Indology - Chidambaram: The cosmic stage
by Anupama Bhattacharya
the heart of the universe (chit-heart, ambaram-universe), is where
Shiva, manifesting as Nataraja,
one of the trinity of Hindu deities, performs the cosmic dance. It is also the
heart of a world that is a manifestation of purusha, the eternal,
As you approach the Nataraja temple in this quaint town of Tamil Nadu, 250 km south of Chennai in southern India, you are taken aback by four gigantic towers (135 ft) with seven storeys that guard it on four sides. The architecture inside is no less fascinating. Rows after rows of pillars with intricate carvings, surrounded by 10 sacred pools, seem to create an ambiance of space—vast, limitless. You are drawn in, deeper and deeper, until you stand at the center of the universe, facing Nataraja, the creator, the destroyer, the keeper.
The shrine is spread over an area of 51 acres and houses a rare crystal lingam. There is also a Ratnasabhapati Nataraja made of gems, rubies, emerald and stone. The main shrine or the Chitrambalam (also known as Chit Sabha) is the place where Nataraja dances the tandava of creation, destruction, grace, dissolution and blessing.
According to mythology, Shiva first performed Ananda Tandava (the dance of bliss), to enlighten some sages who had been so immersed in their scholasticism that they had forgotten the existence of God. This Ananda Tandava was later revealed at the Jnana Sabha, one of the shrines of Chidambaram. Myth has it that, at a particular time every year, Shiva still performs the dance here.
At first glance, the statue of Nataraja is like any other classic piece of art—graceful and eye-catching. The beauty begins to unfold, layer by layer, as the magnificence of creation and the wonder of destruction are understood.
Nataraja symbolizes the ultimate reality that is eternally molding this world of maya or illusion, creating myriad nebulae with the beat of a drum and destroying a mega-universe with a graceful turn of the finger. The dance of Shiva is the dancing universe, the ceaseless flow of energy that mingles and meanders into the infinite cosmic soul. It is the dance of sub-atomic particles—the building blocks of creation. Here, the Ardhanarishwar Shiva, symbolized by a male earring in the left and a female earring in the right ear, blends the yin and the yang and transcends them.
This transcendence is mirrored in the ultimate balance of Nataraja. As the upper right hand, holding a drum, strikes the primal sound, nebulae after nebulae shoot out from the dancing form, stars are born and shaped, and the first seeds of life germinate in the cosmic cradle, waiting to bloom. The right lower hand showers blessings on the blossoming creation, asking it to arise and understand its purpose. With knowledge comes truth and Nataraja crushes Mulayaka, ignorance manifest, with his right foot—his left lower hand pointing at his raised left foot, defying the law of gravity, symbolic of liberation, moksha.
With life, death can't be far behind. The awakening is now symbolized by a deluge of fire leaping out from his left upper hand, devouring the trembling cosmos with licking tongues of flame. One by one stars die, burning suns extinguish their lights. In the eternal darkness, Shiva unties his matted hair and dances the tandava, trampling upon the entire universe—a raging, raving force demolishing existence. Destruction was never so beautiful.
In the final silence, when there is neither existence nor non-existence, enlightenment dawns. Free at last from the fetters of delusion, Nataraja dances the Ananda Tandava, the ultimate dance of joy. The primal sound of the drum echoes again, a tiny spark bursts into a star. Another universe is born. The cycle repeats itself. And Nataraja, blissful in the ecstasy of existence, dances to eternity.
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