Chidambaram: The town, temple and more

A heritage trip to Tamil Nadu is almost incomplete without visiting the Sabha Nayakar temple in Chidambaram, popularly called the Sri Nataraja temple.
Chidambaram Temple (Photo | EPS)
Chidambaram Temple (Photo | EPS)

A heritage trip to Tamil Nadu is almost incomplete without visiting the Sabha Nayakar temple in Chidambaram, popularly called the Sri Nataraja temple. Here, the most popular form of Siva—Nataraja, the cosmic dancer—is worshipped with special reverence. The chosen city to conduct the crowning ceremony of the imperial Chola kings, the geographic location of Chidambaram—at the entrance of the Chola heartland—made it even more prominent. The temple has undergone massive changes in its form, space, identity and rituals and has several blank spaces in its timeline to be filled. While literary evidence from the sacred Thevaram shows that the city was highly revered and filled with activity, information about the form and shape of the temple then is scarce from these works. In fact, there are hardly any inscriptions before the 11th century that are available today.

After the 10th century CE, the temple witnessed considerable expansion during the time of Kulothunga Chola I. An interesting inscription from his times speaks about a gemstone gifted to him as a souvenir by the then ruler of Cambodia and how the king offered it to the temple, to be fixed on the ceiling of the hall opposite the main shrine. His sisters Kundavai and Madurantaki were also active in temple affairs. The former has donated a bowl made of gold to offer water to the deity and the latter has donated lands to maintain a garden and feed the devotees.

During his 46th regnal year, a certain Kandan Madhavan constructed the shrine to a deity identified as Sonnavaaru Arivar to the northeast of the main shrine and a mandapa to conduct sessions on Siva Puranas.

Of all the Chola kings, the contribution of Kulothunga II (12th century) to the Chidambaram temple stands apart. He raised the four gopuram towers and embellished them with beautiful images of various Gods and Goddesses. Though today the south, west and north gopurams are attributed to Kopperumchinga, Sundara Pandya and Krishna Devaraya respectively, this is likely due to the repair works carried on subsequently. The identical nature of the four gopurams and the presence of the 108 karana poses depicted as bas–reliefs in all of them is a hint to us about their origin.

After the imperial kings, that one name that resonates through the inscriptions of Chidambaram temple is Naraloka Veera Kalingaraya. He served as the army chief under Kulothunga I and Vikrama Chola. The seasoned commander that he was, he brought back immense wealth from several successful expeditions and offered this to the deity. He covered the shrine of Thiru Gnanasambandhar in gold, repaired and gold-plated several parts of the temple. He also offered many bowls, spittoons, plates and lamps made out of gold. Kalingaraya built several mandapams within and outside the temple and broadened the streets around it. The inscriptions say he ensured the streets were well-lit during night and decorated during processions. Kalingaraya takes credit for construction of the shrine of Goddess Sivakamasundari and repairing the Sivagangai tank. The most commendable service of this devotee is getting the sacred Thevaram songs inscribed on copper plates and preserving them in the temple. It is extremely unfortunate that these copper plates are untraceable now.

As for the festivities here, the Ani Thirumanjanam festival celebrated between mid-June and mid-July is referred to in the inscriptions of Rajendra I. Interestingly in the 24th regnal year of the king, Anukki Nakkan Pavai donated lands to meet the expenses of the grand procession, food offerings and feeding a 1,000 devotees during the festival. Her love for the sacred Thevaram texts are evident from her endowment for chanting specific songs during the Masi festival (mid-February-mid-March). A detailed inscription from Vikrama Chola's time speaks about creating a highway after the king's name, Vikrama Cholan Thengu Thiruveedhi, connecting the temple to the east coast. The ruler also planted avenues of coconut trees along the highway for the ease of the palanquin bearers. The deity visited this beach shore on the Makam star of the month of Masi and a ritual bath was performed.

The Chola-era inscriptions thus cover a wide range of topics, starting from simple donations for burning lamps to offerings in gold and precious stones, from construction of mandapas to repairing existing structures, from food offerings to special festivals, and more.

The Chidambaram temple has stood silent testimony to the religious history of Tamil Nadu. With recorded history from the times of the Nayanmar saints, the temple has been the epicentre of Saiva tradition, only next to Tiruvarur. The Islamic invasion of the 14th century was a massive blow to the temple and its devotees, as can be seen from the chronicles of Muslim scholars who were witness to the massacre. Nevertheless, starting from around the 15th century CE, several dynasties helped in the development of the temple. However the contributions of the Cholas shall always stand tall—as tall as their devotion to the God dancing there at the hall of consciousness.

Madhusudhanan Kalaichelvan

Architect and conservationist interested in Indian heritage and culture


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The New Indian Express