Thillai Nataraja Temple, Chidambaram

26 Jul

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Thillai Natarajah Temple, Chidambaram (Chidambaram Thillai Natarajar-Koothan Kovil or Chidambaram temple) is a Hindutemple dedicated to Shiva located in the town of Chidambaram, East-Central Tamil NaduSouth India. The temple is known as the foremost of all temples(Kovil) to Saivites and has influenced worship, architecture, sculpture and performance art for over two millennium. The Sangam classics list chief architect Viduvelvidugu Perumtaccan as directing an early renovation of the shrine. A major shrine of Shiva worship since the classical period, there have been several renovations and offerings to Chidambaram by the PallavaCholaPandyaVijayanagara and Chera royals in the ancient and pre-medieval periods. Its bronze statues and stone sculptures depicting various deities and the famous Thillai trees (Exocoeria agallocha) of the surrounding forest reflect the highpoints of early Chola and Pallava art while its famed gold plated gopuramtowers are medieval structural additions by the royals Aditya IParantaka CholaIKopperunchingaIKrishnadevaraya and Jatavarman Sundara Pandyan. King Kocengannan Chola was born following prayers his parents offered at the temple and later in his life he refined its structure.The shrine gave the town its name.

The deity that presides here is கூத்தன் – Thillai Koothan (Thillai Nataraja – Shiva, Lord of Dance). Chidambaram is the birthplace of the sculpture and bronze image representation of Shiva as the cosmic dancer, a Tamilian concept and motif in Chola art that has since become notable as a symbol of Hinduism. The shrine is the only Shiva temple to have its main deity represented in this anthropomorphic form, as the supreme being who performs all cosmic activities.The consort deity here is Sivakami Amman (form of Amman – mother goddess and female energy). Two other forms of Shiva are represented close to this in the vimana (inner sanctum) of the temple – as a crystallised lingam – the most common representation of Shiva in temples, and as the aether space classical element, represented with empty space and a garland of fifty one hanging golden vilvam leaves (Aegle marmelos). Shiva is captured in pose as Nataraja performing the Ananda Tandava(“Dance of Delight”) in the golden hall of the shrine Pon Ambalam (பொன் அம்பலம்). The sculptures of Chidambaram inspired the postures of Bharatha Natyam. The Chidambaram complex is admired for its five famous halls (ambalam or sabhai), several grand smaller shrines to the Hindu deities GaneshMuruganVishnu and Sivakami Amman which contain Pandyan and Nayak architectural styles, and for its endowment from many water tanks, one of which links it to the Thillai Kali temple.

Chidambaram is one of the five Pancha Bootha Sthalams, the holiest Shiva temples each representing one of the five classical elements; Chidambaram represents akasha (aether). Chidambaram is glorified in Tirumular‘s Tirumandhiram and was visited by Patañjali and Pulikaal Munivar. It is the primary shrine of the 275 Paadal Petra Sthalams – Shiva Sthalams glorified in the early medieval Tevaram poems by Tamil Saivite Nayanar saints TirunavukkarasarThirugnana Sambandar and Sundarar. Hailed in the Tiruvacakam series by Manikkavacakar, these very volumes of the Tirumurai literature canon were themselves found in secret chambers of the temple. The Periya Puranam, a biography of these Nayanar saints by Sekkizhar commissioned by emperor Kulothunga Chola II, was written in the shrine’s Thousand Pillared Hall. InKanda Puranam, the epic authored by Kachiyappa Sivachariar of Kanchipuram, the Chidambaram shrine is venerated as one of the three foremost Shiva abodes in the world, alongside Koneswaram temple of Trincomalee and Mount Kailash.


The traditional name of the temple complex, Chidambaram Tillai Nataraja-koothan Kovil, alludes to the environment of its location and its origins and significance in Saivite worship. The mangrove of ancient Tillai (தில்லை) trees (Exocoeria agallocha) of the forest surrounding the shrine when it was first built inspired the shrine’s name and early artistic inspiration; the Tillai trees of the nearby Pichavaram wetlands, the second largest mangrove in the world, extends to the temple area. The shrine is venerated as Tillai ambalam (தில்லை அம்பலம் ), literally meaning Tillai Open Stage, the open space surrounded by Tillai Vanam (தில்லை வனம்) (the Tillai forest) – the original name of this area. The name of the town of this shrine, Chidambaramcomes from the Tamil word Chitrambalam (சிற்றம்பலம்) – “small hall/stage”; also spelled Chithambalam (சிட்டம்பலம்), from citt/chitthu and ambalam– meaning “wisdom of this open stage/atmosphere”. The shrine is where some devotees believe they will attain liberation, or chitaakasam – “wisdom/consciousness of the sky”. “Nataraja” or “Koothan” mean “Lord of Dance”.


The story of Chidambaram begins with Shiva strolling into the Thillai Vanam (vanam meaning forest and thillai trees – botanical name Exocoeria agallocha, a species of mangrove trees – which currently grows in the Pichavaram wetlands near Chidambaram). In the Thillai forests resided a group of sages or ‘rishis‘ who believed in the supremacy of magic and that God can be controlled by rituals and mantras or magical words. Shiva strolled in the forest with resplendent beauty and brilliance, assuming the form of Bhikshatana, a simple mendicant seeking alms. He was followed by his consort, Vishnu as Mohini. The sages and their wives were enchanted by the brilliance and the beauty of the handsome mendicant and his consort. On seeing their womenfolk enchanted, the rishis got enraged and invoke scores of serpents (nāgas) by performing magical rituals. Shiva lifted the serpents and donned them as ornaments on his matted locks, neck and waist. Further enraged, the sages invokek a fierce tiger, whose skins and dons were used by Shiva as a shawl around his waist.

The rishis gathered all their spiritual strength and invoked a powerful demon Muyalakan – a symbol of complete arrogance and ignorance. Shiva wore a gentle smile, stepped on the demon’s back, immobilized him and performed the Ánanda Tandava (the dance of eternal bliss) and disclosed his true form. The sages surrender, realizing that Shiva is the truth and he is beyond magic and rituals.


To Saivites, the very word koil refers primarily to Chidambaram Tillai Natarajar. In the same way, followers of Vaishnavism use the word koil to refer to Srirangam orThiruvarangam – the Sri Ranganathaswamy Temple, Srirangam, in Tiruchirappalli.

Chidambaram is a temple complex spread over 40 acres (160,000 m2) in the heart of the city. The main complex to Shiva Nataraja also contains shrines to deities such as Shivakami Amman, GaneshMurugan and Vishnu in the form Govindaraja Perumal. Chidambaram’s earliest structures were designed and erected by ancient craftsmen called Perumtaccan. The golden tiled roof for the Chit Ambalam (the vimanam) was laid by the Chola King Parantaka I(907-950 CE) following which he was given the title – Thillaiyambalathhukku pon koorai veiyntha thevan(Tamil:தில்லையாம்பலதுக்கு பொன் கூரை வேய்ந்த தேவன், meaning the one who constructed the golden roof). In its floruit, kings Rajaraja Chola I(reign 985-1014 A.D.) and Kulothunga Chola I(1070-1120 A.D.) made significant donations to the temple. Gold and riches to the temple were donated by Rajaraja Chola’s daughter Kundavai II while Chola king Vikrama Chola (1118-1135 A.D.) made donations for the conduct of the daily rituals.

Donations of gold and jewels have been made by various kings, rulers and patrons to the temple from 9th to 16th century – including the Maharaja of Pudukottai, Sethupathy (the emerald jewel still adorns the deity) and the British.

Naralokaviran, the general of king Kulothunga Chola I was responsible for building a shrine for child saint Thirugnana Sambanthar and installed a metal image inside it. He constructed a hall for recitation of Tevaram hymns and engraved the hymns in copper plates.

Temple structure

A classical Shiva temple as per Agama rules will have five prakarams (closed precincts of a temple) or circuits each separated by walls one within the other. The outer prakaram will be open to the sky except the innermost one. The innermost one will house the main deity as well as other deities. There will be a massive wooden or stone flag post exactly in line with the main deity. The innermost prakaram houses the sanctum sanctorum (karuvarai in Tamil).

Chidambaram is also referred to in various works such as Thillai (after the Thillai forest of yore in which the temple is now located), Perumpatrapuliyur orVyagrapuram (in honour of Saint Vyagrapathar, Sanskrit: Vyaghrapada – “Tiger-Footed”).

The temple is supposed to be located at the lotus heart of the Universe: Virat hridaya padma sthalam.

This gold-roofed stage is the sanctum sanctorum of the Chidambaram temple and houses the Lord in three forms:

  • the “form” – the anthropomorphic form as an appearance of Nataraja, called the Sakala-thirumeni.
  • the “semi-form” – the semi-anthropomorphic form as the Crystal linga of Chandramaulishvara, the Sakala-nishkala-thirumeni.
  • the “formless” – as the space in Chidambara-rahasyam, an empty space within the sanctum sanctorum, the Nishkala-thirumeni.

Significance of the temple design

The layout and architecture of the temple is replete with philosophical meanings.

  • The place where temple located is the center point of world’s magnetic equator.
  • Three of the five Panchaboothasthala temples, those at KalahastiKanchipuram and Chidambaram all stand on a straight line exactly at 79 degree 41 minutes[17] East longitude – truly an engineering, astrological and geographical wonder. Of the other two temples, Tiruvanaikkaval is located at around 3 degrees to the south and exactly 1 degree to the west of the northern tip of this divine axis, while Tiruvannamalai is around midway (1.5 degree to the south and 0.5 degree to the west).
  • The 9 gateways signify the 9 orifices in the human body.
  • The Chitsabai or Ponnambalam, the sanctum sanctorum represents the heart which is reached by a flight of 5 stairs called the Panchaatchara padi –pancha meaning 5, achhara – indestructible syllables – “SI VA YA NA MA”, from a raised anterior dias – the Kanakasabai. The access to the Sabhai is through the sides of the stage (and not from the front as in most temples). The Chit sabha roof is supported by four pillars symbolic of the four Vedas.
  • The Ponnambalam or the Sanctum sanctorum is held by 28 pillars – representing the 28 agamas or set methodologies for the worship of Shiva. The roof is held by a set of 64 beams representing the 64 forms of art and is held by several cross-beams representing the innumerable blood vessels. The roof has been laid by 21,600 golden tiles with the word SIVAYANAMA inscribed on them representing 21600 breaths.[18] The golden tiles are fixed using 72,000 golden nails which represents the no. of nadis exists in human body. The roof is topped by a set of 9 sacred pots or kalasas, representing the 9 forms of energy. The artha mandapa(sanctum) has six pillars denoting the six shastras (holy texts).
  • The hall next to the artha mantapa has eighteen pillars symbolizing the eighteen Puranas.
  • Sri Nataraj Mandir at Satara is a replica of this temple.


The temple has 9 gateways, and four of these have gateway towers or gopurams each with 7 storeys facing the East, South, West and North. The South gopuram called the Sokkaseeyan Thirunilai Ezhugopuram was constructed by a Pandya king[19] identified from the presence of the dynasty’s fish emblem sculpted on the ceiling. The Pandyas sculpted two fishes facing each other when they completed gopurams (and left it with one fish, in case it was incomplete). The earliest and smallest of the four is West gopuramconstructed around 1150 and there are no reliable evidence on the construction. The sculptures shows goddess fighting the buffalo-demon and warlikeSkanda astride his peacock. The North Gopuram was initiated around 1300 A.D. with the brick portion constructed by the Vijayanagara kingKrishnadevaraya (1509-1530 A.D.) in the 16th century. The East Gopuram, was claimed to have been constructed by the Pallava King Koperunsingan II (1243-1279 A.D.) as per epigrahical records[20] and was repaired by Subbammal, the mother-in-law of the famous philanthropist Pachaiyappa Mudaliar(1754-1794 A.D.). The idols of Pachaiappa Mudaliar and his wife Iyalammal have been sculpted on the eastern gopuram. The Pachaiappa Trust to date has been responsible for various functions in the temple and also maintain the temple car. The eastern gopuram is renowned for its complete enumeration of 108 poses of Indian classical dance – Bharathanatyam, detailed in small rectangular panels along the passage that leads to the gateway. Eachgopuram has around fifty stone sculptures, with each repeating some portions from the other.


There are 5 ambalams or sabhas (halls) inside the temple.

  • Chit Ambalam or Chit Sabhai, which is the sanctum sanctorum housing Nataraja and his consort Sivakami Sundari, and gave the temple town its name.
  • Pon Ambalam or Kanaka Sabhai – the golden hall in front of the Chit Ambalam, from where the daily rituals are conducted.
  • Nrithya sabhai or Natya sabhai, a 56-pillared hall lies to the south of the temple’s flag mast (kodi maram or dwaja sthambam) where Nataraja outdanced Kali and established his supremacy.
  • Raja sabhai or the 1000-pillared hall which symbolizes the yogic chakra of thousand pillared lotus or Sahasraram (which in yoga is a chakra) at the crown of the head and is a seat where the soul unites with God. This chakra is represented as a 1000-petalled lotus. Meditating by concentrating at theSahasrara Chakra is said to lead to a state of union with the divine force and is the pinnacle of yogic practice. The hall is open only on festive days Deva Sabhai, which houses the Pancha moorthis (pancha – five, moorthis – deities, namely the deities of GaneshSomaskanda (seated posture of Siva with Pavarthi and Skanda), Sivananda Nayaki, Muruga and the image of Chandikeswarar.
  • The shrines for the original Shivalingam worshipped by the saints Patanjali and Vyagrapathar – called the Thiru Aadhimoolanathar and his consort Umaiyammai (Tamil:உமையம்மை) or Umaiya parvathi.
  • She shrine of the 63 nayanars of Shiva – called the Arubaththu moovar.
  • Shrine of Sivagami.
  • Ganesha shrine
  • Shrine of Muruga or Pandiya nayakan


There are also several smaller shrines in the temple complex.

Govindaraja Swamy Shrine

The Govindaraja shrine is dedicated to Vishnu and is one of the 108 holy temples of Vishnu called divyadesam, revered by the 7th-9th century saint poets of vaishnava (those worshipping Vishnu) tradition, alwarsKulashekara alwar mentions this temple as Tillai Chitrakutam and equates Chitrakuta ofRamayana fame with this shrine. King Kulothunga Chola II is believed to have uprooted the presiding Govindraja image from the shrine. The shrine has close connections with the Govindaraja temple in Tirupati dating back to saint Ramanuja of the 11-12th century. Ramanujar fled to Tirupati with the utsava (festival image) of the temple to escape punishment. Down the centuries, king Krishnappa Nayak (1564-1572 A.D.) was instrumental in installing the image of Govindaraja back in the temple. There was lot of resistance from the shaivites (those worshipping Shiva) against placing the Vishnu image in a revered Shiva temple, but the king was unmoved and the image was installed in the present form. There is no satisfactory evidence of co-existence of the Shiva and Vishnu shrines within the same temple built during the same time – there was a dispute even in last century during 1849 A.D. regarding the rights on the Govindaraja idol and Alwar Sannidhi(sanctum of azhwars) between Vaishnavas and Dikshitars and the position ofVaishnavas was upheld by the district court.

Temple Tanks

The Chidambaram temple is well endowed with several water bodies within and around the temple complex.

  • Sivaganga (சிவகங்கை) tank is in the third corridor of the temple opposite to the shrine of Shivagami. It is accessed by flights of stone steps leading from the shrine.
  • Paramanandha koobham is the well on the eastern side of the Chitsabhai hall from which water is drawn for sacred purposes.
  • Kuyya theertham is situated to the north-east of Chidambaram in Killai near the Bay of Bengal and has the shore called Pasamaruthanthurai.
  • Pulimadu is situated around a kilometer and a half to the south of Chidambaram.
  • Vyagrapatha Theertham is situated on to the west of the temple opposite to the temple of Ilamai Akkinaar.
  • Anantha Theertham is situated to the west of the temple in front of the Anantheswarar temple.
  • Nagaseri tank is situated to the west of the Anantha thirtham.
  • Brahma Theertham is situated to the north-west of the temple at Thirukalaanjeri.
  • Underground channels at the shrine drain excess water in a northeasterly direction to the Shivapiyai temple tank (சிவப்பியை குளம்) of the Thillai Kali Temple, Chidambaram. Due to poor maintenance, it has not been in use.
  • Thiruparkadal is the tank to the south-east of the Shivapiyai tank.

Temple Car

The Chidambaram temple car is, perhaps, the most beautiful example of a temple car in all of Tamil Nadu. This car, on which Nataraja descends twice a year, is drawn by several thousand devotees during the festivals.

Ananda Tandava

The legend of the temple is same as the legend of Ānanda-tāṇḍava Adhisesha, the serpent who serves as a bed of Vishnu, hears about the Änanda thaandava and yearns to see and enjoy it Shiva beckons him to assume the saintly form of sage Patanjali and sends him to the Thillai forest, informing him that he will display the dance in due course. Patanjali who meditated in the Himalayas during krita age joins another saint, Vyaghrapada or Pulikaalmuni (Vyagra / Puli meaning “Tiger” and patha / kaal meaning “feet” – referring to the story of how he sought and got the feet and eyesight of a tiger to help climb trees well before dawn to pick flowers for the Lord before the bees visit them). The story of sage Patanjali as well as his great student sage Upamanyu is narrated in both Vishnu Purana as well as Shiva Purana. They move into the Thillai forest and worship Shiva in the form of lingam, a deity worshipped today as Thirumoolataneswarar (Thiru – sri, Moolatanam – primordial or in the nature of a foundation, Eswarar– the Lord). Legends say that Shiva displayed his dance of bliss (the Aananda Thaandavam) – asNataraja to these two saints on the day of the poosam star in the Tamil month of Thai (January – February).

The Ananda Tandava Posture

The Ānanda-tāṇḍava posture of Nataraja represents pancikritya functions of the godhead believed to have created the dynamic force to create the world.

  • The demon under Nataraja’s feet signifies that ignorance is under his feet.
  • The fire in this hand (power of destruction) means he is the destroyer of evil.
  • The raised hand (Abhaya or Pataka mudra) signifies that he is the savior of all life forms.
  • The arc of fire called Thiruvashi or Prabhavati signifies the cosmos and the perpetual motion of the earth.
  • The drum in his hand signifies the origin of life forms.
  • The lotus pedestal signifies Om, the sound of the universe.
  • His right eye, left eye and third eye signify the sun, moon and fire/knowledge, respectively.
  • 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 sreading of his hair and drape signify the force of his dance.

Another notable point of this posture is that it is based on the six point star. Nataraja’s head forms the topmost point of the star, while his spreading hair and right hand form the upper side points. His drape and raised left leg form the lower points, and his right leg that rests on the demon Myalagga forms the lowest point. Surrounding this is the arc of fire.

Religious significance of the temple

Pancha Bhoota Stalam (Sanskrit: पन्च भूत स्थल) refers to the five Shiva temples, each representing the manifestation of the five prime elements of nature – land, water, air, sky, fire. Panchaindicates five, Bhoota means elements and Stala means place. All these temples are located in South India with four of these temples at Tamil Nadu and one at Andra Pradesh. The five elements are believed to be enshrined in the five lingams and each of the lingams representing Shiva in the temple has five different names based on the elements they represent. In the temple, Shiva is said to have manifested himself in the form of sky. The other four manifestations are Prithivi Lingam (representing land) at Ekambareswarar Temple, Appu Lingam (representing Water) atThiruvanaikaval, Agni Lingam (representing fire)[39] at Annamalaiyar Temple and Vayu Lingam (representing air) at Srikalahasti Temple. Aathara Stala indicates the Shiva temples which are considered to be divine impersonification of Tantric chakras associated with human anatomy. Nataraja temple is called the Anthaga stalam associated with Anthagam – the third eye.

Pancha Sabhai refers to the five places where Shiva is said to have displayed his cosmic dance and all these places have stages or ambalams, also known as Sabhai. Apart from Chidambaram which has the Ponna Ambalam – the Golden Hall, the others are the I-Ratthina Ambalam – the Jeweled Hall at Thiruvaalangadu (rathinam – ruby / red jewelled), the Chitra Ambalam – the Painted Hall at Thirukutralam (chitra – painting), the Velli Ambalam – the Silver Hall at Madurai Meenakshi Amman Temple (velli – silver) and the Thaamira Ambalam – the Copper Hall at Nellaiappar TempleTirunelveli (Thaamiram – copper).

Religious work and saints

There is no reference to the temple in Sangam literature of the 1st to 5th centuries and the earliest mention is found in 6th century Tamil literature. The temple and the deity were immortalized in Tamil poetry in the works of Thevaram by three poet saints belonging to the 7th century – Thirugnana SambantharThirunavukkarasar and Sundaramoorthy Nayanar. Thirugnana Sambanthar has composed 2 songs in praise of the temple, Thirunavukkarasar aka Appar 8 Tevarams in praise of Nataraja and Sundarar 1 song in praise of Nataraja. Sundarar commences his Thiruthondar thogai (the sacred list of Lord Siva’s 63 devotees) paying his respects to the priests of the Thillai temple – “To the devotees of the priests at Thillai, I am a devotee”. The works of the first three saints, Thirumurai were stored in palm leaf manuscripts in the temple and were recovered by the Chola King Rajaraja Chola under the guidance of Nambiandarnambi. Manikkavasagar, the 10th century saivite poet has written two works, the first called Tiruvasakam (The sacred utterances) which largely has been sung in Chidambaram and the Thiruchitrambalakkovaiyar (aka Thirukovaiyar), which has been sung entirely in the temple. Manikkavasagar is said to have attained spiritual bliss at Chidambaram. The Chidambaram Mahatmiyam composed during the 12th century provides the subsequent evolution and sanskritization of cults.

The Chidambara Rahasiyam

During the daily rituals, the Chief priest, of the day, himself in a state of Godliness – Shivohambhava (Shiva – the Lord, in His Sandhi form – Shivo-aham– me / us, bhava – state of mind), parts the curtain, indicating the withdrawal of ignorance and reveals the space, and the Lord’s presence.

The Chidambara Rahasya, is hence representative of that time when one, in total surrender, allows God to intervene and remove our ignorance, even as we get to ‘see and experience’ His presence and hence – bliss.

 Temple administration and daily rituals

 Worship Forms

A unique feature of this temple is the bejeweled image of Nataraja as the main deity. It depicts Shiva as the master of KoothuBharata Natyam and is one of the few temples where Shiva is represented by an anthropomorphic murthi rather than the classic, anionic Lingam.

At Chidambaram, the dancer dominates, not the linga as in other Shiva shrines. The Chitsabha houses a small sphatika(crystal) linga (Chandramoulisvara), believed to be a piece that fell from the crescent adorning Shiva’s head and installed by Adi Shankara. The linga is associated with the intangible fifth element, akasha (ether or space), the eternal infinite expanse where the dance of Shiva takes place daily puja is offered to the linga and also to a small gem-carved figure of Ratnasabhapati.

Chidambaram offers a combination of the three apects of Shaiva worship – of the form (Nataraja), of the form and the formlessness (linga) and of the formless omnipresence. The last is suggested by a “Chidambara rahasya”, a chakra inscribed on a wall and blackened by applying “punugu” (civet) and over which hangs a string of golden villa (bael) leaves. This can be viewed through the square chinks when the priest draws aside the dark “curtain of ignorance”.


The temple is managed and administered hereditarily by the Chidambaram Dikshitar – a class of Vaidika Brahmins whom, legends say, were brought here from Mt. Kailas, by Patanjali, specifically for the performance of the daily rituals and maintenance of the Chidambaram temple.


The Dikshithars were supposed to be 3000 (2999 actually, with Shiva totaling 3000) and were called Tillai Muvayiram. Today they number around 360. These Dikshithars follow the Vedic rituals, unlike the Sivachariyars or Adhisaivars who follow the agamic rituals for the worship of Shiva and they sport a specific lopsided-to-the-left half shaved head. The rituals for the temple were collated from the Vedas and set by Patanjali, who is said to have inducted the Dikshithars into the worship of Shiva as Nataraja. Every married male member of the Dikshithar family gets a turn to perform the rituals at the temple and can serve as the chief priest for the day. Married Dikshithars are also entitled a share of the temple’s revenue. Though the temple is said to have been given endowments of almost 5,000 acres (20 km2) of fertile land – having been patronized by various rulers for several centuries, it is managed almost entirely by privately run endowments.

Daily Rituals

The day begins with the chief priest of the day, performing required rituals to purify himself and assume the Shivoham bhava (Shiva-hood), after which he enters the temple to do the daily rituals. The day begins with the Shiva’s footwear (padukas) brought at 7:00am from the palliyarai (bedroom) to the sanctum sanctorum in a palanquin accompanied by devotees with cymbals, chimes and drums. The priest then performs the daily rituals with a yajnaand a ‘Gopujai’ (worship of a cow and her calf). Worship (Puja) is done 6 times in a day. Before each puja, the spadika linga (crystal linga) or the semi form state of Shiva is anointed with ghee, milk, curds, rice, sandal paste and holy ash. This is followed by presenting the naivedhyam or offering of freshly prepared food and sweets to the deity and the diparaadhana, a ritual of showing varied and decoratively set lamps, the reciting of Vedas in Sanskrit and the Panchapuranam (a set of 5 poems from a set of 12 works in Tamil – called the panniru thirumurai). The puja ends with the priest parting the curtains of the sanctum sanctorum to reveal the Chidambara Rahasyam (sanctum).

Before the 2nd puja, apart from the regular anointing of the crystal linga, a ruby Nataraja deity (the Rathinasabhapathy) is also anointed. The 3rd puja is at around 12.00 noon, after which the temple closes until around 4:30pm. The 4th puja is performed at 6.00 PM, the 5th at 8:00pm and the last puja of the day is performed at 10:00 pm, after which the Shiva’s footwear is taken in a procession for Him to ‘retire’ for the night. Before the 5th puja at night, the priest performs special rituals at the Chidambara Rahasya, where he anointed the yantra with aromatic substances and offers naivedyam. The last puja, called the arthajaama puja is performed with special fervor. It is believed that the entire divine force of the universe retires into the deity, when he retires for the night.

Temple Administration

There is a long legal battle between the dikshitars and the Government of Tamil Nadu over administration of the temple. It began with the Government permitting non-Dikshitars to sing Tevaramhymns in the sanctom sanctorum (vimanam) of the Lord, to which the dikshitars objected, claiming exclusive right to worship in the sanctum of Nataraja. The temple is now taken over by Government of Tamil Nadu under Sec 45 of the T.N. HR & CE Act. This has however been challenged by the Podu Dikshitars. The Podhu Dikshitars are a religious denomination as observed by the Madras High Court in 1951. They are entitled to carry on the administration since Article 26 of the Indian Constitution and Section 107 of the T.N.HR & CE Act prohibit government intervention in the administration of Denominations. The case is now currently (April 2010) pending before the Supreme Court of India. Podhu Dikshitars have refused to hand over any charge to the Executive Officer appointed by the HR & CE Commissioner. The Executive Officer has installed hundials (donation boxes) in this ancient temple, against the temple traditions. He also installed modern high mast lamps in this heritage site. He proposes to introduce Archana tickets and Darshan tickets. All these actions have been opposed by the Podhu Dikshitars and the devotees. However, the procedure for rituals are still managed by Dikshitars.


A whole year for men is said to be a single day for the gods. Just as six poojas are performed in a day at the sanctum sanctorum, six anointing ceremonies are performed for the principal deity – Nataraja in a year. They are the Marghazhi Thiruvaadhirai (in December – January ) indicating the first puja, the fourteenth day after the new moon (chaturdasi) of the month of Masi (February – March) indicating the second pooja, the Chittirai Thiruvonam (in April- May), indicating the third pooja or uchikalam, the Uthiram of Aani (June–July) also called the Aani Thirumanjanam indicating the evening or the fourth puja, the chaturdasi of Aavani (August – September) indicating the fifth puja and the chaturdasi of the month of Puratasi (October – November) indicating the sixth pooja or Arthajama. Of these the Marghazhi Thiruvaadhirai (in December – January) and the Aani Thirumanjanam (in June – July ) are the most important. These are conducted as the key festivals with the main deity being brought outside the sanctum sanctorum in a procession that included a temple car procession followed by a long anointing ceremony. Several hundreds of thousands of people flock the temple to see the anointing ceremony and the ritualistic dance of Shiva when he is taken back to the sanctum sanctorum. Siva in his incarnation of Nataraja is believed to have born on full moon day in the constellation of Ardra, the sixth lunar mansion. Siva is bathed only 6 times a year and on the previous night of Ardra, the bath rituals are performed on a grand scale. Pots full of milk, pomegranate juices, coconut water, ghee, oil, sandal paste, curds, holy ashes, and other liquids and solids, considered as sacred offering to the deity are used for the sacred ablution.

There are references in Umapathy Sivam’s Kunchithaangristhavam that the Maasi festival also had the Lord being carried out in procession, however this is not in vogue these days.

Natyanjali is a prominent festival celebrated during February every year when Bharatnatyam dancers from all over the country converge to present dance offering to Nataraja.


Constructed to signify where Tamil Shaivites identify the centre loci of the universe to be, the shrine, dedicated to Shiva, has witnessed several significant events in the history of Tamil Nadu. A powerful legacy of Dravidian art, its structures and sculptures have attracted pilgrims to Chidambaram for over two millennium. The birthplace of Nataraja when Shaivite worship was highly popular during the Sangam period, Chidambaram had gained a reputation for holiness across the continent by the third century CE and the admiration of the Tamilakkam royals of the early CholasChera dynasty and the early Pandyan Kingdom. Built by the early Cholas to one of their family deities – Nataraja-Koothan – it served as the king and queen’s state temple and seat of their monarchs’ coronations. The Chola royals underlined their non-partisan approach to religious iconography and faith by also patronizing the Ranganathaswamy Temple dedicated to Vishnu– their other Kuladheivam or “abode of family deity”. Chola King Kocengannan who reigned in the first half of the 2nd century CE was born after his parents King Subhadevan and Kamaladevi worshipped in the Thillai Golden Hall (Pon Ambalam). He expanded the shrine in his later life and added to unfinished decorations. Saints Patañjali Tirumular and Vyaghrapada famously worshipped Nataraja at the shrine. The travelling Pallava-Chola king Simhavarman (II or III) who reigned in the 5th-6th century CE was cured of leprosy by bathing in the Shivagangai tank and in gratitude made extensive repairs and additions to the temple. He changed his name to Hiranyavarman or “golden bodied.”

The Puranas, Sangam literature and the Tirumurai canon join several epigraphs and murals in highlighting the brilliance of the temple site and the devotion of Patañjali, Vyaghrapada-Pulikaalmunivar and patanjali to Nataraja at Thillai. The sthala puranam as well as umapathi sivacharya’s koyil puranam give an account of how an ancient chola prince of kritayugam or first of epochal ages. worshipped the lord’s feet at chidambaram and being blessed with a vision of his was further helped by saint vyaghrapada to consecrate a place of worship therewith. The temple murals and some cholan and pandyan literature refer to this sthala puranam.

Later during the 4th or 5th century .C.E, a pallava king called simha varman who was also a nayanmar saint by name aiyatikal kaadavarkon made some compositions and bathed in the tank and attained mukthi at tiru-perum-ppatra-puliyur or chidambaram.

At periodical intervals (12 years in general), major repairs and renovation works are carried out, new facilities added and consecrated. Most old temples have also ‘grown’ over periods of time with additional facilities, more outer corridors and new gopurams (pagodas) were added by the rulers who patronized the temple. While this process has helped to keep the temples ‘alive’ as places of worship, from a purely archeological or historical perspective these renovations have unintentionally lead to destruction of the original works – which were not in sync with the latter and usually grander temple plans.

To this general trend, Chidambaram temple is no exception. The origins and developments of the temple are hence largely deduced from allied references in works of literature and poetry, the verbal information passed over generations by the Dikshithar community and from what little, of inscriptions and manuscripts that are available today.

The temple site is very ancient one is known to have been crafted time and again by the ancient craftsmen guild known as perumtaccans. The reference to the same is available in sangam literature as well as other documents. The tevaram trio in particular have held this site to be of great sanctity with some like tirugnanasambandar and sundarar out of devotion being reluctant to set their foot in the place “because it would be an insult to the lord to put one’s foot on his abode”. The sangam works refer to the temple being favoured by all the three ancient crowns of south, the Neriyan (cholas), chezhiyan (pandyas) and uthiyan (cheras), even if the temple was in what was traditionally chola country.


There are several inscriptions available in the temple and referring to the Chidambaram temple in neighbouring areas. Most inscriptions available pertain to the periods of Cholas – Rajaraja Chola I (985-1014 CE), Rajendra Chola I (1012-1044 CE), Kulothunga Chola I (1070-1120 CE), Vikrama Chola (1118-1135 CE), Rajadhiraja Chola II (1163 -1178 CE), Kulothunga Chola III (1178-1218 CE) and Rajaraja Chola III (1216-1256 CE). Pandya inscriptions date from Thribhuvana Chakravarthi Veerapandiyan, Jataavarman Thribhuvana Chakravarthi Sundarapaandiyan (1251-1268 CE) and Maaravarman Thribhuvana Chakravarthi Veerakeralanaagiya Kulashekara Pandiyan (1268-1308 CE). Pallava inscriptions are available for king Avani Aala Pirandhaan Ko-pperum-Singha (1216-1242 CE). Vijayanagara Kings mentioned in inscriptions are Veeraprathaapa Kiruttina Theva Mahaaraayar (1509-1529 CE), Veeraprathaapa Venkata Deva Mahaaraayar, Sri Ranga Theva Mahaaraayar, Atchyutha Deva Mahaaraayar (1529-1542 CE) and Veera Bhooopathiraayar. One of the inscriptions from the descendant of Cheramaan Perumal nayanar, Ramavarma Maharaja has been found.


Unlike several of the temples in North India, which were vandalized by several foreign invaders, the temples of South India had a relatively peaceful existence through the ages. This is often attributed to be a reason for temples to flourish in South India. However, this peaceful history is not without skirmishes. In the year 1312 after a session of prolonged civil war barbarians had broken into the site demanding several favours. This caused several hundreds of serving priests who were at that time stead fast in adhering to legal procedures give up their lives rather than yielding to barbarians. A few of them are known to have left to alappuzha in kerala to hiding and returned only after peace returned. It has been recorded that for more than 80 years in that turbulent century all temples and places were in a state of abandonment. The subsequent age of illicit regimes run by polygars, most of them with suspect credentials and identification in tandem with the unruly deccan kingdoms,like vijayanagar etc. whose existence as well as operations were no doubt completely beyond the pale of a truthful setup created many a serious crisis. Once again between 1458 and 1460 trouble erupted as kapilendra gajapati a local ruler of orissa made inroads with a huge contingent and pillaged and destroyed most temples and sites at Tamil Nadu. He also caused huge loss to life and property. Many incoming barbarians are known to have settled down at the respective places as colonists with usurped lands.There are some historical references to an event when the Dikshithars of the temple faced forced expansion of the Govindaraja Temple by a Vijayanagar Empire‘s Chieftain in 1597 C.E. Several Dikshithars jumped down from the tall Pagoda Towers and ended their lives, preferring death than to see their sacred and much loved temple from being demolished. This has been recorded by Father Pimenta, a travelling jesuit priest.

On many occasions, to escape invasions, Dikshithars are said to have locked up the temple and carried the deities with a lot of protection to Alapuzha in Kerala. They returned soon after the fear of invasion receded.


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