#19 Chidambaram and the Shiva Temple, India

Before we left Rajan on Tuesday, he took us to the Saraswati Nahal Library, the oldest library in Asia. There are 60,000 manuscripts, including fragile manuscripts written on palm leaves. Hopefully, everything will get digitized soon. The docs that are on display are amazing and not well protected.  What especially struck me was a doctor’s written record of cataract surgery.

We left there to visit a “bronze factory”. We stopped on a small residential street and walked up to the front porch. The factory turned out to be one man and his father. They create Hindu deities using a technique called lost wax casting that goes back generations. The father was using a hand crank to force air into a fire pit. They create the wax molds, mix and melt the bronze, and finely craft each statue. They were selling their work and I bought a beautiful Ganesh.

Wednesday today-

Suresh picked us up and we made a spur of the moment stop at the Mahamaham Tank and adjacent temple. We are driving back roads whenever possible, so passing through villages, small heards of cows, buffalo and goats, through rice paddies and coconut groves. Often the two lane highway becomes a  4 or 5 lane when cars are passing and there is a motorbike, a tuk tuk and a couple of bicyclists. Sometimes there is a traffic jam in the middle of a village. Could be two busses trying to pass, or a slow cow on the road. It is really Suresh’s gift to us, letting us see this rural side of Tamilnadu. Surely it would be easier for him to take the bypass road. There are communities of thatched houses that look livable now, but must be disastrous during cyclones and monsoon season.

Back to the Mahamaham tank – it is in the middle of the town rather than on the temple grounds so people use it to do laundry, or just sit on the steps. It looks like a little lake, but with stone steps descending to the water rather than banks. Traditionally, it is believed that after a huge deluge, the celestial pot containing the nectar with the seeds of life sat here. Shiva shot it with an arrow, broke it, spilling the contents and reviving life. At festival time, the tank will be emptied, refilled, and sealed off for the Brahma priests. 1 – 2 million people gather here. I am so happy to be here when it’s not festival time…

We did not go into the big Temple, but a small one just adjacent to the tank. It was under renovation and restoration and still in use. The workers encouraged us to come in, then insisted we walk around the back to see the lingum. We also saw a family of mongooses. (Had to look up the plural of that one.) We watched men carving statues up by the ceiling, and a woman carrying buckets of gravel on her head. It was a very sweet place. Ronni was blessed with ash, with no expectation of a donation. She later found a place to leave some money. Before leaving, I asked if I could take a picture of this small woman carrying the gravel. She emphatically gestured no, so I closed the camera. Turns out, she wanted to be photographed, just not working. A few moments later, as we were leaving, she grabbed Ronni with enormous strength around her shoulder and posed with her for me to take the proper picture.

Then we left for the Shiva Temple which turned out to be the highlight of the trip. It’s very odd to walk into a Hindu Temple and feel at home. Here is the back story.

Chidambaram is one of the five holiest Shiva temples, each representing one of the five natural elements; Chidambaram represents akasha (aether).

There are lots of ways to translate Chidambaram, but my favorite is that Chidambaram may be derived from chit, meaning “consciousness”, and ambaram, meaning “sky”, the sky of consciousness, which is the ultimate aim one should attain according to all the Vedas and scriptures. Shavites, followers of Shiva, believe that a visit to Chidambaram leads to liberation.

So we enter the grounds and meet a lovely priest named Ganesh, (easy to remember). He tells us he is expecting a group from America and cannot be our guide, so introduces us to Mr. Balu (also easy to remember). All of the priests here are shiavite brahmins called Dikshitar.

So here is what happened in the news this week:
The Supreme Court on Monday morning set aside the takeover of the sacred Nataraj temple at Chidambaram by the Tamil Nadu State Government, and paved the way for the return of the temple administration to its traditional custodians, the Podu Dikshitars, thus marking the opening of the year with a major civilisational victory for Hindu dharma.

So they are very happy this week. They are unique in India, in both their roles in the community, and in the temple. They are married, hold temple responsibilities in a rotating fashion, and may be an example of the earliest Democratic process.
Below is a more detailed description, if you are interested…

“Podu Dikshitars have been the archakas and trustees of the Chidambaram temple from time immemorial; they printed their temple constitution for the first time in 1849. A dikshitar gets the right to do sacramental service to lord Nataraja and participate in temple administration only after marriage. The community performs duty at the temple in groups of 20 and each batch stays for 20 days till each has in his turn performed the complete tour of puja at the different shrines of the temple where the daily pujas are held.

Though the daily administration of the temple is done by a nine-member management committee, all major decisions are taken by the general assembly of Podu Dikshitars in a democratic way. The dikshitars live ascetic lives; the temple possesses invaluable offerings of jewellery made by former rulers and rich merchants, which are physically verified as per rules once in four days, 20 days and six months. There has been no embezzlement till date. The Chidambaram dikshitars are different from other Brahmin sects in that they are found only in Chidambaram town and form an endogamous clan; they marry only within their community. They are fervent devotees of Shiv. Their puja rituals are special and are found nowhere else in the Hindu world, and are believed to have been expounded by the sage Patanjali. The Podu Dikshitars were among the first to open the temple to all castes of Hindus. Chidambaram is possibly the only ancient temple in Tamil Nadu which permits non-Hindu devotees to have darshan of the deities including the presiding deity Nataraj. In the two main festivals celebrated every year, devotees of all communities are permitted to participate with equal respect and status.”

I include this information because it helps explain the commonality between us and the Dikshitars. Mr. Balu took us through the grounds pointing out important details and us evidence of auspicious numbers, 5, 7, 9 and 108.

5 senses and 5 elements
7 days in a week
9 planets
108 totals 9 (also number of mala beads)

Then the weirdest thing happened. Mr. Balu ran into a western couple he knew and introduced us. He introduced me as a yoga teacher. Up till then, we were only answering his questions and listening to his explanations. None of us talked about ourselves. So I asked him how he knew. He said he didn’t, God knew. I was totally flummoxed, at least in the moment. Eventually, we parted ways with Mr Balu and headed for the inner temple, home of the bejeweled Nataraja, the spot where, in the story related below, Shiva danced. Here, we could finally go in – we thought. It looked like we might have to receive a family blessing which we were not entirely comfortable with.

Then, when we were just about to leave, we ran into Ganesh again and started talking. Pinchas introduced himself as Paul. Ganesh lit up and he had a friend from the states of the same name, Paul Muller Ortega. Then we started talking about Douglas (missed him and his group by a day or two) and all of a sudden we were mishpokhe (family). Then I began to understand how Mr. Balu knew I was a yoga teacher. We are mostly familiar with the same stories, the tantric view, and we share the phrases we learned from our teachers. It must have been abundantly clear!!!

Ganesh led us up the side stairs, and there, under a dome of 108 gold leaf tiles was this most stunning Nataraja. After practicing and teaching in front of a beautiful Nataraja at City Yoga, for almost 14 years, I felt connected and as moved as I have ever been.

We gratefully accepted blessings from Ganesh and promised to remember him to our mutual friends. So I put it out there to all of you.

Temple Story – and the reason behind the Dancing Shiva, or Nataraja:
The story of Chidambaram begins with the legend of Shiva strolling into the Thillai tree forest.

In the Thillai forests lived a group of saints or ‘rishis’ who believed in magic and that God can be controlled by rituals and ‘mantras’ or magical words. Shiva arrives with resplendent beauty and brilliance, assuming the form of a merchant. He is followed by Vishnu as Mohini. The rishis and their wives are enchanted by the brilliance and the beauty of the handsome mendicant and his consort. Seeing their womenfolk enchanted, the rishis get enraged and invoke scores of ‘serpents’ (Sanskrit: Nāga) by performing magical rituals. Shiva lifts the serpents and dons them as ornaments on his matted locks, neck and waist. Further enraged, the rishis invoke a fierce tiger, which Shiva skins and dons as a shawl around his waist. Frustrated, the rishis gather their strength and invoke a powerful demon Muyalakan – a symbol of complete arrogance and ignorance. Shiva, wearing a gentle smile, steps on the demon’s back, immobilizes him and performs the Ánanda Thaandava (the dance of eternal bliss) and discloses his true form. The rishis surrender, realizing that this Lord is the truth and he is beyond magic and rituals.

The demon under Nataraja’s feet signifies that ignorance is under his feet
The Fire in this hand (power of destruction) means destroyer of evil
The raised hand signifies that he is the savior of all life.
The Ring at the back signifies the cosmos.
The drum in his hand signifies the origin of Life.