At Chidambaram in Cuddalore district of Tamil Nadu stands a great Shiva temple dating back to the later Chola period. Run and managed by a community of Brahmins, the Podu Dikshitars, the 50-acre temple is one of the foremost temples of Lord Shiva and is listed in the Tamil Sangam classics. The Pallava, Chola, Pandya, Vijayanagara and Chera kings offered patronage to the temple during their time. The deity, known as Thillai Koothan (the God who Dances), takes its name from a species of poisonous mangrove tree (Excoecaria agallocha) known locally as Thillai. This is Shiva as Nataraja — the cosmic dancer — and he is depicted as performing the Ananda Tandava (the dance of delight) in the main sanctum with its gold-plated roof. The temple complex has five halls (sabhas) and a number of smaller shrines dedicated to other deities of the Hindu pantheon. Revered as one of the five Pancha Bhootha Sthalams -- temples of Lord Shiva representing one of the five sacred elements — Chidambaram represents akasha (ether).
As Nataraja dancing the Ananda Tandava, the form of Shiva the cosmic dancer has manifold representations. The community of Podu Dikshitars, who preside over the rites of worship, were to number 3,000 (2,999 along with Shiva). However, today about 360 Dikshitars remain. The community has fought a long legal battle with the Tamil Nadu government over control of the temple and in January the Supreme Court of India ordered control of the temple to be restored to the Podu Dikshitars.
Photos: Azhar Mohamed Ali
Text: Bijoy Venugopal