The legend goes that once, long ago, before time was clocked, Shiva came strolling into the Pichavaram mangrove forest. In those days, magicians who thought that gods can be controlled with rituals and mantras, lived there. Shiva decided to test the sages and took the form of a bhikshuk, a mendicant seeking alms. Inspite of his matted hair and his filthy attire, the sages’ wives couldn’t control their desire. Angered, the sages sent scores of serpents after the mendicant. Shiva wore them in his matted locks, neck and waist. The sages sent a fierce tiger, who Shiva skinned and wore as a skirt. Finally, the sages sent Muyalakan (or Apasmara the immortal the demon of arrogance and ignorance). Shiva subdued him, stepped on top of it and danced the dance of eternal bliss and knowledge, in his Nataraja form and so the sages knew him. Nataraja remained behind, in his celestial dance pose, still worshipped in the Chidambaram temple today.
The secret lies behind that curtain which whispers. No one, not even the priests in the temple know what it is. Some whisper it’s the bared truth: that god is nothing, mere akasha, or ether, which is what this temple represents too. Vacuum, sheer space, emptiness. Some claim that it’s only holy men and saints who can see the reality. That behind that gauzy flutter of the curtain, Lord Shiva himself comes to strum the dance of destruction with his consort, Parvati, invisible to the naked eyes of normal people.
For those like me, the normal ones who sway between disbelief and staunch belief, all I see is a shimmering layer of golden bilva leaves which the priests have hung behind the curtain. For how does one see ether? ‘The curtain represents maya, the illusion behind which one hides oneself,’ says the guidebook I read before. Just words which don’t really tell me what I would feel. I sway to the beats of the aarti, belief overpowering disbelief, and decide that tonight, not matter what, I will gut my fears, those burdens all of us carry, will sacrifice them in this temple complex.
The curtains sway and the emptiness whispers. The devotees sigh together, itching, craning their necks, their eyes open wide, not daring to blink, for a single glance of the dark emptiness. Some stand looking up to the dias, some, like me, stand on the stairs a few feet away, sacrificing distance for height. The drums beat to the rhythm of the aarti, the devout prostrate on the floor, the priests sing in a cacophony of sound with the drumbeats and the brass bells, their wide plates full of heady smells of jasmine and camphor. I crane my neck with all others, together now, our oh-so-important individual identities slipping away in the dark cold shadows that lie all around us.
The Nataraja form shimmers with the diyas surrounding it in the dark dampness of the sanctum sanctorum. The dance signifies creation of life and its destruction after life has become unwieldy. The circle of life, the bronze ring around the Nataraja signifies the whole cosmos. This is one of the first known temples in the country which started worshipping the Nataraja form, the dancing form of Shiva. No wonder Bharatnatyam, the dance form which is inspired by Shiva’s Nataraja, still flourishes here.
The Thillai Nataraja temple is massive, covering an area of over 40 acres. Built and then rebuilt in the 12 and 13th centuries, layer after layer, the temple is the foremost of all temples for Saivites, the Shiva worshippers. Its dark corners and rooms are full of cosy shrines of minor gods, relevant for some, ignored by others. As you walk through its grand halls, with intricately carved balustrades and canopies, an occasional masterpiece in bronze, the damp smell clings to you, as do the shadows, always there, always with you. They are not scary, but they never become completely comfortable too. They are what they are, shadows, floating full of your fears and supernatural powers. Things you don’t really understand.
In contrast, the courtyard is full of life. Every evening, its grand space flows with a sea of locals and tourists alike, sitting in conversation, gawking, praying, singing, laughing, walking, huddling. Estimates state that around a 100,000 people flock its stone paths every year. Chidambaram falls in the Cuddalore district of Tamil Nadu, ruled since centuries by Cholas, Pandyas, Vijayanagara, Marathas, the British before it became part of India. The Thillai Nataraja temple which is the heart of the town, named after the tillai trees that used to surround the shrine but now have receded ten kilometers away to the Pichavaram mangrove forest.
Ten kilometers away, the Pichavaram mangrove forest sways to the tandava still, open to the sky as we float amidst it in a small wooden dinghy. The darkness in the temple has opened up to the blue, clear, cloudless sky. Rooted in a few feet of water, spread over a whopping 1100 hectare area, the mangrove trees with their clawed out white roots, shiver together, dancing the eternal dance of nature, in a huddle, constantly whispering the secrets that they hold so close to their bosoms. I, in the dinghy that drifts between their huddles, stare up at the eternal trees, jealous at the stories lost, the eternal tales the grand Avicennia and Rhizophora trees tell. They whisper it to the many varieties of birds that come to their branching, pecking on their leaves and fruits. The watersnips, cormorants, egrets, know it as do the storks that fly high and the spoonbills and pelicans. They stare back at me, from the untouchable heights of the tillai trees and tweet about the dance. I look at them as an outsider, a wanderer and wonder what they know, to be at peace so.
This is one of the stories I’ve heard about Thillai Nataraja’s secret. Another, which I find a little silly is about Shiva showing up to Parvati that men are better, by doing a dance pose which she can’t. That one’s too middle class, too sexist and too banal and a complete let down of the beautiful philosophy of Shiva, Bharatnatyam and the Goddess. If you have another version, do retell it below!
(First published in Discover India August 2014)