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Chidambaram : Temple of Nataraja, the Cosmic Dancer
Introduction : Three forms of Lord Shiva
Lord Shiva has many forms. Mostly we see Him in His Linga/Lingam form, which is a symbolic form (often called the phallic symbol) signifying the Infinity. He is sometimes manifested as the Nataraja, the anthropoid form of the Cosmic Dancer. He can be in his formless form, signifying the Void or Nothingness, from which everything comes & into which everything goes.
At Chidambaram, a town in the state of Tamil Nadu, India, there is a grand temple which houses all these three forms of Shiva at the same place, hence making it a unique temple.
Chidambaram, a town in Cuddalore district of Tamil Nadu, is located about 170 km from Chennai & 68 km from Pondicherry. The temple stands at the centre of the town, with its 4 tall towers called Gopurams visible from a great distance.
Geographic specialty : Pancha Bhoota Sthalam
It is said that the place where temple is located is the center point of world's magnetic equator.
Chidambaram is one of the five Pancha Bhoota Sthalam-s, the five holiest Shiva temples each representing one of the five elements : Khsiti (Earth) Ap (Water), Tez (Power), Marut (Air) & Byom (Akash, or the sky or the Void). Chidambaram represents Akash (Void).
It is an amazing fact that three of the five Panchaboothasthala temples, viz. those at Kalahasti, Kanchipuram and Chidambaram all stand on a straight line exactly at 79 degree 41 minutes East longitude.
The Chidambaram temple is unique in the sense that it is the only temple where Lord Shiva is worshiped in all the three forms in which He manifests himself : The Formed, the Semi-formed & the Formless. The Formed aspect is Nataraja or the Cosmic dancer, the semi-formed is the Linga form (Sphatik or Crystal Lingam) & the Formless is the Byom or the Void.
Another highly important thing is that in this temple complex, temples of Lord Shiva & that of Lord Vishnu are situated side by side, a unique thing indeed. Here one can actually see the personification of the Sanskrit sloka which boldly announces that there is no difference between the two :
“Om Namah Shivaya Vishnurupaya Shivarupaya Vishnabe
Shivasya hridayang Vishnu Vishnoscha hridayang Shivah…. ”
“Salute to Lord Shiva, who is also manifested as Lord Vishnu; & (the same to) Lord Vishnu, who manifests Himself in the form of Lord Shiva. At the heart of Lord Shiva is Lord Vishnu, & at the heart of Lord Vishnu is Lord Shiva.”
Another religious importance of this temple is that it houses on e of the five Sabhai-s or stages where Lord Shiva displayed His Ananda-Tandava dance.
The Temple Complex
The traditional name of the temple complex is Chidambaram Tillai Nataraja Koothan Kovil. Tillai is a type of mangrove forest which originally surrounded the temple.
A major shrine of Lord Shiva since the ancient times, the temple has been renovated by several kings of the Pallava, Chola, Pandya, Vijaynagara & Chera dynasties. The present temple is mainly of the 12th and 13th centuries, with later additions in similar style.
The Gopurams (Towers)
There are 4 tall towers called Gopurams on four sides, East, West, North & South each with 7 stories. The West tower is the oldest (constructed in 1150 AD).It has a beautiful idol of the god Skanda or Kartikeya on a peacock. The South Gopuram, the tallest (49 meters) of the four, was constructed by a Pandya kingidentified from the presence of the dynasty's fish emblem sculpted on the ceiling. The North Gopuram was initiated around 1300 A.D. with the brick portion constructed by the Vijaynagara king Krishna Deva Ray in the 16th century. The East Gopuram was constructed by the Pallava King Koperunsingan II in the 13th century and was repaired by Subbammal, the mother-in-law of the famous philanthropist Pachaiyappa Mudaliar in the 18th century.
All the four towers are extensively decorated with idols of various gods, goddesses, demons & characters from the epics. The East Gopuram is renowned for its complete enumeration of 108 poses of Bharata Natyam, the famous Indian classical dance, detailed in small rectangular panels.
The Shiva Ganga Pond
This pond, considered holy by the devotees, is located on the northern side of the main temple, just in front of the temple of Mother Goddess Shivakami. The water is said to possess medicinal properties, & devotees take bath in this pond with dual intentions, religious as well as healing.
The Shiva Ganga pond
The main temple
The architecture of this temple belongs mainly to late Chola period. The earliest examples of some of the features of Dravida (South Indian) style of temple architecture like temples dedicated to Mother Goddess (Amman) & the Sun God Surya, dance halls (Mandapa-s), large ponds called Shiva Ganga ponds etc. can be seen here.
Built in granite, the huge temple is really awe-inspiring. Huge pillars supporting high roofed halls, golden roofs & ceilings, the intricate decorations --- everything is in a grand scale.
The sanctum of the main Shiva temple (called Chitsabhai) has three parts. At the centre is the Nataraja idol, to its left is the divine consort Mother Goddess Shivakami or Shivagamasundari & to the right is the unique feature of this temple, the space representing the Byom or Sky or Void. This space is covered by a black curtain representing man’s ignorance. Once in a day, during the ritual of Chidambara Rahasya a priest draws the curtain back signifying removal of the ignorance & revealing a golden Vilva or Bel ( Wood Apple) leaf hanging in an empty space signifying Byom or the Void.
The Chitsabhai also houses a Shiva Lingam (called Chandramouliswar )made of crystal (Sphatika Lingam).
Other temples in the complex
The Govinda Raj Perumal temple (Vishnu temple) is the unique feature of this temple complex. Such co-existence of temples dedicated to Lord Shiva & Lord Vishnu is indeed a rarity. It is one of the 108 holiest Vishnu temples.
Temple dedicated to the Mother Goddess Shivakami Devi ( Goddess Parvati, the divine consort of Lord Shiva) is situated on the northern side of the complex.
Temples dedicated to Ganesha, Skanda, Shani Deva & Nava Graha (the Nine Planets) are also parts of the complex.
The Chidambaram Nataraja temple is a unique temple harboring many splendid & unique features. It is a must for the devotees as well as others with an interest in such things.