Beach 4: A Dose of Mythology

Wave 4: The Cosmic Dance

Drop 2: Overlap with History

The temple at Chidambaram proclaims to the whole world the mythological event of the Cosmic Dance. But it also is a record of history that grew around the concept . Along with the concept, physical monuments rose and what stands before us is a blend of mythology, concept and history. It is in fact also a symbiotic mixture of religion, science and art. The first temple to have been built must have been the mUla-sthAnam temple (the temple at the 'original location' or the 'location of the root-source') around the original Siva-linga which Patanjali and Vyagrapada worshipped. Who actually made the nata-rAja icon, nobody knows. Orthodox opinion believes it was made by the divine architect, viSva-karmA. Historical and literary evidence leads us to believe that it must have been there well before the 6th century A.D. The period of the Imperial cholas (850-1290 A.D.) saw the phenomenal growth of the temple-complex. The roof of the sanctum was gilded. Three walls of enclosures, at least one seven-storeyed gopuram in full, 100-pillared and 1000-pillared halls, all were built. In this period the shrine of naTa-rAja became the main shrine. During the period 1216-1380 A.D. when the Pandyas patronised the temple, it grew further. But due to Malik-kafur's invasion of the region, the daily rituals in the temple were disrupted in 1301-1311 A.D. The 14th to 17th century was the heyday of Vijayanagar patronage. The gilding of the chit-sabhA that we see today are not perhaps what the Pallavas, Cholas and Pandyas had gifted but the contribution of Virupaksha of Vijayanagar in 1383-1388 A.D. augmented at the end of the 17th century by Sambhaji. The years 1649 to 1686 was again a dark patch in the history of the temple. The icon itself was shifted to a secret place hundreds of miles away. Again from 1753 to 1781 there was interruption in the worship, services and festivals, due to the military occupation by the French and Maratha contingents during the Carnatic and Mysore wars. The icons were moved to the sabhApati maNDapam in Tiruvarur. In the 19th and 20th centuries renovations and maha-kumbhabhishekams either in full or in part are known to have been performed in the years 1803, 1858, 1891, 1922, 1951, 1955, 1972, 1979, 1987.

Two great miracles, among several, in the history of the temple

Miraculous Recovery of the

lost tevAram hymns

The great temple-builder King Raja-Raja I (985-1014 A.D.) had also a desire to unearth the tevAram hymns believed to be lost or hidden somewhere except the few that professional singers in some temples remembered. Once he heard about nambi-ANDAr-nambi, a little boy of a village near Chidambaram, whose devotion was considered so great, it was said that the vinAyaka idol of the place yielded to his request to eat a dish of rice offered by him. The King had this boy located and asked him about the whereabouts of the lost hymns of the Saiva samayAcAryas. Back came the reply that the hymns lay in a locked room in the western prAkAra (corridor for perambulation) of the Chidambaram temple under the seals of the hymnists themselves. The King used his authority as well as some imagination to recover the hymns at the place indicated but the whole thing was a heap of palmyra leaves under a mound of ants. At that time there was heard an aereal voice declaring that whatever was recoverable should be enough for this era.

What was recovered was probably

384 out of a supposed 10,000 hymns of Sambandar,

312 out of 49000 of Appar,

100 out of 37000 hymns of Sundarar.

This is how the now well-known tevAram hymns were discovered. Raja Raja I had thus made the greatest contribution to the growth of Tamil literature. From that time onwards the hymns are being sung in all Siva temples of Tamil origin by professionals trained for this purpose under benefactions made by successive generations of kings and philanthropists.

The story of nandanAr

NandanAr was a great Harijan (so-called untouchable) devotee of the Lord of Chidambaram. The rigid caste-ridden norms of those times precluded him from entering temples though he earnestly longed to do so and was all the time praying to the Lord to give him darSan. The Lord performed a miracle for him at Tiruppungur where the nandi image which was obstructing his view from beyond the gate (=tower, gopuram) of the temple was asked to move aside by the Lord and it did so! Even today we can see the nandi away from its usual central position. Nandanar kept talking about going to Chidambaram and having a darSan of Lord naTarAja to whom he had a consuming passion. His landlord under whom he was serving almost like a slave imposed impossible conditions for him to fulfill before he would be allowed to make the trip to Chidambaram. By God's Grace these conditions were miraculously fulfilled. When Nandanar finally arrived in Chidambaram the Dikshidars (brahmin scholar-priests) of the temple would not allow him to enter the temple. The Lord naTarAja himself appeared in their dreams and commanded them to allow him. Next day Nandanar had the bath in the holy tank and was taken in a procession to the sanctorum. But once he entered it he disappeared into space and attained beatitude. Nandanar has been included as one of the 63 nAyanmars who are worshipped in all Siva temples as the most blessed devotees of the Lord. Gopalakrishna Bharati, a famous composer of Carnatic music of the 19th century has immortalised Nandanar's story by an imaginative rendering of it as an opera called 'nandanAr charitam". Several celebrated songs from this work are very popular wherever Tamil is spoken; they have had a profound appeal even on those who were the last defenders of the system of 'untouchables'!


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May 7, '99 Copyright V. Krishnamurthy