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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 Sabha.
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 of Bliss.
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 plinth.
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 three aspects:
As Form Nataraja the murti or image of Shiva
As Formless-Form The crystal linga called Chandramaulishvara
As Formless The yantra which is the Akasha Linga
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 the Deekshithars.
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 they came
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 day.
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 accompany dance.
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 etc.
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 opposite hall.
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 information is
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 chidambaram natraja 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 gopuram.
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 Tamil Nadu.
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
long period, 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 Deekshithars.
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
is 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 reduced.
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 purpose.
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