Most Christians, it is said, prefer to go to the same church all their lives and if they move, then pick one in the new city and stick to that. Not so with most Hindus I know. The more temples we visit on a regular basis, the better we feel about it. But although I have visited many temples, when I think of praying or am in want of serenity and peace I always look to the one temple that we used to visit as a family when we were kids. No other temple gives me that uplifting feeling of being in the presence of something greater than humankind, the feeling of being protected, an almost proprietary feeling*. So when I undertook this journey, it was more for the historical and architectural significance of the temple than to fulfill any spiritual need.
Despite the filth surrounding the temple and the extremely aggressive beggars near the gates, a sight of the Gopuram
was enough to assure me that there was plenty of material here to quench my architectural fervor and fill up my camera’s memory card. There was some renovation going on, and so they had dug up the path from the entrance to the first gopuram, but as it was Kovil premises, footwear was not permitted. So we had to trudge on sharp stones and powdered gravel while dodging paan spit stains and dog/cat/cow urine and fecal matter on our soft, recently pedicured feet. All this looking down, I missed the first entrance and its Gopuram before I looked up.
But once I was in, the view was stunning. Everywhere one turns there were
walls covered in statues, or murals, floors with painted, intricate kolams and row upon row of pillars. It is impossible to describe the inside of the temple as it is almost too overwhelming to take in any details, you only have the impression of vastness. The first Praharam, or circle you enter is called the Raja Sabai and houses the Ayiram Kaal Mandabam. It is purported that the Chola Kings had their anointing and crowning ceremony here. It is also the last place the Utsava Murthy (procession deity) and the “divine slipper”** is taken around before the God retires to bed for the night. It holds the Siva Ganga tank and the point from which you can see all the four Gopurams in one go.
The next concentric circle is the Deva Sabai as it includes the abodes of the other deities including the Lord’s children and more significantly for me, Patanjali and Vyaghrapada (the snake and tiger rishis for the irreverent). It is significant for me, because it was at this Sannidhi that the attendant Dikshitar shattered my most cherished historical anecdote***.
In NandanAr Charitram of my memory, moved by Nandan’s pathos filled song of being unable to obtain the Lord’s darshan because of the Nandi blocking his sight, the Lord in turn moves the Nandi a few feet to the side in Chidambaram thus enabling Darshan and hence mukthi for Nandan. Thus in Chidambaram Kovil, so my memory told me, I will see the Nandi not directly in front of the God, but to the side. Only problem was that in Chidambaram, each Gopura vAsal lead to a praharam which ended in a huge Nandi in a cage in front of the Ayyan Sannidhi. I asked my mom which one was The Nandi and after thinking for a few minutes she confidently points to the one at the east Gopura vAsal and says this has to be it and goes into complicated explanations in which astronomy, shastras and folklore butted heads indiscriminately. Getting thoroughly confused, I finally screwed up courage and asked the Dikshitar at the above mentioned shrine **** the Nandi question. He listened to me blankly and said without batting an eyelid that Thirupunkoor was the place Nandanar got his first darshan, thanks to the displaced Nandi and Chidambaram was where he attained mukhti. As I was just about to refute this blasphemy, my mother, the traitor, chips in and says “Oh yes! that is why they say “Thirupunkoor ill saayntha nandi”” like she had known it all along!
But I am getting ahead of myself. In the morning while trying to take in the enormity of the architectural marvel that was the temple, I was told we were getting late to witness what we came for i.e., to me boring, puja. But boy was I wrong!
The minute one enters the Kanaka Sabai, there is a perceptible change in the mood. While in the outer praharams, it is all about loitering people with cameras or just loiters (including a few bored dogs and cows) the inner praharam is all business. The first thing you see is the crowd concentrated towards the entrance of the Chit Sabhai. But they don’t overwhelm you like in other temples, possibly because, instead of the raucous noise of a crowd or shlokas blaring from a megaphone, you hear a group of Dikshitars reciting the Vedas in perfect cadence. Because the group is large and the rendering is in perfect unison, there is no need for sound amplification and the effect is entirely spiritual. Moreover at specific times during the day’s puja, the Oduvaars circle around and blow the Conch and Pambai at each entrance to the Chit Sabhai while singing the Thevaram and ending with a “Sivane, Sivane” in unison. The combined effect of the chanted Vedas and the musical Thevaram is nothing if not surreal. It gives a new meaning and vigor to the age-old puja vidanam practices, that are a little too stale for my jaded senses. I spent a blissful 3 hours attending the religious events of the day that included the Spatika and Maragatha Lingam Abhishekam. I must say I was a little disappointed by the Chitambaram Rahasiyam, but that could be because I had hyped it up a lot in my mind that nothing short of scintillating lights and fireworks would have satisfied me.
After witnessing the Archanai, Aaradhanai and Neivadyam, we made our way to the Govindaraja Perumal sannidhi to be underwhelmed and shortchanged on the Kalkandu and Prasadam. But I can’t really blame them as Koothanar is a tough act to follow. We then ascended the Natana Sabai and saw the UgraThandavar. Legend has it that in a dance face-off with UmaiyaL, Nataraja won the contest by lifting his leg and touching his head with his big toe. Upset at losing the competition, the goddess packed up and left to her own abode, which is now the Tillai KaLi Amman temple. Legend goes on to say that to appease the goddess, Nataraja has decreed that the spiritual brownie points that one receives from visiting the Periya Kovil in Chidambaram can only be actualized after the person has also visited Tillai KaLi temple before leaving the town. But since it was close to lunch time and we were more interested in calories in the present life than brownie points for future ones, we headed out in search of food.
* I realize this partiality is tainted by nostalgia but whatever the cause, the feeling is honest enough.
** I am sure there is an authentic sanskrit term for this, I am just too bored to Wiki it.
*** Oh don’t nitpick. What is mythology for one is history to another!
**** Mainly he was the only one who seemed approachable and free at that time. Besides he didn’t seem like he would solicit us for money like all the other Dikshitars were only too keen on doing.