The more than 2000 years old rich, gold roofed temple with its glittering gopurams, the Thillai Nataraja temple in the ancient city of Chidambaram is indicative of the stupendous wealth of the Cholas and also speaks of their devotion to their god Shiva. The temple has enormous significance to the Hindu pilgrim because it is dedicated to Akasha or Space, one of the Pancha Bhoota or five elements that define the creation of the cosmos and its continued existence. The legendary idol captures the dance of Shiva – the Tandava – which, in Hindu mythology, depicts the birth of the universe – and therefore, addresses the element of Space.
A unique, dancing bronze idol of Shiva within is worshipped as the Lord of Dance or Nataraja. In one shrine inside the temple, Shiva is represented by empty space….and a garland of 51 leaves made of gold, strung together and hung in that space.
The temple in the heart of the Chidambaram township, is spread over 40 acres and is bordered by the second largest mangrove forests is the world, where the thillai trees, (which lend their name locally to the temple) of the Pichavaram wetlands grow. There are five main halls in the Nataraja temple, each with its own unique features. The Rajya Sabha in the Nataraja temple is 1000 pillared and the Chith Sabha that the Akashalingam, the Lingam of Space is worshipped. Shiva and Parvathi, his Consort, grace the sanctum sanctorum of the Kanaka Sabha. The Hall of Dance, the Nritya Sabha has 56 pillars displaying 108 dance postures of the dance form and has been conceptualized as a horse drawn chariot.
Supremely gifted craftsmen, the Perumthachan, designed and built the earliest structures of the temple. Although the main complex is dedicated to Shiva Nataraja, there are smaller shrines devoted to other deities such as Shivakami Amman, Ganesha, Murugan and also to the second major god of the sacred trinity, Vishnu, as Govindaraja Perumal. At a short distance from the Nataraja temple is an important Kali Amman temple, also built by the Chola King Kopperunjingan between AD 1229 and 1278.
Obviously the most important festivals here would be those dedicated to music and dance. And the Natyanjali Dance Festival is held annually in the month of February, during the Mahashivaratri festival for 5 days, where the most accomplished dancers vie with each other to perform in honour of the god, Nataraja. In 1929, Annamalai University was established in Chidambaram and it is considered one of the oldest and most distinguished universities in the country.