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By Padma Mohan Kumar

 Chidambaram is a bustling little town about 250 kilometers south of Chennai and is connected to the metro both by rail and road. Bus routes link it to various other places in Tamil Nadu. Though it may not find a prominent place in the tourist’s itinerary, Chidambaram can boast of quite a few heritage sites. The most important must-see here is the Nataraja Temple.

The Nataraja Temple of Chidambaram
Chidambaram is synonymous with the famous Nataraja Temple built by the Chola rulers. It is one of the most ancient and revered temples of Tamil Nadu. Its origin dates right back to the Chola era (AD 907 to 1310). It is dedicated to Lord Shiva who is depicted here as the cosmic dancer.
Located in the center of the town, this temple covers an area of 40 acres. As one approaches the structure one is awestruck by the majestic gopurams (towers) rearing into the sky. These four lofty towers are situated in the four directions around the temple and are about 250 feet high. Each consists of seven tiers and is covered with richly carved images from Hindu mythology. Each gopuram is embellished with carved images of the presiding deity Lord Shiva in his various manifestations. But he is represented as the cosmic dancer only in the innermost shrine.

These towers were built during various eras in history spanning the period 1118-1517. As one approaches from the eastern side one can see extensive repairs being carried out on this tower. Right at the temple entrance itself one is overwhelmed by the grandeur of it all. Intricately carved figures in various Bharatnatyam poses gaze down at the visitor as he enters the temple complex. The sight of women devotees drawing colourful patterns on the floor also greets one at the doorway.

Massive, carved wooden doors lead to several halls known as sabhas. The high granite pillars and the roomy interiors all give an impression of size and space. The Nataraja, that is Shiva in his manifestation as the cosmic dancer is enshrined in the sanctum known as the Chit Sabha. It is the holiest shrine in the complex. It is a wooden structure supported by wooden pillars. The Chit Sabha houses a ruby image of Shiva as well as a crystal lingam. Five silver-plated steps lead to this hall. They are known as the five steps of the Panchakshara or the five syllables of the mantra ’namasivaya’. Images of elephants have been carved on both sides of these steps. It was on these steps that the Chola kings used to be anointed.

To the right of Nataraja is another sanctum, with no idol. This sanctum, which has only an empty space, is known as the Chidambara Rahasyam. It is considered as a formless manifestation of Shiva. Shiva is worshipped here as a representation of space, which according to ancient Indian belief, is one of the five essential elements of the universe. The temple is known for its Akasa Lingam, which represents this aspect of Shiva. It is believed that there is an invisible phallus here. Normally a curtain is placed in front of the sanctum. During the time of worship this curtain is lifted and lamps are offered, thereby turning this space into a blaze of light.
The Kanaka Sabha or the Golden Hall, which faces the Chit Sabha, also rests on an elevated platform. The Chola ruler, Parantaka, who ruled during the years 907 to 953, provided the golden roof of this shrine. It is here that devotees gather to get a glimpse of the deity.

The Deva Sabha houses five deities. It is said that the roof of this hall was originally made of copper but later on it was covered with gold. The most unique looking hall is the Nritya Sabha or the dance hall. It is shaped in the form of a chariot drawn by horses, with fine pillars supporting the ceiling. There is an interesting legend associated with this hall. Once there was a dance competition between lord Shiva and Kali. Both these divinities were supreme in this art. However during the course of the contest, Shiva lifted his left foot towards the sky in a posture known as the Urdhuva Tandava. It was a typically male gesture and feminine modesty prevented his opponent from doing the same; hence she had to accept defeat. Legend has it that she was thus delegated to the status of a primary deity of the Thillai Kaliamman temple on the outskirts of Chidambaram. The carvings in the Nritta Sabha represent this story.

Near the northern tower is the grand Sivakami Amman temple. The ceiling of this shrine is adorned by traditional paintings made of vegetable dye. Friezes depicting dancers, drummers and musicians embellish the surrounding walls of this temple. Just outside the shrine is the Sivaganga tank. If one were to stand at a certain point near this tank one can view simultaneously all the four gopurams of the temple complex.

Another unique structure is the thousand-pillared hall, which is designed in the form of a chariot. Two statues of elephants guard the entrance while in the basement there is a frieze depicting dancing figures. The image of Nataraja is brought here during the annual festivals. The coronation of the Chola kings used to be conducted in this hall. In present times youngsters learning music and dance give their maiden performances in this hall. Live dance performances have been introduced to the temple recently, in the form of annual dance festivals.
In one of the corridors in the temple one can see thick ropes lying coiled up. In the olden days these were used to drag the temple chariots during the festivals. The intricately carved chariots outside the temple premises were dedicated to the deities Siva, Parvati and their son Ganesh.

There are legends galore surrounding this temple. Famous among them is the story of Nandanar a low-caste devotee of Lord Siva. Owing to his humble origins he was forbidden to enter the temple town of Chidambaram. Hence he used to worship outside a small Siva shrine on the outskirts of Chidambaram.
One night he dreamt that the Lord asked him to go to Chidambaram and enter the temple to pay his obeisance. But Nandanar was prevented by the officials from entering the temple. They said that Nandanar should walk through fire to see the Lord and that would cleanse him too. They lit a huge fire in the temple grounds. Nandanar walked right through it and went straight towards the deity, merging with the divine form. He thus attained salvation.

During the 18th century the temple came under the domination of Hyder Ali the ruler of Mysore. It was used as a fort during the Anglo-Mysore wars of this period. The British General, Sir Eyre Coote tried to capture it from the Mysore ruler but his efforts failed. During this period, the images of Nataraja were housed in another temple for safety.

Another source of attraction for the tourist is the little market outside the Nataraja Temple. This place is lined with rows of shops crammed with intricately carved brass idols and other items of artistic value as well as earthenware lamps fashioned into the daintiest shapes. It is difficult to walk away from here without making at least a few purchases. The lamps are priced at Rs.6 a pair while the brassware items come within the range of Rs.100.

Other Temples

Chidambaram and its surroundings bear testimony to the rich architectural heritage of the Chola rulers. The Siva temple at Gangakondaicholapuram, which is about 50 kilometers away from Chidambaram, is another fine masterpiece. The mighty Chola ruler Rajendra 1(985-1014) had established his capital here. The massive Siva temple is replete with rich carvings. A large statue of the bull Nandi, the mount of the deity adorns the front of the temple. Two gigantic statues of dwarapalakas (doorkeepers) guard the entrance. Gangakondaicholapuram is now no more than a little village but the temple is a still remaining testimony to the past glory of the Chola Empire.

No less remarkable is the Vaishnava temple Srimushnam situated about 31 kilometers away. The Nayak family who ruled here in the 17th century built this temple. The front hall or mandapam, which is shaped like a chariot, is richly embellished with carved figures of warriors mounted on horses and elephants. The pillars in the center of the hall bear the carved portraits of the members of the Nayak family.

Historical sites
The area also boasts of sites whose origins go back to hoary antiquity. Arikamedu, which is about 75 kilometres away, was the earliest Indo-Roman trading center on the eastern coast. This fact was substantiated by the discovery of Roman coins and wine jars at the site. Other evidence bears testimony to the fact that it was a Buddhist center during the Sangam period (300 B.C. to 300 A.D.).
Poompuhar, which is now hardly more than a remote town about 40 kilometres away, was once at the height of its glory during the reign of the early Cholas in the 2nd century AD. It was a port town in those days. It was also called as Kaveripoompattinam and was known to the ancient Greeks. It was however submerged in the sea sometime in the 2nd century AD and all that remained of it was a village. Excavations at the site have yielded the remains of a number of buildings and statues.

Natural Sites
The areas surrounding Chidambaram abound in scenic beauty. Pichavaram, which is about 16 kilometers away, is a nature-lover’s delight. This area, which is spread over 2800 acres, consists of a number of thickly wooded islands dotting the sea. The visitor to Pichavaram forest not only enjoys a backwater cruise but can also feast his eyes on rare species of flora and fauna. Various species of birds such as water snipes, cormorants, egrets, storks, spoonbills and pelicans frequent this place making it a paradise for bird lovers.

What to buy
Bhuvanagiri, which is about a 15 minutes’ drive away is a sari lover’s dream come true. On reaching Bhuvanagiri, one is greeted by the sight of rows of shops on both sides of the roads. These stores are stocked with piles of gleaming silks. This market does brisk business during the festival season. However one can expect royal treatment if one were to visit the place during other times. November is a wonderful time to visit this place. The roads are almost empty and the shopkeepers compete with each other in attracting the visitor towards their shops. Apart from the lovely Conjeevarams, that Tamil Nadu is famous for, Bhuvanagiri has a surprise in store. This is the ‘art silk’ sari. These saris, which look like expensive Conjeevarams, come at a surprisingly affordable range between Rs.250 to Rs.700. These ‘art silk’ saris definitely solve the female problem of stocking the wardrobe adequately without burning a large hole in the pocket.

It is however advisable to be prepared to bargain. If one is adept at this skill one can pick up a good buy at a reasonable price. Moreover, awareness of the local language definitely helps. Bhuvanagiri is also a sari-weaving center. It is due to the labour of the weavers that the shops are well stocked with these masterpieces while the prices are kept at a reasonable level. There is also a co-operative store, which sells only pure silks. Many residents from near by towns come to this co-operative store to buy their wedding saris. These saris come in rich colours, and the prices start from Rs.2000 onwards.

As in almost all southern towns one can enjoy sumptuous meals without making an appreciable dent in the purse. Think Tamil Nadu, and Dosa is one of the first delicacies that come to the mind. In this respect, the temple town does not disappoint the visitor. From the simple plain dosa priced at Rs. 10, the cost can go up to Rs. 50 for the more exotic variations. The other delicacies like upma vada, pongal idli sambar, tiffin meals can match the taste and price range of other south Indian cities as well. The best accompaniment to all these treats is the filter coffee, which is a must have.

No less tempting are the bakeries, which sell sponge and butter cakes that literally melt in the mouth. They are so fluffy and soft, that before one realizes it, one would have finished a plate full of these treats. Of course, one does need a brave heart before stepping on the weighing scales a week later.

Another unique and impressive aspect of Chidambaram is the relative freedom, which women and girls enjoy. It is not uncommon to see heavily bejeweled women walking through the streets even late at night, unharmed. Despite its being a small town, one can see any number of jean-clad girls cycling to their destinations without being harassed by ogling roadside Romeos.

As said before, Chidambaram may not rank among India’s most exotic tourist destinations but a visit to this place would leave one with warm memories, not unlike the nostalgia, which one would have for home.