CHIDAMBARAM The great temple of Chidambaram, south of Chennai in Tamil Nadu, dates back to at least the tenth century. The oldest inscriptions from that era speak of covering its roof with gold, and literary sources indicate that its construction may have begun several centuries before that. Its humble origins are indicated by its old Tamil name Chirrambalam (Little Temple), which was later sanskritized as Chid-ambaram (Abode of the Spirit). The temple grounds include smaller shrines to Vishnu, Brahma, and Pārvatī/Durgā, but the imperial Cholas, who were its patrons from the tenth to the thirteenth centuries, were ardent devotees of Shiva and sponsored major expansions of the shrine devoted to Shiva. The contribution of the Pallava dynasty to the temple is not clear, but the subsequent Chola, Pandya, and Vijayanagar dynasties added shrines and four giant gateways called gopuram, and local rulers finally built a hall with a thousand pillars around a.d. 1600. The temple is unique in that it is owned jointly by the trustees, numbering now about 250. They are an endogamous clan that rules by majority decision, though each trustee has a veto right. The ritual in the shrine is equally unique in that it follows the forms of the Vedic domestic rituals in the Vaikhānasa tradition.
The central shrine marks the place where Shiva, as Natarāja (King of Dancers), is said to have danced the cosmic dance of global creation and annihilation that is celebrated in literature and countless statues in stone and bronze. There are early references to various dances of Shiva at Chidambaram, but the ānanda tāndava pose, in which Shiva has four arms (each with a symbolic function) and in which one of his feet stomps on a dwarf symbolizing human depravity, became popular only in the tenth century. It is now the dance closest identified with the Chidambaram temple. An ancient cult of the lingam (phallic symbol) and local cultic dance have been amalgamated in new powerful and popular rituals.
The Chidambaram temple, often considered the "heart" of the earth, was one of the five sites where Chola kings were consecrated, and it has been a major center of pilgrimages through the ages. It played a central role in the bhakti movement from the seventh to the ninth centuries. Several of the nāyanār, who composed ardent devotional poetry in worship of Shiva, lived at the temple or addressed their poetry to the deity enshrined there. Their poems are recited or sung regularly in the temple, along with other musical and dance performances in honor of the deity.
Hartmut E. Scharfe
Kulke, Hermann. Cidambaramāhātmya: Eine Untersuchung der religionsgeschichtlichen und historischen Hintergründe für die Entstehung der Tradition einer südindischen Tempelstadt. Wiesbaden, Germany: Otto Harrassowitz, 1970.