In the forehead,
in the central space between the eyebrows,
look steadfastly,
see the shining mantra Om,
it reveals,
seek nothing,
seek the Supreme Spirit,
He shows in Chidambaram,
I sought Him.

These words were composed by Tirumular, a great yogi and siddha, many hundreds of years ago. It is one verse out of 3000 of the Tirumantiram, a work on yoga and spiritual practice composed in Tamil, the ancient language of southern India. The poet speaks with great passion about yoga, and for him one particular place, and one particular deity express the concepts and teaching of yoga above anything else. This is the temple of Shri Shiva Nataraja in Chidambaram.

Dance is a total yoga. And the dance of the Lord of Yoga is the ultimate yogic dance. This is the Ananda Tandava, the Dance of Bliss, performed by Him in the Golden Hall in the sacred city of Chidambaram. Understanding and experiencing His dance is yoga, because His dance expresses perfect stillness.

Temples are generally known as places of worship, but in reality they are much more than that. And especially the temple of the Dancing Shiva has been envisioned, designed and structured by its creators and architects as a repository of ancient knowledge, and as a reflection and embodiment of the cosmic principles.

At the root of all yoga lies the ancient word ‘Thou Art That’. This word expresses the identity between the individual consciousness and the super consciousness. The aspiration of yoga is the realization of this identity between soul and Absolute in the consciousness of the individual. Realizing this is in a way an alchemical process, a transmutation, as is said in ancient yogic writing, of the soul from copper into gold. The architecture is the static element, and the ritual is the dynamic. In the same way fire is kindled through attrition, the interaction between two pieces of wood, the one stable, the other gyrating, the interaction between architecture and ritual kindles realization.

Seers of a long forgotten age foresaw that some time in their future, the humanity would loose its inner spiritual vision and understanding. They designed a visual yoga in the form of sacred architecture, rituals and the visualization of Shiva’s cosmic dance. By means of the forms and shapes laid down in the architecture, ritual, and the deity, the human mind is captured, and directed towards this realization, even unconsciously, through experience. The formulation of the temple and its traditions also function as a repository of the knowledge of the Seers. It can be read in the same way as we read a book or a map. As we enter the temple through one of the great gateways or gopurams, we leave our daily reality behind us, and we enter another world and another consciousness. We step as it were into another dimension. Because what we see and experience within the temple is a many dimensional representation of the spiritual cosmos. The word ‘go’ means cow, and here refers to the soul. The word ‘puram’ means outside. The gopuram, the entrance, invites us from outside into this other dimension.

Each gopuram is over 50 meter high, and consists of seven upper layers which taper as they ascend. These seven layers symbolize the seven chakras in the human body that play such a significant role in yogic practice. The tower as a whole represents the Tatpurusha, the totality of divine cosmic consciousness. The four gopurams situated in the cardinal directions form a pattern in relationship with the golden roof of the sanctum in the center of the temple. These five towers represent the five faces of Shiva, each one reflecting one aspect of cosmic consciousness.

The central structure is called the Cit Sabha or Hall of Consciousness. Here dances the presiding deity of the temple, Shri Shiva Nataraja, who dances the dance of the eternal cosmic process of manifestation and withdrawal. Although the Dancing Shiva is the most visible representation of cosmic consciousness, as Form or murti, the divine Absolute is represented in two other aspects. As an abstract crystal Linga, expressing the divine aspect of Formless-Form. And as Formless, the Akasha or Ether Linga expressing the Void. Akasha or Ether is the first of the five primordial Elements, and is the vehicle of all consciousness and life.

Although the sanctum is constructed of wood on the outside, within its walls lies a granite passage, surrounding the inner space of the sanctum itself. This is called the Pranava Prakara, the circumambulatory passage dedicated to the primordial sound Om. Om is the sound of the creation, the sound of the Big Bang, and its afterglow, the cosmic radiation. It is also the most powerful seed word of yoga. And it is the sound we hear just before the Kundalini energy unites with the divine consciousness in the crown chakra.

The sanctum is covered with a golden roof consisting of 21600 golden plates, held together by 72000 golden nails. These numbers relate to Prana, the life energy. In a day, according to yogic teaching, a person breathes in and out 21600 times. The pranic energy that is absorbed in this way circulates in the body through 72000 nadis or subtle arteries.

This sanctum, the center of power and energy of the temple, is enclosed by five concentric spaces or prakaras, circumambulatory courtyards. They represent the five primordial Elements, Ether, Air, Fire, Water and Earth, from the center outwards respectively. They also symbolize the five koshas, or sheaths of the human body. These are, from most subtle to gross, the Anandamaya kosha or sheath of bliss; the Vijnanamaya kosha or sheath of wisdom; the Manomaya kosha or sheath of thought; the Pranamaya kosha or sheath of life energy; and the Annamayakosha, the sheath of food, which is our material body.

Opposite the shrine of Shiva Nataraja we find the temple’s flag mast. It is made of wood covered in silver and gold. It soars through an opening in the roof upwards into the sky. This symbolizes that in fact it is infinite and immeasurable, as it represents the cosmic pillar. It is made up of twelve rings, of which seven stand for the seven chakras and 5 for the five Elements that constitute the material reality. These draw the energies of the chakras towards worldly desires and thus disperse them. Many snakes rear up their heads around the bottom of the pole. They are there to resist this drain of the spiritual energy which is meant for the ultimate fulfillment of life. The rest of their bodies are left undepicted and invisible, but they wind upwards.

The flagmast also relates to the human spinal column and the sushumna nadi situated in it. Twice in a year, at the beginning of one of the great chariot festivals, the banner of Shiva Nataraja, depicting his vehicle, the sacred bull Nandi, is raised into the flagmast. This represents ritually the ascend of the Kundalini energy through the sushumna nadi. The Kundalini has to pass through the chakras, one by one, until it merges with the divine cosmic consciousness in the thousand petaled lotus of the crown chakra. This is called arohana. At the conclusion of the festival the banner is brought down. This is called avarohana. It is the ritual equivalent of the descending of the Kundalini, after being transformed through the absorption into the cosmic divine consciousness in the crown chakra, down to the root chakra. Thus returning to its origins. This is the secret of Kundalini yoga.

We have now come to the dynamic aspect of the correlations between temple symbolism and the teachings and practice of yoga. Every day seven rituals are performed in the sanctum for the worship of Shiva Nataraja. These rituals relate to the seven chakras and represent the development of the individual consciousness through the seven energies of the chakras and the seven steps of human development.

06.45: muladhara chakra, the awakening ceremony. Shiva is symbolically
taken from his nightly resting place with the energy of willpower,
the goddess Iccha Shakti, to the main sanctum.
08.30: svadhistana chakra, the fire ritual.
10.00: manipuraka chakra, worship of the Ruby Nataraja.
11.30: visuddhi chakra, midday worship.
18.00: anahatha chakra, worship at dusk.
20.00: ajna chakra, evening worship.
22.00: saharara chakra, the Kundalini merges with the energy in the crown
chakra. Shiva is ritually returned to the resting place for the night.
This represents the process of avarohana, the descend of the
Kundalini back to its seat of origin.

Also the great chariot festival that is celebrated twice in a year represents the spiritual process of yoga through visual medium. Yoga is an inner experience that cannot easily be expressed in words. It is beyond words. The inner experience is visualized through the presentation of the deity with different decorations and seated on a series of vehicles. Experiencing these visualizations over the ten days of the duration of the festival generates yogic realization in the hearts and minds of the devotees and participants

First day; In the early morning the flag hoisting ceremony takes place. The ascending of the flag or banner of Shiva Nataraja is the arohana, and represents the raising of the Kundalini in the sushamna nadi from the root chakra to the crown chakra through the practice of yoga. On the evening of the same day the first procession takes place, presenting Shiva with his female energy or shakti in the form of the goddess Uma or Parvati, together with their son, the god Skanda, for the first time. They are seated in a simple pavilion. This procession prepares for the experience to come, and awakens for the first time the higher consciousness.

Second day; This day Shiva is seated in the circle of the Moon, the Chandraprabha. This represents the Ida nadi, the energy channel which is located to the left of the sushumna, and is connected to the inhalation of the pranayama.

Third day; Today Shiva goes in the procession seated in the Sun, the Suryaprabha. This evokes the Pingala nadi, the energy channel located to the right side of the sushumna, and is related to the exhalation of the pranayama.

Fourth day; Now Shiva participates in the procession seated on a bhuta. This word means both demon and element. He is Lord over the demons and overcomes the hold the five primordial elements have over us, through the senses.

Fifth day; This day Shiva is seated on the divine bull Nandi, and placed within a representation of a gopuram or temple gateway. This visualizes the control over the three gunas, sattva, rajas and tamas, attained by the yogi.

Sixth day; Shiva is seen seated on an elephant. This relates to his conquest of the twin evils of ignorance and egoism in the form of the demon Gajasura, who had taken the form of an elephant

Seventh day; Shiva comes seated on his sacred mountain Kailasa. The mountain is supported by Ravana, a demon as well as a Shiva devotee. He shook mount Kailasa, because he insisted to draw Shiva’s attention. Lord Shiva held him down like a tiny creature, just with his big toe. It teaches the seeker has to approach the divine Absolute, inclined in surrender.

Eighth day; This day Shiva appears as mendicant, as Bhikshatana. The alms he begs for are human material attachments and ignorance. Thus he is bestowing true knowledge.

Ninth day; Shiva Nataraja and his shakti, the goddess Parvati, are taken around the city on large wooden chariots. The chariot combines the inverted as well as the normal pyramid forms, and represents mount Meru, cosmic mountain as well as cosmic pillar or axis. Mount Meru is the essence and symbolic form of the entire universe.

Tenth day; Shiva and Parvati dance in the Raja Sabha, the Hall of a Thousand Pillars, which represents the crown chakra with its thousand lotus petals. The path of yoga comes to attainment with the opening of the thousand petaled lotus of the crown chakra. The god and goddess return to the sanctum. The banner of Shiva is brought down, symbolizing the avarohana, the descend of the Kundalini energy from the crown chakra to the root chakra at the bottom of the spinal cord.

Walking into the temple is yoga. Seeing Shri Shiva Nataraja’s dance is awakening the consciousness. That is being and becoming.

© 2002, Raja Deekshithar

Published in Deutsches Yoga Forum (German Yoga Magazine) with the title “Die Kraft der Symbolen” (The Power of Symbols) in December 2002