Chidambaram, Tamil Nadu
The Sabhanayaka Nataraja Temple is one of the most religiously important in the the South of India. According to legend, it was here that the Lord Shiva descended to Earth in primordial times and first performed the Cosmic Dance. Because of this it draws a particularly large number of Hindus specifically on pilgimrage (whereas most other temples in Southern India are simply popular tourist destinations). It is also a popular pilgrimage destination for devotees of Vishnu.
According to legend, Chidambaram was the site of one of the most important events in early Hindu history. As the story goes, the Lord Shiva was once traveling in disguise through the area with his consort as well as an entourage that included the deity Vishnu. When passing through the town of Chidambaram, the local women became enthralled by him, thereby enraging the local men.
A cadre of wise men and sorcerers decided to deal with Shiva, and made several assaults upon him. First they sent snakes, then a tiger, then an elephant, all of which he dispatched with ease. Finally they sent a demon to destroy him, but Shiva seized the demon and trampled upon him. This was actually the first known performance of the Cosmic Dance for which Shiva was later renowned.
The local leaders came to realize that the being they were assaulting was none other than Shiva and finally they gave up. They later constructed an early temple on the site commemorating the event. This seems to have coincided with the period just before the rise of the Chola Dynasty. By the early Middle Ages, Chidambaram was part of the Chola Empire.
Sometime around the 5th century, the Chola king Simhavaram came to the temple and bathed in its pool, curing him of leprosy. Since this event, the Cholas were major patrons of the temple, and periodically expanded or upgraded it. Its great golden age came to an end in the 14th century when Chidambaram was sacked several times by Muslim invaders. The temple was a much sought-after prize during the colonial wars of the 18th century. Since independence, the Sabhanayaka Nataraja Temple has been restored and is once again one of Southern India’s most popular pilgrimage destinations.
The Sabhanayaka Nataraja Temple is one of the most extensive and labyrinthine Hindu shrine in Southern India. Four massive gates crowned with pyramid towers permit entrance at the cardinal direction points. Not quite as tall as similar gates that can be found throughout Tamil Nadu, these are nevertheless very impressive. They are exquisitely painted, with the work being refreshed every fifty years. Inside the temple grounds are a number of major shrines, as well as the ancient pool where Simhavaram’s leprosy was cured.
Among the temples inner structures is the amazing Hall of a Thousand Pillars (one of which is actually the leg of a statue of Shiva). There is also the Hall of the Gods, where several smaller shrines can be found. The Hall of Dance is also located here where, according to tradition, Shiva danced the Cosmic Dance. The innermost temple room has shrines to both Shiva and Vishnu, and is one of the only major temples in India to do so.
The Sabhanayaka Nataraja Temple is located in a huge, walled-in rectangular compound that dominates the city center of Chidambaram, approximately 1100 miles south of New Delhi. It is open daily from 6:00am-10:00pm (closed noon-4:00pm). There is no cost of admission. Not all areas may be open to non-Hindus. Web: www.chidambaramnataraja.org (official website).
The Sabhanayaka Naaraja Temple thoroughly dominates the city, and there are no other truly major temples in the immediate vicinity.