Walking through the narrow road leading to the Thillai Natarja temple, I was fascinated to see a bevy of men clad in saffron and white with really long hair neatly gathered into a bun on the left side of their heads. With their heads tonsured around the rim, they had a personality that was striking and hard to miss and the only thing that seemed to overshadow this was the imposing, magnificent tower of the temple.
Some carried baskets, while others had loads of flowers while they briskly made their way to the interiors of the temple. Highly revered in the town, I learnt that they were the official priests of the temple and were called the “Deekshitars“.
Resplendent even in the fading light of the evening, the magnificent facade of the temple was enough to rejuvenate my senses making me forget the arduous seven hour drive I undertook earlier in the day to reach this temple town from Bangalore.
Located in the Cuddalore district of Tamil Nadu, Chidambaram lies at a distance of about 215 km from Chennai and about 400 km from Bangalore. The historical town once ruled by the glorious dynasties of the South like the Pallavas, Pandyas, Cheras and Cholas is almost synonymous with the renowned Nataraja temple and is intrinsically associated with Lord Shiva.
Named after the “Thillai” which is a species of mangrove trees that were believed to be found around the shrine at the time the temple was built, this is one of the most important temples for worshipers of Lord Shiva. Spread over a whopping 40 acres, the grandeur and scale of the temple is only matched by the impeccable craftsmanship that displays intricacy and utmost attention to detail.
With nine gateways representing the nine orifices of the human body, the temple is one of the most unique abodes of Shiva in that it is the only temple where Lord Shiva is present in three forms. The first is of course the most famous, the human form of Nataraja wherein He is performing a cosmic dance, the second is in the form of a “Linga” and the third is the invisible form. This is yet another distinctive feature of the temple, in that, there is a firm belief that Lord Shiva exists as an invisible space within the sanctum sanctorum. This has given rise to the secret of Chidambaram aka “Chidambara Rahasyam” as it is known in Tamil.
With splendid architecture that has evolved from the ancient, pre-medieval and medieval periods, the temple is managed by the Podu Dikshitars who are an exclusive community belonging to Shiva Brahmans or Ayars sect.
There are close to 300 members of this sect in and around the town and the male members attain the right to take part in the temple administration only after their marriage. A tradition that is being followed since time immemorial, the presiding priests are selected by voting making it one of the oldest functioning democracy systems in the world!
The temple is literally the soul of the town and the streets in and around the temple are always bustling with tourists, locals and a world of activity.
The temple car stationed on the road perpendicular to the temple is a also a splendid structure. It is pulled by scores of pilgrims during the bi-annual temple festivities.
A visit to the temple is considered complete only after a visit to the Kali Amman temple dedicated to Goddess Durga that is present close to the Shiva temple.