The Chidambaram Nataraja temple in Cuddalore district of Tamilnadu (235 km south of Chennai) is one of the major Shaivite temples. Its most important festival Arudra Darshanam is a 10-day celebration in the Tamil month of Margazhi. This time it begins on 14 Dec 2018 and concludes with the final Arudra Darshanam on 23 Dec 2018. An attempt is made here to understand the divine legend behind the festival, its significance, the temple rituals and its structure.
The Divine Dancer
When Nature becomes still, and all vibrations cease, Lord Shiva at His will, rises with ecstasy and sets the universe to the rhythm of His cosmic dance the Ananda Tandav. Shiva as Nataraja is depicted as dancing in the space within a ring – symbol of the universe decorated with the flames of 27 constellations. He has four hands and stands with his right leg on a dwarf demon and the left leg lifted and bent. He is adorned with jewels, his dreadlocks whirling, and snakes around his waist swirling. He holds the divine percussion damaru in the back right hand that sets the primal rhythm of the creation; in the back left hand he holds the fire for the dissolution of darkness and fetters of bondage. His right hand raised as abhaya hasta, assures protection and preservation for all beings and his left hand stretches across the body and points downward, as gaja hasta, alluding to wisdom. While his lifted left foot grants grace and bliss, his right foot, subduing the demon of ignorance and ego, provides abode for souls seeking salvation. Perpetually performing these five activities, Nataraja with a divine smile on his face, ‘dances a still dance’ of eternal stillness to maintain the order and balance of the cosmos.
This rhythmic play is not only manifested in the balance of cosmos but also forms the very essence of existence. In the experience of our saints,
Lord is the Dancer, who,
like the heat latent in firewood,
diffuses His power in mind and matter,
and makes them dance in their turn 
Shiva is dancing in the hearts of his devotees, cremating lust and ego, subduing ignorance, and awakening the self beyond illusion so as to display his blissful dance leading to salvation. As Tirumular, one of the 63 Nayanmars, writes in Tirumantiram,
The dancing foot, the sound of the tinkling bells, The songs that are sung and the varying steps, The form assumed by our Dancing Gurupara— Find out these within yourself, Then shall your fetters fall away.
He is omnipresent, and his gracious dance is manifested everywhere. In the motion of celestial bodies, regularity of seasons, cycles of creations, karmic cycle, and from the cosmic web to the core of atoms, it is His divine blissful dance which is being manifested timelessly. In the words of Fritjof Capra, a particle physicist, ‘every subatomic particle not only performs an energy dance, but also is an energy dance; a pulsating process of creation and destruction…For the modern physicists, then Shiva’s dance is the dance of subatomic matter….’ 
The manifestation of Shiva as Nataraja depicts that creation is not spontaneous and chaotic. It is a systematic percolation of rhythmic energy through inert matter, a subtle vibration awakening the consciousness, occurring every moment at the Will of our beloved Lord. His divinity is multifarious and manifested in every bit of this universe. He cannot be understood by the faculty of thinking and can be reached only through ceaseless devotion and the knowledge of Self.
Glory of Thillai Forest
Legend says that, once meditating on Shiva’s Ananda Tandava, Vishnu’s body became heavier due to the bliss. When Sri Vishnu came out of meditation, he explained its cause to his consorts Sri Devi and Bhu Devi. Adhisesha, the serpent bed of the Lord, yearned to see and enjoy the Ananda Tandava. The Lord instructed him to be born as a human being and go to the Thillai forest where Lord Shiva would display the dance in due course. Accordingly Adhisesha took birth as Patanjali, one of the 18 Shaiva siddhars or mystics. He went to Thillai forest and engaged himself in penance along with another great Shiva devotee sage Vyagrapada. The two devotees worshipped the Lord in the form of Shivalinga, as Thirumulataneswarar, the Primordial Lord, while waiting for the Ananda Tandava darshanam. In course of time there came to reside in the Thillai forests, a group of rishis who believed that God could be controlled by rituals and mantras. In order to remove their delusion and also fulfil the wish of Patanjali, the Lord strolled in the forest as a simple mendicant seeking alms from the rishis’ wives. Lord Vishnu accompanied him as his consort in the form of Mohini. The rishis and their wives were enamoured by the brilliance and beauty of the handsome mendicant and his consort. But on seeing their wives enchanted, the rishis became enraged and through mystical powers invoked serpents — a symbol of their envy and anger. Lord Shiva lifted those serpents and donned them as ornaments on His matted locks, neck and waist. The rishis then conjured a fierce tiger — a symbol of their power; but the Lord killed it and wrapped its skin around His waist. Then followed a raging elephant — a symbol of the rishis’ ego; the Lord ripped it to death and came to be called Gajasamharamurthy.
Thoroughly frustrated, the rishis gathered all their spiritual strength and invoked a powerful demon Apasmara — a symbol of complete arrogance and ignorance. But this time in order to preserve the balance of knowledge and ignorance in the world, the Lord did not kill Apasmara. Instead with a gentle smile he stepped on the demon’s back, immobilized him, and performed the Ananda Thandava — the dance of eternal bliss. While dancing so He disclosed His true form. The humbled rishis realized that the Lord is the Truth and is beyond mantras and rituals and surrendered at His feet. Patanjali and Vyagrapada along with the whole universe witnessed the Ananda Tandava and bathed in its ecstasy. The Lord remained forever in Thillai forest as Nataraja — the Ananda Tandava murti, suppressing the arrogance and ignorance of all beings for all eternity.
The Divine Temple
That Thillai forest is now the town of Chidambaram. Chidambaram literally means ‘Chit’ or Consciousness and ‘Ambaram’ or infinite space. Popularly known as Thillai Nataraja Temple or Chidambaram Temple, it is one of the panchabhoota sthalams — the temples of five primary elements; it represents akasha or space. The temple is also one among the pancha sabhai — the five divine halls where Lord Shiva displayed his cosmic dance; this is the Golden Hall. The temple, consecrated by Patanjali himself thousands of years ago, has witnessed several renovations during the time of the Pallava and Chola Kings. Patanjali consecrated this temple with a certain science behind it. The temple extends over 40 acres in the form of four concentric enclosures or corridors called prakaras. The fourth and outermost prakara consists of nine gateways, representing the nine orifices in the human body. Four of these gateways have magnificent seven storied gopurams facing the four cardinal directions. The positioning of the gopurams is unorthodox, with only the southern gopuram being directly on axis across the Nandi mandapa and Balipeethas. All the four gopurams are ornate with sculptures presenting the complete Shiva pantheon. The lower tier of the gopurams mainly consist of Ashtadikpala mandala, Navagraha mandala, and Rishi mandala images. The upper tier is exclusively dedicated to the major forms of Shiva, including Gajasamharamurti, Kankalamurti, and Ardhanarishwara; there are 104 of these images of which 100 are still intact. The east gopuram displays the complete enumeration of 108 Karanas — the key transitions in dance forming the basis of Bharathanatyam.
The third prakara is a large area open to the sky housing the Thousand Pillar Hall known as Raja Sabha, where festival rituals are held twice a year. The hall symbolises the thousand-petalled lotus of the Sahasrara chakra, the awakening of which leads to union with the Divine. The western side of the Raja Sabha is Shivaganga, the big temple tank. It centres the northern half of the third courtyard with elegant porches all around. Facing east towards the tank is the temple of Shivakamasundari, the consort of Nataraja. There are some other shrines around the corridor
The second prakara on the western side has the shrine of Thirumulataneswarar – the primordial Shivalingam worshipped by Patanjali and Vyagrapada; accompanying the Lord is his consort Umaiyammai. In the southern corridor is the Nritya Sabha or dance hall, with the shrine of Shiva and Kali as the Urdhatandava murti. It is a high rectangular platform presented as a two- wheeled chariot drawn by gigantic horses from the south towards the inner sanctum. It is the most ornate of all the halls with intricately carved pillars, and an elaborate ceiling and base decorated with figurative panels. However, some later constructions have made considerable changes and some parts of the structure have been covered-up in cement.
The innermost prakara houses the central sanctum santorum, the Chit Sabha or the Hall of Consciousness. It represents the lotus heart of the Universe, where Lord Shiva along with Shivakami Amman is performing the Ananda Tandava. Set on four feet high stone platform it has a single door on the southern side, slightly off the centre towards east, through which the Nataraja idol can be seen. The front porch of the stone platform, known as the Kanaka Sabha, is the place from where the daily rituals are conducted. As in the case of a human heart, it can be reached by two gateways on eastern and western sides. There is a well on the eastern side of the Chit Sabha, known as the Paramananda Koopa, whose water is used for daily rituals. The architecture of central sanctum has philosophical implications. The roof of the Chit Sabha is covered with 21,600 gold petals, with ‘Shivaya Namaha’ engraved on them, representing the number of breaths in a day. These petals are fixed with 72,000 gold nails which represents the nadis — the nerve nodes in the body. It bears 9 kalashas, representing 9 forms of energy.
The Chit Sabha can be reached from Kanaka Sabha by a flight of 5 stairs called the Panchatchara padi, representing the 5 syllables — Na Ma Si Va Ya. The Kanaka Sabha is held by 28 pillars representing 28 Shaiva agamas or scriptures, 64 beams representing 64 arts, and several cross beams representing blood vessels. Going up in the Kanaka Sabha, it can be seen that the Chit Sabha displays the three forms of Shiva: Sakal as Nataraja; Nishkal-Sakal as the crystal lingam and Nishkal as the formless empty space. There is also one red Ruby idol of Nataraja, representing Shiva who appeared in Brahmaloka as Ratnasabhapati. The Nishkal murti is to the west of the Nataraja, behind the silver latticed-screen, covered with the curtain. When the priest removes the curtain, 51 gold bilva leaves hanging over a stone screen can be seen, indicating the presence of the Lord there. It represents the Upanishadic idea that Reality is obscured by the curtain of maya, the illusion. When by the force of one’s own efforts and the Lord’s compassion, the guru removes this curtain of maya, the manifested and the un-manifested can be known simultaneously.
Whoever goes beyond maya, can have the vision of Lord Shiva and thus obtain the knowledge of the Absolute. But it remains a secret for the rest of the world. This is known as the Chidambara Rahasyam — The Secret of Chidambaram. To the south-west of the Kanaka Sabha, at the right-angle conjugation of the Nataraja facing south, there is a Vishnu shrine facing east as Govindaraj Perumal. It is one among 108 Divyadesam. Here, Vishnu gazes on Shiva reclining on Adishesha. This represents the Vedic theme of the creation of the universe in the form of Nataraja, with Narayana reclining on Adhisesha, floating on the water of undifferentiated matter during the period between dissolution and creation. A glimpse of both Shiva and Vishnu can be had from a raised platform, standing on the lotus marked on the floor. The geographical location of the temple is 79°41’ longitude, which is approximately common for all the Panchabhoota sthalams, the Rameshwaram temple and the Kedarnath temple. Stunningly, exactly below the toe of Nataraja, passes the geomagnetic equator thus placing the temple in zero magnetic dip zone, i.e., nil vertical component of geomagnetic field. All the rituals and administration of the temple is taken care of by a clan of Vaidika brahmins known as Chidambaram Dikshitars. Originally 3,000 in number, they were brought from Kailas to Chidambaram by Patanjali. He trained them in some religious disciplines, prepared a code of conduct based on Vedas for temple rituals, and inducted the priests into the worship of Lord Shiva as Nataraja. Today, these dikshitars number around 360 and they still maintain the codes and rituals set forth by Patanjali. Every married male member can perform the rituals and he is entitled to a share of the temple’s revenue.
Daily rituals start when the chief priest enters the sanctum reflecting deeply on his oneness with the Lord. Major rituals are performed six times a day and before each of them the crystal lingam is ritually bathed and worshipped to the accompaniment of Vedic hymns in Sanskrit and the Panchapuranam (from the Panniru Thirumurai) in Tamil. The worship ends with the priest parting the curtains of the sanctum sanctorum to reveal the Chidambara Rahasyam.
The Arudra Darshanam
There are six festivals in a year when Lord Nataraja is worshipped with elaborate anointing rituals. The most important is the Thiruvadhirai also known as Arudhra Darshan which is observed in the Tamil month of Marghazhi i.e. Dec-Jan. Known as Margashirsha in Sanskrit, this period is highly auspicious for spiritual practices. In the Bhagavad Gita Sri Krishna says, ‘masanam margashirshoham’, i.e., ‘among months, I am the Margashirsha,’ signifying that there is no month as auspicious as Margashirsha. This month precedes Uttarayana, and marks the pre-dawn of the day for devatas. During this month, earth is closest to the sun and thus experiences maximum gravitational pull; but the northern hemisphere is tilted away from the sun which results in winter. Due to this pull and cold weather, the life processes are at their minimum. It is therefore the best time to create a balance and stabilize the life forces within us. Keeping this in mind several spiritual practices have been woven into our culture like waking up before sunrise, visiting temples and singing devotional songs like Andal’s Tiruppavai or Manickavachagars Tiruppalliyezhuchi. All this is done with the intention to create stability and realize the latent spiritual energy within.
In this month, several festivals are observed throughout India; Vaikuntha Ekadasi dedicated to Lord Narayana and Arudra Darshan dedicated to Shiva are among the most important of them. Arudhra Darshanam is a celestial event which celebrates the cosmic dance of Lord Shiva. It is observed on the full moon night of Marghazhi with Arudhra as the ruling star. Arudhra called Ardra in Sanskrit, is the sixth lunar mansion astrologically. Literally, Arudhra means absolute, stable with a certain inertia (as opposite to Rudra a roarer, signifying motion), and renewal. With the combination of Rahu and Budh, Arudhra has the aspects of illusion and intellect, chaos and order together. Also known as Betelgeuse in astronomy, Arudhra is a cool red super-giant in the constellation of Orion, a prominent constellation located on the celestial equator. Arudhra is one of the largest and most luminous stars visible to the naked eye with a distinct golden-red colour. It is best visible in the night sky between September and March. If human eyes were sensitive to radiation at all wavelengths, Arudhra would appear as the brightest star in the sky. Therefore, with these characteristics, Arudhra represents Shiva performing the cosmic dance with the golden red flame of destruction — destruction of illusion, ego and ignorance — and displaying his Sat-Chit-Ananda aspect to us. Thus, with the unique combination of maximum gravitational pull from the sun, a cool and soothing weather, full moon night, and the energy fields of Arudhra star at the spiritual space of Consciousness with the nil vertical geomagnetic field at Chidambaram, the Arudhra Darshnam is a grand celestial event, which provides an opportunity to receive the grace of the Lord and become one with the cosmos. This event is celebrated as a 10-day festival. It begins with Dwajarohanam, Rathot- savam, Ardhra Mahabhishekam and finally the Arudhra Darshnam. After Rathotsavam the Nataraja idol is brought, in moonlight, to the Raja Sabha for sacred ablution with milk, curd, ghee, honey, fruit juices, coconut water, sandal paste, holy ashes, and other sacred offerings. Thousands of people flock the temple to see the anointing ceremony and the ritualistic dance of Shiva when he is taken back to the sanctum sanctorum. At the end of the rituals, people receive Kali a special kind of sweet dish prasad which indicates bliss. It is believed that eating this removes all afflictions and fills one with divine bliss. The Chidambaram temple represents the blissful dance of Shiva with eternal stillness. It symbolizes the rhythm of macro and micro cosmos.
The temple is a reservoir of spiritual energy and gives us an opportunity to resonate with the cosmic rhythm. It is a private temple managed by the Dikshitars and needs to be protected and nurtured for the good of humanity.
1. The Dance of Shiva, Ananda K. Coomaraswamy, Owen, 1958
2. The Tao of Physics, Fritjof Capra, Shambala, Colorado (U.S.A.)
This article was first published in Vedanta Kesari (Jan 2017 Edition) and has been republished here with the author’s permission.