If I thought that staying at Tanjavur was cheap, Chidambaram turns out to be even cheaper. The guy at the desk takes one sharp look at my clothes, my boots and my backpack. He has made up his mind.
‘The room is very basic,’ he tells me trying to put me off. ‘It is a very old room.’
‘Try me,’ I am tempted to say. Instead I reply, ‘Let me at least take a look.’
‘I don’t want to waste my time,’ he argues but eventually gets his boy to show me the room.
We walk up one floor. There are lots of rooms here. I get number 19. It is a small room made smaller by a large bed that occupies most of the space. There is an attached bathroom and toilet. In this cramped space, there is even a wash basin by the bed, a chair and a low table. A mirror hangs on the wall over the basin. It is something of a luxury in a place like this. The walls are peeling of old distemper. The bed creaks. For all this drabness, the room is ventilated well. Light comes shining through the windows. The graffiti on the walls left by backpackers from halfway across the globe make interesting read. At just sixty rupees a night, it is the cheapest room of this kind I have taken anywhere in India.
‘There is a nice restaurant down by the road,’ tells me the manager, who is pleased that I have taken the room and not wasted his time. He carefully puts away a photocopy of my PAN card, something required by the local police at all hotels of this shade and grade.
I find the restaurant and sit down for lunch. The place is busy. People are eating vegetable pulao, curd rice, lemon rice or tamarind rice, to name a few. They are not serving meals here. I ponder about what to eat but no one comes around to take my order. I lose patience, cross the road and find myself ordering a regular meal at another restaurant. South Indian meals are something of a value of money but more importantly they make it simple for you to place orders. It is a standard mix with a little of everything. You don’t feel you are missing out on anything important. Just my luck, the restaurant isn’t that good. I have had much better meals at Nagercoil, Tanjavur and Kumbakonam.
The main temple of Chidambaram, dedicated to Lord Nataraja, isn’t far. The temple is closed for the afternoon and will reopen at four. The priests will have their rest. I can’t blame them for their afternoon siesta. They probably deserve it. They wake up well before sunrise and go to bed in the late hours. Everyday for them is long. Everyday is almost an uninterrupted sequence of pujas, rituals and intonations. Let them have their afternoon rest.
I walk around the temple by the streets that surround it. I admire the tall gopurams on all four sides. It is a quiet afternoon walk. Brahmins seem to have colonized the areas around the temple. Brahmin women talk in their own style of Tamil. They wear their sarees differently. Flower sellers are getting busy for the evening hours of prayer to make good business. A man is roasting corn in his shop on wheels. Beggarly women stick to their reserved spaces at the entrances. They are the caretakers of pilgrims’ footwear. They too prepare for the evening crowds by counting the tokens in advance. Chidambaram is a bigger town than Kumbakonam. I like the latter much better. Nonetheless, being a Sunday afternoon, Chidambaram is quiet and peaceful. I like my walk at this hour.
Temples dedicated to Shiva can be found all over the country but Chidambaram is unique. It gives importance to Nataraja, Shiva in his dancing form. The pose is generally Ananda Tandava in which every gesture carries a deeper symbolism. Dance at Chidambaram is not a frivolous pastime, not a reality TV show craving for ratings or advertisement dollars. Dance here is spiritual. It is a symbol of existence: creation, preservation and destruction. It is an idea of who we truly are beyond the veils of illusion. This temple is so important to the followers of Shaivism that the very word “koil” – temple in Tamil – refers to the Nataraja Temple of Chidambaram. For Vaishnavaites, such a word refers to the Ranganathaswamy Temple of Srirangam.
I will not go into lengthy descriptions of the wealth and beauty of carvings inside the temple. It is enough to mention that at every corner, on every pillar, in every mandapa and on every wall there is something wonderful to admire and study. It is often difficult to figure out which comes first: admiration after study or study after admiration. There is a bit of both in this temple in its grand architecture, in the scale of things and in the little details of art and skilled craftsmanship.
I will simply enumerate that in the Ambal Sannidhi the ceiling contains excellent paintings that remind me a little bit of Lepakshi; that there is a fine shrine dedicated to Ganesha with the ceiling bearing pictures of this God in his different forms; that here too like in many great temples stands a 1000-pillared mandapa; that large reliefs of elephants adorn walls; that beautiful lathe-turned pillars stand near the sanctum; that dancers in their hundreds are enshrined in little columned niches on walls all over the temple; that the temple’s tall gopurams and golden vimanas proclaim the great dynasties of South India, each in its own time of glory.
At six, the evening puja starts in the main sanctum. This space is called the Kanaka Sabha. I am a little confused. There are two sanctums here and ceremonies are being held in both of them at the same time. To my surprise I see that the shrine to my left is dedicated to an aspect of Vishnu, Govindaraja Perumal. The shrine straight ahead is where Lord Nataraja is worshipped. It is a rare assembly of devotees of both faiths within the same mandapa. The crowds are flocking in front of both these sanctums. The ceremonies are presided over by Brahmin priests but I also see common men being admitted to the higher platform as long as they are topless and in dhotis. It does feel orthodox and highly traditional. Any transgressions to time-honoured customs will not be taken in good humour.
Devotees of Vishnu disperse quickly from the shrine of Govindaraja Perumal but they turn to worshipping Nataraja. The common man will worship anything if he is told that it is sacred. He allegiances to schools of faith and belief is not all carved out in stone. The ceremonies for Nataraja goes on for more than half an hour. The rituals are long and complex. From the back, I can hardly see the idol in the sanctum let alone make out the dancing pose. When I manage to catch a glimpse, I find the idol clothed excessively in gold threaded fabric.
I sit down by a pillar. A man is loudly playing the thavil. Common devotees bring their own drums and cymbals to add to the din. Two swinging bells add to the general noise. Lots of little bells dangling on a rope add their combined rings. The priest does aarthi. Recitation of holy verses in Sanskrit faintly reach my ears amidst the cacophony of sounds. It is not music by any means but it certainly does create the right ambience for worship. This is not a place to try to understand things or make sense through human senses. This is the place to give in to the moment, suspend ordinary logic and place one’s faith in something in a higher realm. One look at the expressions on the faces of those gathered here is enough to tell me what it means to be god-fearing.
I come out to find myself at an open space where stand four magnificent composite pillars. These are exactly like the ones at Thiruvanaikkaval and it probably isn’t a coincidence. The temples of Chidambaram, Thiruvanaikkaval, Kalahasti, Kanchipuram and Thiruvannamalai together represent the five elements of nature. Chidambaram represents ether. All five temples must have been conceived as part of a grand design.
Nearby is a mandapam named Nritya Sabha. The superb pillars in this mandapa are matched by reliefs on the panelled ceiling. An idol of Shiva in the pose of Urdhava Tandava stands at one end. In this pose, Shiva’s right leg is raised straight up to the sky. There is a legend that associates this dance pose with Govindaraja Perumal. It appears that once Shiva and Parvati challenged each other to a dance competition. Govindaraja Perumal presided over as the judge. The competition was evenly poised. Shiva sought Perumal’s advice. Perumal advised him to take the Urdhava Tandava pose, a pose forbidden for women as per the rules of Natya Shastra. By such connivance, Shiva won the competition.
I take to walking the vast spaces and corridors within the temple. I am attracted to a sound coming from a corner room. I find about 70 Brahmins engaged in chanting. I stand around for fifteen minutes to the sound of their chants which resounds through the long corridors. They do this without reference to any books. Everything is chanted from memory. The sound is deep and meditative and rendered in Sanskrit. A board announces that mahajapam is set to start off in two days time.
The priests are all Dikshitar Brahmins, a unique community of priests who have inherited the right to perform pujas and ceremonies at this temple. They sit bare-chested in three rows on each side, facing each other. A brass idol of Nataraja stands on a little platform at the far end. They wear clean white dhotis. The sacred thread runs across each of their chests. Their foreheads are shaven almost to the middle of their heads. Their long hair is oiled, combed backwards and tied into neat buns. Some wear gold bracelets and rings. Others are plainly dressed. Some keep mobile phones tucked within the folded of their dhotis. I return to this spot an hour later. I find that they have not moved an inch and their chanting continues without pause.
After sunset it gets dark quickly. I leave the temple premises and walk in search of a place for dinner.
‘Today’s special is adai,’ tells Devarajan, a waiter at a modest restaurant without any frills.
‘Anything else?’ I ask.
‘Idiappam, chappati…’ he launches into a long list of other items on the menu. A menu card in restaurants as this is unheard of. Everything is done with personal interaction.
I order idiappam and then chappati. Devarajan is attentive. As he serves an array of chutneys, he points out, ‘You must try everyone of them.’
He learns about my visit to the temple. He adds, ‘You must come again during the Margazhi month. There is a great car festival that goes on here.’
‘The streets will be packed. You will not find a room but you can stay with me upstairs,’ he points up with his fingers. ‘Give me your address. I will send you the details.’
‘When is Margazhi?’ I ask. I have little knowledge of the Tamil calendar.
‘Around December,’ he replies. ‘You must come. Kanla thanni vanthudum. Marakka mudiyatha oru katchi. Paakka koodiyathu.’
I thank him for his company and pay him a nice tip. He is happy. I am happy too.