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Thillai Nataraja Kovil – A Temple Dedicated to Shiva Performing the Cosmic Dance

By Mar. 19, 2014
The Thillai Nataraja Kovil in Chidambaram with the temple tank and a sculpture of the Nandi in the forefront. The Thillai Nataraja Kovil in Chidambaram with the temple tank and a sculpture of the Nandi in the forefront.

Thillai Nataraja Kovil (or Temple, in English) situated in Chidambaram in Tamil Nadu is dedicated to Lord Shiva, who is worshiped in the form of Nataraja in dancing posture. The Presiding Deity of the temple is Thirumoolanathar (Lord Shiva) and the Goddess of the temple is Umayambikai (Goddess Parvathi).The unique feature of the temple is the bejeweled image of Nataraja. Lord Shiva is depicted as the Lord of dance radiating universal power. It is one of the temples where Shiva is represented as an anthropomorphic idol, rather than a Lingam. The worship of Lord Shiva in the form of Lingam is associated with the five elements water, fire, wind, earth and ether. Lord Shiva is worshiped in the form of Murthi (idol) in Chidambaram and is considered as one of the Pancha Bootha Sthalas.The dance stage of the temple is called as Chittrambalam and the holy tree is considered as the Thillai (Exocoeria agallocha) tree. The holy water source of the temple is Sivagangai and the hymns of the temple is Thevaram, sung by Sri Manickavachagar.


Thillai Nataraja Kovil is located in the town Chidambaram in Cuddalore district in the state Tamil Nadu, India. It is situated 78 km south to Pondicherry and 250 km from Chennai, the capital of Tamil Nadu. It is situated on the main railway route between Chennai and Trichy about halfway between these two cities.

The place derived its name from the surrounding Thillai forest. These trees are not seen in Chidambaram now but can be seen at Pichavaram, east of Chidambaram in the backwaters. The temple is one of the pancha bootha sthalas where God is worshiped in one of his manifestations – Sky or Aagayam. Other Pancha Bootha sthalas are Ekambareswarar temple at Kanchipuram (God is worshiped as Earth), Jambukeswarar temple at Thiruvanaikaval, in Tiruchirapalli (God is worshiped as Water), Annamalaiyar Temple at Tiruvannamalai (God representing Fire) and Kalahasti temple at Srikalahasthi (where the God is worshiped as Wind).


Thillai Nataraja Kovil is considered as the primary temple for all the Saivites. The term “Kovil” itself refers to this temple for Saivites, whereas “Kovil” refers to Srirangam temple for Vaishnavites.

The early structure of the temple was constructed and maintained by Perumtaccan of the respected clan of Vishwakarmas. The golden roof of the Chitambalam was laid by the Chola king, Parantaka I. In those flourishing times, kings Rajaraja Chola I and Kulothunga Chola I made significant donations to the temple. Gold and wealth to the temple were donated by Kundavai II, the daughter of Rajaraja Chola while Vikrama Chola made donations for the conduct of the daily rituals. The temple has been renovated several times since the reign of Pallavas and Cholas. Several parts of the temple were re-built by Aragalur Udaya Iraratevan Ponparappinan, in 1213 AD.

Donations to the temple were made later by various kings during various periods of time, including the Maharaja of Pudukottai, Sethupathy and the British. The emerald jewel donated by Sethupathy still adorns the deity.


The place where the temple stands is the claimed center of the earth’s magnetic equator. This shows the tremendous engineering, geographical and astrological knowledge of the ancient architecturers.

The temple has nine gateways among which four of them have gopurams in the East, West, North and South. The eastern gopuram/pagoda has all the 108 dance postures of Bharathanatiyam. The south gopuram Sokkaseeyan Thirunilai Ezhugopuram was constructed by Pandya king. This is evident from the sculpted fishes (flag of Pandya king) in the ceiling. The smallest gopuram is the western gopuram that was constructed in 1150; but there is no evidence available to know the construction of this gopuram. However, there are sculptures depicting the Goddess fighting with buffalo-demon. The North Gopuram was constructed around 1300 AD with the brick portion constructed by the Vijayanagara king Krishnadevaraya in the 16th century. The East Gopuram, was claimed to have been constructed by the Pallava King, Koperunsingan II.

Roof laid with 21,600 golden tiles with the word SIVAYANAMA inscribed on them.

Roof laid with 21,600 golden tiles with the word SIVAYANAMA inscribed on them.

The roof of Ponnambalam is held by a set of 64 beams representing the 64 forms of art. It is also held by several cross beams representing the infinite blood vessels. The roof has been laid with 21,600 golden tiles with the word SIVAYANAMA inscribed on them representing 21,600 breaths, which represents the number of breaths taken in a 24 hour period.. The golden tiles are fixed using 72,000 golden nails that represents the number of nadis existing in the human body. The roof is topped by a set of 9 sacred pots or kalasas, representing the 9 forms of energy.

The temple contains five sabhas – Kanaka Sabha, Chit Sabha, Nritya Sabha, Raja Sabha and Deva Sabha.

The main deity, Lord Shiva is enshrined in Chit Sabha, with black screen covering behind Akasa Lingam.

The Kanaka Sabha is located in front of Chit Sabha. The daily rituals are conducted here.

Nritya Sabha or Natya sabha – It is the hall, where Lord Shiva is said to have danced along with Goddess Kali (an incarnation with ferocious energy) to prove his Supremacy.

Raja Sabha or 1000 pillared hall – It represents the yogic chakra of 1000-petalled lotus.

Deva Sabhai – The hall houses pancha moorthis (five idols) of Lord Ganesha, Lord Muruga, Lord Somaskanda, Lord’s consort Sivananda nayaki and Lord Chandikeswarar.

There is also a Govindaraja shrine dedicated to Lord Vishnu and it is one of the 108 holy temples of Lord Vishnu.

The Chidambaram temple is surrounded by several water bodies in and around the temple complex. The name of the connected tanks are Sivaganga tank, Paramanandha koobham, Kuyya theertham, Pulimadu, Vyagrapatha Theertham, Anantha Theertham, Nagaseri Tank, Brahma Theertham, Shivapiyai Tank and Thiruparkadal.


The story of Chidambaram starts with the legend of Lord Shiva moving to Thillai Vanam (Thillai – tree; Vanam means forest). There were a group of Rishis or sages in this forest believing that they can control the Supreme Power through mantras (chants), rituals and magical spells. To refute, Lord Shiva disguises as a mendicant and Lord Vishnu disguises as Mohini, the consort of the mendicant and tests the fidelity of the wives of few sages who were proud of their chastity.

Being a smart and beautiful mendicant, Lord Shiva enchants the wives of the sages. Enraged by this, the sages performs pooja and invoke serpents on Lord Shiva. He in-turn captures all the snakes and adorns them as ornaments around his matted locks, neck and waist. Then, the sages invokes a ferocious tiger from the holy fire and target it on the divine couple. Lord Shiva uses his nail to tear the skin of the tiger and wears it around his waist. After facing the defeat twice, the sages invokes a powerful demon – Muyalakan – a symbol of complete arrogance and ignorance. The Lord wearing on a gentle smile, steps on the demons back and makes him immovable. This is the point where he starts his Anandha Thandavam – an eternal blissful dance, and discloses who they really are. The sages surrender themselves and admit that Supremacy cannot be controlled by any other power.


A Dikshithar. Dikshithars also function as priests in the Thillai Nataraja Temple.

A Dikshithar. Dikshithars also function as priests in the Thillai Nataraja Temple.

Thillai Nataraja Kovil is being maintained by the endogamous group of Shaivite Brahmins called Dikshithars, who also work as priests in the temple. It is said that these people were brought from Mt. Kailash by Saint Patanjali specifically for performing daily rituals in the temple. There were 3000 Dikshithars initially. Upon the request of Lord Brahma for performing pooja (ritual function), they made a Vedic sacrifice in heaven. After returning back from pooja, there were only 2999 Dikshithars. As they were wondering, they heard an oracle saying that the 3000th Dikshithar was Lord Shiva himself.


The Anandha Thandava posture of Lord Nataraja (Lord Shiva in the Cosmic Dance) is one of the postures recognized all over the world. This celestial dance posture tells us how Bharathanatiyam, an ancient form of Tamil Nadu dance, should be performed.

Lord Shiva as Nataraja performing the celestial Cosmic Dance.

Lord Shiva as Nataraja performing the celestial Cosmic Dance.

The demon under Lord Nataraja’s feet signifies that ignorance is under his feet. The Fire in his hands signifies Him as the destroyer of all evil. His raised hand signifies that He is the savior of life. The ring at His back indicates the cosmos. The drum in His hand signifies the birth of life.

It is believed that there is a secret message conveyed through the embossed figure near the shrine of Shiva in Chidambaram temple. It is believed that both Lord Shiva and his consort Parvathi are living here and they are not viewable to the naked eye.

The Chidambara Rahasyam (Secret of Chidambaram) is hidden behind the curtains present at the right side of Lord Nataraja sanctum. Worship or darshan is possible only when the priests open the curtain for pooja, acquiring Godliness. Behind the curtain, there are two golden leaves as from the vilva maram (Aegle Marmelos tree), signifying the presence of Lord Shiva and his consort Goddess Parvathi whose physical form is believed to be viewable by the priests.

The real meaning of the phrase Chidambara Rahasyam lies behind the curtain, which means that a person could know the secret of himself only when he removes the curtain of “Maya”. It is said that one can never reveal the secret until he removes the screen of Maya from one’s mind, To Realise Onself.

The Chidambara Rahasyam also tells us another truth that relates to the period of Moses. It is said that according to the God’s commandments, Moses constructed a Garba Graha but did not place any idol and covered it with a screen. This implies that God should need not only be worshiped with any idol as there is only one religion on the earth.

Getting There:

Chidambaram is a bustling, modern city now well connected by road, railways and air.

The nearest airports present are at Tiruchirapalli (Trichy) and Chennai.

The city is located on the Chennai-Trichy mainline of Southern Railway. There are many trains connecting the town with other major cities of Tamil Nadu.

Frequent bus services are also available from Chidambaram to various states like Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka, Pondicherry and various parts of Tamil Nadu. Non-stop bus services and express bus services are also available from here.


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