By Swami Harshananda
Cidambaram literally means ‘ether of consciousness’. One of the most famous places of pilgrimage in South India which draws thousands of votaries even from Śri Lanka is Cidambaram (Chidambaram). It is also called ‘Tillai’ in Tamil. It is about 230 kms. (150 miles) to the south-west of Madras city and is situated in the south Arcot district of Tamil Nadu. It is one of the ‘pañca-liṅgas’ (emblems of Śiva representing the five elements) and houses the ‘ākāśaliṅga’ (‘emblem of the ether principle’). The original murti of the famous Natarāja made of gold is kept in the ‘Kanaka Sabhā’ (‘golden hall’). Kanak Sabhā is one of the five spacious halls in the temple complex. The hall itself gets its name due to the fact of its roof being covered with golden plates (kanaka = gold).
Holy Significance of Cidambaram
Every pilgrimage of around 2000 years old have a ‘sthalapurāṇa,’ a local legend. It explains the significance of the place and its holy associations. As per the local legend of Cidambaram, this is the place where Śiva defeated Bhadrakālī in a dance contest and blessed his devotees the sages Patañjali (incarnation of the serpent deity Ādiśeṣa) and Vyāghrapada.
Significance of Naṭarāja Temple
Sprawling over an area of 13 hectares (32 acres), the Naṭarāja temple complex stands on an alluvial plain between two rivers. It is built entirely of dressed granite. In spite of that no granite has been found within a radius of about 77 kms. (50 miles). It is surrounded by nine meter (30 ft.) high boundary walls. There are several gopurams or gateways. Gateway facing the east and rising in nine tiers is the most beautiful of all. It is exquisitely decorated with friezes depicting scenes from mythology. Two gopurams are attached to the inner wall of the main temple. It exhibit 108 poses of dance taught in the nāṭyaśāstra or the science of dance. There are several subsidiary temples in the complex dedicated to:
- Śivakāmī (Pārvatī, the consort of Siva)
- Govindarāja (Viṣṇu)
- Puṇḍarīkavallī (Lakṣmī)
The murti of Gaṇeśa here is said to be the largest in size in India. There is also the main temple tank called ‘Sivagaṅgā’ measuring 45 m. x 30 m. (150’ by 100’) with steps all round. The thousand pillared hall near this tank is associated with Sekkizhar (11th cent. A. D.). Sekkizhar is said to have composed his monumental work Periapurānam (‘the Great purāna’ containing the biographies of Śaivite saints of Tamil Nadu).
On the background wall to the right of the Naṭarāja, there is a yantra (geometrical symbol of the deity) adorned with golden necklaces. This is the place of the ‘ākāśaliṅga’. It is also known as ‘cidambara-rahasya,’ the ‘secret’ of Cidambaram. It is kept covered by a screen which is pushed aside twice a day for facilitating the devotees to view it.
Though built in stages by several kings, the architectural harmony has been maintained and it is of the Cola style. In fact, the deity was the family God of the Cola dynasty. These kings were:
- Kulottuṅga II (A.D. 1135-1150)
- Sundara Pāṇḍya II (c. 1250)
- Krṣṇa-devarāya (A.D. 1509-1529)
Festivals of Cidambaram Temple
The biggest festival at the Cidambaram temple is ‘Tiruvādirai’ which falls during December-January. Since it is a Śiva temple, Mahaśivaratri is celebrated in a grand manner.
- The Concise Encyclopedia of Hinduism, Swami Harshananda, Ram Krishna Math, Bangalore