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Chidambaram-The Rising Towers of Faith

The architectural grandeur and the religious sanctity of Chidambaram are unparalleled. An ancient center for dance and music, this quaint town countinues to be a seat of modern learning and the ultimate pilgrimage.

As the train for Thanjavur from Madars chugs along on the metre gauge in the morning hours, the rising towers of Chidambaram temple glisten in the rays of the morning sun and stir in us a yearning to peep into this great temple. The agrarijan town of Chidambaram, a Tamil Nadu has attained world fame as a seat of modern learning as well as for its hallowed temple dedicated to Lord Nataraja, the dancing form of Lord Shiva.

Though Chidambaram is a small muncipal town, its Nataraja temple situated in the center of town, with streets running around it, is its main attraction. This temple is symbolic of the sky or akash, one of the five elements which from the universe. The presiding deity of the temple is ‘ether’ and the cosmic dancer Shri Nataraja is the utsava murty or the festival deity, with his consort, Shivakami. According to legend, Chidambaram or Tillai was once a forest of tillai or a mangrove species of trees and the original shrine was a small one on the banks of a tank. The saints, Vyagrapada and patanjali are said to have worshipped at this shrine, now called Thirumoolanathar. Its is believed that their penance attained fruition with the relevation of Shiva’s cosmic dance by Lord Nataraja on the auspicious Thai Poosam day. Lord Nataraja, who stands for the destruction of ignoranbce, is symbolized with his lef foot raised and the right foot placed firmly on Apasmara or Muyalagan. Of the four arms, one holds a pot of fire (destruction) and another the kettledrum (creation), the third is raised in abhayahasta (protection) while the forth in gajahasta, points to the raised left foot, indicating refuge to the devotee. The locks of hair fly on both sides, the ends of his clothes flow sideways and the aureole projects flames around the image.

The Chidambaram temple, occupying an area of forty acres, has an outer large enclosure or prakara, which was four majestic seven-tiered rajagopurams, one in each direction. It has five sabhas or halls. The sanctum of Nataraja is in two parts, namely chit sabha and kanaka sabha. The former holds the celebrated secret of Chidambaram. It consists of a string of gold bilva leaves, with a black curtain covering. This curtain metaphorically connotes ignorance, and it is lifted thrice a day for worship. Behind it, is the Lord in the form of ether (akash), the formless Lord. In the adjoining kanaka sabha, there is a crystal lingam presented by Adi Sankara. In this sabha is housed the icon of Nataraja, made of five metals.

The three other sabhas in the Nataraja temple are the Deve, the nritta and the Raja. Both the Nritta and Raja Sabha are built in the form of a chariot. Nritta sabha is the hall of immortal dance. This has fifty-six pillars depicting dancing postures. Here the pillars reverberate with life and rhythm. The Raja sabha is the 1000 pillared hall measuring 103 metres in length and 58 metres in with, where the Pandyas, the Cholas and others used to celebrate their victories. Deva Sabha, on theother hand, is the hall of festivals and meeting place of administrators. Wherever one turned, either in the Nritta sabha or Raja sabha or in the shivakami shrine or towards pillars and gopurams, the recurring theme is dance. In fact the east and west gopurams are fine examples of 108 karnas (ordered movements of the dance) listed in ‘Natya Shastra’. The roofs of the two of the sabhas are covered with 21,6000 gold plates, eachof which costs Rs. 3,500/- today. In fact the golden hall of dance was built and covered with gold plates by Jatavarman sundra pandya (1251-1272 A.D.) He was very proud of his achievement, and as such assumed the title of ‘the king whocovered the temple with gold’ (Hemchandandana Raja).

In fact the Thevaram hymns sung bythree of the Nayanmars Appar, Sambandar and Sundarar, which would have been lost of posterity, were resuscitated by a Chola king, probably Raja Raja I (985-1014 A.D.) from a room adjoining the Shri Nataraja shrine in Chidambaram. Nambi andar Nambi codified these, and the hymns of some other saints into eleven books. The twelfth book is the Periya Puranam of Sekkizhar of 12th century. He was a minister to a later Chola king, whoasked him to compose a work on the 63 Nayanmars. He went to chidambaram, and set to work in the Raja sabha. When the work was completed, the Chola king came to Chidambaram and celebrated its release. The Harijan devotee, Nandanar mingled with the eternal effulgence of the Lord at Chidambaram. Saint Manikkavasagar attain mukti in this temple after singing the tirukkovai at the bidding of Lord Sundareswara.

The Vaishnavites as much as the Shaivaites, frequent Tillai to worship Shri Govindaraja near the Nataraja shrine. Govindaraja is in yogic trance on a serpent couch. Just like the dream of Shiva, the couch symbolizes ether, sky and creation. Even an ardent Shaivite like Appaya Dikshita did not fail to worship Govindaraja in Chidambaram during his visit. But Chola king Kulothunga II (1133-1150 A.D.) however, deviates from the general tolerance. He is reported to have thrown the idol into the ocean.

Only during the reign of Vijayanagara rulers, the deity was resoted to the temple. The sectarian rivalry between the shaivite and Vaishnavite priests continues to this day, and the shrines of Govindaraja and Pundarikavalli continue to be under Government control unlike the Chidambaram temple.

The niches of the temple walls and the gopurams reveal the wonders of religion and art. A discerning eye will notice the scare on the gopurams left by the Carnatic wars during which the British, French and Hyder Ali’s troops turned the temple into a fortress by turn. During these tumultuous periods the main idols of Nataraja and Shivakama Sundari were taken to Tiruvarur for safety.

Of late steps have been taken to retrieve the superb and spell-casting paintings of Nayak and Maratha rulers of Thanjavur on the ceiling of the sabha mandapam of the Shivakami amman Sannadhi of the Nataraja temple thanks to the initiative of the Indian National Trust for Art and Cultural Heritage (IN-TACH). The Nayak paintings of the 16 the century are on the ceiling in four huge palensl, each 26 metres long depict the origin of the temple, the inspiring lives of great saints, Vyagrapada and and Patanjali and excerpts from Devi Mahatmiyam.

Apart from the number of shrines like Shivakama Sundari, Pandya Nayakam of Shanmuga, Karpaga Vinayaka, Navagraha Linga, Meenakshi Sundaresar and Kumarakotta Murgan inside the second enclosure, special metion must be made of the shrine for Goddess Kali, call Tillai Kali located outside the Nataraja temple at thenorthern boundary. It is said that Goddess Kali’s anger did not sub-side even after killing the demon by name Tarakasura. Hence Lord Nataraja performed ‘urdha tandava’ and lifting his left foot to the crown contained her anger. She was given place on the northern boundary by Nataraja. It is enjoined that all those who visit Chidambaram, should pay a visit to Tillai Kali.

Among the festivals of the temple that attract large crowds from far are the Brahmotsavam, Ani Thirumanjanam ‘Thai Poosam’ and ‘Arudra Dharshan’. During ‘Arudra Dharshan’, the icons of Shri Nataraja and Shivakama Sundari are well decorated with flowers and taken around the four car streets to the accompaniment of excellent nadaswaram. Thestreets during this time are a veritable treasure of kolam art, in which the womenfolk of this area revel.

No account of the Chidambaram temple would be complete without mentioning Dikshitars and the Natyanjali festival observed every year.

The temple at Chidambaram, unlike other temples, is not under the control of Hindu, Religious Endowment Board. Its administration lies in the hands of an endogamous community called Dikshitars, who reside in titled houses of the four car streets encircling the temple. They sport a characteristic tuft akin to that of the Namboodris of Kerala. This community had come into existence to worship Saint sundarar, who called himself a servant of those who served the Brahmins of Chidambaram. They were respected not only as the custodians of this great temple, blessed with the right to enter the sanctum sanctorum but also conduct rituals. The number of priests which was 300 during the days of Sundarar, has dwindled to 250-300 adults in 1000 strong community. This community of priests eke out their livelihood from the offerings of the devotees and do not look to the Government for any grant. They do not marry outside their community in Chidambaram. Their educaton is confined to vedic learning, and are employed in banks. They look upon the service of Shri Nataraja as dearer to their hearts than any other avocation despite their poverty. One peculiar custom among them till recently was child marriage, which entitled a married male to a share to the income the temple. In short they are caught, between modernity and traditional learning.

The Natyanjali festival conducted every year since 1981 during Februaryfor five days is an eloquent tribute to this center as origin of dance. The dance avenue, which was originally in front of the 1000 pillared Raja sabha, has now been shifted to the enclosure beyond the gopurams to facilitate closure of temple in time and accommodate a larger audience. The number of dance performers has been increasing year after year even though they are paid only travel and lodging expenses. The performance starts from 6.30 p.m. on the festival days and continues past midnight.

The story of Chidambaram stands on the Annamalai university, which is a product of the manificence of the late Dr. Rajah Sir annamalai Chetiar of Chettinad. Sprawling over an area of three hundred acres, the university founded in 1929, has grown from strength to strength. Both in the field of arts and science, the university has carved outa niche for itself. In technological fields like engineering and agriculture, the university has separate faculties. Recently medical and dentistry faculties have been added to the University. The University has a department of music, which has been rendering yeoman service to Tamil music. As any other progressive university. It has a center for adult education and extension which functionsviably in mass literary programmes and vocational training.

Chidambaram is also famour for imitation gold ornaments, cane furniture and mat weaving. In fact the village, Thulsendirapuram, lying at a distance of nine kilometers to the south of Chidambaram, is humming with activity. Canes are obtained from reeds grown along the course of river Coleroon and the craftsmen obtain canes of larger thickness from Assam. The chairs, tables, dining tables and tea-poys made out of reeds are in great demand nowadays because of their fine look, shining polish and durability. Likewise, mat weaving is a flourishing cottage industry in the villages encircling Chidambaram. It is done both by hand and powerlooms. The raw material used is a Cenchrus species called korai in Tamil. There is great demand for mats woven in Chidambaram and its satellite villages.

A visit to the quaint little village of Chidambaram is a rich cultural experience which has attracted men and women down the ages. Its spectacular temple, the modern university and the beautiful handicraft creation will leave you spellbound.

Visiting Chidambaram

Getting There
By Air: The nearest airpots of Chidambaram are Tiruchirapalli (168 kilometres) and Madras (245 kilometres).
By Rail: Chidambaram is situated on the Madras-Tiruchirapalli main line of the Southern Railway. It is connected with Tiruchirapalli, Madras, Madurai, Rameswaram, Bangalore and Tirupathi.
By Road:Connected with all major towns by regular bus service.

Where To Stay

  • Hotel Tamil Nadu, Railway Feeder Road, Chidambaram. Single Rs. 60/-; Double Rs. 90/; Deluxe Double Rs. 115/-; Double A.C. Rs. 170/-; Deluxe Double A.C. Rs. 330/-Youth Hostel: Dormitory Rs. 20/- per bed. Hotel Saradha Ram, Opp. Bus Stand, Chidambaram. Single Rs. 90/-; Double Rs. 100/-; Double A.C. Rs.150/-; President and Royal Suite Rs. 175/-
  • Hotel Raja Rajan, West Car Street, Chidambaram Single Rs. 35/-; Double Rs. 45/-.
  • Shameer, Lodge,V.G.P. Street, Chidambaram. Single Rs. 30/-; Double Rs. 45/-; Railway retiring rooms, double Rs. 20/-

Where To Eat

  • Indian and Continental food available at Hotel Tamil Nadu and Indian Coffee House.
  • Indian, Continental, Chinese and Tandoori food available at Hotel Saradha Ram and Navin.

What To See

  • The Nataraja Temple: The temple located in the center of the town is one of the ancient temples of Tamil Nadu.
    Timings: 6.00 a.m. to 12.30 p.m.; and 4.45 p.m. to 9.00 p.m.

  • Thillai Kali Temple: It was built by a Chola King between 1229 A.D. and 1278 A.D.
    Timings: 7.00 a.m. to 12.00 noon and 6.00 p.m. to 9.00 p.m.

  • Annamalai University: It is a residential University founded by raja Sir Annamalai Chettiar. It is a great center of Tamil learning and Carnatic music.

Local Transport

Taxis and auto rickshaws are available without metre. Other modes of transport are bus, and cycle rickshaw. Bullock carts for hire are a speciality.



  • Pichavaram: It is 16 kilometres from Chidambaram, covers an area on about 3000 acres. There are islands in the backwaters with mangroves on the shores of the island. An ideal place for tourists.
  • Neyveli: 45 kilometres from Chidambaram, Lignite mines are located here.
  • Gangaikonda Cholapuram: 42 kilometres from chidambaram, founded by Chola King Rajendra I as his capital and a temple of Lord Shiva with massive and richlycarved sculptures.
  • Poompuhar: It is 40 kilometres from Chidambaram. This is famous as a major port of the Chola Empire. At present an art gallery built (1973) by the Government of tamil Nadu depicts scenes from the Silapathikaram of ancient Tamil literature.

Tourist Information

The government of Tamil Nadu Tourist Office, Railway Feeder Road, Chidambaram.

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