Chidambaram, 58km south of Puducherry, is so steeped in myth that its history is hard to unravel. As the site of the tandav, the cosmic dance of Shiva as Nataraja, King of the Dance, it’s one of the holiest sites in south India, and a visit to its Sabhanayaka Nataraja Temple affords a fascinating glimpse into ancient Tamil religious practice and belief. The legendary king Hiranyavarman is said to have made a pilgrimage here from Kashmir, seeking to rid himself of leprosy by bathing in the temple’s Shivaganga tank. In thanks for a successful cure, he enlarged the temple. He also brought three thousand brahmins, of the Dikshitar caste, whose descendants, distinguishable by top-knots of hair at the front of their heads, are the ritual specialists of the temple to this day.
Few of the fifty mathas (monasteries) that once stood here remain, but the temple itself is still a hive of activity and hosts numerous festivals. The two most important are ten-day affairs, building up to spectacular finales: on the ninth day of each, temple chariots process through the four Car streets in a car festival, while on the tenth there is an abhishekham, when the principal deities in the Raja Sabha (thousand-pillared hall) are anointed. For exact dates (one is in May/June, the other in Dec/Jan), contact any TTDC tourist office and plan well ahead, as they are very popular. Other local festivals include fire-walking and kavadi folk dance (dancing with decorated wooden frames on the head) at the Thillaiamman Kali (April/May) and Keelatheru Mariamman (July/ Aug) temples respectively.
Chidambaram revolves around the Sabhanayaka Nataraja Temple and the busy market area that surrounds it, along North, East, South and West Car streets. The town also has a large student population, based at Annamalai University to the east, a centre of Tamil studies.
For south India’s Shaivites, the Sabhanayaka Nataraja Temple, where Shiva is enthroned as Lord of the Cosmic Dance (Nataraja), is the holiest of holies. Its huge gopuras, whose lights are used as landmarks by sailors far out to sea in the Bay of Bengal, soar above a 55-acre complex, divided by four concentric walls. The oldest parts now standing were built under the Cholas, who adopted Nataraja as their chosen deity and crowned several kings here. If you have the time the best way to tackle the complex is to work slowly inwards from the third enclosure in clockwise circles.
Frequent ceremonies take place at the innermost sanctum, the most popular being at noon and 6pm, when a fire is lit, great gongs are struck and devotees rush forward to catch a last glimpse of the lingam before the doors are shut. On Friday nights before the temple closes, during a particularly elaborate puja, Nataraja is carried on a palanquin accompanied by music and attendants carrying flaming torches and tridents. At other times, you’ll hear ancient devotional hymns from the Tevaram.
Top image: Chidambaram Temple, Hindu temple, Tamil Nadu state of Southern India © Sompol/Shutterstock