Chidambaram – Thillai Natraja Temple

Chidambaram is a small Town in Cuddalore District of Tamil Nadu. The main reason for me to add this to my itinerary was the magnificent Thillai Natraja Temple. There are basic hotels to stay, simple food to expect and most importantly it can be treated as base to visit Pichavaram (Mangrove forest) & Gangaikonda Cholapuram (GKCP – abbreviated). Both places are worth visit and can be managed for half day trip, although they are located in opposite directions from Chidambaram.

It took an hour to reach from Pondicherry Bus Stand. The Bus was empty, being early morning and slowly started to fill in. Rains kept drizzling all along the way.

I had booked Paari Lodge via Booking.com. Located at the entrance of South Gate of the temple, it was this convenience, which attracted me (Also, to click the Gopurams from top of its Terrace). Thankfully, the room provided was cleaner at Rs. 750 than the one they showed for Rs. 850. The hotel is very very basic, no frills. I had carried some snacks to fill in the early morning hunger.

The above map (Credited to Ms Sarah Welch) for reference, shows the Thillai Nataraja Temple plan.

  1. East Gopuram
  2. South Gopuram
  3. West Gopuram
  4. North Gopuram
  5. 1000 Pillar Hall
  6. Shivganga Tank (Pushkarni)
  7. Shivakami Amman Temple
  8. Main Shiva Sanctum + Chit Sabha + Kanaka Sabha
  9. Vishnu shrine.

I was hoping to alight at the Southern Gate instead of going towards the Main Bus Stand (which was further 1 km away). Requested the Conductor to inform me as soon as we arrive near Temple area, also, for my reference, GPS was on. As soon as, we reached the town, I started tracking the route. I realised, the bus will not be passing near the Southern Gate, instead got down at closer point, before the bus could take the turn to Bus Stand. Honestly, GPS helped a lot, everywhere, to reach my destination, saving much hassle.

I reached the Southern Gate by 10:10 am, I was sure that Aarti would be over, by the time I reach the temple after Check-in. I remembered reading about it’s timing as 10:30 am. I just went around, taking the tour through the huge temple Complex. Photography is not allowed, once you enter the inner fortified area. There are two enclosures, outer and inner (refer temple plan).

Most fascinating aspect of this temple was the Gates. All the four Gates, located in four direction had 108 Poses of Bharatnatyam carved in it.

I went inside, asked one of the Priest for the main Nataraja temple (because the route inside was so confusing, more like Maze), aarti was going on, waited for sometime, but couldn’t see the idol. I was bit confused, as what to see and not, there were too many things around. Since, it was crowded, I went around admiring the grand structure. There are lots of Panels or Friezes inside, Painted Roofs to admire. All one can do is just absorb the beauty with own eyes. After spending sometime inside, I came out, visited the Shivagami Amman Temple at the Northern Gate, one Priest approached me for some Puja and promised me to send the Prasad by Courier at my home. I donated small sum, filled the form and skipped the Puja citing lack of time. He gave me a receipt of same (And yes, I received the Prasad by courier some 1 month later at my home). I checked the Pushkarni, which was locked from all sides also, the Thousand Pillar temple was locked. After spending an hour, I came out, took a bus, right outside Southern gate to Bus Stand. Since, I was hungry, there was a very good restaurant near Bus Stand. Hotel Vandayar.

Ordered a Meal, which was simple and fulfilling. I enquired for the Bus Platform number, where Pichavaram bus would arrive. Suddenly, it started raining heavily. Dar nimbus had gathered all around. After waiting for 30 minutes, Pichavaram bus was nowhere to be seen. I inquired with locals, they were also waiting for same bus. Finally, I realized, weather is not going to subside, rather than going to Pichavaram, I diverted my plan towards Gangaikonda Cholapuram. Luckily, Bus for GKCP was waiting at the Platform. I got in (Rs. 35) in next 30 minutes, I was at the stop. The huge temple complex can be seen from the Bus Stop itself.

By 05:00 PM, I finished with GKCP and was again at the Bus Stop. In few minutes, bus arrived for Chidambaram. I got down at the Southern entrance to the Thillai Natraja temple by 06:00 PM, went to the Lodge, freshened up. I located a Vegetarian Restaurant, Sarvana Bhavan at East gate through GPS. Hence, first thought of going from South Gate to East Gate. Kept the sandals (Shoe Stand is located at every gate, I kept it with the lady who was selling some flowers and charging Rs. 5 for Shoe keeping) at the South Gate, walked to the East Gate and took the right side to search the restaurant. Unfortunately, the Sarvana Bhavan was on the left side.

Again walked back to the left side, had Masala Dosa and Bonda Chatni, because for Dinner they serve only Dosas and Idli. There are no meals (Thali) for Dinner (this case was everywhere from here on, in this trip). Offcourse, there are Fried Rice and Noodles. But, I preferred Dosa.

Thillai Natraja Temple at Chidambaram is a must visit Chola Temple to experience the grandeur and architectural brilliance. It is one of the Panchaboothasthalam (the other four being Arunachalam – Fire, Siva Kanchi – Earth, Srikalahasthi – Air, and Tiruvannaikaval – Water).

Legend behind the Lord Natraja’s Dance form goes as – Lord Shiva was strolling in the form of ‘Pitchatanadar’, a simple mendicant seeking alms along with his consort, Lord Vishnu as Mohini in the Thillai (Exocoeria agallocha, a species of mangrove trees)  Vanam (Forest).  The main purpose was to quell the pride and arrogance of the Rishis (Saints) residing in the Thillai forests. The rishis and their wives are enchanted by the brilliance and the beauty of the handsome mendicant and his consort. On seeing their womenfolk enchanted, the rishis get enraged and invoke scores of ‘serpents’ (Sanskrit: Nāga), which is picked up by the Lord and dons them as ornaments on his matted locks, neck and waist. Further enraged, the rishis invoke a fierce tiger, which the Lord skins and dons as a shawl around his waist. Thoroughly frustrated, the rishis gather all their spiritual strength and invoke a powerful demon Muyalakan or Apasmara – a symbol of complete arrogance and ignorance. The Lord wearing a gentle smile, steps on the demon’s back, subdues him and performs the Ánanda Thaandava (the dance of eternal bliss) and discloses his true form. The rishis surrender, realizing that this Lord is the truth and he is beyond magic and rituals.

The Ananda Tandava posture of Lord Shiva is one of the famous postures recognized around the world by many. This celestial dancing posture tells us how a Bharathanatyam Dancer should dance.

Lord Natraja has four hands of which his front raised right hand is in Abhaya Mudra (Pose) signifying that he is saviour of all life and his back right hand holds the Damaru (origin of life forms). Of the two left hands, front one is in Gajahastha (suspended like an elephant’s trunk signifies Natraja’s power to pacify enemies and remove obstacles that blocks the path to liberation from samsara and to moksha) and the other left back hand holds the Agni (Fire – Power of destruction).

His left leg is lifted graciously in Kunchitha (Contracted) pose. The Ring of fire called Thiruvashi or Prabhavati at the back signifies the Cosmos and the motion of the earth. The right leg is bent slightly and tramples the hooded snake, held by a demon called Apasmara (signifies that ignorance is under his feet).

The lotus pedestal signifies Om (Sound of Universe). His eyes – Right, Left & Third  eye signifies the Sun, Moon and Fire / Knowledge respectively. The lord is adorned with all kinds of ornaments. His right earring (Makara Kundalam) and left earring (Sthri Kundalam) signify the union of man and woman (right is man, left is woman). The crescent moon in his hair signifies benevolence and beauty. The flowing of river Ganges through His matted hair signifies eternity of life. The dreading of His hair and drape signify the force of His dance

Sivagamasundhari (Kali), the spectator stands to the right, holds a lotus in her right hand and her left hand rests on her thigh.

It is one of the rare temple where Lord Shiva is represented by an idol rather than customary Lingam. The presiding deity is represented by Air, one of the five elements of the Universe, hence, known as Akash Lingam. There are four huge Gateway Towers in four directions with 108 poses (Karanas) of Classical Dance called Bharatnatyam carved on the inner walls of the Gateway. The images of the four Saivite saints, Manickavasakar (East Gopuarm), Gnanasambanthar (South Gopuram), Sundharar (West Gopuram) and Thirunavukkarasar (North Gopuram), are carved in the walls of the respective Gopuram through which they entered the temple. Even though, there are four gateways, the procession carrying the Uthsava Murthies do not pass through the main Gates, but use a separate exit, beside the East Gateway called Thitti Vaasal.

The East Gateway is the main entrance of the temple. There are in total 9 entrances to the temple. There are small temples as you enter the East Gate for two Sons of Lord Shiva – Karthikeya & Ganesha. The gate is carved with various deities. At the southern entrance, there is a huge monolith Nandi. The 1000 pillared mandapam was locked, located on the right side of the East Gate. It is said that there are 999 Pillars and 1000th pillar is one of the dance pose of Lord Shiva, wherein, he lifts his left leg, to 180 degree to form the winning dance pose.

The temple has an ancient legend regarding the dance. There was a dance contest between Lord Shiva and Goddess Kali (Shivagami – Form of Shakti), which was eventually won by Lord Shiva, after one step which Shivagami couldn’t perform. As Kali was struggling to keep pace with the Lord, Shiva performed the Urdhwa Thaandava. While doing this, His ear-ring fell on the ground. Lord Shiva picked it up with one of His feet and put it back in His ear. Kali failed to do this and conceded defeat to Lord Shiva. The story became very popular in Hindu art over centuries.

Inscriptions claim that this temple was built over by different dynasties like Cholas, Pallavas, Nayakas, Pandays and Vijayanagar Kings between c. 1175 and c. 1200 CE.  The twin sacred Chambers is preceded by Nritya Sabha (Dance Hall) and Large entrance with Columns (Mandapa). There are 17th Century CE Nayaka Ceiling Paintings, more than 40 panels depict the life of Saint Manikkavachakar, devotee of Lord Shiva.

The Temple has five Sabhas (Halls) – Kanak Sabha, Chit Sabha, Nritya Sabha, Deva Sabha & Raja Sabha

The main deity Natraja (Dancing Form of Lord Shiva) is present in Kanak Sabha. It is gold plated and mostly closed, except during specific times, they are opened for Aarti, wherein you can catch the glimpse.

Chit Sabha houses the presiding deity – Akash Lingam and the roof is gold plated.

Nritya Sabha is considered to be the most beautiful of all, built in form of Chariot, contains 56 pillars, 108 poses (Karanas) of Bharatnatyam is depicted. In this sabha, the dance contest between Siva and Kali took place. The dance scene of Shiva, performing the Urdhva Thandava with his leg lifted above his head, Kali Standing in one corner, totally calm and Vishnu playing the thalam (Manjira) is depicted.

Deva Sabha is mostly for Temple Festivals. Raja Sabha is known for thousand pillared Pavillion. Also, Pandyas and Cholas celebrated their victory in this Sabha.

There are other temples in the complex too, Govindraja Temple dedicated to Lord Vishnu, Subramanya Temple dedicated to Lord Karthikeya, Vinayaka Temple dedicated to Lord Ganesh & a huge sacred tank Pushkarni called as Sivaganga, located between the Shivagami Amman Temple and the Thousand Pillars Hall.

There are two statues of elephants which guard the entrance of the Thousand Pillars Hall, while in the basement there is a frieze depicting dancing figures. The image of Nataraja is brought here during the annual festivals.

The path to the main temple is guarded by Lion pillars (Pallava symbol). The feature of this temple is main deity of the Complex Lord Shiva’s shrine faces the South Direction symbolic of Death or Destroyer, Idol of Sleeping Vishnu faces east signifying the image of Protector &  Lord Brahma’s shrine faces North as Creator. This temple is the only place where the deities of the Hindu Trinities, Shiva, Vishnu and Brahma, (who was almost never worshipped) are worshiped in one complex.

Chidambaram Temple’s Rahasya (Secret) – As per the literature available, The temple is an architectural marvel, in which each part signifies the Human Body. The golden roof of the temple is studded with 21,600 gold tiles (total breaths taken by human in a day), these tiles are fixed with 72,000 gold nails (total number of naadis -nerves in a body). The nine Kalasha or holy pots on the top of roof represents the nine energies. There are five steps to climb to reach the main Sanctum called as Panchatshara Padi representing Si, Va, Ya, Na, Ma (Panchatshara Mantras). There are four pillars in the Kanaka Sabha which represents the Four Vedas, with 64 Roof beams which is supported by those 4 pillars representing 64 Arts. The 6 pillars of Artha Mandapam represents the 6 types of Sashtras (Holy texts).

There are three forms of Lord Shiva worshipped here, first form is a small idol of Lord Natraja also called as Sakala Thirumeni, made of Ruby also called as Ratna Sabha. Ruby Idol glows when flame is placed behind the Idol during Mahapuja. Another semi form of Shiva (Chandramouleswarar) is the Crystal Linga worshipped 6 times in a day called as Sakala Nishkala Thirumeni. Third form (formless) is the actual secret of Chidambaram called as Nishkala Thirumeni. Very unique and nowhere to be seen in the world. Because, it is without any form, left to the imagination of devotees, the empty space is decorated with Bilva Leaves, since Lord Shiva represents nothing and everything. During Mahapuja, the Pandit unveils the black curtain that represents “the worship leads from ignorance to wisdom”.

After dinner, again while going back through East Gate, I thought of checking the temple again. This time, I saw few ladies sitting on the Mandapam just opposite the front Golden door, I overheard someone telling the puja is there in next 10 mins. I joined the ladies, sat exactly opposite the door and waited. Around 08:15 PM or so, the golden doors opened, and I saw the Natraja idol. I made it a point to see the 9 Kalashas on top. Tried to observe, whatever I studied before coming to this place. I left the place grinning from ear to ear. Hoping to come back again some day and spend entire day just to observe many more things which I learnt while typing out this blog. There are numerous stories, many sculptures, every painting, that needs to be seen. It is like treasure house of Architecture and information.  Also, I missed Pichavaram, hence a re-visit is needed. Some other day!

I left the hotel early morning by 07:00 am, next day for my further visit to Vaiteeswaran Koil & Mayiladuthurai. Journey gets more interesting.

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