Pic: Gopuram of the Chidambaram Nataraja Temple
I was straining my neck over the people in front of me to spot the Akashalingam. The Dikshitar, one of the Vaidheeka Brahmins or priests from an unbroken Vedic ritualistic tradition of centuries in Shiva worship set by Patanjali1, drew the curtain aside to reveal golden bilva leaves (of the bel tree) which appeared to be suspended mid air. This was the golden chit sabhai in the Nataraja temple in Chidambaram. Representing the Aakasha or space element of the panca bootha tattva, the garba gruha houses the Nirakara or formless representation of Shiva. Garlanded by the bilva leaves, the curtain revealed the dichotomy of nothingness, Shiva personified as an empty space who is everywhere and yet unseen. This is the Chidambaram Ragasiyam, the secret of Chidambaram, that which reveals itself to the inner eye of a person, who has matured in his sadhana.
There are two other forms worshipped at the temple, the anthropomorphic Nataraja form representing the cosmic dance of evolution and the formless form or the spatika linga form of Shiva that facilitates daily worship2.
This was in December of 2021. I made a quick trip to check in on the welfare of my family after nearly two years of isolation with the COVID epidemic. On our way to Chennai from Bengaluru, we took a lengthy detour to two places I was longing to visit, Thiruannamalai and Chidambaram. We crossed the humble gopuram and made our way towards the garbhagriha where I got my first surprise of the day. Right next to the Chit Sabai or Golden mantapam, was a beautiful shrine for the sayana-murti of Govindaraja Perumal reclining on his devoted Adisesha. This shrine is one of the 108 divya desams of Vishnu dear to Sri Vaishnavites in southern India and lauded by the Alwars in their poetry. This temple is one the earliest examples of Shiva-Vishnu temples where the hallowed premises houses the divine forms of the two primary devatas in the Hindu pantheon.
Suddenly the sounds of the udukku (Tamil:உடுக்கை), an Indian percussion instrument similar to damaru rang through the air. My heart started thumping almost in synchrony and the excitement building around me was palpable. I looked questioningly at my father who looked just as confused. Shrill voices pierced through the air asking us to step aside. The crowd in front of the deity bifurcated. Four able bodied Dikshitars strode down with authority holding a palanquin which seated a brass idol. Someone in our midst whispered that it was the idol of Manickavasagar, one of the most important saints in Saiva Siddhanta whose shrine was also present in the Temple premises as he attained his samadhi here. A coterie of Shaivite devotees in identical white clothing, the tripundra or three stripes of the sacred ash smeared on their foreheads and thick rudraksha beads hanging from their necks gathered in a group. The crowd burst into a powerful and moving rendition of the Thiruvembavai.
Pic: Manikkavasagar, Chola bronze, 12th century India, Source: Wikipedia
For at least 40 minutes they carried on as the dikshitars bearing the palanquin swayed in synchrony as if Manickavasagar himself was rendering the versus absorbed in his devotion to his Guru. I didn't understand the lyrics as I strained to read from the pocket book held by the woman in front of me but I felt their beat. Closing my eyes, I heard the echoes of the ardour of his devotion and my chest swelled with emotion amplified by the beatings of the udukku. Each stanza ended in a crescendo of the percussion, accompanied by the deeparandhai or arthi for the idols at the sanctum. The aura around the deity appeared clouded whether by the heat of the lamps, the throng of the priests near the altar or the warmth of Manickavasagar’s lyrics, it wasn't clear.
Was Nataraja lucky to have such a devotee or was the devotee lucky to have his songs sung close to 15 centuries after his time I wondered? Or was I the lucky bhakthaa to witness this divine performance in the 21st century?