The Lord resides at Chitrambalam
The Lord resides at Chidambaram
The Lord resides at Tiruvambalam
The Lord resides at the Splendorous Podu
– Tirumantiram – the Tenth Tirumurai; Song 869 – Saint Tirumoolar, 3rd century CE
For Tamil Saivites across the world, Chidambaram Sri Sabhanayagar Temple is known as “the Koyil” or “the Temple”. For them, no Siva Temple is or could be more important or sacred than this Temple of Sri Nataraja at Chidambaram where the Lord performs his Cosmic Dance in the Hall of Wisdom.
Indeed it is the belief of Saivites and other Hindus that after the last pooja of the day (Artajama Pooja), the Siva Jyoti present in the Sivalinga of every other Siva temple converge in Nataraja, the presiding deity of this Supreme Siva Temple. The words Chitrambalam, Chidambaram, Tiruvambalam and Podu all denote that this place of worship was only the Dancing Hall of Siva in the beginning.
Origin of Sri Sabhanayagar Temple
“Sri Sabhanayagar Temple or Sri Nataraja Temple in Chidambaram is an ancient temple of great importance to Saivites all over India.”
– Statement of Case by Government of Madras in Civil Appeal 39/1953 in the Hon’ble Supreme Court of India.
This Temple is very ancient one and apart from Epical history no historical evidence could be traceable in respect of the details of its founding and age.
– Document no. 30 at page 101 of the Government’s submissions before the Hon’ble Division Bench of the Madras High Court in W.A.181 of 2009.
Admittedly, the Chidambaram Nataraja Temple is one of the most ancient temples in India whose origin is lost in antiquity. Chidambaram temple is a hoary temple that goes back to the period of Sages Patanjali and Vyagrapadha. Sage Vyagrapadha is the father of the great Siva Devotee Upamanyu. Shri Upamanyu is the ‘Deeksha Guru’ of Sri Krishna.
“The Koyil” rose on an ancient site, some of the inner portions being of the remotest antiquity, was preserved with care by the Podu Dikshitars and enriched by Kings of yore through the efforts of the Podu Dikshitars. The first true building on this worship site would seem to be the sacred central shrine, which is still the heart of the temple. What started as a small Dancing Hall (‘Citrambalam’, meaning ‘small hall’) of Siva later became a huge temple complex. As the Temple grew in size, importance and fame, the town too grew big and became a ‘Taniyur’, an independent self-governing town.
Epigraphical and other records show that Chidambaram occupied in former centuries much larger limits than now. A 12th century inscription mentions it as Perrumpatrapuliyur-Taniyur, a large self-governing local unit comprising 23 hamlets with a radius of eight miles. By that time (and now) the Temple Complex comprised an area of almost 40 acres. The Raja Gopuras present now in the temple were built at various periods, spanning many centuries. It is marvellous to note that all four Gopuras are uniform in size, structure and form. All Gopurams are 7-storeyed and 135 feet tall. All have 13 Copper Kalashas on them. They are uniformly 90 feet long and 60 feet wide at the bottom and the entrances are 40 feet high. All Gopurams have beautiful statues depicting various postures of Natya or Dance Karanas. This uniformity has been possible only due to the continuous presence and administration of the Podu Dikshitars from the inception of the temple.
The innermost part of the temple where the Dancing Hall of the Lord is present is a very ancient structure that is very early in tradition. It is a wooden structure in rectangular shape with a thatched roof covered with gold leaves. Such a style is unknown or cannot be seen in other temples in Tamil Nadu. The closest resemblance to this structure is found in a relief panel from Nagarjunakonda, north of Tamil Nadu and dates from about the 3rd century.
The gold-roofed stage or dancing hall is the sanctum sanctorum of the Chidambaram temple and houses the Lord in three forms:
– the ‘form’ or anthropomorphic form of Lord Nataraja, called the Sakala thirumeni
– the ‘semi-form’ or semi-anthropomorphic form as Crystal linga Chandramouleswarar, the Sakala nishkala thirumeni
– the ‘formless’ as the Space in Chidambara Rahasyam, an empty space within the sanctum sanctorum, the Nishkala thirumeni
The Dancing Lord
“Every part of the Nataraja image is directly expressive not of any superstition or dogma, but of evident facts. No artist of today however great, could more exactly or more wisely create an image of that energy which science must postulate behind all phenomena. It is poetry; but nevertheless science”
– Dr. S. Radhakrishnan
The Chidambaram Temple is unique since the presiding deity worshipped is a metal icon of Lord Nataraja in contrast to statues of deities made of stone found in other temples. But in the same sanctum, the ethereal or Akasa linga is present and is worshipped along with the Nataraja. There is also a Spatika Linga for which the six daily kala poojas are done.
This Sanctum is the Kanakasabha or the Golden Hall where Nataraja, as Kanakasabhapati, Lord of the Golden Hall, performs his Dance of Bliss, the Anandatandava. It is important to note that in this Sanctum there is a screen of golden Bilva leaves which hangs to the right of Nataraja and the screen when moved aside reveals empty space that represents Akasa or Space. The removal of the screen is the removal of ignorance and behind the veil is the real truth – Sat, Chit and Ananda – which is the subtle ethereal form of Nataraja. This is known as the Chidambara Rahasya.
The Dancing Lord Nataraja while dancing enacts the five activities known as Panchakritya – Srishti (creation), Sthiti (preservation, continued maintenance), Samhara (destruction, involution), Tirobhava (veiling, incarnation), and Anugraha (release, salvation).
Chidambaram temple is owned by the Denomination of Podu Dikhistars
– “An interesting feature about Chidambaram Temple is the system of management. It has no landed or other endowments nor any dastik allowance and is the property of a class of Brahmins peculiar to this town…” – Mr. W. Francis, Gazetteer of the South Arcot District (1906)
– “The Pagoda is the property of a class of Brahmins known as Dikshadars” – Manual of South Arcot District by J H Garstin M.C.S., Collector of South Arcot District (1878)
– “The pagoda is the property of the class of Deecshita Brahmins” – Glossary of the Madras Presidency by C.D. Maclean (1893)
– “The formal Committee of Dikshitars is called “Podu Dikshitars”. This Committee meets at the “Perambalam” hall of the temple. This Committee is the traditional administrator and protector of this temple. Only Dikshitars have the right to perform worship in this great temple of Chidambaram. Since this temple belongs to them as their personal temple Dikshitars do not take any other avocations – Vaazviyar Kalanjiyam – an encyclopedic work by Tamil University
There are many religious and historical records to show that the temple belonged to the Community of Podu Dikshitars, besides two judgments of the Hon’ble Division Bench of the Madras High Court.
– The Tamil Canonical works known as Tirumurais clearly record that the Chidambaram temple is the temple of the Podu Dikshitars and all rights of services within the temple complex is entirely theirs. This has been most clearly recorded by the Tirumurais and by the chief minister of the Chola Kingdom, St. Sekkizhar who authored the Periya Puranam, a hagiology of Saiva Saints in the year 1140 C.E.
– It is also amply clear that the Sabhanayagar temple at Chidambaram is owned by the denomination of Podu Dikshitars from the following two judgments of the Division Bench of the Hon’ble High Court of Madras:  Marimuthu Dikshitar vs. State of Madras (1952 (1) MLJ 557);  Devaraja Shenoy vs. State of Madras (1952 (1) MLJ 481)
The Podu Dikshitars of the Chidambaram temple are both Archakas and Trustees of the temple from time immemorial. The Chidambaram temple is ably administered by the Body of Podu Dikshitars as per their temple constitution written centuries ago and printed for the first time in 1849. Any Dikshitar gets his right to do sacramental service to Lord Nataraja and participation in Temple Administration only after his marriage. The Dikshitar who thus takes participation would not be discriminated by age, education, capability or wealth. The Dikshitars would be on duty at the temple 20 at a time and each batch of 20 stays for 20 days till each has in his turn performed the complete tour of puja at the different shrines of the temple where the daily pujas are held.
The 9 Management Committee members of Podu Dikshitars are elected by lots on 31st March of each year. This Committee looks after the daily administration of the temple but the major decisions are taken only by the general assembly of Podu Dikshitars in a democratic way. Though Dikshitars live in poverty, they never faulted in their rectitude. The temple possesses invaluable offerings of jewellery made by opulent people and Kings of Tamil Nadu. There are prescribed regulations for physical verification of these (jewellery) once in 4 days, 20 days and six months. These accounts remain perfect and are free from embezzlement till date.
Who are the Podu Dikshitars?
If one were to search the Globe for a community or sect or clan that for more than 20 centuries has done the same religious, social and cultural activities and is domiciled in the same place throughout the 2000 years, one would not find such a community until one zeros in on the geographic coordinates 1.399686°N, 79.693622°E, the exact location of the ancient temple town of Chidambaram, Tamil Nadu, in South India.
Chidambaram town was known as Tillai till recent times, Chidambaram being the name of the Temple. The Podu Dikshitars are also known as Tillai Vaazh Antanar or ‘the Brahmins of Tillai’ were associated with the temple from its inception. This unique clan was originally three thousand in number and hence they were also known as Tillai Moovayiravar or “The Three Thousand Brahmins of Tillai”. As per Sthala Puranas, traditions and Saivite belief, the presiding deity of Chidambaram Temple, Lord Nataraja, is one among the Tillai Brahmins. Lord Nataraja is their God of worship and Leader of their clan.
Uniqueness of Chidambaram Podu Dikshitars
Chidambaram Dikshitars differ from other Brahmins in many respects. They are found only in Chidambaram town and form an endogamous clan. They do not have marriage alliances with any other Brahmin sects, marry only from their own community, and are thus a closed community. Their life, religion, education, training, culture and vocation revolve around the Chidambaram Nataraja Temple. From the time of birth, they are dedicated to the services of Nataraja and His Chidambaram Temple.
Podu Dikshitars are staunch Saivites, among the foremost of Saivites. Servitorship is an important aspect of Tamil Saivism. It is the belief of Saivites that Saint Sundaramurti was ordained by Lord Siva to sing in praise of the great Saiva Devotees. Saint Sundaramurti sang a hagiology of Saiva Devotees in eleven Tamil verses naming 63 individual devotees and the nine general classes of devotees. These devotees are worshipped in all major Siva temples in Tamil Nadu. The pride of place among all these Saivite devotees is accorded to the Podu Dikshitars of Tillai. It is also a fundamental religious belief of Tamil Saivites that this predominant position was accorded to this community of devotees by Lord Siva Himself.
The Pooja rituals and tenets found in the Chidambaram Temple are very special and are found nowhere else in the Hindu world. Chidambaram temple poojas are based on Vedic rituals in contrast to agamic rituals found in most other temples. Further, the Podu Dikshitars follow a unique set of tenets for their poojas and festivals. This is the only temple where Vedic traditions as expounded by the Sage Patanjali are the tenets of the Podu Dikshitars, and only these are used in worship and rituals in the Chidambaram temple. The Podu Dikshitars’ ritual and pooja traditions have not changed for over two millennia. It is among the very few temples where one can witness Vedic traditions followed by sages and rishis of ancient days.
The Podu Dikshitars take turns to be the Chief priest of the day. This turn may come to them once in about 300 days. Only married male members above 25 years of age, who have gone through an initiation called “Diksha” and whose wives are alive are eligible to be the Chief Priest of the day. Before performing the kala poojas and poojas to Lord Nataraja performing the “Dance of Bliss” in the Sanctum Santorum, the designated ‘Chief Priest of the Day’ takes a bath in the holy temple tank called Sivaganga. After bath he performs the fire ritual before starting the kala poojas. The Vedic modes of rituals with chanting of Vedic mantras are integral parts of these pooja rituals.
The “Rahasya Pooja” done in the evening is not open for public darshan as are the other poojas. Only the Chief Priest of the Day and his assistant who is also a Dikshitar would be present to conduct and witness that pooja. The public and other Dikshitars are excluded from this every day.
Dikshitars and Tamil
Tamil is the mother tongue of Podu Dikshitars. It is the language spoken in their homes and used by them in their administrative records in the temple and in their communications. There have always been Tamil scholars in every generation of Dikshitars. Saint Umapati Sivam, a Tillai Vaazh Antanar of extraordinary merit has authored many Saiva Sastra works in Tamil and has sung the History of Chidambaram (Temple) in Sanskrit as original and has rendered it in Tamil, naming the Tamil work “Kovil Puranam”.
Many Dikshitars have erudition in the Tamil Canonical works known as Tirumurai. Many publications and research works have been authored by Podu Dikshitars on Tamil Tirumurais. Besides Vedas, Tamil Tirumurai are accorded great importance by Dikshitars at the Chidambaram Temple. Recitation of “Pancha Puranas” or five songs from the 12 Tirumurais in a prescribed manner during the allotted puja times is unique to Chidambaram.
Similarly, honouring the Tamil Saint Manikkavasagar during the Arudhra festival days by reciting 20 of his hymns and performing special aradhanas after reciting each hymn is unique and special to Chidambaram Temple.
In Chidambaram, the collection of the first Seven Tirumurais were found and preserved. In Chidambaram the eighth Tirumurai – Tiruvachakam and TiruKovaiyar were written. The ninth Tirumurai consists of songs which are mostly in praise of Chidambaram Temple, Nataraja and Podu Dikshitars. The tenth Tirumurai is the earliest Tamil work which mentions Chidambaram, the Dancing Hall and Nataraja. The eleventh Tirumurai too has many songs on Chidambaram temple, Nataraja and Podu Dikshitars. The Eleventh Tirumurai clearly records that Chidambaram Temple is the temple of the Podu Dikshitars. It clearly states that Nataraja came to Chidambaram with the Podu Dikshitars and took the Dancing Hall as His dwelling place.
The twelfth and final Tirumurai – Periya Puranam – was written by the chief minister of the Chola Kingdom, St. Sekkizhar at Chidambaram. In this hagiology St. Sekkizhar has recorded the greatness of the Podu Dikshitars and how devoted are they to the temple and to the Lord. St. Sekkizhar also records that all services to the Lord and the temple belong rightfully to Podu Dikshitars.
Temple Administration and the Denomination of Podu Dikshitars
As early as 1890, a Division Bench of the Hon’ble High Court of Madras consisting of the first native High Court Judge of India, Justice Muthuswamy Aiyer and Justice Sheppard, clearly recorded that the Podu Dikshitars of Chidambaram have held both the offices of Trustee and Archaka in the temple from time immemorial. The Division Bench also clearly recorded that the net income of the temple is their recognized means of livelihood.
– “About 250 families of Dikshadars reside at Chitambaram, and the nett income of the temple, which is derived from general offerings, is their recognized means of livelihood. According to their usage every Dikshadar becomes entitled, on marriage, to take part in the management, to do puja or perform service in the minor shrines, and to share in the emoluments of the institution. He is, however, considered not qualified for performing service in the principal shrines, until he is twenty-five years old and initiated in a ceremony called Diksha.”
– “It is not denied that the institution has been used as a place of public worship from time immemorial but it is said that the public worship in it by permission of the dikshadars.”
[Justices Muthuswamy Aiyer and Sheppard of the Hon’ble Madras High Court – ILR 14 MAD 103 (17/03/1890)]
Both religious and administrative duties and rights of the Podu Dikshitars are inseparably intertwined. The Division Bench upheld this inseparable nature of both the offices in ILR 14 MAD 103. Their Lordships held the pooja rights were, according to the usage of the institution, appurtenant to their status as dharmakartas and the interests of the temple would be but inadequately protected if the two rights were severed…
Again in CRP.121/189, Justice Muthuswamy Aiyer reinforced the above decision by stating, “ The right to perform Pooja being appurtenant to plaintiff’s status as Dikshidar and trustee and the two rights being inseparable, he cannot divest himself of the character of the trustee and at the same time insist on his right to perform Pooja.”
This inseparable nature of trusteeship and archaka was further confirmed when the Hon’ble Division Bench of the Madras High Court, in 1952 I MLJ 557 equated them with Matathipathis since there can be no demarcation of religious and administrative duties of the Podu Dikshitars.
The nomenclature “Podu Dikshitar” refers to individual Dikshitars of Chidambaram when they indulge in mundane or pooja activities. It refers to the body of Podu Dikshitars when they attend to the administrative duties of the temple. The administration of the Chidambaram Temple is carried according to the constitution of the temple framed by Dikshitars centuries ago and printed for the first time in 1849. This temple law is known as “Shri Sabhanayagar Koil Sattam”. The Hon’ble Division Bench of the Madras High Court was awe-struck at the elaborate rules and the thoughtfulness and planning that had gone into framing them.
Podu Dikshitars strictly follow the temple traditions and ensure that the temple rituals and practices are conducted without any deviation from the traditions. Poojas and rituals are conducted on time every day. Administrative meetings are held once in twenty days and a lamp is brought from the sanctum of Nataraja to denote the presence of the Lord who is the leader of the Podu Dikshitars. The administrative decisions are taken in the presence of the lamp in a democratic manner and all Dikshitars have equal rights in the administration.
The unflinching loyalty of the Podu Dikshitars to Nataraja and to their temple, their strict adherence to rituals and their excellent administration have been recorded by scholars, institutions, Central and State Ministers, Hon’ble Judges of the High Courts and the Supreme Court, Government officials and Devotees.
Protectors of the Chidambaram Temple
The Podu Dikshitars have gone through many ordeals and tribulations in protecting the essential properties of the temple and the deities at various times. After the decline of the Chola Empire, Chidambaram town and the temple suffered many invasions and occupations at various times. The Podu Dikshitars were the body of persons who safely hid the murtis of the main deities and safeguarded the valuables and jewels, even at the cost of their lives. In 1597 CE, when a Vaishnava fanatic of the Vijayanagara Empire proceeded to expand the Vishnu temple at the cost of the Nataraja Temple in Chidambaram, more than twenty Dikshitars including women gave up their lives protesting this transgression.
During the Anglo-French and other wars, Podu Dikshitars took the Nataraja and other murtis away for safekeeping in various places and reestablished Nataraja worship at Chidambaram after nearly 37 years.
The Podu Dikshitars protect the temple jewels with a very elaborate and safe twenty-one custodian system. The Hon’ble High Court of Madras and other institutions of merit like the Tamil University have praised this system of protection. Even to this day, a team of Podu Dikshitars regularly takes up watch and patrol duty at the temple every night.
Religious Denomination of Podu Dikshitars
Article 26 of the Indian Constitutions protects the religious and administrative rights of religious denominations or sections thereof.
In 1951, when the HR & CE Department and Government tried to takeover the Chidambaram temple from the Podu Dikshitars, the latter opposed the move on both merits and constitutional grounds. The Government opposed the Dikshitars’ claim of protection under Article 26.
The Division Bench of the Hon’ble High Court of Madras held that it could be asserted that the Podu Dikshitars of Chidambaram form and constitute a religious denomination. It also held that the Podu Dikshitars in whom the management of the temple is vested are both the Managers and the Archakas and they have a substantial beneficial interest in the income of the temple, and the procedure to notify this temple encroached upon the rights of the Dikshitars to manage the property belonging to the denomination. The Government appealed to the Supreme Court challenging these and other findings, but a Constitutional Bench of the Supreme Court dismissed the appeal.
Thus the denominational nature of the Podu Dikshitars and the Chidambaram temple were decided in favour of the Podu Dikshitars and the matter attained finality.
Though the matter attained finality, we could still apply the three conditions to form a religious denomination enumerated by the Hon’ble Supreme Court in subsequent judgments, including the Shirur Mutt Case, on the Podu Dikshitars. These are:
– It is a collection of individuals who have a system of beliefs which they regard as conducive to their spiritual well-being; the Chidambaram Dikshitars are Vedic Brahmins who have a common religious belief i.e. believe and worship Lord Nataraja as per the principles of “Dhakaropasana” as expounded by the Upanishads.
– They have a common organisation and the collective body of Podu Dikshitars is the common organisation of this denomination.
– The collection of these individuals has a distinctive name; this collective body has a common name, “Podu Dikshitars”.
Indeed, the Chidambaram Podu Dikshitars are the benchmark of religious denominations. They are even a closed body with distinctive religious and cultural features.
It is to protect such unique micro communities and minor denominations from the onslaught of the mighty and those in power that the framers of the Indian Constitution mooted special rights and protection under Article 26.
Due to various invasions and autocratic actions of kings and rulers at various periods and due to poverty, the 3000 Chidambaram Brahmins have today dwindled to 360! But as a community and as a religious and cultural identity they have so far survived.
Podu Dikshitars are great patriots. They invested, from the temple’s gold reserve, the highest value ever invested in Tamil Nadu, in the Government’s Gold Defense Bonds when India faced war with China. The Chidambaram Temple is the first among temples which hoists the National flag atop the main Eastern Gopura every Independence Day and Republic Day.
Podu Dikshitars were also among the first to open the temple to all castes of Hindus. This is probably the only ancient temple in Tamil Nadu which permits non-Hindu devotees to have darshan of the deities including the presiding deity Nataraja. In the two main festivals celebrated every year, devotees of all communities are permitted to participate with equal respect and prominence.
It is ironical that the Podu Dikshitars who survived tremendous tribulations and ordeals under tyrannical and totalitarian kings and regimes now face the threat of annihilation from the mala fide actions of a democratically elected and ostensibly secular government.
The author is a banking professional and research scholar on Hindu religious affairs
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