By Sharon St Joan
To read part one first, click here.
In the nineteenth century, the theory of ether was popular as a way to describe the medium through which light travels. In the early years of the twentieth century, scientists assumed that ether did exist, but later that theory was discarded. It was displaced by Einstein’s theory of relativity, which gave a different explanation of how light travels.
However, more recently, scientists and mathematicians have found that something was missing to make mathematical equations of the universe consistent with reality. There was some energy not being accounted for. University of Chicago cosmologist Michael Turner coined the term “dark energy” in 1998 to describe this unknown factor.
Modern science seems occasionally to hit upon an ancient truth. What is “dark energy”? No one knows, but it is essential to the mathematical equations that show how the universe works, so it has to be there, though no one has the tiniest clue what it is. Perhaps it is the “nothing” that is really “something” that underlies the structure of the universe. It appears that “nothing” does produces effects and that it may be a “force,” reminiscent of the “force” in Star Wars.
Perhaps in the vastness of space, where we imagine there is a vacuum, there lies instead a foundational reality, invisible and indefinable, a “nothing” that is not truly “nothing.” Perhaps that is the “ether” worshipped in the ancient temple at Chidambaram.
Possibly all this has nothing at all to do with the ether at Chidambaram, or perhaps it does. Science deals with physical reality, and any reality that is not physical lies outside the realms of science.
At the limits of the physical world, science comes to a boundary beyond which it cannot see. It is said that 70% of the existent universe is made up of “dark energy,” and that’s a big percentage. It is this “dark energy” that is thought to cause the accelerating expansion of the universe, driving or pulling the physical universe to its end. One is reminded of the cosmic dance of Shiva that brings the end of time, and in the grand recurring cycle of time, reality, and the universe — the end follows the beginning and a new beginning follows the end.
The place name Chidambaram may be derived from “chit” meaning consciousness and from “ambaram” meaning sky or cloth. It may mean “sky of consciousness.”
Since the mangrove (thillai) forest, now several kilometers away, used to come right up to the gates of the temple, the Chidambaram temple is known as the Thillai Nataraja Temple; it covers over fifty acres.
Hundreds of carvings of Bharathanatyam dance postures, the classical dance of Tamil Nadu, are carved in bas-relief on the stone walls of the east gopuram, or gate; in honor of the dance of Shiva.
The earliest reference to the very ancient Chidambaram temple is found in Tamil literature in the sixth century CE. However, the temple is believed to be very much older than this. No one knows how old. The earliest still standing construction dates back to the Chola period around the 900’s CE. It was added onto in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, and much was rebuilt after Moslem armies swept through south India between 1311 and 1325 CE.
As they did everywhere, especially in the north and the west of India, these invading armies arrived in a whirlwind and left a trail of destruction behind them, defacing the icons of the Gods, tumbling over statues, pillars, and walls, sometimes leaving only rubble behind.
Their incursions into Tamil Nadu marked the farthest extent of the Moslem reach, unlike the less fortunate areas farther north and west where they remained an occupying presence, often usurping the remains of destroyed Hindu temples and turning them into mosques. Many of those temples have remained mosques until this day, and have never been returned.
Even at Chidambaram, the invaders stayed too long. A garrison for troops was set up within the temple during the course of the Carnatic wars. The walls were strengthened then and later reinforced again in 1740 during the war between the British and the Moslem general, Hyder Ali.
Stone ruins at Chidambaram still tower in the darkness, at the ends of corridors and just beyond the walls, looming as silent witnesses to this destruction that took place centuries past.
Still, the Thillai Nataraja Temple is a place of eternity, of the most profound serenity, beyond the warring conflicts of this world, where Nataraja dances always, untouched by the upheavals of time, his majestic, cosmic dance that leaves far behind all earthly realms.
Top photo: Raghavendran / Wikimedia Commons / “I, the copyright holder of this work, release this work into the public domain.” / A view of the north gopuram of Nataraja temple.
Second photo: BishkekRocks / Wikimedia Commons / “This file is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported, 2.5 Generic, 2.0 Generic and 1.0 Generic license.” / Sivaganga Temple Tank.
Third photo: Sharon St Joan / The mangrove forest, Pichavaram, now a few miles north of Chidambaram.
© Sharon St Joan, 2015