Thillai Nataraja Temple

The name Chidambaram means “Sky of consciousness” for “Chit” means consciousness and “Ambaram” means Sky. As per the Vedas and the scriptures, the true purpose of a living being is to attain this sky of consciousness. Here at the Thillai Nataraja Temple, Lord Shiva as Nataraja [lord of dance] is at that state of supreme bliss or Ananta [immense joy] and is dancing the true cosmic dance of life, the Ananta Natanam.

The Thillai Nataraja Temple at Chidambaram is situated at Chidambaram town, East Central, Chennai. It is one of the Pancha-Bhoota-Stalams in India. Its represents the 5 Shiva temples in India, each dedicated to 5 basic elements of life which includes Air, Sky, Water, Fire and Earth. This temple represents Lords Shiva worshipped in the form of Aakasham or Sky [Aether].

  • The Ekambareswarar temple at Kanchipuram [Earth]
  • The Jambukeswarar temple at Thiruvanaikaval, in Tiruchirappalli [Water]
  • The Annamalaiyar temple at Tiruvannamalai [Fire]
  • The Kalahasti temple at Srikalahasthi [Air/Wind]

The legend behind this temple proves that Lord Shiva is beyond space and time, as he controls the creation, destruction and recreation by means of his cosmic dance. The story starts with a group of sages who lived in the Thillai Forests of Chidambaram. They believed that magic can overpower God and mantras and rituals can control God. Shiva in order to teach them a lesson wandered along the forests in the form of a beggar seeking alms with Vishnu taking the form of Mohini following Shiva as his wife. The wives of rishis were captivated by the elegance and charm of the handsome mendicant and the young rishis fell for the immense beauty of Mohini. The older rishis who got annoyed by this started a Homam [sacrificial fire] to raise fearsome and powerful creatures from the fire. At first they sent a tiger towards Shiva, he holds it with his hand and nails it and made it lifeless. He wore the tiger skin as his vastra [cloth]. Not moved by this act, the rishis sent a poisonous serpent which Shiva got hold and ornamented his neck with it, and then a demon “Mulayakan” was sent. Shiva placed his feet on Mulayakan’s head and broke his spine which made him motionless under the lord’s feet. Shiva started dancing on the demon when the rishis sent the sacrificial fire itself on Shiva which he placed on his left hand. Having lost the fire, the rishis sent the vedic mantras as their last astra [weapon]. Shiva wore it on his ankles. The rishis then accepted their defeat and Shiva revealed his true identity and started the divine cosmic dance Urdhva Tandava before them and the world vibrated and all the beings were immersed in deep trance emerging from the feet of Shiv. Vishnu who witnessed this dance of life explained it to Adishesha, the serpent on which Lord Vishnu reclines.

After seeking permission from Lord Vishnu Adishesha visited Lord Shiva and presented his desire to witness the divine dance. Lord Shiva asked him to visit Vyagrapuram where he promised to dance one day. Adishesha was then born on Earth as Pathanjali. He approached Vyaghrapadar and told him of his life purpose. Vyaghrapadar who was delighted to hear this as he was so devoted to Shiva and himself desired to watch the cosmic dance accompanied Pathanjali and visited the temple and started seeking the honor of witnessing the performance by praying to the Lord himself. Thus the waiting ended on a special day of the Poosam star during the Tamil month of Thai when all the celestial musicians, devas, sages, all gathered at the temple when Lord Shiva appeared beating drums and showering blessings.

Goddess Kali who was the protector of the Thillai Vanam [Forest] refused Shiva to perform his dance. Shiva challenged Kali to dance along with him and put forward a condition that the loser shall be banished from the place. Kali accepted and both the supreme powers started dancing to the rhythm of life matching each other’s every step until at a certain point Lord Shiva performed the Urdhva Tandava raising his leg over his head. Seeing the breathtaking posture of Lord Nataraja, Kali Devi [Goddess] accepted defeat and moved to the Northern end of the temple and stayed there. A shrine dedicated to Kali Devi is present at the same Northern end of the Thillai Nataraja Temple. Vyaghrapadar and Patanjali requested Shiva to stay at Chidambaram as the Lord Nataraja so that all the earthly beings could have the opportunity to witness the cosmic dance of life that is the basis of the whole world and seek blessing from the Supreme God of Gods.

Now as we move to the architecture of this huge temple, it is a medley of architectural contributions by the Pallavas, Cholas, Pandyas, Vijayanagara and the Chera Rulers. The Thillai Nataraja Temple at Chidambaram is the oldest example of Cholan architectural style. It houses many great features that are found in other temples which had been built after this temple. For example: the Thousand Pillared Hall and the Shiva Ganga water tank which are the prime temple features of its kind. The temple has 9 gateways symbolizing the 9 orifices in human body. Of these 9 gateways 4 are has Gopurams or temple towers each facing the 4 cardinal directions North, East, South and West. There is a Lord Govindaraja Perumal Temple close to the Nataraja Shrine, which is named as one of the 108 Divya Desams. Also, there is the Thillai Kali Temple close to the Nataraja shrine.

In the gold roofed sanctum sanctorum of the temple, the lord is worshipped in three forms:

  • Nataraja, the form
  • Crystal Linga, the semi form
  • Empty space, the formless

Major Festivals

There are six Maha Abhishekam celebrated throughout the year, which is dedicated to Lord Nataraja. It starts with Marghazhi Thiruvathirai in December – January, then chaturdashi of the month of Masi (February – March), followed by Chithirai Thiruvonam in April- May, the Uthiram of Aani (June – July)also known as Aani Thirumanjanam, the chaturdashi of Aavani in August – September and the final 6th ceremony, the chaturdashi of the month of Puratasi (October – November). Another famous event is Natyanjali which is celebrated during February month when many Bharata Natyam Performers all over the state visit the temple and perform Bharata Natyam as an offering to the Lord of Natyam [Dance] himself, Lord Nataraja.

How to Reach?

By Air:

The nearest airport is Trichy International Airport. After getting down at the airport grab a taxi to Chidambaram. Likely a 3 hour drive will take you to Chidambaram which is 160 kms.

By Rail:

You can catch frequent trains from any part of the country which moves via Chidambaram.

By Bus:

You can catch bus to Chidambaram from any part of Tamil Nadu.