grief stricken. Lord Shiva on seeing his devotee grief stricken took pity on him and gave 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 this time the rishis living in the forest known as ‘Tharukavanam’ became very arrogant as they had mastered all the ‘Vedas’, ‘Agamas’ and ‘Shastras’ and could raise powerful creatures from the sacrificial fires to do their bidding. Lord Shiva wished to show these rishis their limitations and appeared as a handsome mendicant with Vishnu as his wife ‘Mohini’. This created chaos in ‘Tharukavanam’ as the wives of the rishis fell under the spell of this charming, handsome mendicant while the youthful rishis fell for the allure of Mohini. The older rishis became very angry and wanted to destroy the pair. They raised a sacrificial fire (‘Homam’) from which appeared a tiger which was directed at the pair. Lord Shiva killed the tiger, peeled off its skin and tied it around his waist. Then the rishis produced a poisonous serpent, which Lord Shiva caught and wore around his neck. The rishis also sent a demon ‘Muyalakan’ against Lord Shiva whom he crushed under his feet. Then the rishis sent the sacrificial fire against him which he put on his left hand. The rishis having lost the fire sent the vedic ‘mantras’ which the Lord wore around his ankles. At this the rishis conceded defeat and the Lord revealed himself by dancing the ‘Oorthava thandavam’ with his matted hair unfurling in all eight directions and the world reverberating to his steps.
Lord Vishnu described this incident to Adishesa, the serpent on which Lord Vishnu reposes. Adishesha wished to see this dance and taking leave of Lord Vishnu went and prayed to Lord Shiva to grant him the honour of witnessing his dance. Lord Shiva advised Adhishesha to go to Vyagrapuram where he would one day perform this dance. Adishesha was then born on this land and was given the name Pathanjali. Pathanjali approached Vyagrapadar and told him of his quest. As Vyagrapadar himself was eager to see the Lord’s dance he was delighted to receive Pathanjali and accompanied him to the temple of Lord Shiva and prayed for the Lord’s appearance. On an auspicious day the celestial beings arrived at Thillai along with other Rishis, and sages and assembled where Vyagrapadar had his temple. The heavenly musicians too arrived. Then 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 appeared with His left leg raised in a dancing pose.
The guardian of the forest in Thillai, Goddess Kali, refused to allow Lord Shiva to dance in Her domain. Lord Shiva therefore challenged Her to a dance competition on condition that if He won then She would be banished from that area. The competition began. While Naradha played the veena, Nandikeswara played the drums and other celestial musicians accompanied 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 She lost the competition and had taken residence in the northern end of Chidambaram in the Thillaiamman temple. Every devotee who comes to Chidambaram after worshipping at the Natarajar temple visits this temple too. Pathanjali and Vyagrapadar prayed to Lord Shiva to remain at Thillai as the eternally dancing god ‘Lord Natarajar’ so that all the earthly beings could witness his dance and receive his grace and blessing.
The temple is open from 6 am to 12 noon and then from 5 pm to 10 pm
It is said that the Ponnambalam rests on 64 wooden rafters to represent the 64 types of different art forms and the 21600 tiles forming the roof indicate the number of breaths taken by a human being in a day. The Ponnambalam is designed to represent the human body. The sanctum is not in the centre but slightly to the left denoting the heart. The entrance to these shrines is not in the front but on the side drawing parallel to the flow of blood into the heart.
The five steps leading unto the Chitsaba is said to represent the five syllables of the ‘Panchakshara mantram’ (Na,Ma,Si,Va,Ya). The dancing figure of Lord Nadarajah itself is the subject of many long theses by scholars of the past and present giving various interpretations of Hindu philosophy.