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Southern India Adventures III: Thillai Nataraja Temple, Chidambaram

Updated January 2023

Day 3 in South India:  Exploring Temples

Chidambaram, in Southern India’s state of Tamil Nadu, is also known as Thillai, since the place was originally a forest of Thillai shrubs. It is an important pilgrim center, a major shrine of Lord Shiva, and the famous Nataraja Temple. In fact, Chidambaram offers a combination of the three aspects of Shiva worship – the form Lord Nataraja (dance), the form and the formlessness (linga), and the formless omnipresence. The temple has influenced worship, architecture, sculpture, and performance art for over two millennia. Now, that is an old temple.

Approaching the temple gateway.
Approaching the temple gateway.

The ancient temple is located in the center of the town and covers 40 acres with four seven-story gopurams ( those huge gateways facing North, South East, and West) each with around fifty stone sculptures. There are also five sabhas or courts. The presiding deity of the temple is formless, represented by air, one of the five elements of the universe.

Chidambaram is dedicated to Lord Nataraja and is unique as it is one of the rare temples where Shiva is represented by an idol rather than the customary lingam. (I’d been introduced to lingams earlier, they are black phallic-looking statues.) This temple also has exquisite carvings of Bharathanatya dance postures, the Classical Dance of Tamil Nadu. At Chidambaram, the dancer dominates, not the linga.

Close-up of dance poses on the tower.
Temple dancer

The eastern tower of the temple rises to a height of 134 feet with 108 Bharathanatyam dance poses as well as on the Western tower. The Northern tower rises to a height of 140 feet and is the tallest. This temple is also noted for its Gold Plated roof that adorns the sanctum sanctorum or the kanaka sabha. Non-Hindus are not allowed inside the sanctum sanctorum, so I did not see it.

Although I did not know this when I visited, research indicates that the temple is located at the center point of the world’s magnetic equator. * I did not feel any strong pull, but I did not sit and meditate.
The temple as it stands is mainly from the 12th and 13th centuries, with later additions in a similar style. It was believed to have been originally constructed during the early Chola period (900s AD).

Close-up of Stairway ruins.

The temple was severely vandalized during invasions of South India between 1311 and 1325. A garrison was set up within the temple and the walls were fortified during the Carnatic Wars and during the Anglo-French war between Hyder Ali and the British in 1740. I think the ruins give it a mysterious aura and I rather liked the crumbling effect. The large water tank formerly used for rituals is closed off.


Please click on the individual photos to enlarge them.

Footnote on the magnetic location: