Before I continue, it will probably be helpful to give a brief account of the configuration of the Chidambaram Temple. It has as its sanctum the Chit Sabha, 'The Hall of Consciousness', from which the town itself derives its name. It contains the
akasa lingam (a lingam in the form of empty space, denoting the unbroken expanse of consciousness in which all manifestation arises) and a large bronze image of Nataraja. Immediately in front of it, serving it as a
mantapam, is the Kanaka Sabha, 'The Golden Hall' that Guru Namasivaya often refers to. The Nritta Sabha, which commemorates the Kali-Nataraja dance contest, is in the second
prakara. There is also the original lingam shrine (Mulasthana) that faces east and antecedes the other halls. This was the original temple before Lord Nataraja came to Chidambaram to perform his dance of bliss. That story will be told later.
Returning now to the narrative, Guru Namasivaya completed his bath in the Siva Ganga Tank and walked into the temple, expecting to have the
darshan of Lord Nataraja in the inner shrine. Instead, in that place, the Lord gave him
darshan in the form of Guhai Namasivaya, who was then still living on Arunachala. This unexpected manifestation prompted Guru Namasivaya to compose a verse in praise of Siva:
Lord of the Golden Hall! King of Heaven!
You who grant to those who praise and worship you
whatever it is they most desire,
whether they be spiritual adepts or mere disciples!
How was it that you came to dwell on holy Annamalai
in the from of my Guru, Guhai Namasivaya,
and placed your twin feet upon the head
Of such a wretched devotee as I?
This is something that my understanding cannot compass.
One account of his life written in verse, describes this manifestation of his Guru in the following way:
The Lord whose golden image resides in that place
Appeared to him in the form of a loving Sadguru.
Awakening from a swoon, he pondered deeply to himself,
'What ill can befall me if I remain here in this place?'
His realisation deepened until it encompassed all of creation.(6)
In an ecstatic state he composed another hundred verses, all praising Siva, in less than half an hour. Afterwards, he retired to a secluded room in the temple and became absorbed in the Self.
It will be remembered that Guhai Namasivaya had told Guru Namasivaya that if the latter did not have
darshan of his, Guhai's, form at Chidambaram, he could return to Arunachala. The manifestation therefore meant that Guru Namasivaya had to stay in Chidambaram and attend to the renovation work that Guhai Namasivaya had given him. At this point in the story Siva himself interceded and made the temple authorities aware of Guru Namasivaya and the works he was destined to perform.
At that time there were three thousand brahmin priests who were permitted to serve in the Chidambaram Temple. The
Chidambara Mahatmyam, a compilation of local legends and myths, has an account of how these priests came to occupy their position.
There was a legendary king from North India called Hiranyavarman who rebuilt the temple as an act of gratitude after he was cured of leprosy by taking a bath in the Siva Ganga Tank. He also brought back from North India the 3,000 Dikshitars, the original priests of the temple who had, for some reason, emigrated to the north. On their return there were only 2,999, but the original number was restored when Siva agreed to be counted as one of the 3,000.
This legend may have arisen out of a need to explain why the Chidambaram Temple does not follow the traditional rules and rituals prescribed in the Saiva
Agamas, the scriptures that lay down the regulations for all acts of worship in South Indian Saiva temples. Instead, the temple rites are governed by a manual attributed to the sage Patanjali. This was brought back from North India by the Dikshitars when King Hiranyavarman persuaded them to return home.
The temple suffered no loss of prestige by adopting these strange rites. On the contrary, for many Saivas, the Chidambaram Temple is the holiest place of worship. Its unique sanctity can be gauged from the fact that millions of Tamil Saivas refer to it as
'Koyil', meaning 'the Temple'. For them, no further name is required or ever given to it.
When Guru Namasivaya appeared in Chidambaram, the priestly caste was headed by three of these Dikshitars - Jivanmukta, Jatamukta and Mahamukta. By virtue of their seniority they were entitled to be carried from place to place in a palanquin. Shortly after Guru Namasivaya's arrival, Siva himself appeared before these priests and gave them the following instructions.
'A very great person has come from Arunachala. He is very much absorbed in yoga. You must arrange a secluded place for him. Many holy works are destined to be done by him on my behalf. If you were to ask, ''What place shall we put him in?'' I would tell you that his place is on the northern side of the temple beyond the temple border. I have twice placed my foot there in the past: once when writing the
Tiruvachakam of Manikkavachagar, and also when I brought the milk ocean for Upamanyu. You can take him there.'
Upamanyu was the son of the sage Vyaghrapada and his story appears in the
Mahabharata. He had acquired a taste for milk, but none was available in the forest hermitage where he lived. He asked his mother for some, but she was unable to give him any. She explained that they were living simply and primitively and that they depended on Siva for all their needs. Seeing in this statement a chance to take his request to a higher authority, the boy demanded to know who Siva was and asked how he could earn his grace. His mother taught him how to mediate, without being aware that her son was only learning in order to beg for milk.
When the boy had mastered the technique of meditating on Siva, Siva appeared before him and said, 'Child Upamanyu, I am pleased with you. You are a sage already. You are a great devotee. I have seen that you are a
brahmarishi in the making. You will have eternal youth and lustre. An ocean of milk will be there for you whenever you want it. You can enjoy this with all your friends and relatives and finally you will have bliss by attaining me.'
A local tradition locates this incident at Chidambaram. The Tirupparkkadal Tank - 'The Tank of Divine Milk' - is situated to the north of the main temple compound. Adjoining it is a
math that is supposed to be the place where Manikkavachagar, the ninth-century Saiva poet-saint, composed many of the poems that are included in the
Tiruvachakam, his principal work.
The priests took Guru Namasivaya to his appointed spot near the Tirupparkkadal Tank and returned to the temple.
Guru Namasivaya sat there, absorbed in the Self, until the pangs of hunger again brought him back to the world. In his usual fashion he called out to Parvati for food:
My lady Sivakami whom the wise praise
with the sweet nectar of their words!
I offer praises to your golden foot
that treads the realms of heaven,
that you may preserve from starvation
this flesh-bound bodily frame.
I beg you, bring me rice!
At the conclusion of the song, the Mother brought him food. As she was approaching him, she sang a verse in reply:
I, Sivakami, sister to the great Lord
who in ancient times drank with relish
milk at the demoness' breast,(7) have brought rice to delight
the servant and slave of Guhai Namasivaya.
From that day on Lady Sivakami daily brought food and gave it to Guru Namasivaya. He continued to sit there, absorbed in his yogic practices.
While he was staying in that spot, many people who frequented the place used to leave money in front of him because, seeing him, they felt that he was a very great spiritual being.
After some time, when a large amount of money had piled up in this way, Guru Namasivaya looked at it and commented, 'This wealth is a killer of man'.
He told the people who were nearby at the time to take it all for themselves. This they did. When the three thousand priests saw what was happening, they were upset because they felt that a lot of wealth was being wasted. They went to Guru Namasivaya and begged him to change the place where he sat and did his yoga.
'Because you are staying here, outside the temple, all kinds of people are taking away the money that is being given to you. If you come inside the temple and let us collect the money for you, a lot of holy works and endowments can take place, So, please come and sit inside the temple.'
'I have come here at the request of the Lord of Chidambaram,' replied Guru Namasivaya. 'What reason is there for me to go inside?'
The three thousand priests felt that Guru Namasivaya would never come inside if they alone invited him, so they asked the three principal priests to intercede directly with the deity.
They went to him and said, 'If Guru Namasivaya comes inside the temple, money will come and many holy works and endowments can start.'
'Yes, this is good,' said the Lord. 'But he won't come if you call him. I myself will go and fetch him.'
Then, assuming the form of a sangama,(8) he went to the place where Guru Namasivaya was staying and stood before him. When the Lord arrived, carrying a stick and a water pot, Guru Namasivaya was absorbed in the Self. As he came out of this state, he saw the elderly Saiva monk in front of him and exclaimed respectfully, 'Slave of your feet!'
'Where have you come from?' asked Guru Namasivaya.
The sangama replied, 'We reside at Tillaivanam [another name for Chidambaram]'.
'And what is your name?' enquired Guru Namasivaya.
'My name is Ambalatthaduvar [The Dancer in the Hall].'
'And what is the purpose of your coming here?' asked Guru Namasivaya.
'I need some food,' said the sangama. 'I went all over this place. Some people told me that if I came here I would get some food.'
Guru Namasivaya told him, 'Mother Parvati brings food for me every day. I don't even have a vessel.'
The sangama responded by saying, 'Here is the vessel,' as he pointed at the moon.
Then, to demonstrate how he got his food, Guru Namasivaya looked in the direction of the Goddess, and some food immediately appeared.
Addressing the sangama, he said, 'Please take this.'
The sangama refused, 'I won't take it,' he said.
'If you give me food every day in this way, only then will I take it. Not otherwise.'
'You appear quite old,' remarked Guru Namasivaya. 'I travel about a lot to places like Kasi and Rameswaram. How can I promise that I will offer food to you every day? You may not be anywhere near me.'
'If I walk in front of you,' replied the sangama, 'then you must give me food. If I am behind you, I do not need food.'
Guru Namasivaya agreed: 'If you stand in front of me I will give you food. Otherwise I will not.'
'I agree to those terms,' said the sangama. 'I will stand in front of you if I need food.'
'So now please eat,' said Guru Namasivaya, offering him his first instalment of food.
The sangama then tried to revise the conditions, 'If you offer food after first touching your
vibhuti pouch or rudraksha beads, then I will take it.'
Guru Namasivaya refused to agree to these new conditions. He repeated his previous commitment: 'If you stand before me, I will give you food.'
The sangama backed down. 'Good,' he said. 'When I need food, I will come and stand in front of you.'
'And if you do,' reiterated Guru Namasivaya, 'I will give you
Just as the Lord was assuming a position which indicated that he was about to take Guru Namasivaya's food, he said, 'I need water to quench my thirst'.
Guru Namasivaya made no attempt to serve him personally. 'The Tirupparkkadal Tank is over there,' he said, pointing in the right direction. 'You can take water from there.'
The Lord did as he had been instructed, went to the tank and then suddenly disappeared. He reappeared in the temple, still in the guise of a
sangama, and spoke to the three thousand priests.
'I have arranged a plan. All of you should now take the palanquin in which I ride and all the ceremonial banners that have come into existence here for my sake. Get him into the palanquin, arrange all the banners around him, and then take him along all the four streets that surround the temple. Afterwards, bring him to me.'
The priests took the palanquin and the banners, went to Guru Namasivaya and politely requested him to come to the temple with them.
When they asked him to get into the palanquin. Guru Namasivaya refused, saying, 'Why a palanquin for me? There is no need.'
The three thousand priests responded by telling him, 'This is not a palanquin, it is a tiger-skin seat, appropriate for a yogi like you'.
Guru Namasivaya, still disinclined to go with them, replied, 'No, it is not fitting'.
Then the priests tried a new approach.
'Yesterday afternoon our Lord came to you. What did you tell
Guru Namasivaya remembered the strange encounter he had had on the previous day and the thought came to him that the
sangama may not have been just a simple monk. He went into a yogic trance and saw in that state that on the previous day it had been the Lord Himself, who had come and given him
He resumed his normal state and remarked to the priests, 'After he came here, he must have gone to tell you what happened'.
When he finally understood what had been happening, he composed the following verse:
Appearing as a Virasaiva mendicant,
The Lord himself manifested to me
and asked me to give him alms.
But when I offered him food,
He bade me create all the endowments
to guarantee his service every day.
Only after reciting this verse did he finally consent to get into the palanquin. As he was being taken around the streets of Chidambaram, he sang another verse in praise of the Lord:
Our Lord in Tillai's Hall, Consort to her whose breasts are ample and shapely,
to whom I daily raise my voice in praise.
Will he abolish the births, past, present and future,
upon this great wide earth
of those who have not known his holy heart?
Will he cut out their good and evil deeds
and bestow his twin feet upon them?
Singing this song, he reached the temple. He disembarked from his palanquin near the flagpole, took off his sandals outside the Panchakshara Compound, walked into the Golden Hall and had
darshan of the Lord there.
He then looked at the three thousand priests and asked them, 'What endowments shall I create?'
The Lord himself then spoke through an oracle in the temple: 'Create endowments for all people.'
Guru Namasivaya thought that if the Lord himself gave a donation to start the endowment, and gave it in such a way that it was witnessed by all the assembled devotees, it would be certain that the endowment would continue forever. He therefore sang the following verse while holding a golden plate in his upraised hands:
Lord of Chidambaram's Hall, you who held me in your sway
in the form of my revered Guru!
I beg you for alms
so that no holy endowment shall be lacking
in the worship of your lotus foot.
As soon as he had completed the singing of this verse in front of the Lord, a gold coin came from the sky and fell onto the plate. All those present said that the Lord himself had given a donation. Feeling that this was a sign that the Lord wanted them all to contribute, the devotees present gave an abundance of gold, pearls and other things. Guru Namasivaya handed over all these donations to the three thousand priests and began to walk away from them.
As he was attempting to leave, his steps faltered and he enquired rhetorically of the priests, 'What is stopping me now?'
The priests, not knowing the answer, replied, 'How can it be known to us?'
Guru Namasivaya again went into a yogic trance to ascertain the reason for his inability to leave.
When he resumed his normal state he enquired, 'Has there been any jewellery made for the Lord?'
After thinking for some time they replied, 'Tinkling anklets
[silampu] and a girdle of tinkling bells [kinkini] have been made. That much we know. Apart from this, there is no other jewellery.'
On hearing this answer Guru Namasivaya called the artisans and said to them,
'Silampu, kinkini and veerakantamanai [a ring with little bells worn on the leg] have to be made. How much money will be needed?'
'Fifty thousand gold coins.' They answered, very optimistically.
Without querying the amount, he took all the money that had been collected and gave it to them, asking them to make the necessary jewels.
Later, when he was resting, all the three thousand priests gathered together and spoke bitterly among themselves.
'We all thought that we could benefit through him. But now he has given all the wealth to make jewellery!'
Then they all united in ridiculing him, saying, 'If the Lord wears such expensive jewels, then he will have to dance as well.'
One of them also said, sarcastically, 'So our Lord is now going to dance just for him.'
Guru Namasivaya heard all their comments. On the fortieth day, when all the jewellery had been completed and brought to him, he called all the three thousand priests and said to them, 'If the Lord now dances, will you all be willing to witness it?'
To this they answered immediately, 'How much merit must we have acquired to see such a sight! If we see it, twenty-one generations of our line will be redeemed.'
Then Guru Namasivaya thought to himself, 'The people here are very sceptical. If the Lord moves, they may say that it is merely on account of the breeze.'
He therefore ordered that all the windows be closed. He adorned the Lord with the jewellery that had been made and then, earnestly seeking
darshan of the Lord's dance, he sang the following
Lord of the Hall, can we ever perish
if but one of your feet dances?
To behold all the gods in heaven
could not compare with such a sight!
And could that foot ever grow weary
which delighted victorious Patanjali
and the fierce tiger-footed Vyaghrapada too?
To understand the significance of this and subsequent verses, it is necessary to digress a little into the background and traditions surrounding the
ananda tandava, the dance of bliss that Lord Nataraja performs in Chidambaram.
(7) The Lord in this verse is Krishna, not Siva. When Krishna was a baby, a demoness called Putana was engaged to assassinate him. She went to his house in disguise and tried to breast-feed him. Krishna sucked the life out of her, along with the milk, and she died after reassuming her original form.
(8) The word sangama is used to denote a monk of the Virasaiva sect.
(9) Guru Namasivaya is not yet aware that his visitor is Siva himself. When Siva asks for food to be given to him every day, he is hinting that he wants Guru Namasivaya to arrange for food to be served to him every day in the temple. When Guru Namasivaya subsequently realised that Siva had been asking for such an endowment, he came into the temple to make all the arrangements. However, as will be seen later, the first instalment he collected was used for a different kind of offering.
When Siva asks Guru Namasivaya to make his offer after touching his
vibhuti and his rudraksha beads he is asking him to make a formal vow. For a Virasaiva, a vow taken while touching the
vibhuti pouch would be an unbreakable commitment.
(10) All the jewellery that he ordered is associated with temple dancing. The different ornaments are designed to make a pleasant jingling sound when the dancer moves around.