Revisiting the magnificent Chidambaram Temple

My love story with travel is age old. My first travel was when I was three months old to Hyderabad. My young curious self at five years, had enquired from my mother – how did the Mahatma rally the entire the nation behind him? She replied, “He travelled the breadth of the country to first know about its countrymen, understand it and then advocated for them.” That’s how the idea of travel stuck with me! It seemed investing in travel would be to understand my own self and the country to which I belong.

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On a road trip to Chidambaram Temple from Chennai. Photo by Tobi on Pexels.com

Towards the end of 2019, I had travelled to Mizoram on a work assignment. On that cold December morning I had tiptoed across the wooden floorboard of my room at 4:30 am to see the cloud floating on Aizawl; but this year has made such ideas for one’s dreams.

Before the end of first quarter of the year, the pandemic had gained foothold in the country. My husband had shifted to Chennai a week before the lockdown. With the lockdown firmly in place, being cooped up in Calcutta was the new normal. I moved out to Chennai in July, but remaining shut indoors was a necessary evil. To us, the fortunate few availing the work from home model often grumble about not being able to flex our feet enough. To the ones who have no choice but to, wish they had the alternative available. Cooped up for six months got the better of us and made us re-evaluate into buying the car. The only manner possible to venture out to cut a slice of life! To emerge out of this state, we (my husband and I) decided to visit the magnificent Chidambaram Temple in the Cuddalore district of Tamil Nadu.

First glimpse. Photo credit: Mahesh Menon

Tamil Nadu, often referred to as a temple state has one such beautiful and spectacular in every district. The temple and the surrounding town is particularly important as this was the earlier seat of power of the Chola (Choda) Dynasty[1]. The rulers who had expanded their kingdom into the South Eastern Asian nations along with their culture and architecture. During my history lectures, I had dreamt of walking through the architectural marvels they had created out of rocks (read the Brihadisvara Temple[2]) which continues to stand the test of time. But that is for another day.

We headed out at 4:40 am in the morning to avoid the morning traffic and be one of the earliest to reach. To satiate our hunger pangs, we had a bowl of steaming idlis, cabbage vada and the customary coffee at the Indian Coffee House at Pondicherry. Continuing on our journey, we reached Chidambaram by 8:30 am. We saw the sun being reluctant to peek out and then being resplendent. The 180 km drive was a breeze with music and conversation.

The small town of Chidambaram has grown around the Thillai Nataraja Temple, dedicated to the worship of Shiva.[1] The defining feature being the idol is that of the dancing Nataraja rather than a Shivling. The city at a point of time had a Shiva shrine and was named Thillai. The Chola’s made it their capital, renamed the town as Chidambaram, meaning ‘atmosphere of consciousness/ thought’ and built the present temple complex for their family deity – Nataraja. The temple compound is spread over 40 acres of land and has four gates on each of the directions. The gopurams or gateway towers have exquisite carvings and each of them tell different stories. While the West Gate tells the story of Durga slaying Mahishasura, the East Gate has the carvings of the 108 postures of Natya Shastra of Bharatnatyam and faces the sanctum. The temple complex houses shrines from mainly Shaivism, but there are elements from Vaishnavism and Shaktism as well.

The magnificent West Gate. Photo credit: Mahesh Menon

As is very common of the South Indian temple planning, there is a temple tank which cries for maintenance. To the east of the tank, there is the Raja Sabha having 1000 pillars. Possibly this was the hall where public performances and festivities were carried out. It is said to be a wonder; but presently the hall is closed as most of the structure is affected and needs conservation efforts. One of the unprepared pieces of anecdotal information that I collected was that the temple had been plundered and the complex destroyed by Malik Kafur.[1] Most of the earlier spaces had been reconstructed by the later kings and other dynasties. Even after the Chola’s moved the capital to Thanjavur or Tanjore, the town of Chidambaram continued to remain sacred and culturally significant. 

Apart from being a very spiritually stimulating experience, it was a feeling of finding the connection with the world. Regular devotees saw us preening the long halls and marvelling at the architecture. While some shared stories that they had heard growing up; some even guided us around the complex to connect to the Being.

Shivaganga Temple Tank. Photo credit: Mahesh Menon

On our way back, we stopped at Pondicherry to stroll down the beach. The glaring heat and humidity made us rethink our strategy and revaluate for lunch options at the earliest. The White Town or French Quarters with their white and mustard walls and khorkhori (colonial windows) are a sight to behold. Many cafes line the streets and we tucked into one for our lunch. After picking up pastries and tarts for home, we decided to get back on the road for our ride back home.

Welcome to Pondicherry. Photo credit: Mahesh Menon

The day had its challenges in being on guard 24*7 given the pandemic. But it felt that we need not be cooped up if we take enough precautions and plan well. To have the opportunity to feel or sense a historical era was breath-taking when one walked down the halls of the sanctum of the temple. As the temple continues to be administered and maintained by the hereditary trustees learned in the vedas, the conservation efforts and upkeep has greatly suffered. A joint effort with the ASI could be beneficial to keep the historical element of the complex alive and available to appreciate and imagine.

Dine in style at the Coromandel Cafe in Pondicherry. Photo credit: Mahesh Menon

Contributor: Amrita Paul

About our Writing Program Student
Amrita Paul is a Senior Programme Officer with the Prison Reforms Programme, Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative. She has a Master’s Degree in Law (LL.M.) Human Rights from the National Law School of India University, Bangalore. The primary focus of her work is to target unnecessary and prolonged detention of undertrials and work towards systemic interventions to prevent it. She loves watching movies and sitcoms (when she has time), cooking and creating new recipes, reading Christie’s and murder mysteries and appreciating music.


[1] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Chola_dynasty

[2] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Brihadisvara_Temple,_Thanjavur

[3] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nataraja_Temple,_Chidambaram#Raja_sabha:_1,000_pillar_hall

[4] https://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/city/chennai/Revisiting-an-age-of-piety-and-plunder/articleshow/36026638.cms

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Tanya is a graduate in Sociology from Sophia College, Mumbai, a post-graduate in Communications and Media from SNDT Women’s University in Mumbai and holds a Master's Degree in Journalis & Mass Communications from Chandigarh University. A former writing mentor and a seasoned lifestyle writer, Tanya writes columns on The Lifestyle Portal of life and living.

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