Chidambaram, the temple of space, part one



By Sharon St Joan


The young priest, the son of the head priest, spoke in Tamil for three hours straight, while leading us through the temple. Night had fallen, and there were only the flickering lights and votive fires of the temple to light the way. Very charming, he spoke with great enthusiasm and immense sincerity, pointing out the various features of the temple, their history, and their meaning. It was rather amusing that he never paused to allow time for a translation, saying only, in Tamil, “You can translate it later,” as if anyone could remember three hours of commentary.


Even without understanding the words, one could almost grasp the meaning anyway. The sense of mystery and devotion, which was the essence of the atmosphere of the temple, did not require translation.


Long stone passageways led from one sanctuary to another. There were five main sanctuaries, each dedicated to a particular deity. As well as the primary shrine of Shiva, there are also shrines to his consort, Shivakami Amman, to Ganesha, to Murugan, and to Vishnu.


Outside, in one of the large open stone corridors, the young priest had us stand in a particular spot, by a pillar, the only place in the temple where one could view at the same time all of the gopurams, the gates, of the temple – north, south, east, and west.


At the end of our tour, on a stage, a group of musicians were playing for an audience gathered below. Central Tamil Nadu is the heartland of the beautiful tradition of carnatic music. The musicians would play all night. In December, further north in Madras, every year a six-week festival of carnatic music is held, one of the world’s greatest musical festivals, where in many venues all over the city there are concerts, often several a day. People come from all over the world to attend this season of music.


The Chidambaram temple has always been run by a community of Shaivaite Brahmins, who also serve as the priests, called Dikshitar.


The primary deity of the temple is Shiva, and this is the only temple in India where the primary representation of Shiva is Nataraja, the Lord of Dance. The image of Shiva dancing is an iconic symbol that brings India to mind and is recognizable all over the world. Shiva’s dance is mystical, cosmic, and has two forms – one, the ananda tandiva, is gentle and is a dance of the affirmation of life.


The other is the final dance that brings the destruction of the universe, when Shiva, cognizant that the world has descended into evil, performs the powerful dance that ends all existence, so that after the end, a new universe may arise, purified of evil. This is a cyclic recurrence.


Shiva is the creator, the preserver, and the destroyer of the Cosmos. The cycles recur, unendingly, over and over – while, on another level, there remains always the ultimate world-ground of the universe, Brahman, who is eternal, beyond existence and non-existence, who encompasses all, both form and formlessness, both change and changelessness.


There are secret mysteries in Chidambaram; they are spoken of as secrets, and they are not revealed, so we do not know what they may be.



One of five Shiva temples that represent the abodes of the five elements, Chidambaram represents ether, space (akasha) or the sky. The others represent air or wind; fire; water; and earth. Four of the five are in Tamil Nadu; one is in Andhra Pradesh.




At Kalahasti, in Andhra Pradesh, Kalahasti Nathar is the temple of wind, or air. At the sacred mountain of Arunachala is the temple of fire. At Trichy, Thiruvanaikaval Jambukeswara is the temple of water. At Kanchipuram, Ekambareshwar is the temple of earth or land.


Remarkably, three of these temples, Kalahasti, Kanchipuram, and Chidambaram were built along a straight line at exactly 79 degrees, 41 minutes east longitude. How this architectural feat was established by ancient people is a mystery.


The Chidambaram temple is noted for its gold plated roof over the sanctum santorum, the kanakasabha.


Underneath the gold-roofed sanctuary one may visit the three forms of Shiva – the “form” – or Nataraja, which is the dancing Shiva in human form, the “semi-form” – the crystal lingam, a representation of Shiva, and the third, the “formless” – it is said that this view of formless space may confer enlightenment on the worshipper.


Called the chitsabhai, at this site of “formlessness,” there is a curtain behind hanging strands of gold leaves. When the curtain is drawn back by a priest, one can peer in to catch a glimpse. What one sees within is nothing. There is nothing there. And this nothing, beyond all levels of existence, is the essence of Eternity, the Ultimate Reality. This is the element of ether or space, or Shiva present as the sky.


As an aside, it is interesting that though modern science no longer believes in ether, it once did – up until the twentieth century.


To be continued… To read part two, click here.


Top photo: Sharon St. Joan / Chennai Museum / Nataraja


Second photo: Wikimedia Commons / “This file is in the public domain because it was created by NASA and ESA.” / NGC 4414, a typical spiral galaxy in the constellation Coma Berenices.


Third photo: Raghavendran / Wikimedia Commons / “I, the copyright holder of this work, release this work into the public domain. This applies worldwide.” / The west tower of the Thillai Nataraja Temple.


© Sharon St Joan, 2015

The big temple of Tanjore

Part of the Brihadeswarer Temple

The Brihadeswara Temple in Thanjore in southern India was built exactly one thousand years ago, and a dance was held in the fall of 2010 to commemorate the event.  In early February of 2011, the vimana, the tallest part of the temple, was being cleaned, and so was covered in scaffolding, which did not seem to detract in any way from the beauty and power of the temple.

Built by the king Raja Raja, of the late Chola period, the temple, in downtown Tanjore, is surrounded by a moat and by an outer wall.  The vimana is one of the tallest in the world.  Part way up the vimana is a sculptural rendition of the sacred mountain, Mount Meru.

The temple belongs to Shiva, who is shown in many forms.  The extraordinarily beautiful painting and sculpture of Tanjore, unequaled throughout the world, are visible everywhere.  A line of Nandis—Nandi is the sacred bull—are walking along one of the outer walls.  Facing the tall vimana is the largest Nandi in the world—of black granite—looking both absolutely magnificent, and at the same time playful and innocent.  He has a really lovely face.  A person entering the temple always honors Nandi first, as a way of asking his permission and approval to go into the temple and worship the God Shiva.

Nandi, the great bull

The temple is filled with smaller Nandis too, of all sizes—as well as many, many variations of the form of Shiva.  All things Indian have extraordinary levels of complexity, weaving together layer upon layer of reality, each more beautiful or magical than the last, at least that’s how it seems to many, myself included.

One can go up a very steep, narrow stairway to enter a small shrine where there is sitting Dakshinamurthy, who is the Lord of the South, meaning Shiva of the South.  Dakshinamurthy is Shiva the Teacher, who has an extraordinary presence of great peace and kindness.

Stairs lead up to the shrine of Dakshinamurthy

A larger shrine to one side of the main buildings is dedicated to a female form of Vishnu in his incarnation as Varahi, that is the boar.  Vishnu came to earth as the boar, and also as the female form of the boar.  Not all the gods lend themselves to written descriptions.  If one wishes to get to know them, one can only do that with time and reverence.

There are sculptures of animals everywhere:  There is  Bhairava, the form of Shiva who is always shown with a dog.  In fact, Bhairava is the name of both Shiva and his dog. The peacock who accompanies Murugan, known by many names, is one of the sons of Shiva.  Shiva is married to Parvati, and their eldest son is Ganesha, who has the head of an elephant.  Ganesha is much-loved throughout India, and is normally invoked in prayer before praying to any other deity, the reason being that he is the remover of all obstacles, just like the elephant who walks through the forest, brushing aside anything that may be in the way, and in that way creating a pathway for the other forest animals to follow.

Visitors entering the Brihadeswarer Temple

There are large sculptures of doorkeepers too.  One enters the temple complex through a very beautiful Gopurum, which is the gateway.  Gopuram means city of the cow.

In one of the buildings there is a collection of gigantic Tanjore paintings—now no longer viewable because it has been hard to preserve them over the centuries, so they are kept out of sight now to protect them from further deterioration.  Copies of them are on display in a hall and are genuinely amazing.  One can see at first glance how Tanjore painting gained its place among the foremost art of the world.  Every detail is captivating, in a way that defies description.  They are paintings of extraordinary scenes of myth and magic, which spring to life as one is looking at them. More on these paintings later….

The Brihadeswarer Vimana

The vimana, the main temple tower, the largest and tallest in India when it was built in 1010, is 66 meters (216 feet) high—or maybe only 61 meters, depending on who one asks. The stone at the top is believed to weigh 80 tons, so there is considerable speculation as to how it was placed there, one of the leading theories being that a long ramp was used to haul the stone. Mount Meru, appearing part way up the vimana, is believed to mark the symbolic and also the real center of the earth.

One of the most amazing architectural sites in India, the Brihadeswara Temple is a living temple, filled with worshippers.  The towers and buildings, covered with sculptures are all of granite.

Photos: Sharon St Joan