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Chidambaram

Chidambaram

“Did the Dikshitars show you the Chidambara Rahasiyam? Did they explain the various symbolisms?” asked my mother anxiously, when I phoned her after our return from our trip. Knowing that I am not the religious sort, nor a customary temple goer, she wanted to be assured that I had found my trip to the Chidambaram temple to be an intellectually and spiritually rewarding experience.

When my son and I traveled to Chidambaram as a part of touching base with our roots, we had been aware of a few things.  Like most persons informed about south Indian classical dance, we knew that when you think dance, you think  Siva-Nataraja (the Lord of Dance).   And when you think Nataraja, you think Chidambaram.   Further, that Chidambaram  is perhaps the only temple in the world where Siva is given anthropomorphic form (whereas nearly everywhere else he is worshipped in the symbolic form of the lingam). We had also recently been charmed by the contemporary aesthetic appeal of the Thevarams – hymns to Siva composed at the Chidambaram temple by the ancient Tamil poets, the Nayanmars -, through the music of Susheela Raman, the Tamil singer with a Western musical sensibility, who makes traditional south Indian classical music sound cool.

However, our trip to Chidambaram had made us aware of symbolic dimensions to the temple’s architecture and iconography that went beyond the celebration of the arts, and I was able to assure my mother that our host and guide around the temple, Venkatesa Dikshitar, had given us an excellent commentary on the various symbolisms and thereby deepened our understanding of Chidambaram.

As we entered the temple, Venkatesa Dikshitar asked us to observe how we were moving steadily down (and not up) towards the presiding deity. He also drew our attention to the wide tier of broadly-spaced short steps covering this downward incline, down which we walked on our journey, from the outer open-to-the-sky prakara and through a series of prakaras, to the inner sanctum which, alone, rises above the ground into a podium-like canopy.

He explained that the gentle incline all the way down to the heart of the temple, and beyond to the Sivaganga temple tank, is an ancient water harvesting feature, with a network of concealed channels throughout the prakaras that direct rain water falling onto the outer courtyard and outer-most open prakara, to the Sivaganga tank at the other end (temple tanks are an accessory of every south Indian temple). To this day, these channels are kept clean and unclogged. As a result of this regular recharge, the Sivaganga tank doubles up as a reservoir for the temple, ensuring that the temple has never faced water shortages, either for its poojas or its maintenance. The gentle, easy-to-navigate steps, in turn, are designed to facilitate access for both toddlers and the aged and disabled.  We were amazed by the very contemporary and progressive environmental and social orientation of these two ancient architectural features.

The prakaras in a typical south Indian temple are the wide, hall-like corridors, designed in squares, that serially enclose the inner sanctum. And the worshipper must traverse these prakaras in order to reach the inner sanctum. We learnt that the Chidambaram temple has five successive prakaras, that symbolically correspond to the five kosas (sheaths) of human existence: the material body, the breath, thoughts, the intellect and, finally, bliss (which is the symbolised by the inner sanctum). The journey through the successive prakaras to the inner sanctum – from the gross to the subtle – is designed to heighten  the worshipper’s state of awareness of the nature of her/his spiritual journey.

Gold canopied sanctum

The inner sanctum itself, housing the icon of Nataraja, has a golden canopy consisting of 26,000 gold leaves, that symbolically correspond to the total number of daily breaths taken by an average human body. The leaves are held in place over the wooden base of the ceiling by 72,000 gold screws; these correspond to the total number of nadis (energy channels) in the human body. And so on… the architecture is replete with such symbolism.

Siva Nataraja (at the CERN, Geneva)

In the inner sanctum at Chidambaram, Siva is Nataraja – the perfectly-proportioned and sensuously beautiful Lord of Dance, arrestingly poised in the most iconic stance ever, the Ananda Tandava or ‘Cosmic Dance of Bliss’. To his left is his consort Sivakami (“Beloved of Siva”). Uniquely, in this anthropomorphic form, Siva symbolises the unceasing rhythm of the cosmos (the drum in one hand); the throbbing dialectic of destruction and regeneration (the ball of fire in another hand); and the supreme goal of all sentient life, which is to rise above ignorance and arrogance in the quest for the larger picture, namely, enlightenment ( symbolized by the demon of ignorance crushed under one foot, with the other foot rising above it all). The position of the two front hands indicate both benediction and the protection from fear.

Siva in Chidambaram (chit = consciousness/wisdom, ambaram = space/universe) is also symbolic of the ‘universe of consciousness’  that is inherent in every one of us, but of which we remain unaware, i.e., our inseparability from everything that constitutes the universe. The iconography of Nataraja, set within the circle of fire, is seen by one school of particle physicists – notably led by the American new age scientist Fritjof Capra – to be uniquely representational of the dynamic nature of the universe as interconnected, moving, vibrating and dancing;  suggesting continuities between developments in quantum physics and the spiritual insights offered by ancient Eastern wisdoms. To quote from Capra,  “The Wave Structure of Matter Explains the Atomic Structure of Matter. The ‘Particle’ as the Wave-Center of a Spherical Standing Wave in Space explains the cosmic dance of Nataraja…Modern physics has shown that the rhythm of creation and destruction is not only manifest in the turn of the seasons and in the birth and death of all living creatures, but is also the very essence of inorganic matter,” and that, “For the modern physicists, then, Shiva’s dance is the dance of subatomic matter.” (Fritjof Capra, The Tao of Physics, 1975).

In addition to being the archetypal temple (the name Chidambaram itself is co-terminus with the Tamil word ‘kovil ‘ which means a place of worship), Chidambaram is thus also the road to freedom from conventional forms of worship.  In Chidambaram, Siva-Nataraja is uniquely worshipped in his “essence” –  what has been known for centuries as the “Chidambara Rahasiyam”. This rahasiyam (essence/secret/mystery) is the understanding of Siva as formless space (ether). To the right of the Nataraja icon hangs a curtain. When performing the pooja (worship), the officiating Dikshitar draws back this curtain to reveal an empty space. All one can see are vertical strands of golden Bilva leaves, garlanding a ‘nothingness’.  Holding up the traditional offering of lamps to the garland, the Dikshitar exhorts the devotees to gaze and contemplate on this ‘nothingness’; he explains that the Bilva leaf, associated with Siva, is symbolic of the veil of false consciousness that comes in the way of our realizing the essence of God, namely that God is One and Formless.

Chidambaram is reputedly one of the only Hindu temples that counts Muslims among its devotees, as the Chidambara Rahasyam is consonant with what Islam teaches its own followers about the nature of the “true God”.

The uniqueness of Siva-Nataraja at Chidambaram goes further.  Nataraja relates to his devotees not by evoking authority, fear, or craven supplication, but by transporting devotees to a state of love and ecstasy. My earliest sense of Nataraja as love, came from listening to my mother speak of her experience of growing up with the legend of Nataraja. Born in Chidambaram into a family that had a centuries-old tradition as major patrons of the temple,  my mother had been brought up on stories of the divine acts of grace believed to have taken place in the temple, bestowed on those who lost themselves in their ecstatic love for Siva. Persons of her generation also grew up learning to sing the beautiful Tamil poetry – Thevaram – created by the Nayanmar poets in the Chidambaram temple in praise of Siva, hymns that even to this day are regularly sung in the temple. My mother often described to me what it felt to be part of congregations of devotees who would go into states of ecstasy in their complete identification with their dancing Lord, to the accompaniment of the Thevaram songs and the powerful temple bells. My mother is given to colourful hyperbole, which makes her a charming and entertaining raconteur. But I know from experience that at the core of each of her embellished descriptions lie honestly held truths. When she prayed aloud at bed-time, I never heard her ask anything of Nataraja, she never made any demands… All she communicated with him was happiness and love, and in turn felt blessed with a sense of fulfillment.

After my mother, the person in whom I sensed this was Umanatha Dikshitar, priest/custodian of the temple, whom we met during our recent visit to Chidambaram….He spoke to us about the temple and its history. He also spoke about his own life and personal growth, all of it inextricably linked with Nataraja’s grace…. his face softening and melting, his eyes taking on a faraway look of tenderness when speaking of life under the protective shelter of Nataraja…

When we left Chidambaram, it was with the feeling of having stepped briefly into a tiny cosmos that had once been the ‘centre of the universe’ (another meaning of the name ‘Chidambaram’),  but is now balanced at the edge of relevance within a changed world…a magnificent temple with its distinctive symbolisms, of which the most unique is a dynamic vision of the world as interconnected by love and absence of fear;   a tiny community of custodians struggling to preserve an ancient and endangered tradition of worship and temple governance;   a celebration of the arts as the core of the spiritual quest…

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Two weekends ago, I visited the ancient town of Chidambaram (Tamil Nadu) with its over 1500 year old temple. It was my first visit since I was five years old.   I had for long wanted to touch base with my roots – my mother’s family hails from there – and now, gratifyingly, I was not only back but also had my young son with me as travel partner.

The drive down from Chennai was exciting in more ways than one. We were discovering the Tamil Nadu countryside. The luminous-green of never-ending paddy fields, set off by the more brooding shades of fecund coconut and date palm fronds. Continuous habitations, with tiny temples in neatly-swept compounds demarcating the end of one village and the beginning of the next; even the tiniest temple sporting an elaborate gopuram (tower), decorated with brightly painted figures of humans, animals and gods. The sacredness – and unpredictability – of agricultural activity, commemorated by little brick shelters in the midst of fields housing protective deities. And, every now and again, close to the road, life-size painted clay figures of white horses (symbolic of the god Ayanaar, protector of village communities), white cows, and brown muscular moustachioed men brandishing fearsome broad-bladed swords – thanksgiving offerings to the gods.

As we sped past unpronounceably named villages and towns, and flowing backwaters dotted with little islands and fishing boats flying colourful flags, I tried to communicate something of my childhood memories of Chidambaram to my son. For as long as I can remember, I have ‘felt’ Chidambaram in my life, in a tactile sort of way. My mother ‘brought’ Chidambaram with her to her married home.  She always celebrated all the annual Nataraja festivals, each with specially cooked delicious food-offerings associated with it. Our living room always had a  panchaloha (blend of five metals) icon of Nataraja in the exquisite ananda tandava pose, with his consort Sivakami on his left,  sculpted by the official sthapatis (sculptors) of the temple and sanctified there before becoming a family possession.  And every month, a little pale blue fragrant envelope arrived by “book post”, with my mother’s maiden name on it handwritten in Tamil and English. The envelopes had red and yellow stains on them, stains that were promptly transferred onto our foreheads on the evening of their arrival. These envelopes brought my mother tiny packets of holy kumkum (vermillion) and vibhuti (ash). They were from the monthly prayer offerings made to Lord Nataraja on behalf of our family, by Umanatha Dikshitar, a priest/custodian of the temple, whose family had been associated with my mother’s family for centuries. The prayers were also in reciprocity for the annual donations to the temple that my mother sent unfailingly. In addition, she always responded to requests for donations towards special celebrations or major repairs to the temple. I knew that Umanatha Dikshitar was some kind of ‘family priest’ that my mother had inherited, like the rest of her natal kin group, and I had often wondered if she was encouraging parasitism and mumbo-jumbo through her donations. But the significance of our family’s relationship with the Dikshitars – with steady donations as its core – came home to me only during this visit.

The Dikshitars have always been the collective owners and custodians of the Chidambaram Nataraja temple. Once reputed to have numbered 3000, and now reduced to 350 families, the Dikshitars believe that they arrived in Chidambaram from Mount Kailash, along with Lord Nataraja himself, as his personal staff. Through the ages, they have managed the temple – set in 40 acres of its own land – raising the revenues for its upkeep, carrying out daily maintenance of the premises and periodic repairs and restoration of the structure, conducting the many elaborate poojas (prayer rituals) that take place every day, and organizing periodic festival celebrations in honour of Nataraja.

Their collective ownership of the temple is institutionalized through endogamous marriages (Dikshitars are allowed to marry only within the community, hence all the families are related to each other). Since only married sons can become officiating priests – which in turn entitles them to become equal members of the collectivity and earn a share of the revenues -, universal and early marriage is the norm. The governance of the temple is conducted by regularly elected committees, in which all the families are represented by rotation. Similarly, daily poojas are conducted by a team of six Dikshitars drawn from six families, again by rotation. It is said that, given the principle of equality on which the community members function in relation to each other, at committee meetings no single person can arrogate to himself the position of Chair. Hence the temple store keeper – invariably a salaried outsider – is requested to step in to conduct meetings!

The Dikshitars have historically safeguarded their autonomy in matters of temple governance by never accepting land or cash grants from any single external agency. Rather, they built a core of hereditarily enduring relationships with ‘patrons’ who made periodic and annual donations to the temple; and they supplemented these revenues with one-off donations from visitors to the temple. This invisible and unarticulated web of one-on-one relationships between priests and worshippers has been the hallmark of the Chidambaram temple. Through the last 15 centuries, the entitlements and conventions of the Dikshitars were scrupulously respected, first by the various princely dynasties – Chola, Pandya, Vijayanagar – that ruled the region successively, then by the British, and finally by the Supreme Court of independent India.

Some implications of this tradition of collective ownership come across imperceptibly to the modern day visitor. As we took off our shoes to enter the temple, we were struck by the cleanliness, quiet, and lack of chaos along the approach to the temple gate. There were no beggars with outstretched palms, no shopkeepers loudly soliciting clients for purchase of customary pooja offerings (flowers, incense, coconut, betel leaves), and no keepers of shoes in competition with one another. The man under whose awning we left our footwear matter-of-factly handed over a plastic token and went back to what he was doing.

Already in some state of culture shock, we entered the temple precincts through the western gate gopuram, with its soaring ceiling and 108 panels of complex Bharata Natyam dance poses sculpted into the stone walls on either side. It was nearly noon, and the open-to-the-sky stone floors of the first open prakara (layer/courtyard) singed our feet. But under the gopuram and, again, continuing inward into the main temple through layer after layer of broad and richly sculpted stone corridors until we came to the icon of Nataraja in the inner sanctum, it felt cool and breezy, like being by the sea-side. And it was scrupulously clean underfoot. No litter anywhere, even of dried flowers. Nor dampness. And the place was serene. No touts trying to hustle worshippers, no officious temple employees shouting instructions. The congregation of worshippers appeared calm and disciplined and there was no shoving and pushing. In the inner sanctum, the six priests were going about their pooja duties in dignified silence, watched by the congregation.

We came out of the temple at its other end, to the steps leading to the sparklingly clean waters of the Sivaganga temple tank. The ancient stone paving of the outer courtyard looked to be in good condition. We couldn’t help commenting to our escort Venkatesa Dikshitar, Umanatha’s son, on the general air of good maintenance. He confirmed that temple maintenance was the personal and direct responsibility of the Dikshitars themselves, put into daily practice by the rotating team of six priests with the help of hired staff. To us, as visitors, it was also evidence of the good use to which donations to the temple are being put.

Later, Umanatha Dikshitar – now a genial patriarch surrounded by six strapping sons, all officiating as priests – spoke to us about the temple, its history, and pattern of governance…the struggle of the Dikshitars to retain the temple’s autonomy in the face of State attempts at interference and control…the decision of his sons to dedicate their lives to Nataraja’s service even after receiving a modern education…

The feeling of home-coming with which he and his family welcomed us on our arrival, the loving way in which they embraced me and my son as continuing strands in the gossamer web of our centuries-old relationship, the unselfconsciousness with which they urged us to feel at home in their unbelievably spartan house, the delicious and generous meal that the women of the family served us on large banana leaves placed on the cool floor… made our visit truly heartwarming and memorable.

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