SACRED CHIDAMBARAM , where Shiva is believed to have performed his cosmic dance, the tandava nrilya, is a traditional temple town where history merges with mythology to create a deeply religious ambience. All ancient Hindu beliefs and practices are zealously observed here, manifested in an endless cycle of rites and rituals.The focal point of the town is the awe-inspiring Nataraja Temple, built by the Cholas  in the 9th century to honour their patron deity, Shiva as Nataraja, the “Lord of Dance. The temple has an unusual hut-like sanctum with a gold-plated roof, the huge, colonnaded Shivaganga Tank, and four colourful gopuras. The most interesting is the eastern gopura which features detailed sculptures of the 108 hand and feet movements of Bharat Natyam  and is considered a veritable encyclopaedia of this classical temple dance.

Within the temple’s three enormous enclosures are five major halls (sabers ). each conceived for a special purpose. In the outer enclosure, next to the Shivaganga Tank, is the Raja Sabha (“Royal Hall”), a beautiful thousand-pillared hall, built as a venue for temple rituals and festivals. Many Chola kings were crowned here in the presence of the deity. In the central enclosure is the Deva Sabha (“Divine Hall”), where the temple bronzes are housed, and administrative functions performed. The adjacent Nritya Sabha (“Dance Hall”) has a superb collection of sculptures, the finest being the Urdhava Tandava. The innermost enclosure, the holiest part of the complex, contains the Chit Sabha or Chitambalam (“Hall of Bliss”), from which the town derives its name. This is the main sanctum, housing one of the five elemental lingas of Shiva the akasha linga, which represents ether, the all-pervading element central to human existence. The inner sanctum containing the linga is hidden behind a black curtain, symbolizing ignorance, which is removed only during prayer time. There is a certain aura of mystery to this veiled sanctum and it is often called the Sacred Secret of Chidambaram (Chidambara Rahasyam). Finally, the fifth hall, in front of the Chit Sabha, is the Kanaka Sabha (“Golden Hall”), where Shiva is supposed to have performed his cosmic dance.

Other areas of interest in the complex are the Govinda. rajaswamy Shrine, housing  the reclining Vishnu, the Shivakainasundari Shrine, dedicated to Shiva’s consort, Parvati, and the Supra- Natyam Shrine, in which Murugan is worshipped. Religious traditions in the temple are preserved by a group of hereditary priests whose ancestors came to Chidambaram 3,000 years ago. Known as the dikshilars, they are easily recognized by their top-knots. Chidambaram’s other claim to fame is the modern Annamalal University, which is located to the east. Founded by a philanthropist over 50 years ago, it is Tamil Nadu’s first residential university, specializing in South Indian studies.

ENVIRONS: Located 16 km ( 10 miles) east of Chitambalam , Pichavaram’s maze of picturesque backwaters, with mangrove forests and 1,700 islands in 4,000 canals, can be explored in rowboats.

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