Natalie Savelyeva

Nataraja Temple (Chidambaram)

Town of Chidambaram is located about 160 km south from Chennai, in the South Arcot district. The temple itself is located in the center of the town. Total area of the temple is about 51 (according to [1] 55) acres. There are four prakaras, four gopurams about 135 m high.

Names of Chidambaram temple are as follows: Tillaivanam or Tillai (kind of shrub or tree), Shevaiyur (town of worship), Puliyur (tiger town in Tamizh), Vyagra Agraha or Vyagrapura (tiger town in Sanskrit), Citra Kuta or Chit Ambalam (beautiful hall), Pundarikapura (city of pure white lotus or "the town of the heart of the earth", associated with lotus-heart of Universal man, the Viratpurusa), Perumparapuliyur (city that brings devotee close to Siva and releases from material bondage), Antarahpura (the city in the inside).

The name Chidambaram itself is "cit-ambaram"; cit is synonymous with jnana (knowledge, awareness) and refers to the intellectual/emotional component of a sentient being; ambara means "place", "locus"; it is the hall of supreme awareness, the hall of mystical knowledge.

Structure of the temple

Temple complex is arranged as four concentric enclosures or prakaras and comprises five ancient halls or sabhas (Chitrambalam or Chit-sabha, Ponnabalam or Kanaka-sabha, Perambalam or Deva sabha, Nritta sabha and Raja sabha), sub shrines and Sivaganga tank (existing since the time of Vyagrapada).

Pic. 1 Layout of Chidambaram temple

Pic. 2 Layout of the third prakara of Chidambaram temple

Pic. 3 Major structural elements of Chidambaram temple

The wall of the fourth (outermost) prakara was constructed by Virappa Nayaka in 17th century. It encloses temple gardens and a few shrines.

The third prakara is the highest of the temple walls and marks the ancient boundary of the temple. It comprises four gopurams. Inner facade of the wall is of late Chola period, renovated by Kullotunga Chola I (1070-1118 AD). Inside this prakara there Sivaganga tank, Meenakshisundareshwarar temple, Hundred Pillar hall, Sivakami Amman temple and Thousand Pillar hall.

The second prakara was built before the construction of gopurams, and comprises two entrances (east and west) of Chola period. This prakara is completely roofed. The ancient shrines of this prakara are Nritta sabha, Deva sabha, Mahalakshmi shrine and Mulasthana.

The first (innermost) prakara was built during Kullotunga I and comprises two entrances. The eastern one is called "Kudagu Arai" and belongs to Chola period. Another entrance is in front of Govindaraja shrine. Within this prakara is the Chit-sabha, Kanaka-sabha, Govindaraja shrine.

The main sanctum sanctorum of the temple is Chit-sabha oriented to south. But original sanctum was Mulasthana sannadi facing east, which is the most ancient structure inside the temple.

Chit-sabha and Kanaka-sabha (9 cen AD) with Nandi in front is the earliest phase of the temple complex.

In the middle phase the walls of the first and the second prakaras and Deva sabha (11 cen AD), Nritta sabha (11 cen AD), Sivakami Sundari temple (11 cen AD), Hundred Pillar hall (12 cen AD), Meenakshi Sundareshwarar temple (13 cen AD) and Thousand Pillar hall (or Raja sabha, 12-13 cen AD) were built.

In the later phase four gopurams and Pandaya Nayaka shrine (13 cen AD) were erected.

Chit-sabha contains bronze images of Nataraja, Sivakami Sundari, miniature crystal Lingam, Ratna Sabhapati and an invisible shrine known as Chidambara Rahasya. Chidambara Rahasya represents the Cit (akasha) - consciousness of infinite space (ether) or Jnana Akasha. Three types of Hindu worship namely Rupa (form, Nataraja), Arupa (formless, Rahasya) and Rupa-Arupa (formless from, Lingam) are accommodated in the Chit-sabha.

Kanaka-sabha·s roof is supported with eighteen wooden columns symbolizing 18 Puranas. There are five steps connecting Chit-sabha and Kanaka-sabha covered with silver. Roof of Chit-sabha is supported with 28 wooden pillars. Roofs of both sabhas are made of wood and covered with copper tiles. Tiles of Chit-sabha are covered with gold. Nine golden Kalashas adorn the roof.

Nritta-sabha contains Urdha-tandava Murti shrine facing east and mandapa of late Chola period. It is assumed to be the original sanctuary of the goddess before Siva·s appearance in Tillai. Its plinth is decorates with dancing figures and granite pillars are covered with magnificent and exquisite carvings. The building has a shape of chariot run by horses and assumed to be Edirambalam (opposite hall) according to Chola inscriptions.

Govindaraja shrine is adjacent to Nataraja shrine. This is the shrine of Vishnu in reclining posture. The Pundarikapura Mahatmya mentions the visit of Vishnu to Chidambaram to witness Siva·s delightful dance. This cosmic dance is representation of dynamic power and the divine slumber of Vishnu is the representation of static power.

Mulasthana shrine occupies the major portion of the northern part of the second prakara facing east. It is said that Patanjali and Vyagrapada worshiped a Swayambhu Lingam here. Its Garbha griha belongs to early Chola period, and ardha mandapa and maha mandapa were added later.

Sivakami Sundari temple or Amman shrine comprises frontal Ardhamandapa (7 cen AD) decorated with beautiful frescos. Shrine was constructed by Naralokaviran during the reign of Kullotunga I and Vikrama Chola, and was completed during reign of Kullotunga II. Main deity is Sivakami Sundari facing east.

Hundred Pillar hall or Nootrukal mandapam is adjacent to Sivakami Sundari temple. It was build even before 12 cen AD and in 12 cen AD designated as a place for Siva and Kali to dance.

Deva sabha or Perambalam (great or large hall) is much older then the building surrounding it. The hall is covered with high vaulted roof covered with copper plates. It was used for royal ceremonies and singing hymns of Nayanmars.

Raja sabha or Thousand Pillar hall is the largest structure of the temple. It was built in 12 cen AD and utilized as place of coronations of later Chola kings. Building is in shape of a chariot run by eight elephants.

The oldest is the west gopura was started in 12 cen AD and finished by Jata Varman Sundara Pandya I (1251-1268 AD). East and south gopuras were built by Kooperunjinga (13 cen AD) and north gopura·s basement was built in 13 cen AD and superstructure was finished by Krishnadeva Raya (16 cen AD).

The most striking feature of the gopuras are bas-reliefs depicting 108 Karanas (dance units) of Lord Siva. There are two very important Karanas: Bhujanganchita (24th Karana, second column from right, second raw from up) and Bhajangatrasita (40th Karana, first column from left, second raw from up) on the picture below. Those Karanas are prototypes of famous Nataraja Ananda-tandava posture.

Legends connected with the temple

The "official" collection of temple myths and legends is Chidambaramahatmya rewritten by the priests of the temple between 10-12 cen AD [4]. It consists of three originally independent parts: Vyagrapada legend, Patanjali legend, Hiranyavarman legend.

Vyagrapada myth

Vyagrapada was the son of muni Madhyandina. He went to Tillai forest and found Swayambhu lingam here. He worshiped Lingam and Siva manifested himself in form of Maheswara. Devotee asked tiger claws and feet so he could get flowers for puja untouched by bees. Vyagrapada married sister of Vasishta and begot the son Upamanyu. Once Siva manifested himself as Tandava dancer before Vyagrapada and showed him the place of his eternal dance, the hall in the Space of the Spirit (Chidambaram), also known as Inner City (Antarahpura).

Daruvana myth

Siva and Vishnu went to Daruvana forest as divinely handsome youth and mohini to seduce ascetics and their wives and destroy their arrogance. Rishi were trying to destroy invaders by making sacrificial fire from which tiger, antelope, snake, dwarf emerged. Siva concurred all of them, performed his tandava and granted them supreme knowledge.

Patanjali myth

Adisesha felt ardent desire to see Siva tandava. He got the boon and was born on the Earth. He went to Tillai forest, the lotus-heart of the Earth, and met Vyagrapada. One day 3000 Brahmins arrived. Finally, Siva-Maheswara arrived to Chidambaram and unfolded his dance in presence of Parvati.

Hiranyavarama myth

In ancient days the king Simhavarma (according to [4] he was Kullotunga I, 1070-1118) of North India came to Tillai forest as pilgrim. He was born with the body of lion. He bathed in the tank, his lion body disappeared and his new human body was shining like a sun, as if his skin was covered with gold. Since then he was known as Hiranyavarama or Gold-armored. Then he brought back 3000 munis to Tillai (once upon a time they were sent by Vyagrapada to Antarvedi to attend Brahma·s sacrifice) and rebuilt Chidambaram temple.

Discovery of Tevaram

There was a boy-devotee, Nampi Antar Nampi of Thirunaraiyur. His patron-deity Vinayaka (Pollapillayar) revealed him Maha rahasyam (great secret): Tamil Veda (Tevaram) including hagiography of 63 saints by Sundarar is hidden in a sealed room in Chidambaram, north-west side of Chit-sabha. Along with Chola king Rajaraja Apaya Kulacekara (Kullotunga I, 11 cen AD) he went to Chidambaram and recovered manuscripts under ant-nests.

Origin of Periya puranam

The Chola king Anapaya (Kulottunga II, 12 cen AD) had for his minister in Thiruvarur a man called Sekkiyar who wanted to narrate the glories of Saiva saints. He went to Chidambaram and here in thousand pillar hall composed his Periya puranam.

Kali legend

There is one more legend not mentioned in Chidambaramahatmya, the myth about competition between Siva and Kali. Siva came to Tillai forest to perform his Tandava. This time shrine of Kali was in the center of Tillai. Siva decided to subdue her arrogance. They performed dance competition which Siva won by rising his right leg vertically up (Urdha-tandava). Kali retired out the boundaries of Tillai. It is said that Nritta sabha was built on the place of the old Kali shrine.


  1. The Nataraja Temple. History, Art and Architecture by T. Satyamurti, Classical Publications, New Delhi
  2. Chidambaram by S. Meyyappan, Manivasagar Noolagam, Chennai, 1998
  3. Temples of South India by N.S. Ramasamy, Techno Book House, Chennai, 1984
  4. Ananda-Tandava of Siva-Sadanrittamurti by Kamil V. Zvelebil, Institute of Asian Studies, Chennai, 1998


South gopuram of Chidambaram temple

Eastern gopuram of Chidambaram temple

West gopuram of Chidambaram temple

Bas-relief of Murugan

Karanas of the Eastern Gopuram of Chidambaram temple

Karanas of the Eastern Gopuram of Chidambaram temple

Karanas of the Eastern Gopuram of Chidambaram temple

Karanas of the Eastern Gopuram of Chidambaram temple

Karanas of the Eastern Gopuram of Chidambaram temple




Raja Sabha in shape of Ratha drawn by elephants

Bas-reliefs on the basement of Raja Sabha

Bas-reliefs on the basement of Raja Sabha

Bas-reliefs on the basement of Raja Sabha

Bas-reliefs on the basement of Raja Sabha

Bas-reliefs on the basement of Raja Sabha

Just under feet...

Sivaganga tank of Chidambaram temple

Tevaram inscriptions round Sivaganga tank

Devi Shrine

Devi Shrine

Pillars of Devi Shrine

Pillars of Devi Shrine

Pillars inside Devi Shrine

Cellar paintings of Devi Shrine

Cellar paintings of Devi Shrine