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Discover India: Chidambaram

30th May 2013 10:25 pm

We visit Chidambaram, a place that's the centre of culture and learning, music and dance. It's seeped in history and fragrant with religious fervour.

There is nothing worse than being stuck in a jam right at the start of your driving holiday. So the first rule is to get out of town before the morning rush. Start out just before the sun wakes up for the day, and you will have a great start. We took the scenic East Coast Road that goes past Mahabalipuram and Puducherry. The road surface is smooth, and the drive is scenic but you need to be really careful since the road is not very wide. And don’t discount the fact that there might be a bus coming on the wrong side of the road on a blind turn. Be alert, keep your speed in check and you should be okay. There are enough fuel pumps on the route, but it’s always advisable to tank up whenever the fuel level drops to less than half a tank. It’s a good idea to carry a packed breakfast that you can make a picnic of on the way. It’s about an eight-hour drive to Chidambaram, so if you leave early you can be there for lunch.

The history of Chidambaram is lost in the mist of history. Legend has it that the two famous saints of South India, Vyagrapada and Patanjali, worshipped Lord Shiva here. Their collective penance bore fruit in the form of Shiva’s cosmic dance. Lord Shiva descended on Earth as Nataraja, the King of Dance, and performed the ananda tandavam, the cosmic dance. The place where Nataraja danced became a sacred ground. 

In AD 907, the Chola dynasty made Chidambaram their capital and built the grand Nataraja temple. The temple reached its present form under the patronage of the kings of the Chola dynasty in the 11th, 12th and 13th centuries. The temple is spread over nearly 40 acres, making it one of the largest temples in India. 

Before we go to Chidambaram, let’s take a detour and go to the CERN, the European Center for Research in Particle Physics in Geneva. Here you will find a two-metre-tall statue of the Nataraja. Now what’s the connection between Nataraja and particle physics? Shiva’s dance is a metaphor for the cosmic dance of subatomic particles, which is observed and analysed by CERN’s physicists.
Here is a text of the plaque at CERN, ‘Ananda K Coomaraswamy, seeing beyond the unsurpassed rhythm, beauty, power and grace of the Nataraja, once wrote of it, “It is the clearest image of the activity of God which any art or religion can boast of.”’

More recently, physicist Fritjof Capra explained, “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.” 

It is indeed as Capra concluded, “Hundreds of years ago, Indian artists created visual images of dancing Shivas in a beautiful series of bronzes. In our time, physicists may have used the most advanced technology to portray the patterns of the cosmic dance. The metaphor of the cosmic dance thus unifies ancient mythology, religious art and modern physics.” End of text.

Back on the road to Chidambaram. To the home of Nataraja. The Nataraja temple at the heart of Chidambaram is one of the few places where Shiva is worshipped in this anthropomorphic form rather than a lingam. Interestingly, he is also worshipped here in his ‘formless’ form, and that is ‘Chidambara Rahasiyam’ or the Secret of Chidambaram. The secret is found in the sanctum sanctorum of the temple. Here you will find not an idol, but a blank space. To understand the meaning of this, you have to delve deep into Hindu philosophy. But I will try and give a simple explanation. 

Creation is not possible without space. So space was created. And with the creation of space came time. So God is the author of space and time. Then we have air, fire, water and earth. In Hinduism, God is celebrated in all his manifestations. The name Chidambaram comes from the words ‘chit’, which means consciousness, and ‘ambaram’, which means the sky. So here at the sanctum sanctorum of the Nataraja temple, Lord Shiva is worshipped as space. Or more simply put, God has no form. This place is believed to be the centre of the universe and Nataraja is dancing to facilitate the rotation of the earth. So now you know the secret of Chidambaram. Or do you? 

While in Chidambaram Shiva is worshipped in his manifestation as Space, other temples in south India worship him in his different manifestations: in Kanchipuram as Earth; in Tiruchirapalli as Water; in Tiruvannamalai as Fire; in Srikalahasthi, in his manifestation as Air. 

Interestingly the temple in Chidambaram is not just a Shiva temple, but also a Vaishnavite shrine. This famous Shiva temple is also one of the 108 tirupatis or sacred places of Vishnu! The Vishnu idol here is in sayana or sleeping posture.

The most distinctive feature of the temple are the four gopuram or gateway towers. The south gopuram was constructed by a Pandya king, identified by the dynasty’s fish emblem sculpted on the ceiling. The earliest and smallest of the four is the west gopuram, constructed around AD 1150. The north gopuram was completed by Vijayanagara king Krishnadevaraya in the 16th century. The east gopuram constructed in the 13th century has an interesting facet. It depicts the 108 poses of the Indian classical dance, Bharatanatyam. It is this very temple that has inspired this classical dance form. 

This is in no way a comprehensive treatise on the intriguing Nataraja temple, but just an attempt to highlight its unique position in the cosmos. So it just isn’t the religious devotee who finds his answers in the Nataraja temple, but also the quantum physicist. 

It is rather apt that in this cosmos of culture and learning, Chidambaram should be home to one of India’s most renowned universities. The Annamalai University, named after its founder Raja Sir Annamalai Chettiar, was established in 1929. Take a walk around its almost 1000-acre campus if you want to get away from the bustle of the temple town.

On the other hand, if you are of a religious bend of mind, there are other temples in Chidambaram for you to visit. You could add Thillai Kaali Amman Temple, dedicated to Goddess Kali and the Sattanathar, to your itinerary. 

Chidambaram can be visited in a day if you start off early from Chennai. But to make a weekend of it, drive 16km from Chidambaram to Pichavaram. You could stay the night at Chidambaram, where there are more hotels to choose from, and head for Pichavaram in the morning. Or drive over to Pichavaram after spending the day in Chidambaram and check into Hotel Saradharam. Since we didn’t stay in Pichavaram, I can’t tell you how good or bad the hotel is. We did check the rooms, however. Although they are pretty tiny, the rooms seemed clean and well maintained. What you can’t argue with though is the hotel’s location. On the bank of the mangrove forest, it’s quiet and the air is fresh. You can get the details of the hotel on www.pichavaram.co.in. 


The reason to visit Pichavaram is to see a unique ecosystem, a mangrove forest. Mangroves are a group of trees and shrubs that grow in the coastal intertidal zone. You can recognise mangroves by their dense tangle of roots that make the trees appear to be standing on stilts above the water. These mangrove forests make our coast safer since the dense roots slow down the movement of tidal water and protect the shore from storm surges, currents, waves and tides. The dense and intricate roots of the mangroves are a habitat for fish and other marine creatures.

Pichavaram covers over 3000 acres comprising more than 1700 islets. And the best way to explore it is by boat. Though there are motor boats available, I’d recommend a row boat to enjoy the tranquility and serenity of this place. Boat rides start at eight in the morning. Remember that the sun will get hot and the boat does not provide any shade, so make sure you are carrying a hat and enough water. It’s also a good idea to carry something to nibble on while you are on the boat. But please do not throw your garbage overboard. Carry it back with you and dispose it off in a dustbin.  

Once you set off, you will discover another world out there. You just might as well be in the Amazon. The tidal backwaters mix with fresh river water from the Velar and the Coleroon to create a unique estuarine ecosystem in Pichavaram. If you are a bird lover, carry your binoculars. You will also find water snakes and fish in these shallow waters. If you fall off your boat, you will not drown since the water is only about three feet deep, but there are chances you might be nipped by a water snake.

Pichavaram is separated from the sea by a sand bar. Ask your boatman to take you there, and you will discover your own private beach. If you have packed in a picnic hamper, this is the ideal place to enjoy it, with the sea waves lapping at your feet. Apart from going out on the boatride, there’s not much to do at Pichavaram. That could be either a curse or a boon, depending on which way you look at it. 

If you have a longer weekend, you can club this with a visit to Mahabalipuram and Puducherry, which we covered in the December 2012 issue of Autocar India.

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