Located in the historic temple town of Chidambaram in Cuddalore district is the magnificent temple of Govindaraja Perumal.
Once there was a sportive fight between Lord Shiva and his consort Parvathi over their mastery on dance. Each of them claimed to be expert at the art. They invited Lord Brahma to judge the event. Considering the fierce nature of Shiva, Brahma considered it wise to hand over the issue to the Supreme Personality of Godhead, Lord Narayana.
A stage was decided by the parties. It was Chidambaram, the abode of Govindaraja Perumal. This place was specifically chosen for a reason. It was the place where the Supreme Lord was majestically reclining on Adisesha and settled a dispute between rishis. As such a golden stage was specifically made for the divine dance competition of Shiva and Parvathi. Lord Shiva had another intention to plan up this divine act – to entertain Lord Narayana. It was the divine devotional service of Parvathi and Shiva.
At the end of the dance, Parvathi copied every dance step which Shiva performed and gave him tough competition. But when Shiva lifted his leg up above his head, Parvathi accepted her failure and defeat. Lord Govindaraja, whose durbar was the venue for this divine dance, bestowed Shiva with the title Nataraja or King of Dancers.
The demigods assembled to see the felicitation given to Shiva and requested Brahma to explain the importance of Chidambaram, which Brahma did, much to the delight of the demigods:
In the forest called Daruvana or Thillai (present day Chidambaram), was the dwelling place for a community of rishis and their wives. They lived in thatched roofed mud houses. They performed severe austerities and were masters of the processes of yoga. Through the performance of rituals they had achieved great knowledge and power, but they had not realized the importance of devotional service. Soon they seemed to have developed a thought that they were superior to the Lord Supreme Lord Narayana. Shiva requested Vishnu to accompany him to enlighten the rishis, by showing them the limited nature of human power, and how knowledge is of no use when one is not able to conquer one’s ego. To accomplish this purpose, the two deities changed Their forms. Shiva entered the hermitage of the rishis as a mendicant or a young brahmachari beggar: with dazzling beauty, wearing only a mendicant’s sandals and almost naked except for a loin cloth, the wives and daughters of the rishis fell madly in love with him, forgetting everything else, and completely loosing themselves. They were astonished to see the beauty of the fair- skinned Shiva.
Vishnu transformed Himself into a beautiful woman called Mohini or the divine damsel who appeared during the Sathya yuga to steal nectar from the asuras. As soon as the rishis saw Mohini dance before them, they too lost all good sense and rationality and with desire burning in their hearts, they followed Mohini around like madmen.
A few rishis happened to see that their wives were madly gazing at a handsome brahmachari boy and suddenly came to their senses. They became enraged and started a great fire sacrifice against this Shiva-Bhikshatana. First they called from the fire a tiger, but when it attacked Lord Shiva he laughed, and killed the ferocious animal with his hands, tearing off its skin and wearing it. Next the rishis sent poisonous snakes, which Shiva draped around his arms and neck, as jewellery. Then Shiva prepared to perform his cosmic dance. His two other arms became visible and his third eye shone on his forehead. The rishis called a fierce dwarf from their magical fire, but Shiva’s dancing foot simply took him for a pedestal and danced. Finally the rishis sent the fire itself to destroy the cosmic dancer, but he just took it on to his left hand. And from the mantras that the rishis used against him, Shiva made his anklets. Then Lord Shiva danced his thandava or cosmic dance.
The Supreme Lord Narayana was the only one who did not move from the sight of this fierce dance. He was resting on His Adisesha couch, attended to by His consorts. All other demigods trembled with fear and requested Lord Narayana to calm down Shiva. Shiva was calmed down by Lord Narayana just by a wink of His eye. But the Lord danced smiling, showing his raised foot. The rishis understood Lord Shiva’s divine grace, and attained realization. They started to dance themselves and all of creation danced with them. One of the rishis who was present there, imparted this style of dancing to Rishi Bharatha who later on wrote the master piece of dance called natyashastra. The present day Indian dance forms have been created from natyashastra.
The forest of Thillai is situated on the middle point of the earth, and constitutes its heart center, the Lotus Space. Through it passes the main energy nadi, or vein, of our mother planet. This place is the birth place of the famous saint, Patanjali, who authored the masterpiece book on hatha yoga.
There is yet another interesting episode regarding the place name Thillai. A demoness named Dhilli prayed to Lord Govindaraja Perumal so she would become transformed into a forest full of trees and that Lord should grace the place with His presence. She became Thillai trees. Named after her, the place came to be known as Thillai Nagar.
Once, as Patanjali reached the Thillai forest, he found on the southern bank of the lotus pond, the saint Vyagrapada (refer KV 2013 Sirupuliyur for pastime on sage Vyagrapada), worshipping Shiva and performing austerities. Vyagrapada had come to the Thillai forest following the advice of his father, Rishi Madhyandina. To worship the Shiva linga, Vygrapada used to gather flowers in the early morning, but however early he collected the flowers, insects had already damaged them. Deeply upset that his worship was not as complete or perfect as he desired, he cried to Lord Shiva to help him. In answer to his prayer, Shiva gave Vygrapada tiger claws for hands and feet, enabling him to find his way through the thick forest at night to gather flowers long before daybreak, before the insects could inflict their damage.
History in Modern Kali yuga
Chidambaram temple is a venue of constant battle between the Shaivas and Vaishnavas. The fact is that the temple is originally that of Govindaraja and even today there is no fixed moolavar deity of Lord Shiva here. A moolavar deity is one who is never removed and is thus fixed to the ground by 8 elements. The Shiva deity in Chidambaram is a movable one and the moolavar is that of Govindaraja whose lotus feet point towards Lord Shiva. Thus, by divine intent, Shiva stands as a humble servant in the durbar of Govindaraja.
Kulothunga Chola and Demolition of Govindaraja Temple
Kulothunga was a great devotee of the Shiva shrine of Chidambaram. He celebrated his coronation in that city, as Chidambaram is one of five places where Chola princes were crowned as kings. He also financed the elaborate renovation of the Shiva temple in Chidambaram. The poem Kulothunga Cholan Ula describes in detail the work carried out in Chidambaram. It is possible that this renovation work is the continuation of the work started by Vikramachandra Chola. He commissioned the work called Thiru Thondar Puranam, by his noble Sekkilar, who composed it from Thillai (Chidambaram).
Kulothunga was so intolerant that he uprooted the Deity of Govindaraja and deposited it in the sea and gave two options to the Vaishnavas living there – either to convert to Shaivism or to die. Most Vaishnavas chose the latter. It is estimated that about 3000 Vaishnavas were murdered by the king.
Ramanujacharya fled to Thirupati with the utsavar (festival Deity) of the Chidambaram temple and installed Him there, so there is a Govindarajaswamy temple in Thirupathi.
King Krishnappa Nayak (1564-1572 A.D.) was instrumental in installing the moolavar Deity of Govindaraja back in the temple. There was lot of resistance from the Shaivas against placing the Vishnu Deity in a revered Shiva temple, but the king was unmoved and the Lord was installed in the present form. Many Shaivas threatened to commit suicide if the Deity of Govindaraja was brought back and twenty of them did so when the king did not relent.
Fate of Kulothunga Chola
Kulaothunga was also called Krimikantha Chola (worm-necked Chola) because of an interesting incident which reinforces faith in the theory of karma.
Kulothunga was hell-bent on routing out Vaishnavism from his kingdom. The best way to do that, he thought, was to destroy Ramanujacharya. He issued royal summons to Ramanujacharya to appear in his court for the ostensible purpose of engaging him in a scholarly debate with his royal pundits. The real intention, however, was to coerce Ramanujacharya to recant from Sri Vaishnavaism, and if he refused, to have him murdered.
Ramachandranuja's followers dissuaded him from going to Gangaikondachozhapuram on the invitation of the king. Kuresa (Kurathalwar) and Mahapurna volunteered to go as Ramanujacharya's proxy and respond to the royal summons. With great reluctance, Ramanujacharya left Srirangam with a small band of acolytes and fled to Melukote or Thiru Narayanapuram where he lived in exile for 12 long years, a difficult period in life for the aged Acharya.
It was at Melukote that Ramanujacharya heard about what had happened to Kuresa and Mahapurna. In the court, the King said, “Nothing higher than Shiva exists,” and commanded them to agree to it. Kuresa refused. He contended that Lord Narayana was the Supreme Principle and none was higher than He.
The Chola King was incensed. He commanded Kuresa again to swear allegiance to Shiva. “If you refuse, we shall have your eyes pulled out here and now!'' On hearing this Kuresa flew into a rage. “Let me save you the trouble, you tyrant, for I shall pluck out my eyes with my own hands! These eyes that have set sight on a sinner such as you have no further use for me!'' So saying, Kuresa plunged a sharp writing quill into his own eyes. Mahapurna too suffered a similar fate but died a little later.
One day, the blind Kuresa made his way from home to the temple of Ranganatha to have darshana of the Lord. The temple guards, however, stopped him at the gates saying, “We have instructions from the King to let people in only if they swear that they will renounce Ramanujacharya as their guru.'' Kuresa told them blandly, “Please tell your King that Kuresa is prepared to forsake Lord Ranganatha in this world and even in the next. But denounce Ramanujacharya, never!'' The blind Kuresa then took his wife and children and lived at Thirumalirunjolai (near Madurai) till Ramanujacharya 's return.
King Krimikantha died of a deadly rash on his neck. After his death, the fanaticism of Shaivism in the kingdom quickly lost its militant edge and the land of the Cholas again reverted to sanity. Krimikantha Chola's successor turned out to be a wise king. He discouraged religious bigotry in his kingdom. Ramanujacharya then decided to return to Srirangam.
The temple is a huge structure with separate shrines for Govindaraja and Nataraja.
Lord Govindaraja can be seen in three different postures: standing, sitting and lying down. Mother Pundarikavalli Mahalakshmi has a separate shrine. The padukas (sandals) of the Lord are in a shrine in the prakara, ensuring salvation to the devotees. Garuda is mounted by Lord Gajendra Varadar, the Lord who saved the elephant king. Their Lordships Narasimha, Venugopala and Maharshi Patanjali, Sri Andal and Sri Anjaneya also have separate shrines in the prakara. The Lord dwells below a sattvika vimana. A beautiful pond named Pundarika Pushkarani graces the temple complex which is filled with numerous pillars and mantapas.
There are weekly, monthly and fortnightly festivals in the Govindaraja temple. However the fanatic Shaivas of the temple forced the discontinuation of the Lord’s Brahmotsava festival. Chidanbaram has been at the center of the centuries’ old conflict between the Shaiva and Vaishnava communites of Tamil Nadu. Although shastra states that Lord Shiva is the foremost Vaishnava, his followers do not acknowledge this in Chidambaram. The Vaishnava community of this temple are even today severely targeted and disturbed by the Shaiva community. The matter is subjudice.
Kulashekara Alwar’s Verses on Chidambaram
In just 10 verses King Kulashekara recites the entire Ramayana and offers it to Govindaraja. Alwar here narrates the concise story of Ramayana. He first describes Ayodhya. Then he describes the birth of the Sri Ramachandra avatara of Lord Narayana in the Suryavamsha. The reason for His avatara is to remove the sorrows of demigods caused by Ravana. Then there is the description of Ramachandra who resides in Thillainagar (Chidambaram) in deity form. King Kulashekara Alwar in these Prabandhas has sung Sri Ramayana in short form, from Sri Ramachandra’s birth upto His reaching Vaikuntha:
Sage Vishwamitra requested Dasharatha to send Ramachandra and Lakshmana to protect his yaga. Ramachandra was asked to kill Tataka even though she was a woman. Then of the two rakshasas who were disturbing his yaga, Subahu was killed and Mareecha escaped narrowly. Then follows a description of Chidambaram, where green trees abound and where about three thousand brahmanas sing hymns to Bhagavan sitting on the throne.
King Kulashekara Alwar describes Sita Devi. Then Lord Rama breaks the Shiva bow. After the wedding, Lord Rama encountered Parashurama who had gone round the world to conquer kshatriyas. When He challenged Ramachandra, the latter defeated Him, took his bow along with His tapas. This hero who is feared by enemies resides in Chidambaram. The devotees always worship Him. I worship those devotees of Lord Narayana.
Now King Kulashekara Alwar narrates how Kaikeyi asked Dasharatha the boons and sent Ramachandra to the forest, renouncing His rightful kingdom. Then Guha helped Him to cross the Ganges. Bharata came to request Him to return to Ayodhya and be the king. Ramachandra refused to do so in order to uphold Dasharatha’s promise. He gave Bharata the padukas and the right to be the king. Then He reached Chitrakoota and stayed there. King Kulashekara Alwar says that though Ramachandra’s avatara appeared ages ago, we can still see Him in Thillai. Those who see Him and feel the purpose of their sight fulfilled, are even greater than nityasooris.
Ramachandra killed the rakshasa called Virada. Then He went to Sage Agastya and received the bow and arrows. When Ramachandra took away the bow from Parashurama, the devas came and praised Him. Ramachandra gave the bow to Varuna and asked him to keep it safely, to return it at proper time. When He comes to the forest Varuna goes to Agastya’s ashrama and gave him the bow and arrows that Ramachandra took from Parashurama.
Shoorpanaka appeared as a beautiful lady, disguising her demon form, and requested Ramachandra to marry her. Though it is Lakshmana who cut her nose and ears off, it is said here Ramachandra did it. Since Lakshmana always does according to Ramachandra’s intentions, it is not wrong to say so. When Kara and Doshan arrived with a huge army, Ramachandra killed them all single-handed. Then He killed Mareecha who came as a golden deer. He resides in Chidambaram. Those who worship Him wander the earth purifying it.
Sita was abducted by Ravana when Ramachandra and Lakshmana were near Mareecha. Ramachandra lamented over her loss. They met Jatayu who fought with Ravana and lost his wings. They conducted pittru karma to him and sent him to Paramapada (Vaikuntha). According to Jatayu’s instructions, they meet Sugreeva the king of monkeys hiding from Vali. Ramachandra killed Vali and restored the kingdom to Sugreeva, who sent his army in all directions to find out the whereabouts of Sita. Hanuman found her in Lanka and burned the city, terrorizing Ravana and others. Ramachandra resides in Chidambaram. Those who worship Him are His devotees. King Kulashekara Alwar says I am the devotee of devotees.
Ramachandra went with Sugreeva and others to wage war against Ravana. They crossed the sea by building a bridge over it. The war broke out between the monkeys and asuras Ramachandra killed not only Ravana but also all the asuras. He made Vibheeshana the king of Lanka. King Kulashekara Alwar says he considers placing Ramachandra’s lotus feet on his head as the greatest kingdom than ruling over a small territory.
Ramachandra reached Ayodhya with Vibheeshana, Sugreeva and others. He accepted the kingdom from Bharata. He listened to the comments of the people and sent Sita to the forest. She lived in Valmiki’s ashrama. She gave birth to the twins Lava and Kusha who studied under Valmiki Maharshi. He taught them Sri Ramayana which they sang in the city of Ayodhya before King Ramachandra. This Ramachandra resides in Chidambaram. We shall hear His story and see Him in deity form. This is the sweetest nectar; no other nectar do we seek.
Sri Ramachandra killed the Soodra tapasvi and brought back alive, the dead son of a brahmana; wore the gem garland which Sage Agastya gave Him; sent Shatrughna to kill Lavanasura; renounced Lakshmana due to the curse of Sage Durvasa; resides in Chidambaram where we can see Him and worship Him. And never feel the loss of not seeing Ramachandra.
After renouncing Lakshmana Sri Ramachandra wanted to go to His realm. The people of Ayodhya requested Him that they should be allowed to go wherever He goes. He agreed and asked them to follow Him. The trees, birds and animals too followed Ramachandra to Sarayu River. Their Ramachandra went into the river followed by them. He gave them a realm equal to Vaikuntha and Himself went to His place received by all the residents thereof. With four arms Bhagavan sat on the throne revealing His glories. He is residing in this Chidambaram as He is in Vaikuntha, so let us worship Him here.
He is forever residing in Thiru Chitrakoota. Hanuman wanted to remain in this world as long as Ramachandra’s pastime exists. But Ramachandra could not bear the separation of His bhakthas. So He too has come from Vaikuntha to Chidambaram, staying with Hanuman.
With this King Kulashekara Alwar ends His work Perumal Thirumozhi.