The five Ambalams of Nataraja
Sabhais where Lord Shiva has danced as Nataraja on various occasions
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Chithirasabhai | Ponnambalam | Rathnasabhai | Thamirasabhai | Velliyambalam
Among the many Shiva temples, five temples - Chidhambaram, Maduarai, Thiruvilankadu, Tirunelveli and Kutralam, are very revered and is known as the five sabhas. It is said Lord Shiva has danced at these five places as Nataraja - the dancing form of Shiva, to benefit different devotees.
The temple at Chidhambaram is known as Ponnambalam - Gold Sabha. It's importance can be judged from the reference to it as "Thiruchchitrambalam" and its mention at the beginning and the end of every recitation of Dhevaram hymns even to this date. This temple has been sung in a lot of Dhevaram and Thiruvasakam hymns. Many Hindus consider this to be centre of earth and it is where Shiva danced. Here the deity of Shiva is in the form of Nataraja instead of the usual Lingam form.
The legend goes like this - Once the great serpent Adhi Sesha felt Maha Vishnu unusually heavy. On asking for the cause, Maha Vishnu told that he remembered the dance that Lord Shiva did once in the presence of all Dhevas and it is the pleasure of its reminiscence that made him heavy. Inspired by this Adhi Sesha too wanted to see the dance of the Lord and came to chitambaram and worshipped the Lord as pathanchali along with another sage vyaghra padar, who too was worshipping the Lord to see His dance. They worshipped for a long time and finally to fulfill their desire the Lord appeared on the thiruvathirai and danced in the golden hall. Kali competed against the Lord and lost, unable to depict the Shiva when the strident expert stood on one leg and lifted the other high above his shoulder, the Urdhva-tandava stance. This place represents the thakarakasham - the sky inside us. Here Lord Shiva is worshipped in all the three forms, namely, arupa - which is called chitambara rahasyam, aruparupa - shiva lingam and rupa - nataraja.
Chidambaram marks an important stage of evolution of southern Indian architecture. Fueled with many miraculous stories of healing and blessings its popularity grew and Kings and rulers gave financial assistance for its enlargement. Built of granite, the temple stands on 39 acres of land surrounded by massive walls with four big tall gopurams in four directions. The North & South gopurams are 160feet high. 108 dance postures as seen in the Natya Sastra are sculpted in these towers.
It has five principal sabhas known as Kanakasabha, Chit sabha, Nritya sabha, Deva sabha and Raja sabha. The main shrines, the Chit Sabha and the Kanaka Sabha (Ponnambalam), were enclosed within a compound wall with gopurams. The Chola rulers of southern India had great reverence for Chidambaram and constructed several structures within the complex. Later the famous ruler Krishnadeva Raya of Vijayanagara (Hampi), annexed the territory they ordered gopurams to be built. The outer wall of the temple was built by the Nayak rulers in the seventeenth century.
Through the passageway one enters the tall gopurams of the next enclosure wall with the beautiful Shivaganga Tank (the holy water of the Ganga brought down to earth by Shiva - a tank called Siva Jnana Ganga tank, measuring 175x100 feet). In this tank Hiranyavarman, the son of Manu, took bath and got his leprosy cured. It is believed, those who take a bath in this sacred tank and then worship Lord Nataraja are purified of all sins. For them there will be no more birth. They will attain Eternal Bliss). The tank has surrounding steps and a pillared veranda. To the west of the tank is the large Shrine of the Goddess Shivakamasundari.
To the north is the Shrine of Subrahmanya, the chief of Shiva's army, the son of Shiva and Parvati. On the other side of the tank is the Raja Sabha, the hall of the kings, a magnificent thousand-pillared mandapam. This has witnessed the coronation of many Chola kings and later rulers, in the presence of the deity. Southward, facing the main temple enclosure, is the Nandi pavilion. It is within this enclosure on the western side that one finds the entrance to the Govindaraja Temple.
Within the main temple enclosure is the Chit Sabha or Chitambalam, from which the town derived its name - Chidambaram. The idol of Nataraja is enshrined in the Chit sabha. Behind this idol, is a black screen, which is considered to cover the Akasa Lingam. There is no Lingam, but we are made to believe that there is an invisible Lingam, with golden vilva garlands, i.e stressing the belief that there is everything in nothing. There are five silver plated steps to reach the Chit Sabha, representing the Panchakshara mantram - Na ma si va ya. The embossed images of the saints Vyagrapada and Patanjali, are on the doors. Both these saints had been blessed with the sight of the cosmic dance of Shiva. Lord Vishnu also is said to have witnessed this scene.
Many structures, some used for rituals others for storage and as community kitchens, fill this area. The main among them are the Deva Sabha (the hall of the God), the Mulasthana with its Devi shrine, the Nritya Sabha (hall of dance) of Chola period with lively figures of musicians and dancers. In front of the garbha griha is the Kanaka Sabha (Ponnambalam) and devotees assemble here to pray the akash, the inner and outer space
It is in this temple the Thevaraams were kept in a hall for some centuries, which the King Shivapadha sekara Thirumurai kanda choza Emperor Rajarajan found out and put proper pann to whatever hymns that survived.
The sanctum of Sivakama Sundari lies to the left of Natarajar Sannidhi. The images of Ratnasabhapati (Nataraja of Ruby), the Spatika Lingam of Chandramauleeswara, Swarnakarshana Bhairavar, Mukhalingam are also to be found in the Chitsabha.
In the Kanaka sabha (golden hall) lying adjacent to the Chit Sabha, poojas are offered. The ceiling of these two sabhas are gold plated.
The Nritya Sabha, which is richly sculpted in the form of a chariot drawn by horses houses the images of Nataraja in Urdhava Tandava pose, image of Sarabheswara.
The Deva Sabha is a spacious hall meant for the celebration of important festivals and houses the festival images of the Pancha Murtis (Somaskandar, Parvati, Vinayaka, Subramanya and Chandikeswara) and other deities.
The Raja sabha measuring 103 metres by 58 metres is housed in a 1000 pillared hall in the outermost prakaram. Tradition holds that Sekhizhar recited the Peria Puranam here.
The images of the Saiva saints Appar, Sambandar, Sundarar and Manikkavachakar are placed in the temple entrances through which they entered the temple (Appar - West, Sambandar - South, Sundarar - North and Manikkavachakar - East).
The Madurai Meenakshi Sundaraeswar temple has the well known Velliyambalam - Rajatha Sabha or Silver Hall, facing south in front of the Sundhareshwarar sanctum . The Golden Lotus pond in front of the Meenakshi sanctum is a magnificent one. This temple tank, the Potramaraikulam (golden lotus tank), is an ancient tank where devotees take bath in the holy water. The area around this tank was the meeting place of the Tamil sangam - the ancient academy of poets. The history of the sangam goes back to the days when gods dallied with men. This academy judged the worth of any work of literature presented before it by throwing it into the tank. Only those that did not sink were considered worthy of attention. The tank is surrounded by a pillared corridor. Steps lead down to the tank, enabling worshippers to take bath in it.
Legends go like - Lord Shiva came as Raja Saundhara Pandiyan to marry Minakshi, daughter of King Malayadhvajan. Pathanychalai and Vyagrapadha also came for attending the marriage. They were to take food only after having the dharshan of the Lord's dance in Chithambaram and the Lord Shiva danced in the Silver Hall in Madurai fulfilling the determination of the two great saints.
In this temple unlike in other temples, Lord Natarajar stands on His left leg with the right foot raised. On this the legend says - The Pandya king Rajashekaran who ruled from Madurai, was a great devotee of Shiva and was learned in 63 out of 64 great arts and left the art of dancing due to his devotion on the dancing Lord Nataraja. But on realising that it might go as a black mark for the country he started learning it. When he was trying to do the posture of Lord Natarajar, he found it very difficult and thought how painful it would be for Nataraja to stand in that posture for centuries. He went to the Silver Hall, and prayed the Lord to change His feet to ease His pain. But the Lord didn't and the dejected Rajashekaran took his sword and tried to commit suicide by cutting off his head. Appreciating the devotion the Lord obliged and changed His leg in the dancing posture to left foot. Only here Nataraja is depicted in standing on his left leg.
These episodes are described in the Velliyambalth thirukkuththadiya padalam and Kalmari Adiya padalam of Thiruvilaiyadalpuranam.
Thiruvangadu is situated on the southern banks of the river Cauvery, to the north-east of Thiruvavaduthurai on the Mayiladuthurai - Kumbhakonam (Chennai - Kanchipuram) road. The Thiruvilankadu temple known for Rathnasabhai - Ruby hall is a vast temple complex with beautiful mandapams and gopurams. The Sanskritised name for the village Thiruvangadu is Vata-Aranyeswaram. The place was once full of banyan trees and hence the name. Banyan is the sthalavriksham of the temple. The towering Rajagopuram is visible for miles around.
Legends go like this - Karaikkal Ammayar is said to have walked on her head to this shrine and her image is seen in the shrine for Oordhvatandavamurthy.
There is yet another image of Nataraja, housed within the sanctum of Vadaranyeswarar. To save the earth from the rage of Kali, born out of her vanquishing the demons Sumban and Nisumban, at the request of Naradar, Lord Shiva agreed to a dance duel and defeated Kali by raising his left foot, to adorn his ear with an earring that had slipped away during the duel - a posture that Kali could not repeat and admitted defeat.
Inscriptions here dating back to the 5th century speak of grants given by Rajendra Cholan for the upkeep of the temple. The towers and the walls surrounding courtyards are of the 12th and the 13th centuries. It is inferred from the inscriptions that an earlier Pallava temple was reconstructed and renovated during the Chola rule, and during the later Chola period (1075 - 1120) beginning with the reign of Kulottunga Chola I the temple campus was enlarged.
One of the bronze images of Nataraja unearthed here, now adorns the Art Gallery of the Government museum, Chennai.
The Thamirasabai - Copper Hall of Dance; a brilliant work of art, is housed within the inner precincts of the Nellaippar temple at Tirunelveli. This shrine has both Shiva and Parvathi. There is a shrine for Vishnu near the sanctum, signifying the legend that Nellai Govindan (Vishnu) officiated the divine marriage of Shiva and Kantimathi. The musical pillars in the and Mani Mandapam (7th century AD by Nindrasir Nedumaran or Koon Pandyan) produce various musical notes sound when gently struck. There are inscriptions dating all the way back to 950 AD in the temple. The temple is sung by Sambandhar.
The Kutraleswar temple at Kutralam (Courtallam) dedicated to Sri Tirukutralanathar Tirukootachalapathi and Kuzhalvoimozhi Amman (Devi whose voice is as sweet as the music of the flute) has the Chithirasabhai - Picture hall (in which a number of mural painting of rural deities and stories from epics are depicted). The Chitra Sabhai or the hall of pictures is located in a scenic locale away from the main temple. This Sabha is one of the five Sabas where Lord Nataraja performed the Cosmic-dance. The Chitrasabhai resembles that of the other Nataraja Sabhas in Tamilnadu, and its interior is decked with hundreds of murals.
Courtallam has nine Water Falls: 1. Main falls 2. Chitaruvi 3. Shenpagadevi falls 4. Thenaruvi 5. Five falls 6. Orchard falls 7. New falls 8. Tiger falls 9. Old Courtallam falls.
Legends on Chitrasabhai goes like - The wedding of Shiva and Parvathi attracted huge celestial crowd at Himalaya that Shiva requested Saint Agastyar to proced southwards to balance the earth, and Agastyar is said to have created the Shivalingam here by shrinking an image of Vishnu, hence the name Kutralam. The temple has a conch shaped Prakaram and hence referred to as Sangakkovil. In the Mummurasukkovil, Shiva showed himself as Bhrama and Vishnu. The Tirikootamandapam here is the site of festivities. Parvati's shrine is of significance here and is regarded as one of the 64 Shakti Peethams.