Among the archive photos from the 1800s from the Digital South Asian Library of the University of Chicago that allow us a glimpse into the Chidambaram Nataraja temple as it was in the 19th century, before major ‘renovations’ were executed, we also find this photo of the North Gopuram and the North-West corner of the complex with the Navalinga shrine and a small temple which is no longer in existence. .
On this photo we see the northern part of the temple. Visible are the northern bank of the Shivaganga with its pillared veranda; the steps leading from the water up to the mandapa; the North Gopuram; the Nava Linga temple; and the courtyard of the Pandya Nayaka temple with its prakara wall.
What we also see is a small shrine with a high vimana near the north-west corner of the sacred tank. This shrine is no longer in existence. And has disappeared so long ago that even older Dikshitars have no memory of it. We can therefore not say what kind of shrine this was, or to whom it was dedicated. The photo shows the vimana was tritala (three storeys), with an ardhamandapa. The temple faced east. It has an square and ribbed sikhara.
The Nava Linga shrine here still has octagonal and ribbed shikharas which belong to the Early Chola style of architecture.
The pillared mandapam at the top of the steps has a raised roof with a sabha-like dome with 3 stupi. This indicates it was consecrated and may have been a place of worship, possibly with even a shrine as part of the structure.
The upper layers of the North Gopuram are here still without the characteristic sculptural decorations made of brick and limework. The gopuram is seen with only abstract miniature shrines, kutis, karnakutis and shalas, as decoration. Today the East Gopuram still maintains this form. It has sometimes been thought the figurative sculpture was the original form and the East Gopuram lost these because of incomplete renovations. Now we may conclude originally all the gopurams were without figurative decorations. Also the West Gopuram has no sculptures at this time. We may infer this was also the case for the South Gopuram, although
it is not visible in the discovered photos.
In the centre-bottom of the photo we see a small shrine in the prakara wall of the Shivaganga. The wall is discontinuous here. It seems there may have been a flight of steps at this place once.
The authors would like to thank the Digital South Asian Library for its kind permission to reproduce the six photos of the Shri Shiva Nataraja temple in Chidambaram. All other photos by the authors.