Saturday, November 12, 2011


I would like to draw the visitors’ special attention to three very rare visual treasures of the Chidambaram temple. We start with the sphinxes, or Purusha Mriga. Unique composite mythological beings, which play a significant role in both the architecture and ritual of this temple. Then we focus our attention on the ancient frescos on the ceiling of the temple of Devi Sivakamasundari. These recount the Leelas or sacred deeds of Lord Shiva in the visual medium. Finally we will turn to the relief’s of Karanas or dance movements which adorn many parts of the temple.
The Nataraja temple in Chidambaram is the only temple in India, as far as I have been able to ascertain, whose entrance is guarded by a pair of sphinxes. As the visitor enters the temple of the Nataraja proper, the main shrine within the complex, through its east entrance, he descends the twenty-one steps that lead into the heart of the temple. There he encounters on either side of the entrance on a raised platform, the images of the two sphinxes. They are called Purusha Mukha (human-faced), or Purusha Mriga (human-beast). They are sitting with their lion bodies in an upright watchful, position. Their human faces surrounded by full manes. They are part of the ritual practice of the temple and the people burn lamps for them. As, upon entering, our eyes meet theirs, they purify us from our sins. They were assigned to that position, guarding the temple entrance, from time immemorial.
Legend recounts they first guarded the great ritual fire sacrifice performed by the Pandanvas, the five heroes of the epic Mahabharata. This was called Rajasuya. After the completion of the ritual the Purusha Mriga asked what they might do, now their task was fulfilled. They were told to go to Chidambaram, where Shiva was one day going to perform his Cosmic Dance for the humanity. Their task would be to purify the devotees visiting the temple.
The Purusha Mriga that guard the east entrance are consciously on the people’s mind. They are worshipped and butter lamps are always burning in front of them. And from time to time, according to the temple’s routine, rituals are performed for them. But not far away, in another part of the temple, I found many more Purusha Mriga. Long forgotten and unnoticed by both priests and devotees, as well as by the many scholars that visit this famous temple.
When we turn left from the Purusha Mriga at the entrance and follow the third courtyard in the clockwise direction, we reach the Nritta Sabha, the pillared hall in chariot form. Its sculptured plinth is adorned with a number of layers each with its own repeating motive. Just above eye level, on the top pattika or belt, unfold a row of reclining sphinxes, alternating with lions, wrapping around the front part of the pavilion.
Then, on the western side of the hall, two niches containing two form of Shiva project from the Nritta Sabha. Both images are flanked by pairs of elegant pillars, which support the roof of the niches. At the base of each pillar again we find a sphinx. Male on one side and female on the other, these four sphinxes stoically support the pillars. And although they have fangs, they guard Shiva with expressions of peace and benevolence. And even though their position is prominent, these sphinxes seem to go unnoticed by the visitors, and their resemblance to the sphinxes of Egypt has never, to my knowledge, been pointed out until now.
The sphinx also plays an important role in the daily rituals of the Nataraja temple, in the form of a silver lamp on which a sphinx is figured in a standing, worshipping, position. This lamp is used in several rituals during the day.
We may wonder whether there is a trans-cultural connection through cultural transference. Whether there is a historical connection, or whether the resemblance’s have intrinsic significance within the system themselves? Archetypal, born from the depths of the human collective subconscious.

A second feature that deserves the special attention of the visitor are the ceiling frescos of the pavilion in front of the temple of Devi Sivakamasundari. They have been variously dated as being between 1000 and 800 years old, and express through the visual media several of the mythologies associated with the Chidambaram temple. When the visitor enters the Devi temple by descending the sixteen steps, the pillared hall containing the frescos stretches right in front. It consists of three wings. The middle wing has been decorated with relatively modern paintings. The ancient frescos are found in the northern and southern wings of the pavilion.
In the wing immediately to the right of the main middle wing of the mandapa, we find the depiction of the myth of the Daruvanna. The images have to be read from the east towards the west, i.e. from the direction of the Shiva Ganga tank towards the temple proper.
In the first scene we see Shiva and Parvati enthroned on Mount Kailasa surrounded by the gods.
In the second scene Shiva leads Vishnu by the hand as they proceed together to the Daruvanna.In the third scene they have transformed themselves in Bhikshatana and Mohini.
The fourth scene shows the Rishi wives following Bhikshatana, crazed with desire.
The fifth scene depicts the Rishis as they loose all sense and pursue Mohini.
In the sixth scene we see the Rishis perform their magical fire sacrifice, and all the demonic beings created there in, to attack Shiva.
In the seventh scene Shiva sits peacefully, having subdued all demonic forces, and performing his Cosmic Dance.
Several of the other myths and legends that can be recognized are those recounting the lives and actions of the saints Vyagrapada, Patanjali and the king Hiranya Varman. The story of the saint Manikavasakar, the flood in Madurai. Further we find depictions of the Chariot Festival, temple building activities etc. Special attention may be drawn to the depiction of the temple plan, as it must have been at the time of the painting of the frescos.
The third feature which is of special interest to visitors are the karanas or dance movements, sculpted in countless relief’s all around the temple complex. They are of two kinds.
The first we encounter as we enter the temple complex through any of the four gopurams. Each temple gateway has the 108 karanas or dance movements which comprise Shiva’s Cosmic Dance, sculptured on the surface of its passage. On Shiva’s command they were taught to the saint Bharata by Shiva’s companion Nandikeshvara. They were made part of the art of theatre, which had been created for the benefit of the humanity by Brahma the Divine Creator, and given to Bharata Muni to perform and pass on to the humanity. They are described in Bharata’s Natya Shastra, the doctrine of Drama and Dance, the oldest existing text on the art of theatre.
Only four other temples have depictions of the karanas as part of their imagery, all in Tamil Nadu. The great temple in Tanjore has the Karanas depicted in a gallery which is unreachable to the visiting public, in the tower around and above the sanctum. The Sarangapani Vishnu temple in Kumbakonam has the karanas around on the outside of the main gopuram. These series are both incomplete. Then we find karanas in the gopurams of the temples of Vriddachalam and Tiruvannamalai.
The other type of dance sculptures we find on the base of several of the main halls within the temple complex, where they form, as it were, a procession of dancers and musicians. These dance movements have not been systematized and though they can be seen to have some relation to the karanas they follow their own structure, rhythm and dynamics, as a dance unfolding.
In between these panels with dancers and accompanying musicians we find figures and images of little known folk stories. These folk stories were once part of the repertoire of ancient folk theatre. These dance panels can be found around the base of the Hall of Thousand Pillars, the Nritta Sabha, the Devi temple, the Deva Sabha, the Pandya Nayaka temple and around the enclosing wall of the great courtyard.

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