In praise of the poser

In praise of the poser

In praise of the poser

We are at Chidambaram, located 235 km from Chennai, before the famous temple dedicated to Lord Shiva. The place used to be known as Thillai, as it was once full of thillai, a species of the mangrove tree. The first reference to this temple is found in the Skanda Purana.

According to legends, it was first constructed by a king named Shveta Varman, who was cured of leprosy by bathing in the sacred pond in the thillai forest in the first or second century. Some of the temple structures depicting the thillai trees are said to belong to the second century.

Shveta Varman, having witnessed the cosmic dance of the Lord, is said to have built this temple to worship Nataraja. But the original structure has been rebuilt and renovated several times by the kings of the Chola dynasty during the 11th, 12th and 13th centuries.

Spread over an area of nearly 40 acres, the temple has a gopuram on each side and five sabhas or halls — the Cit Sabha, Kanaka Sabha, Deva Sabha, Nritya Sabha and Raja Sabha. The idol of Nataraja is located in the Kanaka Sabha along with the idol of Parvati, his consort. What makes the temple special is the fact that Lord Shiva here is represented as Nataraja, the cosmic dancer, and not as the symbolic shivalingam.

‘Elementary’ details

The eastern gopuram, which is 40.8 m high, has the 108 dance mudras of Bharatanatyam carved on it. The western tower has similar carvings. The northern tower, 42.4 m high, is the tallest of them all.

According to the Sangam classics, Viduvelvidugu Perumtaccan was the chief architect of the Chidambaram Temple, being the one who renovated the original structure of the Chola rule.

Chidambaram is said to be one of the special Shiva temples that represents the five natural elements. Chidambaram Nataraja represents akaasha (ether).

The other four are Jambukeswara at Trichy representing water; Ekambareseswara at Kanchipuram representing earth; Arunachaleswara at Thiruvannamalai representing fire and Kalahasti Natham at Kalahasti representing wind.

Another reason for the temple’s specialty is, it’s sacred to both Shaivites and Vaishnavites. There is a shrine dedicated to Govindraja or Lord Vishnu adjacent to the main shrine of Lord Shiva. It depicts Lord Vishnu reclining on Adishesha, the serpent.Apart from these, there are two other shrines dedicated to Karthikeya (Subramanya) and Ganesha.

Jealous ‘rishis’

The legend of the Chidambaram Temple is an interesting one. The story goes thus: once upon a time, a group of rishis who believed in the supremacy of rituals resided in the thillai forest. Lord Shiva strolled inside the forest once in the guise of a young tapaswi.

His radiant looks made the wives of the rishis admire the unknown youth. This made the rishis so jealous that they invoked poisonous serpents by performing some magic rituals.

But the tapaswi simply smiled and lifted the snakes, placing them on his matted locks. The enraged rishis invoked a fierce tiger next. The youth just skinned it and draped the skin around his waist.

Lastly, they invoked a powerful demon named Muyalakam. But the young tapaswi froze the demon, stood on its back and performed the dance of eternal bliss or Ananda Thandava. Then the arrogant rishis realised who he really was and fell at his feet in complete surrender.

The cosmic dance of bliss has its special significance. The demon under Nataraja’s feet represents ignorance. The fire in his hand signifies that he is the destroyer of all evil. The raised hand signifies that he is the savior of life. The ring at the back represents the cosmos, and the drum (dambaru) in his hand represents the origin of life.

There is yet another legend associated with the cosmic dance. When Adishesha, the serpent who is the bed for Lord Vishnu, heard about Nataraja’s Ananda Thandava, he also yearned to see it. Lord Shiva agreed to perform for him.

Adhisesha took the form of Saint Patanjali and reached the thillai forest ,where he was joined by another saint, Vyagrapathar.

According to the Shiva Purana, Nataraja performed the cosmic dance for them on the day of the poosam star in the Tamil month of Thai (January-February). We can see the images of these two saints with their hands folded, worshipping Lord Nataraja, in one of the mandapams.

Dutch contribution

An interesting anecdote states that this temple has undergone renovation once again in the middle of the 18th century with support from a few Dutch merchants who had a trading post in Porto-Nuovo nearby. According to an inscription on one of the copper plates inside the temple, they had donated a share of their profits to get this done.

The tank in the temple complex — Shiva Ganga — is said to be the same lotus pond in the original thillai forest where King Shveta Varman was cured of his ailment, and his skin took on the hue of gold. The beautifully maintained tank has long flights of steps leading to the water. People are allowed to take a dip on special occasions.

It is now time to enter the main temple. Our worship completed, we bid adieu to the cosmic dancer with the sun shining brightly overhead.

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