Half a Ton of unguarded gold - Chidambaram Thillai Nataraja Temple.
Golden roof over the Kanaka Sabah.
Very few know about the true philosophical significance of Thillai Nataraja temple (PonAmbalam). It is not just a temple but a university, where the Tamil scholars presented their works before they are made public. It is a Sabah, a public place where the scientific, religious, literary and art talents are exhibited for acknowledgement and approval. It is considered to be the supreme of all five sabhas in Tamilnadu (Chidambaram, Madurai, Kutralam, Thiruvalankadu and Thirunelveli). It is the primary temple (Koil) of all the 275 Padal Petra sthalangal; it is also one of the Pancha bootha sthalams representing the Akasam (inner and outer space). Three of the five Panchaboothasthala temples, those at Kalahasti, (wind) Kanchipuram (Earth) and Chidambaram all stand on a straight line exactly at 79 degree 41 minutes East longitude - truly an engineering, astrological and geographical wonder. This temple is popularly known as Thillai Ambalam, synonymous with openness and transparency. It is a temple more for the learned than for commoners.
Dr. Anandha kumaraswamy (Sri Lanka), philosopher and historian of Indian culture described lord Nataraja as “a synthesis of science, religion and art. Rishi Patanjali positioned on the left side of Lord Nataraja developed the Yoga Sutra which may be hailed as a great contribution of India to the world. Yoga is the brand ambassador of India to the world.
According to history, Emperor Paranthaka Cholan paved the golden roof in the 9th century over the extension of Chit Sabah known as Kanaka Sabah with 21,600 golden tiles in the form of Vilva leaf with the word SIVAYANAMA inscribed on them representing 21600 breaths. The golden tiles are fixed using 72,000 golden nails which represents the number. of Nadis exist in the human body. The roof is topped by a set of 9 sacred kalasas, representing the 9 forms of energy. (Approximate weight could be 500 KG of gold. 1000 KG =one ton))
My focus is not on the divine side highlighting the Arudra Dharshan , concept of Cosmic Dance, Chidambara Rahasyam and Thillai Govindaraja Perumal but on the miracle as to how approximately half a ton of gold lying open to the sky without any protection survived 11 centuries.
It was a here say from the Dhishidras that the deity of Lord Nataraja and Sivakami were taken as far as Allepy in Kerala during the invasion of Malik Kafur in the 14th century. He plundered many temples in Tamilnadu but the golden roof remained un scathed. There are no historical evidences that it was destroyed and rebuilt again.
The period of 17th and 18th century was a kind of dark stretch in the history of India particularly South India. There were no big empires in the South. The whole of South India particularly the Pondicherry to Chidambaram belt was ravaged by power struggle among Marathas, Hyder Ali and the forces of East India companies of Britain and France for over a century. The Marathas, after Shivaji’s death, were not very active but the Maratha influence can be seen in many parts of Tamil Nadu particularly in Thanjavur. The temple was occupied by these warring forces and was used as a fort with cannons mounted on the 25 feet tall outer stone walls.
Comte De Lally arrived at Pondicherry as Governor with a clear mandate to oust the British. He ran out of cash to feed his army. He took extreme measures to replenish the near empty treasury by levying contributions from the local rulers. He led a strong contingent towards Thanjavur to collect the debt from the ruler. On his way he plundered the town of Nagore, ransacked a few temples searching for gold and ornaments. He executed six Brahmin priests and unleashed terror. Is it not a mystery that he did not try to plunder the Chidambaram golden temple which is just 60 kilometers away from the French Head Quarters in Pondicherry?
Hyder Ali supported by the French occupied Chidambaram for 4 years. During this gloomy period the deity was hidden near Thiruvarur and did not have regular pooja for 30 long years, however the golden roof remained untouched. Colonel Eyre Coote of British East India Company defeated Hyder Ali in a decisive battle in Porto Nova (Parangipettai) near Chidambaram in 1781 AD and decimated his dominance in the region. The century old power struggle in the region that threatened the temple came to an end by 1800 AD.
Half a ton of gold lying exposed to the sky and unprotected for more than a millennium in a country which was invaded and looted by many foreign forces for several centuries is a great wonder. Who is guarding them, is it Lord Nataraja? One logical reason could be a stiff resistance from the local population in and around, but Chidambaram is a small town. Perhaps the intricate technology of the roofing and strength of the materials prevented against dismantling and provided an all weather cover for over1100 years,. Reluctantly, I can attribute the following reasons based on presumptive logic for the inexplicable survival of the Pon Amanbalam. (1) The great devotion of the Emperor Paranthaka Cholan, (2) The dedication and tenacity of the Thillai Dhishidars who managed the temple with strict adherence to Vedic and Agama rituals despite several political and military challenges. (3) The magnanimity of the rich and powerful Adhinams who control numerous rich and famous temples in the region but did not interfere with the Nataraja temple. (5) The charity of the Nagarathar community of Chetti Nadu (5) Above all the deep devotion of the citizens of Tamiilnadu.
Dr. Krishnan Arunachalam.
History of the French in India by George Bruce Mellison.,
Political History of Carnatic Nawabs by N.S. Ramaswamy,
The Private Dairy of Anandha Ramgam Pillai.,
A South Indian Journey: The Smile of Murugan by Micheal Wood. (Penguin Books)
The City of Cosmic Dance – Chidambaram by B. Natarajan (Orient Longman),
Ummudi Bangaru Chetty Jewelers.( opinion on the weight of gold on roof)
Colonel Sir Eyre Coote
Patanjali in the form of a serpent on the left of Lord Nataraja
(Published in Mylapore Club magazine May/2014 by the author)