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The Glory of Tamilnadu’s Chidambaram Nataraja Temple: A Journey into the Mythical World of Lord Shiva’s Cosmic Dance

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Thillai Nataraja Temple, also known as the Chidambaram Nataraja Temple, is a Hindu temple dedicated to Nataraja – Lord Shiva as Cosmic Dancer. This temple is located in Chidambaram in Tamil Nadu.

The temple has very ancient roots and a Shiva shrine existed at the site when the town was known as Thillai. Chidambaram, the name of the city literally means ‘Consciousness’ .

Chidambaram Nataraja Temple

The temple architecture symbolizes the connection between fine-arts and spirituality, creative activity and the divine.

The temple wall carvings display all the 108 Karanas from the Indian Natya Shastra by Bharata Muni, and these postures form a foundation of Indian classical dance Bharatanatyam.

Chidambaram Nataraja Temple – The Sacred Pond

The present temple was built in the 10th century when Chidambaram was the capital of the Chola dynasty, making it one of the oldest surviving active temple complexes in South India.

Chidambaram Nataraja Temple

After its 10th-century consecration by the Cholas who considered Nataraja as their family deity, the temple has been damaged, repaired, renovated and expanded through the 2nd millennium.

Chidambaram Nataraja Temple – The Sacred Pond

Most of the temple’s surviving plan, architecture and structure is from the late 12th and early 13th centuries, with later additions in similar architectural style. 

Chidambaram Nataraja Temple – Sculptures in the Gopuram

While Shiva as Nataraja is the primary deity of the temple, the temple reverentially presents major themes from ShaktismVaishnavism, and other traditions of Hinduism as well.

Chidambaram Nataraja Temple – Sculptures

The Chidambaram temple complex, for example, has the earliest known Amman or Devi temple in South India, a pre-13th-century Surya shrine with chariot & shrines for GaneshaMurugan and Vishnu.

Chidambaram Nataraja Temple – Gopuram

Shiva himself is presented as Lord Nataraja performing the Ananda Tandava ( Cosmic Dance of Delight) in the golden hall of the shrine known as Pon Ambalam.

The temple is one of the five elemental Lingas in Shaivism and is considered the subtlest of all Shiva temples of Hinduism.

Inside Chidambaram Nataraja Temple

It is also a site for performance arts, including the annual Natyanjali dance festival during Maha Shivaratri.

Legend

Chidambaram is one of the many temple towns in the state which is named after the groves, clusters or forests dominated by a particular variety of a tree or shrub and the same variety of tree or shrub sheltering the presiding deity.

The Majesty of Chidambaram Nataraja Temple

The town used to be called Thillai, following Thillaivanam, derived from the mangrove of Tillai trees that grow here and the nearby Pichavaram wetlands.

The site became the capital of the Chola Empire in the 10th century, and they renamed it to Chidambaram and built the current temple for their  family Nataraja.

Chidambaram Nataraja Temple – Mural Paintings

The word Chidambaram comes from the Tamil word Chitrambalam  meaning ‘wisdom atmosphere’.

Location

The Nataraja temple in Chidambaram is located in the southeastern Indian state of Tamilnadu.

It is about 5 kilometres north of the Kollidam River (Kaveri), 15 kilometres west from the coast of Bay of Bengal, and 220 kilometres south of Chennai.

The closest major airport is about 60 kilometres north in Pondicherry.

The National Highway 32  passes through Chidambaram. The Tamil Nadu State Transport Corporation and private companies operate services connecting it to major cities in the state. 

The site is linked to the Indian Railways with daily express trains to South Indian cities.

Chidambaram is a temple town, with the Nataraja complex spread over 40 acres within a nearly square courtyard in the center.

Its side roads are aligned to the east–west, north–south axis. It has double walls around its periphery with gardens. It has had entrance gateways on all four sides.

Legend

The Chidambaram temple legend is contained in the 12th-century text Chidambara-mahatmya.

The central episode states that Shiva visits sages in the mythical pine forest in the form of a dancer mendicant accompanied by Mohini – Vishnu in his Avatara as a beautiful woman.

Mohini triggers lustful interest of the sages, while Shiva performs Tandava  dance that triggers the carnal desire of the wives of these sages.

The sages ultimately realise how superficial their austerities have been. The episode becomes widely known.

They set up a Shivalinga, pray, meditate and wait. Their asceticism impresses Shiva who appeared before them in Chidambaram and performed “the dance” against “the wall, in the blessed hall of consciousness”.

This is how this temple started, according to the Mahatmya embedded in the Tamil Sthalapurana.

According to another Hindu legend, Mahalingaswamy at Thiruvidaimarudur is the centre of all Shiva temples in the region and the Saptha Vigraha Moorthis  (seven prime deities in all Shiva temples) are located at seven cardinal points around the temple, located in various parts of the state.

The seven deities are Nataraja in Chidambaram Nataraja Temple at ChidambaramChandikeswarar temple at TirucheingalurVinayagar in Vellai Vinayagar Temple at ThiruvalanchuzhiMuruga in Swamimalai Murugan Temple at SwamimalaiBhairava in Sattainathar Temple at SirkaliNavagraha  in Sooriyanar Temple at Suryanar KovilDakshinamoorthy in  Apatsahayesvarar Temple at Alangudi.

The temple, also called Perumpatrapuliyur in this context, is one of the Nava Puliyur Temples worshipped by Patanjali and Vyaghrapada.

The other temples are ThirupathiripuliyurErukathampuliyurOmampuliyurSirupuliyurAtthippuliyurThaplampuliyurPerumpuliyur & Kanattampuliyur.

Architecture

The temple as it stands had a pre-Chola existence and the architecture is Dravidian with the Sanctum Sanctorum closely resembling Kerala or Malabar style structures.

Indeed, the royal charters mention the rebuilding of the Sanctum using architects from Kerala. However, the golden roof is a striking example of Vesara architecture with its apsidal shape.

Two small structures called the Chit Sabha and Kanak Sabha form the crux of the vast architectural complex.

The temple is spread over a 40-acre (16 ha) area, within layers of concentric courtyards. The inner sanctum, its connecting mandapams and pillared halls near it are all either squares or stacked squares or both.

The complex has nine gopurams, several water storage structures of which the Shivaganga sacred pool is the largest with a rectangular plan.

The temple complex is dedicated to Nataraja Shiva and theological ideas associated with Shaivism concepts in Hinduism. However, the temple also includes shrines for Devi, Vishnu, Subrahmanyar, Ganesha, Nandi and others including an Amman shrine, a Surya shrine complete with Chariot wheels.

The plan has numerous gathering halls called sabha, two major choultry called the 100 pillared and 1,000 pillared halls, inscriptions and frescoes narrating Hindu legends about gods, goddesses, saints and scholars.

Courtyards

The Nataraja Temple complex is embedded inside four prakarams (prakramas, courtyards). Each of the courtyard has walls that were defensively fortified after the 14th-century plunder and destruction.

The outermost wall around the fourth courtyard has four simple, insignificant gateways.

The walls and gateways of the fourth courtyard were added in the 16th century by Vijayanagara rulers after they had defeated the Madurai Sultanate, and this outermost layer was heavily fortified by the Nayakas in the 17th century.

These face the four large gopurams that are gateways into the third courtyard. These gopurams are also landmarks from afar.

Inside the third courtyard, near the northern gopuram, is the Shivaganga tank, the thousand pillar mandapam, the Subrahmanyar (Murugan, Kartikeya) shrine and the shrine for Parvati (as Shivakama Sundari).

The other three gateways are closer to the sanctum. The four Gopurams pilgrims and visitors to enter the temple from all four cardinal directions. The complex is interconnected through a maze of pathways.

The courtyard walls and gateways are made from cut stones with some brick structure added in.

The gardens and palm groves are in the fourth courtyard, outside the walls of the third courtyard walls with the four large Gopurams. These were restored or added in by the Vijayanagara rulers in the 16th century.

Gopurams

The temple has nine major gopuram gateways connecting the various courtyards. Four of these are huge and colorful, visible from afar, a symbolic and convenient landmark for pilgrims.

These gateway towers or Gopurams each have 7 storeys facing the East, South, West and North.

The first edition of the four gopuram superstructures were likely built between 1150 and 1300 CE. The earliest was likely the western gopuram, which is also the smaller of the four. This is generally dated to about 1150 CE. The eastern gopura was likely completed by about 1200 CE, southern gopura by the mid-13th century, while the northern was added in the late 13th century.

The four high gopurams were destroyed, rebuilt, repaired, enlarged and redecorated several times after the 13th century. This has made the gopurams difficult to place chronologically, yet useful in scholarly studies of the history of the Nataraja temple.

All gopuras are built of precisely cut large stone blocks all the way to the main cornice. Upon this is a stone, brick and plaster structure with layers of pavilions.

Above these Talas (storeys) is a Dravidian style barrel vaulted roof, crowned with thirteen Kalasa finials. All four are approximately similar in size and 14:10:3 ratio, about 42.7 metres (140 ft) high, 30.5 metres (100 ft) wide and 9.1 metres (30 ft) deep.

Artwork on the Gopurams

Each gopuram is colorful and unique in its own ways. They narrate stories from various Hindu texts, showing religious and secular scenes from the various Hindu traditions.

This art is presented in each gopuram with anthropomorphic figure panels and about fifty niches with stone sculptures in every gopuram.

The scenes include multiple panels about the legend of Shiva-Parvati wedding with Brahma, Vishnu, Saraswati and Lakshmi attending, dancing Ganesha, Shiva in his various aspects, Durga in the middle of her war with a demon, Skanda ready for war, seated Nandi, musicians, dancers, farmers, merchants, sadhu in namaste posture, dancing dvarapalas near the vertical center line and others.

The artists and architects who built these gopura may have had a rationale in the relative sequence and position of the artwork with respect to each other and on various levels, but this is unclear and a subject of disagreement among scholars.

The artwork on gopuram showing Parvati-Shiva Kalyanasundara wedding legend. Near the newly weds are Saraswati, Lakshmi, Vishnu and others.

The earliest built western Gopuram is the only one with inscriptions below each artwork that identifies what it is. The artwork on it includes Durga fighting the evil, shape shifting buffalo demon and Skanda sitting on peacock and dressed up for war.

The surviving south Gopuram was constructed by a Pandya king.

The Pandyas sculpted two fishes facing each other when they completed Gopurams (and left it with one fish, in case it was incomplete).

Other artwork found on the southern Gopuram include Chandesha, Ganapati, Vishnu, Sridevi (Lakshmi), several Devis, Brahma, Saraswati, Surya, Chandra, Durga, Indra, Agni, Ganga and Yamuna, Kama and Rati, Budha, several Vedic sages such as Narada, Pantanjali, Somaskanda, Ardhanarishvara (half Shiva, half Parvati), Harihara (half Vishnu, half Shiva), several forms of dancing and standing Shiva such as Pashupata, Kiratarjuna and Lingobhava, as many others.

The eastern gopura wall shows all 108 dance postures from the Natya Shastra. The other gopuras also have dance images.

The eastern Gopuram features the 108 reliefs of Natya Shastra dance postures and faces the Sanctum.

The eastern Gopuram is credited to king Koperunsingan II (1243-1279 CE) and was repaired with support from a lady named Subbammal in the late 18th century.

The northern Gopuram was repaired and finished by the Vijayanagara  king Krishnadevaraya (1509-1530 CE) in the 16th century. The eastern and northern Gopura also depicts the wide range of narratives just as the southern and western Gopuram.

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 maintains the temple chariot.

The eastern Gopuram is renowned for its complete enumeration of 108 poses of Indian classical dance Bharathanatyam, in small rectangular panels along the passage that leads to the gateway.

Shrines

The temple complex has many shrines, most of them related to Shaivism. But elements of Vaishnavism and Shaktism are also included. The innermost structures such as the sanctum and the shrines all have square plans, but the gateways do not align except the innermost two courtyards.

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