Nataraja Temple (built 9th-12th centuries onward)
The Shri Shiva Nataraja temple, also called Shri Sabhanayaka temple, Chidambaram, India. Notes by Raja Deekshitar
The temple of Shiva Nataraja (Shri Sabhanayaka) of Chidambaram is one of the great temple complexes of South India. Chidambaram is situated some 250 km south of Chennai, about 10 km from the Bay of Bengal. (11�24� North and 79�43� East). The temple is the heart of the town with the complex measuring 18 hectares in total. The temple is a living religious institution, and it is therefore still developing.
The complex has a rectangular shape and is orientated on the cardinal directions. It is structured as five concentric courtyards or prakaras, four of which are accessible to the public, the fifth being only accessible to the priests as it lies within the walls of the main sanctum. The prakaras are separated by approximately 10 meter high granite walls . The two outermost walls have four entrance ways in each of the sides. But whereas the gateways and gopurams of other South Indian temples are orientated aligned into a cross, here the gopurams are placed in an asymmetrical pattern.
The fifth prakara, between the outer (fourth) wall and the third wall of enclosure, is in use for gardens. The four gopurams, pyramidal shaped temple gateways, are situated in the fourth prakara wall. Within this wall we find the main temple as well as the sacred tirtha or water place, and many subsidiary shrines and buildings.
Although the earliest historical references to the temple go back to the 6th century CE, there is now nothing within the complex that can be dated to before the 12th century with any certainty, except for the main sanctum, the Cit Sabha (Hall of Consciousness). This wooden structure on a granite base, covered with a gilded roof, is unique. Very unlike the garbhagriha (womb-house), the square sanctum sanctorum of other Hindu temples. It is rectangular and with a roof that is shaped with an unusual slant. Within the wooden walls lies the first prakara, a U shaped circumambulatory passage constructed of granite. This passage encloses the actual sanctum which houses the Shiva Nataraja Murti, the presiding deity of the temple, as well as several other divinities.
In front of the Cit Sabha we find the Kanaka Sabha (Golden Hall). This is a structure with a granite base, slightly lower than the base of the Cit Sabha, wooden doors and a copper covered wooden roof supported by granite pillars. Here many of the rituals of worship are performed, but at certain times devotees are allowed to have close darshan (viewing of, audience with) of the Nataraja in the sanctum from here. These two sabhas are at the centre of the central courtyard which is enclosed by a cloistered veranda. Around this veranda there are several shrines. A shrine to Govindaraja, the reclining form of Vishnu and one dedicated to Brahma-Chandikeshvara are also situated in this courtyard.
From this courtyard two entrances, on the East and on the South side, lead to the third prakara. Here we find the third sabha of the complex, the Nritta Sabha (Hall of Dance) a shrine in the form of a ratha or chariot; the Deva Sabha (Hall of Deities); a shrine for Mahalaksmi; the Mulasthana shrine, where Shiva is worshipped as Linga; a Kalyana Mandapa used for festivals; and a Yaga Shala where Vedic fire rituals are performed. Long hallways of high pillars capped by granite slabs turn this prakara into a cool shaded space reminiscent of a cathedral. This prakara has gates on the East and the West side to the fourth prakara. Flights of steps connect the two spaces, as the inner courtyards are as much as three meters lower then the surrounding courtyard, which has a pavement on street level.
In the fourth prakara we find the Raja Sabha (Royal Hall), also called 1000 Pillar Hall; a Hundred Pillars Hall; the Mukkuruni Vinayaka temple; the Sivakamasundari (Amman or Goddess) temple; the Pandya Nayaka or Subrahmanya temple; a shrine dedicated to nine Lingas, worshipped by the nine planets or Navagraha; a small Ganesha shrine; and a shrine dedicated to Sundaresvara and Minakshi, the presiding deities of the temple in Madurai.
From the fourth prakara four gopuras or temple gateways lead to the fifth prakara. The wall has a fifth passage next to the East gopuram, which is used for the festival processions.
Of the buildings found in the fourth prakara the Nava Linga shrine and the Mukkuruni Vinayaka shrine are ancient shrines but have undergone renovation in the later 19th century and no longer represent ancient architecture. The pillared passages of the third prakara also belong to this period of building, as does the cloister around the central courtyard. The Mulasthana shrine possibly belongs to the same period, or to the 18th century.
The Sivakamasundari temple, the Raja Sabha, the 100 Pillars Hall and the cloister and steps surrounding the Shivaganga tirtha (sacred water place) are generally attributed to the time of the later Cholas, (late 11th to 12th century CE) on the basis of epigraphical evidence. This agrees in general with the architecture as we can see it today. The small (1 pillar mandapam) Ganesha temple by the side of the 100 Pillars Hall also was build around this time.
The Nritta Sabha is also a building from the later Cholas. The kings of this period build many of this kind of ratha (chariot) shaped halls. The Deva Sabha is known to have been covered by a copper roof in the same period, but its architecture has not been analysed. Both shrines existed in some form before this time, as is known from tradition and historical sources.
The Govindaraja shrine in its present form was (re)estabished under the kings of Vijayanagara.
Three of the four towers or gopurams recieved their present form during the last phase of the Chola empire in the 13th century. The North gopuram was either build or renovated by Krishnadevaraya, a king of Vijayanagara, in the 16th century. The gopurams have a rectangular granite base, with granite representations of various deities in the niches. While the seven tapering upper storeys are made of bricks and decorated with lime-work. The eastern gopuram maintains the original abstract structure of embedded miniature shrines while the other three have representations of deities and mythological scenes.
Although the Nataraja temple of Chidambaram is one of the most intensively studied and described temples of South India, much of its history remains undiscovered.
For further information and additional photos, please see the following page by Raja Deekshitar, the author:
Redrawn and adapted by Timothy M. Ciccone following plan in Chistopher Tadgell's The History of Architecture in India. See full credit below.
|A) Inner enclosure with primary shrine||D) Thousand Pillar Hall||G) Ganesha shrine|
|B) Second Enclosure||E) Tank|
|C) Third enclosure with Gopurams||F) Amman shrine|
The approximate location of the temple is 11.399328' N, 79.693448' E (WGS 84 map datum).
All images and text � 2007, Raja Deekshitar
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Published by the Author, 1997. Chidambaram
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Hoekveld-Meijer, G. Koyils in the Colamandalam. Typology and Development of Early Cola Temples. An art-historical study based on geographical principles.
Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam, 1981. Amsterdam
Nataraja, B. Tillai and Nataraja.
Mudgala Trust, 1994. Madras
Tadgell, Christopher. The History of Architecture in India.
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Younger, Paul The Home of the Dancing Sivan. The Traditions of the Hindu Temple in Citamparam.
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