Saturday, March 1, 2008


Unique Temple of the Formless Shiva

I have visited Chidambaram several times for three reasons.
· To meander through the Mangrove Forests of Pichavaram to the beach beyond.
· To visit, attend or give lectures at the Annamalai University.
· And to visit the Chidambaram Temple.

Meaning of the word Chidambaram

The word Chidambaram is derived from the two words ‘Chit’ meaning ‘consciousness’ and ‘ambaram’ meaning ‘sky’ (akaas) and signifies the sky of consciousness, which is the ultimate state one should attempt to attain.According to another version, the word Chidambaram is derived from Chitrambalam which is derived from two words ‘Chit’ and ‘ambalam’ meaning Stage for performing arts.

The Deity

Chidambaram Temple is unique because the main deity which is worshipped there is the Akash Linga or the formless form of Lord Shiva. Here, Lord Shiva is worshipped in the form of ether (one of the five forms of matter) which has no form.As you can see on the left side of the photograph, there is no deity at all.The wall is covered with leaves of gold foil strung on strings. (Of course, there are a lot of other deities).

The Chidambaram Temple is also dedicated to Lord Shiva in the form of Nataraja - the Cosmic Dancer.The beautiful image of Nataraja is extremely popular amongst artists.


We do not know much about the past of Chidambaram.But worship in this temple has continued uninterrupted since time immemorial.The Temple was definitely in existence in the 6th century A.D.Successive generations of the Chola, the Pallava and the Vijayanagar kings patronised the temple.

The Chola King Aditya 1 started guilding a portion of the roof of the temple with gold.
But the work was completed by his son.


Long ago, there used to be a Thillai Vanam around Chidambaram. (‘Vanam’ means forest and ‘thillai’ is a species of mangrove trees - botanical name Exocoeria agallocha - which now grows in the Pichavaram mangrove forests nearby.) There are 2nd century A.D. sculptures in the temple depicting the Thillai trees.It appears that the coast was much closer to Chidambaram.
A group of ‘rishis’ (saints) lived in the Thillai forests. They believed in magic and believed that even God could be controlled by rituals and ‘mantras’ or magical words.
Once, Lord Shiva was strolling through the Thillai forests in the form of ‘Pitchandanar’, a nude mendicant asking for alms.He had extraordinary beauty and radiance.He was followed by his consort. The wives of the rishis were enamoured by the handsome mendicant and his consort.
On seeing this, the rishis became angry and sent scores of serpents by performing magical rituals. Lord Shiva lifted the serpents and donned them as ornaments on his matted locks, neck and waist.
The enraged rishis sent a fierce tiger. Lord Shiva skinned it and tied its skin around his waist like a piece of garment. Still more infuriated, the rishis sent a powerful demon ‘Muyalakan’. Lord Shiva stepped on the demon’s back, immobilized him and performed the Ánanda thaandava (the dance of bliss or happiness).Then he discloses his true form. Only then, the rishis realized that Lord Shiva was beyond magic and rituals and surrendered to him.Govindaraja Shrine
The Chidambaram Temple complex also has a shrine of Govindarajaperumal (form of Lord Vishnu) and his consort Pundareegavalli Thaayar (form of Laxmi). It is rare to have shrines of both Shiva and Vishnu in the same temple.
Temple car

The Chidambaram Temple car is one of the most beautiful of temple cars in Tamil Nadu. This car is used to carry the statue of Lord Nataraja around the town twice a year.

The Gopurams

The temple has 9 gateways.Four of these have towering ‘gopurams’ or pagodas each with 7 levels in the East, South, West and North. The eastern gopuram has sculptures depicting all the 108 postures (karnams) of Bharat Natyam - an Indian form of dance.

Reaching there

Chidambaram is 240 km south of Chennai and about an hour’s drive from Pondicherry.There are plenty of trains from Chennai.The road is also very good.
The coast is about 11 kms from Chidambaram.


The temple complex spreading over 40 acres is full of exquisite statues.There is the Shivganga, the traditional tank.Chidambaram is also worshipped as the temple of Nataraj – the Cosmic Dancer.There is an annual dance festival.The top most Indian dancers deem it a privilege and honour to perform here.

Nataraj, the image of the Lord Shiva in the dancing pose has been copied all over the world.

All the major temples in Tamil Nadu are administered by the Government. Chidambaram is the sole exception.The huge temple complex looks like an undefeatable fort and has been used as such.

You can visit the Annamalai University, which pioneered the concept of distance education in India. You can also visit the Pichavaram Mangrove Forests.

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