Chidambaram means consciousness (chit) and space (ambaram). The temple, in Chidambaram, India, about 150 miles from Madras, houses the majestic dancing form of Shiva, Nataraja (King of dance). The oldest part of the temple is speculated to be about 2500 years old. Subsequent additions have made this into a 50 acre complex, once surrounded by nature but now by a bustling town.
Symbolism and architecture are intertwined in all Indian temples and the Nataraja temple is no exception. The way the temple is laid out is in sync with the human body – mental and physical. For instance, the innermost hall where Nataraja resides, has a roof with 21,600 gold tiles representing the number of breaths we take in a day. These tiles are anchored by 72,000 nails that represent the number of nerve endings in our body. The human body thus, serves as a measurement and proportioning system. There are five concentric compounds. Walking through them symbolizes the journey from ignorance to consciousness, like peeling off the layers of an onion, the very act intended to help one pause and re-calibrate.
Sculptures surround the base of each hall and around the four main towers. A tough stone like granite has been rendered pliable in the hands of these gifted artisans to yield art that is detailed yet delicate. They represent a time when buildings were built to last, when art was noble and exalted and when it was important to be part of something beyond oneself.
If only we have the energy, time and resources to maintain the glory of these monuments. The premises need maintenance, hence funding. During the rule of kings endowments were established and sustained, but subsequent conquests and colonization have left the coffers empty. Crumbling facades, worn out pavers, the unsavory smells of infrequent cleaning in the outermost courtyard, incongruous candy colored paint on beautiful granite facades, all could be made better with a cohesive emphasis on preservation.
This monument needs to be saved for posterity. It gently reminds us of the extraordinary beauty we are capable of. It is exquisite.