The temple at Chitambaram is one of the five holiest Siva temples in India, each representing one of the five natural elements. Chitambaram represents akasha (the sky, or air element). The other four of these special temples are: Tiruvanaikaval Jambukeswara, at Trichy (water), Kanchi Ekambareswara at Kanchipuram (earth), Kalahasti Nathar at Kalahasti in Andhra Pradesh (wind), and our own Tiruvannamalai Arunachaleswara (fire).
The Chitambaram temple is dedicated to Lord Nataraja, and is said to be located at the heart of the Universe. It enshrines the supreme dancer Sri Nataraja, who danced here giving the experience of supreme bliss to even the Gods.
Chitambaram is only a few hours drive south and east from Tiruvannamalai. We had never been there, and decided to visit this ancient and holy site with friends, Raymond and Bonnie, visiting from California. They, along with Carol, are shown below, outside the Hillview Residence and Tasty Cafe. Our taxi driver for this trip, Prabhu, is on the right.
We drove through Villupuram on the way there. This route cut about 50 km from the trip, as opposed to the alternative of going through Pondicherry. Little did we know the consequence of this decision. Due to heavy rains this day we almost did not make it to our destination.
The drive started out nicely. About 30 km along the way we started seeing the rock hills, similar to those seen around Gingee.
The route was lined by green paddy fields.
Then it started to rain.
As we passed through cities along the route we saw flooding everywhere.
Where they could, people stood out of the rain, under umbrellas and store fronts.
These girls had to get to school, though.
In the middle of the rains, the biggest Tamil political party, DMK, signified by the red and black flag, was staging a rally. There were many party cadres riding bicycles and motorbikes, carrying the DMK flag.
We were getting hungry, so the driver stopped at a roadside eating place. As you can see from the photo, this was very Indian. The rain had let up for now.
Bonnie and Carol sit, waiting for our food.
Some of the dishes, like idlis and vadas, came from the “kitchen” pictured below.
I ordered an “Egg Dosa” (eggs scrambled into a dosa, very good), and it was made on the grill at the front of the restaurant.
Scratching in the dirt under a table were a chicken and her chicks. Maybe their eggs were real fresh?
With food in our bellies we were on our way again. We started to pass the DMK bike procession.
We began to see thatch houses, flooded out. I read in the paper that more than 90,000 such houses were damaged during this storm, with more then 30,000 totally destroyed. This is not just 30,000 houses, but these are residences of 30,000 families, so more than 100,000 people lost their homes.
A bridge on an adjacent road collapsed in the storm. One of many such collapses.
Rain, rain, rain.
People huddled under shelter. This photo was taken through a rain-streaked window.
While the driver had a windshield wiper, there was not one on the passenger side. My view was blurry, sometimes illumined by the headlights of oncoming cars.
Flooded streets in another town.
During the drive there were places where the road was flooded out. We were able to inch through the waters without the car’s engine getting drowned out. (This has happened to me before, and it can be ‘exciting’ to get a dead car out of a flooded street.) I had visions of being stranded in flood waters, and water did get into the car – Carol reported wet feet in the back seat from the waters – But we made it through OK. This being India, I though if we did stall, that nearby people would wade into the waters and push the car out. I am glad we did not get to experience this, though.
Below, a photo of farmland by the road, all flooded. Many acres of crops will surely be lost. Each of these small farms represents the livelihood of a family. More disasters for Indian families! Many surely lost both their homes and crops.
Finally we made it to Chitambaram and our hotel, Hotel Saradharam. This turned out to be one of the nicer hotels we have stayed at in India. And it did not seem too expensive. There were several places to eat at the hotel, veg and nonveg, and even a bar (so Carol and I could have an evening beer after our adventure). We paid rs 850 for a non-AC room.
In our room, on the door to the balcony, there was a sign, unlike any other sign in a hotel room we have stayed at in India, warning us about monkeys. We did not see any during out stay, but we were warned.
It was getting to be late in the day, but we thought we would have time to visit the temple. Here we approach Chitambaram Temple, with a gopuram rising above the roadway.
The towers on each of the four sides are magnificent. They are about 250 feet high, adorned with painted figures from Hindu mythology. We enter through the East Gopuram. The West Gopuram is decorated with figures of Siva Nataraj in 108 classic dance positions.
The word Chitambaram may be derived from chit, meaning “consciousness”, and ambaram, meaning “sky” (from aakasam or aakayam); it refers to the chidaakasam, the sky of consciousness, which is the ultimate aim one should attain according to all the Vedas and scriptures.
The temple complex spread over 50 acres in the heart of the city. It is an ancient and historic temple dedicated to Lord Shiva Nataraja and Lord Govindaraja Perumal, one of the few temples where both the Shaivite and Vaishnavite deities are enshrined in one place.
The story of Chitambaram begins with the legend of Lord Siva strolling into the Thillai Vanam (Vanam meaning “forest” and thillai are trees – botanical name Exocoeria agallocha, a species of mangrove trees – which currently grow in the Pichavaram wetlands near Chitambaram.) There are temple sculptures depicting the Thillai trees that are recorded in the 2nd century CE. References to Chitambaram date back to the Sangam period, about 100 BCE, so the temple is very ancient, with its history enshrouded by the mists of time.
In the Thillai forests resided a group of rishis who believed in the supremacy of magic and that God can be controlled by rituals and ‘mantras’ or magical words. The Lord strolls in the forest with resplendent beauty and brilliance, assuming the form of ‘Pitchatanadar’, a simple mendicant seeking alms. He is followed by his Grace and consort who is Lord Vishnu as Mohini. The rishis and their wives are enchanted by the brilliance and the beauty of the handsome mendicant and his consort. On seeing their womenfolk enchanted, the rishis get enraged and invoke scores of ‘serpents’ (Sanskrit: Nāga) by performing magical rituals. The Lord as the mendicant lifts the serpents and dons them as ornaments on his matted locks, neck and waist. Further enraged, the rishis invoke a fierce tiger, which the Lord skins and dons as a shawl around his waist. Thoroughly frustrated, the rishis gather all their spiritual strength and invoke a powerful demon Muyalakan – a symbol of complete arrogance and ignorance. The Lord wearing a gentle smile, steps on the demon’s back, immobilizes him and performs the Ánanda Thaandava (the dance of eternal bliss) and discloses his true form. The rishis surrender, realizing that this Lord is the truth and he is beyond magic and rituals.
The Ananda Tandava posture of Lord Shiva is one of the famous postures recognized around the world by many. This celestial dancing posture tells us how a Bharathanatium Dancer should dance:
The demon under Nataraja’s feet signifies that ignorance is under his feet
The Fire in this hand (power of destruction) means destroyer of evil
The raised hand signifies that he is the savior of all life.
The Ring at the back signifies the cosmos.
The drum in his hand signifies the origin of Life.
It is this Dance of Eternal Bliss that is celebrated in this temple. This Dance of Bliss is said to have been witnessed by Vishnu, and there is a Govindaraja shrine in the Nataraja temple commemorating this.
After entering through the first gopuram, we walk under a roofed area, to the next gate.
The carvings on this gate are relatively simple, with the guardian figures at each level.
As we enter we see carvings that go up the walls, with a holy figure near the base.
There four painted figures that are the main feature of this gate. Perhaps a reader can comment and let us know more about them. There are so many legends about Chitambaram, that without being able to read the Tamil script at the base of these figures, we do not know who they represent. I think that maybe these are the four most revered Saivite Saints (Appar, Sundarar, Sambandar and Manikkavacakar) who have worshipped at Chitambaram.
Passing through the gate, we can see the roofs of the main temple rising above the surrounding structure.
To the left is the North Gopuram.
In the pillared hall at the entrance of the temple are a few goats. We often see cows and elephants at these temples. This is the first time we have noticed goats.
Looking back at the East Gopuram, though which we just entered.
This pillared hallway is at the front of the main temple structure.
Below, a shot looking into the main temple. I have only a few photos of the interior. Cameras are not to be used inside. I surreptitiously took a very few photos, and have found a few more on the Internet that I include in this article.
Notice the beautiful painted design on the entrance walkway.
At the entrance are two men on ladders, polishing the bronze on the door.
Here is a photos from the Internet that shows an interior hallway in the temple.
This is what it looked like to us.
Also from the Internet is this photo of the interior of the temple. The roofs that rise to the left are above main shrines of the temple. You can see the ancient style of the stonework.
This is another shrine in the interior of the temple. On it are male and female gods, with eleven attendants. To the left is an entrance with Vishnu markings above it. Maybe a reader can give us more information about this shrine.
We attended a puja at the main Nataraj shrine, standing in a crowd of perhaps one or two hundred devotees. We really could not see much, and did not know what was happening. We heard that there would be a bigger puja here in another hour or so, and we went back outside, to walk pradakshina around the temple, and see what else was on the grounds.
As we started pradakshina, the first thing we saw after we left the temple entrance is the South gopuram.
It is brightly painted, with rows and rows of figures from classic Hindu stories.
Here is a closeup of one of the main figures that I downloaded from the Internet.
The tower is magnificent!
Near it is a giant Nandi, in a cage.
Putting the camera inside the bars gives a much better view, albeit distorted, of Nandi.
All around the interior are shrines of various gods.
Here is Dakshinamurti, adorning the top of a building. His shrine is below.
Another god. Can someone read the Tamil inscription?
Now we start to see the Western Gopuram.
Here are the shrines for Dakshinamurti and Nandi on the Southern wall of the temple.
In the center of the temple, above Lord Nataraj’s Inner Sanctum, is a golden roof. (Photo from the Internet.) I think this is ancient.
We get closer to the Western Gopuram.
Looking North, we can see the North Gopuram in the distance.
Closer view of the Western Gopuram.
Looking through the Western Gate.
A temple near this gate. Carol in her saree and Raymond in his yellow raincoat are to the right.
From the figure at the top of the temple, maybe this is a Durga shrine?
Looking into another shrine.
I could only take photos from the outside, so this is the best view I can show.
Here is the tank. Some devotees are bathing. Bathing here is said to have curative properties.
This looks to be a Ganesh shrine.
Next to it is another famous Siva shrine.
You can see all the lamps in the blurry photo. It was quite special inside here.
Walking pradakshina within the shrine, we encounter Ganesh, naturally.
Here is the interior hallway behind the shrine.
I am sure this must be Murugan and his consorts.
Carol and I had a special puja at the Siva shine. The priest made me remove my shirt. He also asked for a donation of rs 600. I gave him rs 300. After a few more requests of me, he seemed satisfied.
Below I walk past the tank, looking to the North Gopuram.
On the way back into the temple, we pass another Nandi. I wonder why they put Nandi behind bars here?
We went back into the temple for the pujas. It was a wonderful atmosphere here. A big crowd of people with drums sounding and bells ringing.
The innermost sanctum of the temple houses the grand images of Siva (Nataraja) and Parvati (Sivakami) in the ChitSabha, the “hall of consciousness,” adjoining which is the KanakaSabha, the Golden Hall. Both these structures rest on a raised platform. To the right of Siva is the revered Chitambara Rahasyam – or a representation of emptiness garlanded with golden bilva leaves. The curtain in front of the Chitambara Rahasyam, representing Siva (and Parvati) in the formless form (Aroopam) is lifted ceremoniously during worship services, with offerings of lamps.
A unique feature of this temple is the bejeweled image of Nataraja. It depicts the Lord Siva as the Lord of the dance Bharatanatyam. This is one of the few temples where Siva is represented by an anthropomorphic murthi rather than the classic Lingam. The Cosmic Dance of Lord Nataraja symbolizes the motion of the universe as sustained by Lord Siva.
We stood in front of the Nataraja shrine. To the left of us, facing East, is the Vishnu Shrine. First there is a puja here, and people turn to the left to watch. Some go inside to be blessed at the shrine and to walk around it. Then the action turns towards Nataraj. We could not see too much and did not really understand what we were seeing. Perhaps we need to come again with someone to act as guide who can tell us what is going on.
There was a figure to the right of the shrine that was receiving the puja, then was carried into the main part of the shrine. There was a figure in there said to be the famous Nataraja, but we actually didn’t recognize it as the dancing Siva form we were expecting to see: we did not see the leg raised in dance, and there seemed to be a shape in the form of a shield in front of the figure. It was quite dark inside the shrine, and we were standing pretty far away, but it definitely wasn’t the statue we had anticipated. We also wanted to see the puja done to the empty “space of Consciousness,” but we could not see if this was happening.
The photo below, downloaded from the Internet, is supposed to be the Gods in their shrine, with Siva Nataraja in the center, Parvati to the right, and the Space of Consciousness to the left.
Below is the more usual form of Nataraja, with his leg raised in the Cosmic Dance of Bliss.
The pujas to Siva and Vishnu were very moving, a hypnotic blend of sounds and sights. Happy, we exited the temple and proceeded out the gate.
Raymond and Bonnie walk ahead of us.
The next day dawned clear. We got back into the taxi and started north.
In a guidebook, Carol had found out about a nature preserve, Pichavaram, home to “the second largest mangrove swamp in the world.” We did not know this then, but these are the same trees as in the story of the first appearance of Nataraja, the Lord of the Dance, dating back two thousand years, when Siva and Mojini strolled in the Thillai forest and met the magical rishis.
On the way, we saw more flooding from the previous day’s storm.
When we got into Pichavaram, we saw the boathouse from which the boat tours departed.
Don’t drink and ride these boats. The translation is kind of classic.
We decided to get a motor boat. The cost was rs 800 for the boat, whether you had two people or eight. You could also get a row boat, which, they said, could go into smaller, more closed areas of the swamp.
We climbed into the boat. Carol was first in. They made sure that we all were wearing life vests. I was happy about this, having fallen out of boats two times in my life.
Heading out. Carol and Raymond are wearing their life vests.
First we pass through a large open expanse of water.
We see a Welcome sign.
Then we see the mangrove trees that line the waterways.
There are other boats on the water. This is a fishing boat, pulling in his net.
Mangrove roots, snaking down into the water.
The boat driver offers us what he says is a special extra deal. For rs 200 extra, he will take us through smaller waterways, not usually on the motorboat tour. We say “OK.”
I like these small waterways.
Some places you brush right past the trees. I do not see any snakes hanging from the trees, so brushing past them is alright.
Here is the boat driver, and our taxi driver, Prabhu. We had to ask Prabhu several times if he wanted to go on the boat ride. Finally he said “yes.”
Everybody down. Low trees to pass through.
Back in the main channel we see a group going out in a rowboat. We all wave.
Many boats line the shore as we near the return to the boat house.
The tower here is an observation tower at the Nature Preserve. They are building a new building next to it. It will be a place to eat, and maybe it will have lodging too.
Back to the dock. There is another group waiting for the boat so they can go out.
As we drive out, I see many boats lining the waterways. Many local people live from fishing in these waterways.
We pass by several buildings that have been destroyed by rains. I am not sure if this was from this storm, or earlier ones, but destroyed they are.
Life in the towns goes on, despite the destruction that surrounds them.
Flooded fields are everywhere.
At the edge of this photo below, notice there is brown water that meets the gray water. I think this is the meeting of the flood waters from the land side with the flood waters of Pichavaram.
Brown water floods these fields.
After about an hour we get to Pondicherry. We stop at The Rendezvous for lunch. This is a favorite rooftop cafe.
Then back on the main road to Tiruvannamalai. The day is sunny, the road is clear and not under water.
This was a good overnight trip from Tiruvannamalai. Normally, without the flooding, the drive would be uneventful. Seeing all the damage around us during the drive, though, really made me see how these storms wreak havoc in the lives of the people.
Chitambaram is a most special temple, worth the visit. I don’t know if there are good guides (with good English) that you can retain for the visit. If there are, maybe this would be good for a first timer. This is an ancient place, steeped in legend, with a most holy atmosphere.