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Last Updated Saturday May 27 2017 01:36 PM IST

At the feet of the Chidambaram Nataraja

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At the feet of the Chidambaram Nataraja Chidambaram Temple: Photo: Srikanath Kalarakal

Spread over an area of 40 acres in the heart of the city, a visit to the Chidambaram Siva temple is an overwhelming experience.

From the eastern entrance the temple tower seems like a pair of joined arms raised towards the vastness of the sky. Each story of the tower bears the sculptural marvels of the histrionic mudras (gestures) of Bharathan's Natyasastra. Countless characters from the legends come alive on the walls of this tower. However, it is the eastern entrance that attracts the crowds.

The flower sellers' cries of 'buy two yards of flower garlands, one for Nataraja and one for Sivakami Devi' rent the air. The preists called Dikshitars, chant hymns on the ghats of holy Sivaganga pond. Everybody here, from darshan seekers to street hawkers in the temple premises, venerates Ananda Nataraja. Muthu Kumaran who runs a tea stall in front of the temple said that he is named Kumaran after the name of the Lord's son. Sixth grader Gautam who sells flowers also proclaims himself as a big devotee of Nataraja.

Where Time stands still

At the feet of the Chidambaram Nataraja Chidambaram Temple. Photo: Srikanth Kalarikal

I am enchanted by the intricate sculptures and granite corridors of the temple enclosure, Do sculptures have a language? If so, do they speak in a language more beautiful than ours?

A sense of eternal Time pervades as we traverse the paths stretching like fortress in the great Chidambaram temple. We feel the presence of Maheswara who makes Time dance eternally. There is no definite answer to the question as to when Chidambaram temple came into existence since the genesis of the temple's consecration lies submerged in eternity.

Past the enclosures

The temple interior is in the form of several chutambalams (enclosures), each of which houses plenty of deities. Sculptures, each better than the other in terms of perfection and beauty adorns the pillars of the chariot shaped dancing hall. The Sarabheswara sannidhanam is where Lord Vishnu took the Narasimha avatar. After having a darshan and ablution of each sannidhanam, going past the devasabha and entering through the door, a floor laid with golden tiles becomes visible. This is the sanctum sanctorum where the Lord Natarajamurthy reigns while dancing his eternal Dance of Bliss with his consort Sivakamasundari. There is a rush of devotees in front of the sanctum sanctorum and above the high rise. Gigantic bells of golden color are seen on the eastern side.

The place where the Lord's idol is situated is called Chitambalam (Chit Sabha). The area around it is the Kanaka Sabha. This is where the temple's pujas are held. Upon entering the Kanaka Sabha one sees dikshitars wearing rudraksha chains and clad in white robes. 'This temple is dedicated to sky. What it means is that, just as the sky is pure, so should human minds be too'. Ganpati Dikshitar and Raja Dikshitar say.

At the feet of the Chidambaram Nataraja Kedara Dikshithar, the priest. Photo: Srikanth Kalarikal

Kedara Dikshitar who is charge of the main puja that day talked about salvation. 'Chidambaram ithi bhooyoth sakrith janana varjithaha, mukthi kanda manipadam mokshayeva nasrimsayaha' - this is the verse. Chidambaram temple is one of the five element sites in South India. Chit means Wisdom and Ambaram means Sky. This temple is a sky of wisdom. Pathanjali's puja techniques are followed here. Six pujas are conducted daily. There once used to be three thousand dikshitars here. Now their number has dwindled to two hundred. Legend has it that Chidambaram temple is located at heart of the Universe. Just as human heart is a little to the left of center in the body, so is the structure of this sacred temple at a little offset.

The secret of Chidambaram

The sanctum sanctorum of Chit Sabha has no diety. All you see here is the Sri Chakra and a vilwamala (a special chain) made of pure gold; the Lord worshipped as a personification of sky. The empty space in the sanctum sanctorum can be treated as the God. This is the essence of 'Chidambaram Secret'.

It is puja time, the auspicious moment when morning pujas are done on the Nataraja idol at Kanaka Sabha and it is taken in procession to the Chit Sabha. Suddenly the ringing of bells and sound of percussion rose to a crescendo. The golden hued, dancing Nataraja was brought after circumambulating the Chit Sabha. Dikshitars chanting hymns ascended the panchakshara steps and entered the sanctum sanctorum. Devotees waited. As the bells peel, the black veil before the sanctum sanctorum moved to proclaim the moment of darshan. Joined arms rose in supplication before Nataraja.

The golden figure of Nataraja is in a dancing pose as the lovely Sivakami stands by his side. It is a sight of breathtaking beauty! We are unable to take our eyes off Nataraja. I was pushed back in the wave of the devotee's rush. But the Ananda Nataraja form, once seen, is bound to be imprinted forever in the mind.

Prayers lapse into forgetfulness. In the presence of Nataraja, the mind is unburdened off its mysterious woes. Merely the memory of the long by lanes of life trodden so far and the paths yet to come persists. That combined with a prayer for those paths to be graced with the Lord's mercy. Words from some mythology text came to mind. Siva is the God of destruction, seeker of the pyre. What does Siva destroy? It is the attachment to sense objects in each of us that Siva destroys. The dance of Siva is staged in the jungle of the devotee's mind that is razed to ashes by Him. Standing atop the steps in front of Nataraja's sanctum sanctorum one can see on the top left the deity of Mahavishnu reclining on Ananthan the serpent (Govindaraja Perumal). A unique highlight of the temple is being able to pay obeisance to both Siva and Vishnu from the same spot.

At the feet of the Chidambaram Nataraja Stone sculpture: Photo: Srikanth Kalarikal

A little girl whispers into the ear of the Nandi statue in front and extends her arm for prasad (divine offering). Devotees in blissful reverie stand at the feet of the stone pillars in the vast floor atop the steps facing the deities. Some are reciting verses; some are deep in meditation with their eyes shut. I saw aged couples, mutually reliant, reminiscent of Balachandran Chullikkad's account Chidambara Smarana. A mendicant with tattered clothes rests his wearied bones on the floor and sleeps away -- possibly one who seeks regular refuge from the day's miseries in sleep at this entrance? No idea. But even the clanging of the bell sounds at darshan time is not potent enough to wake him. His is a sleep surrendering everything in Nataraja.

Sivakamasundari temple

Walking towards the northern side after coming out of darshan one can see Sivaganga theertha pond bordered by Nandi statues. Sivakamasundari temple is in front of it. The stone pillars carry ancient engravings. The floors are cobbled and cold. Scent of camphor fills the air. Flowers and lamp in a tray are offered to Siva's consort Sivakami. The passage of time has faded the picture of Sivakamasundari, the goddess of knowledge at the entrance. At the ghat of the Sivaganga theertha pond, dikshitars chant puja hymns to the souls of ancestors. Stacks of darbha (grass) that were once tied on fingers and then discarded can be found on the steps. The Sivalinga in the pond becomes visible during summer. 'The supposedly incurable skin disease of Pallava king Simhavarman who lived thousand and five hundred years ago was cured after he took a dip in the Sivaganga' – a dikshitar recalled a legend.

Natarajan the omniscient

At the feet of the Chidambaram Nataraja

We met an aged woman named Sivaneswari on the way to the southern tower. The head shaven, ash smeared and saffron clad Brahmin widow was returning to the agrahara after the noon puja with tray in hand. Sivaneswari summed up her long life in a few words. 'My husband was 30 when he died. I was 24 then. I tonsured my head, wore saffron, and gave up ornaments... It has been over forty five years now. I come for all the pujas. For me Nataraja is everything' says the Siva yogi and vanishes to the agraharam street behind the wall of the southern tower.

Walking by the agraharams one can observe a life in its simplicity. When the world races after technology revolutions, here is a bunch of people who live as if in another mythical age, finding contentment in Nataraja puja. Small adjacent houses are lined on either side of a courtyard. Girls in frocks play in the courtyard decorated with kolams. Chela clad women make small talk. Their dreams are limited. Pray to Nataraja at dawn. Join in the chariot procession. Wear new chela and pray to Sivakamasundari at the festival in Margazhi month. Their lives attuned to that of the temple bells at Chidambaram.

When the lamps come to life

At dusk, it drizzled. And as the dusk melted into the nights, the lamps were lit at the temple giving it a whole different look. A sea of humanity gushed towards the temple courtyard which resembled a festival ground. Most of them were from surrounding areas. Men, women, children and old people sat in small groups in the courtyard.

At the feet of the Chidambaram Nataraja

I passed every enclosure and set out for yet another darshan of the Nataraja. Bells clang. The veil was removed and Nataraja granted us His darshan. The joined arms of devotees rose up in worship. Every act kept repeating, like the gestures of a dance recital.

I spotted a smiling Sivaneswari amma again, ash on forehead, among a group of worshippers in the Deva Sabha hall. Ratnambal seated nearby said, 'We come daily at night too. We leave only after Nataraja's sanctorum closes at 10.30 pm'. We went past the enclosures and shadowed pillars and got out. How many nameless deities are seen in the dark corners, in the dimming light!

We climbed the steps and returned to the courtyard in front of the western tower entrance. The crowds there had not dispersed yet. They gathered there, talking gently and taking care to not make any noise. No one was in a hurry to leave. They seemed to be reluctant to leave Nataraja. The sky was cloudy yet starry. We stared blankly at the sky and sat idle in the temple courtyard. A light drizzle fell. No one seemed to have noticed the rain. Is rain a blessing from the sky? Kedar Dikshitar's words came to mind, 'One sighting of Nataraja is enough to earn you salvation.' The mind raced to the lotus feet of Ananda Nataraja even as the eyes welled up for no reason.

At the feet of the Chidambaram Nataraja

The temple legend

In order to quell the arrogance of the hermits of Daruka forest, Siva assumed the form of a mendicant and Maha Vishnu became mohini (seductress). Lord Siva trampled on the illusory giant called Muyalakan created by the hermits and danced the thandava. When Vishnu later spoke about Ananda dance, a desire arose in the serpent Ananthan or Adi Seshan to watch Siva's Ananda thandava. As a result, Adi Seshan reincarnated as Patanjali.

The location of Chidambaram temple used to be called Thillai vanam. This was a forest thick with Thillai (mangrove) trees. Patanjali and Vyakhrapada Maharishi spent time worshipping the 'Swayambhu' which means natural, lingam in this Thillai vanam. Pleased with this, Siva appeared on the day when Pooyam star and full moon coincided in Thaimasa (a month in the Tamil calendar) and danced the thandava. As per the hermits' request Siva agreed to dance the Ananda dance there forever for the world's salvation.

Legend has it that a Pallava king named Simhavarman who was cured of an illness through Siva's blessing later built the temple. Most of the construction work was done in the temple during the period of Chola kings a thousand years ago.

Ananda dance

At the feet of the Chidambaram Nataraja

Lord Siva's Ananda thandava has been continuing since the dawn of the universe. Lord Nataraja whose eternal dance symbolized the reverberating Om sound is the Chidambaram deity. It is believed that the five activities of Creation, Preservation, Destruction, Veiling and Grace are being manifested through the Lord's sacred dance. The udukku (percussion instrument) in His hand represents the Creation of the universe. His hand that offers shelter symbolizes Preservation while the fire in another hand stands for Destruction. The leg stamped on the demon represents Veiling and the free leg denotes Grace. The sacred left hand points to the freely hanging leg.

Temple structure

Chidambaram is situated in Cuddalore district of Tamil Nadu. The temple is spread over a vast stretch of land. Four royal towers mark the four directions. Dancing statues have been ornately carved on the towers which have seven stories and thirteen large copper pitchers. A flag of the Lord adorns the southern tower. The temple is in the form of five enclosures – Raja Sabha, Nrithya Sabha, Deva Sabha, Kanaka Sabha and Chit Sabha.

The sanctum sanctorum is in the Chit Sabha. There are several sacred sannidhanams in the paths of the enclosures like Mukkuruni Vinayakar, Karpaka Vinayakar near the western tower, Balasubrahmanian, Somasundara Bhagavan, Thirumoola Vinayakan, Sivakamasundari temple near Sivaganga pond and Navalinga temple. The thousand feet mantapa (porch) called Raja Sabha is to the east of Navalinga temple.

In the second enclosure we can see Kalasamharamurthy, Oordhwathandavamurthy, Sarabheswara sannidhanam, Lakshmi sannidhi and Dhandayudhapani sannidi. The sannidhanams of Dakshinamurthy, Mallikeswaran, Vallabhaganapathy and others are to the north. Chandaswara sannidhanam, Arunachaleswar sannidhi and Moolattaneswar Thirusannidhi are also equally important.

Parting Shot

The temple has caught the imagination of story writers and movie makers alike. While at the temple, it was just normal for my mind to search for Akhilandammal, the heroine of C.V. Sriraman's celebrated short story Chidambaram. The story was made into a movie of the same name by the maestro G. Aravindan with Smita Patil and Bharat Gopi in the lead roles.

Is it likely that there could be another Akhilandammal alias Sivakami amidst the old women safekeeping footwear and the flower seller girls who dot the pavement leading to the South Tower? And is there, among the people lost in meditation either consciously or unconsciously on the shore of the holy Sivaganga pond, 'the man' who once loved Akhilandammal?

In arrangement with Vanitha

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