Nataraja Temple at Chidambaram




·         Location Details

·         Introduction

·         Inside Temple

·         Archeological facts

·         History

·         Scriptural references

·         Festivals

Location Details

Temple Name    – Nataraja Temple at Chidambaram

Main deity         – Lord Shiva

Location           – Chidambaram, Tamilnadu, India

The city of Chidambaram is famous for the Nataraja temple other than the Annamalai University and Port Parangipettai. Chidambaram is in the eastern part of Tamilnadu and is an industrial city being the taluk headquarters of Cudallur district. It is on the bank of the branches of River Kaveri.



Chidambaram Nataraja Temple is one of the most celebrated and ancient shrines of Lord Shiva. Lord Shiva or Lord Nataraja is portrayed here in his ‘Ananda Tandava’ pose. ‘Ananda Tandava’ is the ‘Cosmic Dance of Bliss’ which Lord Shiva performs in his cosmic golden hall of consciousness, ‘Chit Sabha’. Thillai, Pulitur, Vyaghra Agrahara, Puliyur, Perumparapuliyur are some of its earlier names. When later the cult of Dancing Siva or Nataraja was introduced, the name Chidambaram was formed from two words Cit Sabha or Dabhra Sabha or Cit ambalam. Ambalam means Hall in Tamil.

The temple is quite recognized for its Akasa Lingam; as a symbol of Shiva, as the formless form of the Chidambara Rahasya. Chidambaram belongs to one of those five sacred temples of Lord Shiva each containing the five separate natural elements. To recall, the five temples along with their respective elements are

Temples Elements
Thiruvanaikaval Jambukeswara, Trichy Water
Nataraja,Chidambaram, Tamilnadu Ether
Kanchi Ekambareswara, Kanchipuram Earth
Thiruvannamalai Arunachaleswara Fire
Kalahasti Natha, Kalahasti Wind

Though the main deity is Lord Siva, Brahma and Vishnu also have shrines in the temple complex. One of the largest temples of India, it has the credit of practicing Vedic traditions and rituals which is very rarely found in other Indian temples. In many temples Agamic tradition of worship is followed. Here, in this temple, the Vedic practice of Yagna or fire sacrifice is done frequently.

The contribution of the temple to Tamil literature and the concept of Shaivism is immeasurable. The Chidambaram temple is a learning centre to know the fundamentals of Shaivism.

Inside Temple

In Chidambaram there is no Lingam made up of stone in the sanctum of the temple, for here Shiva is found in his formless form. One of the chief attractions of this temple is a magnificent bejeweled image of Nataraja. It is an artistic representation of God in the act of Creation, Protection and Destruction.

Based on the Vedic (Hindu) philosophy there are five divine cosmic acts or Pancha Krityas which are as follows –

o   creation,

o   sustenance,

o   dissolution,

o   concealment and

o   Bestowment of grace.

Lord Shiva portrays all the five cosmic acts while performing ‘Ananda Tandava’ or ‘Cosmic Dance of Bliss’. It is said this ‘Ananda Tandava’ is frozen and preserved in metal and held in veneration in Nataraja Sabhas.

The dance of Shiva has been frozen in metal and held in worship in Nataraja Sabhas, in virtually all the Shaivite temples in Tamil Nadu. There are five Sabhas or halls, the Chit sabha, the Kanaka sabha, the Natya sabha, the Raja Sabha and the Deva Sabha. Apart from the main shrines there are separate shrines for Lord Ganesh, Brahma, Vishnu, Sivakami and Lord Muruga. Another shrine is dedicated to the 63 devotees of the Lord called – Arubathu moovar, the Nayanmars.

The image of Lord Shiva dancing is now better known as Sabapathy – Manika Murti and Ratna. The Nataraja idol was found and brought to its current location by Thillai Deekshithars from Antar Vedi. The dancing style, as portrayed by Lord Shiva, is the typical form of Bharathanatyam Dance, the famous Indian classical dance.

The human aspect of ‘Ignorance’ is depicted as a demon lying beneath the idol of Nataraja. The Lord also portrays his power of destructing the evil from this Universe through ‘Fire’ in his hand. His lifted hands says that he is a ‘Savior of Life’; the ring – right behind his back – indicates the ‘Cosmos’; the drum which he holds is the ‘Origin of Life’.

Archeological facts

There are many interesting facts regarding the earlier names of the place. Before the name Chidambaram came into use the place was known as Thillai. The word Thillai literally means woodland full of trees of Thillai species. Again, Thillai also called the ‘blinding tree’ is a species of the mangrove forests which is scientifically named Excoecaria agallocha.

Sthala Vriksha is almost identical in major Tamil temples. However, Nataraja Temple is the only temple that places a tree belonging to mangrove species.

Though in many of the literary works of those days Nataraja was mentioned as ‘Thillai Kuuthan’, importance was not given to those trees later on. Even in Chidambaram, the Bilva trees enjoy more importance than Thillai as the Sthala Viriksha.

We cannot trace accurately whether this cosmic dance of Lord Shiva occurred before Patanjali and Vyaghrapada. However, one of the greatest Yoga scholars, George Feuerstein, believes that Patanjali had lived during the 3rd Century AD. Some of the literary works of those times denote that the temple was there in some rustic form even in the turn of 7th century as a centre of worship. Though the temple existed, many major renovation works were done during Chola period. Records also show that Dutch travelers had donated lavishly for the resurrection work during the 18th century.


As in the case of most of the temples in India, the exact dates and figures denoting the origin of this temple is obscured and uncertain due to lack of genuine records or evidences.

The origins of the temple is still unknown, however – based on its architectural prominence – claims have been made of it belonging to the early Christian era. The original wooden idol is the oldest in the temple vicinity, while Mulasthana Linga was later established by Chola Kings. Though no other Sabha features reveal the actual date of the temple origins, it is said that there is no other similar structure present anywhere. Hence, there is special linkage of the temple with the pre-historic times.

Based on mythological evidence, it can be concluded that the Temple at Chidambaram was built initially by a king named Shveta Varman. After bathing in the sacred pond in the Thillai forest, the king got completely cured of leprosy and also visualized the Cosmic Dance of Shiva; he later founded this temple to pay his obeisance to Lord Nataraja. King Shveta Varman also brought milestone innovations in the temple structure like gilding the roof of Cit Sabha or Cit Ambalam, and initiating the formal worship of Lord Nataraja.

The very first mythological reference of the presence of Nataraja Temple can be traced to the Skanda Purana (in Suta Samhita),2nd Century BC, where the son of Shiva-Parvati, Shanmukha, has been depicted as worshiping his parents in Chidambaram before departing for his battle against Surapadma.

Literary works and historical writings dating back to the 6th century imply the existence of this temple in some rural form. The creator of the Nataraja idol is not known to the world though mythology claims that it was made by Vishwakarma. Though the temple was very popular as a worship place even in 7th century the present constructions like four towers (gopuras) and a Raja Saba were brought by the Chola Kings in the late 12th or 13th Centuries. It is evident that the temple was close to the heart of all Chola Kings because the temple was made with all lavishness be it the Cit Sabha or any other portion of the sanctum sanctorum.

The temple inscriptions attribute its golden roof to Aditya I and Parantaka I, two prominent Chola Kings in the line. The inscriptions also divulge the names of several Chola kings who had made important endowments to their guardian temple, a trend which was later followed by the Pandya and Vijaynagar rulers.

The temple also endured various war atrocities, especially the ones that occurred between the British and the Indians. Later in the 18th century, the temple’s major role became that of a fort especially during the times of British General Sir Eyre Coote, and all this time the idols of Nataraja and Sivakamasundari were safely preserved at Tiruvarur Tyagaraja temple.

The four gateways or gopurams are located at the cardinal points of the second wall enclosure and are the earliest structures of their kinds dated to the 12th-13th centuries.

Archeological evidences suggest that in the mid 18th century Dutch merchants in India also renovated the temple. These merchants were on a trading post in the neighboring Porto Nuovo and as mentioned in the inscriptions they donated their profit share for this sacred purpose.

There are various changes made in the temple structure especially a concrete shade along the pathway extending from the east gopura to the Raja Sabha. But a disappointing fact is that many of the wall carvings and paintings are being hidden or totally spoiled by new addition of cement and brick works. It is high time the Deekshitars who are in charge of the maintenance of the temple prescribe some rules and regulations for the activities undertaken there.

Scriptural references

The temple has great historical and religious value and has very rich legendary stories to back up its origin and existence as a source of universal solace. Mainly there are three legends connected with the origin of this temple.

First one explains the situation that led to the Cosmic Dance. Legend has it that Aadi Sesha, Lord Vishnu’s serpent couch, once heard about Shiva’s ‘Dance of Bliss’ from Vishnu. With an uncontrollable desire to see this divine dance in person at Chidambaram, Aaadi sesha descended to earth as Pathanjali (One who descended). At the same time Vyagrapaada, another ardent devotee of Lord Shiva prayed to acquire the claws of the tiger so that he could fetch himself some Bilva leaves for worshiping Lord Shiva at Chidambaram.

Both of them spent their time in praying and waiting for the celestial moment. At last, at an appointed moment Pathanjali and Vyagrapaada could behold that visual treat in the form of Cosmic Dance played by Lord Shiva and Sivakami with the accompaniment of several heavenly musicians of Hindu mythology. Lord Vishnu himself is said to have witnessed Shiva’s Blissful Dance, the Govindaraja shrine at Nataraja temple commemorates this mythological event. Legend also says that Shiva’s bliss is symbolic to Bhikshatana’s triumph over Dhaaruka Vana’s vanity.

The rift for superiority between men and women was there even in legends and among gods. There is another story elaborating the Dance Duel between Shiva and Kaali. – In the climax of a fierce contest between Lord Shiva and goddess Kaali, the former is said to have played some trick in order to prove his superiority over his beloved consort. When the contest was on the verge of completion, Lord Shiva performed Urdhva Tandava lifting his left foot up in the sky. Now, this typical posture of Urdhva Tandava is a definite gesture performed only by males and Kaali, as per protocol, could not reciprocate this gesture. Thus, Shiva gained his victory while Kaali was delegated the status of primary deity in a temple located at Chidambaram’s outskirts. One of the halls, named Nritta Sabha, has portrayed this legend.

There is a recent story relating to the rediscovery of missing Thevaram hymns at the Nataraja Temple. Thevaram hymns, the sacred works of the Nayanmaars in Tamil, was composed in the 2nd half of the 1st millennium CE. It was later during the reign of Raja Raja Chola, a separate mission to unearth the lost hymns was set out. These works were later unearthed in highly dilapidated state in one of the temple’s chambers.


On a yearly basis, six special types of festivals are celebrated here with great zeal and enthusiasm, paying utmost reverence to Lord Shiva’s Nataraja form. Amongst all six, the first and the fourth pujas are of prime importance. All the festivals are celebrated by bringing the presiding deity outside the sanctum sanctorum and a temple car procession is conducted which is followed by an extended anointing ceremony. The pujas are mentioned as follows –

Serial Festival Timing
1st Puja Marghazhi Thiruvaadhirai December – January
2nd Puja Fourteenth day after the new moon – chaturdasi February – March
3rd Puja Chittirai Thiruvonam April- May
4th Puja Aani Thirumanjanam or Uthiram of Aani June- July
5th Puja Chaturdasi of Aavani August-September
  The chaturdasi of the month of Puratasi October – November