The Shiva temple of Chidambaram is just a few miles away from the famous town of Pondicherry. It doesn’t matter if you are a believer or an atheist, you must visit this temple to witness its grand ‘Abhishekas’ and the interesting mythological stories. The temple represents the element of space (Aakash/ sky) among the five-element temples, “Panchmahabhoota Sthalams”. The secret of Chidambaram Temple is another interesting fact to know about Hinduism which is famous for its idol worships. Above all, the logic and the myth behind each of the architectures will leave you completely awestruck.
Chidambaram Temple History and Architecture
Grand Thillai Natraja Koothan Kovil Temple
The temple is spread over 40 acres in the heart of Chidambaram. Its name suggests the main deity of the temple, the dancing form of Lord Shiva. The construction of the temple was supported by many southern dynasties like Cholas, Pallavas, Nayakas, Pandyas, and Vijayanagar Kings. The temple has huge colorful main entrances in its four directions (North, South, East, West) with the eastern gate being the main entrance of the temple. There are a total of 9 gateways to the temple.
Each of its entrance has a mesmerizing architecture to welcome you. The East Gate has the small temples of the two sons of Shiva, Ganesha, and Muruga (Karthikeya). The gate is carved with the portraits of Brahma, Vishnu, Ganesha, and other Rishis. It is famous for its complete presentation of the 108 postures of the classical dance form Bharatnatyam, carved on the inner walls of the gateway.
Once you enter from the East Gate, you would find the grand thousand pillar hall on your right side. The hall is said to have 999 pillars and the 1000th pillar is formed by one of the dance poses of Shiva when he lifts his left leg to show his performing skills. It was built by the Pallavas marked by their symbol on the ceiling of the gate.
At the Southern entrance a huge monolith of Nandi, the favorite bull of Lord Shiva welcomes you to this shrine of his Lord. On the left-hand side of the entrance, there is an old temple with a 7 ft tall idol of Ganesha. The entrance was built by the Pandyas who have left their symbol of two fishes on its roof.
The West Gate has a hundred pillar hall on its left which is closed for the visitors owing to its dilapidated construction. It also shows the goddess fighting with the buffalo depicting a legend.
The Northern entrance leads to the temple of Shivagami, the female consort of Natraja and the form of Shakti. Right in front of this temple is a broken pillar that marks a significant place in the temple from where you can see all the four entrances of the temples.
The Pushkarni or the Shivaganga Tank (the holy tank in the temple) is located in between the Shivagami Temple and the hall of thousand pillars.
The main temple
The canopy to the main entrance is painted with the legends of the deity and the temple. The pathway to the main sanctum has the lanes guarded by the lion pillars, the symbol of the Pallava kings. The entrance will first lead you to the inner temple complex comprising of the number of temples. The distinctive feature of the temple is the main deity of Shiva facing the south direction symbolic of ‘Mukti’ or death as per Hindu belief, which is also meant to signify the Lord Shiva as the ‘Destroyer’ whereas the sleeping idol of Vishnu faces the east, signifying his image of the ‘Protector’. The shrine of the ‘Creator’, Lord Brahma faces towards the north direction.
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Decoding The Shrine of Shiva and Human Body
The shrine is truly an architectural marvel in which each part signifies the parts of the human body. The shrine itself is located in the central position, symbolic of a heart. The Mandap is gold plated with small plates carved with the auspicious mantra of “Shivay Namah” on each of them. Following is the significance of each part of the shrine:
- The five steps signify the five elements as well as the five indestructible syllables of the mantra “ si va ya Na mah”
- The Main roof is supported by four pillars symbolic of 4 Vedas.
- The roof is held by 64 beams representing 64 forms of art.
- Several cross beams represent innumerable blood vessels.
- The main roof is decorated with 21,600 gold plates representing the total breath counts in a day.
- The 72,000 golden nails used to fix the gold tiles represent the nadis in the human body.
- The 9 sacred pots at the top of the roof represent 9 energies.
- The sanctum or the artha mandap has 6 pillars denoting 6 shashtras (holy texts).
Worshiping the Great Lord
Lord Shiva is worshiped in three forms in the main shrine.
- The form of Shiva as a Cosmic Dancer performing the “Anand Tandav” or the dance of bliss. There is a small idol of Natraj made of ruby which is worshipped in the Mahapuja conducted at 10:30 every day. It is also called the Ratna-Sabha, as the Ruby idol glows when the flame is put exactly behind the idol.
- The semi-form of Shiva i.e. the crystal Linga is worshiped 6 times in a day. The Abhishek is done with water, milk, curd, honey, flowers, and ashes.
Note: In order to witness these Abhishekas, you should be standing on the extreme left side of the temple.
- The third form is the “ Secret of Chidambaram” or the “Chidambara Rahasya” in which God is worshipped in not any particular form. God is worshipped as being formless. It is left to the imagination of the devotees as in whichever form they want to worship the Lord who is the whole universe/space/sky. This imaginary space is decorated with the garland of Shiva’s favorite golden bilva Patra. (Bilva leaves). Such a form of worship is never found anywhere in Hinduism. And thus, Chidambaram Temple attracts the people and makes them wonder about the limitless beliefs of Hinduism and especially of Lord Shiva who is nothing and everything. During the mahapujas, the pandit unveils the black curtain that represents ignorance and reveals the brightness (wisdom). Thus, the act signifies that the worship of God leads you from ignorance to the bliss of wisdom.
Note: In order to witness the worship of this form, you should be standing on the front-right side of the temple and see through the holed window in the inner sanctum.
The Legend of The Chidambaram Temple
As per the story, Shiva was roaming around as a yogi/Bhikshuk (a saint asking for alms) in the mangrove forest of Pichavaram near Chidambaram along with Mohini, an incarnation of Vishnu. Amazed by this act of God, the saints in the forests invoked the snakes using mantras and tantra. The snakes were used by Shiva as ornaments on his hair, around the waist and the hands. Saint Vyaghrapada (the one with the feet of a tiger) invoked a tiger whose skin was used by the lord as his attire. The elephant that was full of ignorance and arrogance was crushed by the Lord under His feet and symbolized his victory over ignorance. He held fire and damru in two of His four hands and a crescent moon adorned his head. This was how the lord of dance of born.
The Cosmic Dance – Anand Tandava
The dance of bliss was said to have been performed by Natraj and Goddess Shivagami(Mohini) at the thousand pillar hall in Chidambaram, as witnessed by the saints Patanjali (the snake of Vishnu in its saintly form as Patanjali) and Saint Vyaghrapada. There was a kind of a dance competition between the Lord and the female consort Shivagami. When Shiva felt that Shivagami was winning the competition as could beat him in every skillful dance movement, He dropped one of his earrings and picked it up with his feet and worn it by lifting it 180 degrees up to his ears. The female consort could not follow the same in an effort of preserving her modesty. And thus, Shiva won the competition and his one leg on the ground formed the 1000th pillar of the hall. The carving of this story can be seen carved atop the roof of the corridor in front of the east gate.
The Shivaganga Tank
Located beside the thousand pillar hall, the tank is completely accessible to the devotees. The legend says that the tank was not properly built initially. It just had a pot full of water brought from the river Ganga and mixed with the great quantity of water, milk, honey, and flowers that were drained out of the temple after each ‘Abhisheka’. When one of the ruling kings suffered from an incurable skin disease, he was advised to take a bath in this holy tank and the king was magically cured after taking a bath in this holy tank. Charmed by this miracle, he decided to build a proper tank for the use of the devotees. Till the date, the water, milk, honey, and flowers after each abhisheka is drained into this tank and thus it is believed to have retained its magical powers of curing a person’s skin disease.
The Shivagami Temple
This shrine is dedicated to the Shivagami Amman(Goddess) who is the consort of Natraja (Lord Shiva). The walls and the ceiling of the temple have different paintings just as found in Ajanta Caves. On the left side of the temple’s entrance, there is a small temple dedicated to Chitragupta, the assistance of the Lord of Death (Yamaraj). It is believed that the one who prays Chitragupta here and asks for forgiveness, he would be liberal in punishing the person for his karmas. (I found this story quite childish but interesting, after all, what goes in just asking for forgiveness whether he really forgives or not 😉 )
The corridor leading to the main shrine has carved pillars on its every side depicting the 10 incarnations (Dashavtar) of Lord Vishnu. One of the left side pillars will have a lamp at its bottom that is kept to worship the mythological animal called ‘yali’. It is a three in one animal. It has a part of a lion, a horse, and an elephant.
- It is advisable to hire a guide who would just charge 150-200 bucks.
- The tamarind rice (Puliyogare) in the temple is super delicious and should not be missed.
- The lunch should not be tried anywhere but in a hotel named Krishna Vilas that serves scrumptious south Indian dishes. (800 meters from East Gate)
- The auto-rickshaw charge till Railway Station from the east gate is 60 INR.
- The auto-rickshaw charge till Railway Station from Krishna Vilas is 50-60 INR.
- Any bus from the main road outside the east gate will go till the bus- stand in just 5 INR.
- Sharing auto-rickshaws to the railway station are available from the bus-stand in just 5 INR.
- Ask the local people about the rickshaw fair to avoid ending up paying more to the autos.
- Only Hindus are allowed in the main shrine.
- 100 INR token has to be taken in order to move up to the main shrine of Shiva for any kind of rituals.
- The token will be given by the pandit sitting on the right corner of the temple.
- Cameras are not allowed inside the main temples. However, you can carry the camera in your bag.
Chidambaram Temple Dress Code
- Normal clothes covering your legs and upper body should be worn while visiting the Chidambaram Temple. As such there is no dress code for the temple, however, dressing modestly is advisable. Sleeveless attires are accepted but avoid short pants.
- Do not cover your head with a cap, dupatta, sari or any other cloth. This is against the belief.
How to reach
- By rail: Frequent trains run from Chennai, Coimbatore, Thanjavur, Madurai, and Tiruchirapalli.
- By Road: Regular buses ply from Bangalore, Chennai, Pondicherry, Cuddalore, Madurai, Thanjavur and other major towns of Tamilnadu.
- By Air: The nearest airport is in Pondicherry, from where Chidambaram can be reached in 1 hr. 45 minutes.
Tip: The best way is to travel from Pondicherry to Chidambaram by bus and get down at the temple stop from where the temple is just a few steps away. This will save your auto-rickshaw expense of reaching to the temple.
Enjoy your visit to this amazing ancient creation and do not forget to enjoy the boat ride in the forest of Pichavaram. You can also opt to head to Thanjavur which is just a few miles away from Chidambaram.
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