Chidambaram (Cidambaram) is an important Chola temple site in Tamil Nadu, southern India. Most of the temples at Chidambaram were built in the 12th and 13th centuries CE. The site is dominated by the huge gateway tower of the Nataraja temple but Chidambaram also boasts the first Devi or Amman shrine, the first Surya shrine with the distinctive stone chariot wheels which would adorn many subsequent temples, and the first large Siva Ganga tank. In this respect Chidambaram is something of a transitional site, linking elements of the old and new styles of Indian temple architecture.
The name Chidambaram, one of several from antiquity, derives from the Tamil Cirrambalam, meaning ‘little hall’. The site was chosen because according to mythology it was the precise spot where the Hindu god Shiva had once danced in a grove of tillai trees. The dance was, in fact, a competition between Shiva and Parvati and naturally the great Shiva won. The story became a popular subject in Hindu art over the centuries.
The site is enclosed within four perimeter walls and covers a rectangular area of 55 acres. Within the compound are shrines, halls, temples, ornamental gateways, and a large ritual bathing pool, known as a Siva Ganga tank, which is surrounded by cloisters. Inscriptions claim the site was built by various Pandya kings and local rulers but none are contemporary with the dates the buildings were actually first constructed. The walls and east gopura (gateway) may be ascribed with greater certainty, and were probably built by Kulottunga III, who reigned from 1178 to 1218 CE.
The Nataraja temple was constructed between c. 1175 and c. 1200 CE. The actual temple shrine is relatively modest as by now in Indian architecture the gopuras had become the most important structures, at least in terms of aesthetics. The twin sacred chamber was, however, adorned with copper sheets covered in gold by successive Chola kings. The shrine is preceded by a dance hall and large entrance porch with columns (mandapa).
The massive granite and brick east gopura dominates the site but there are three other gopuras on the north, south and west sides (the earliest). The corbelled roofs diminish as the structures rise and are finally topped with the usual barrel-vaulted roof (sala), the eastern gopura also having a row of 13 decorative finials. The east gopura has a proper interior floor at each of its nine levels and there is an interior staircase which climbs to the very top of the building. All four gopuras have false windows on their facades, typical for this kind of structure, and pairs of pilaster columns set at regular intervals. The second floor of each gopura also has a passageway which worshippers ritually walked around. The entrance archways all have coffered ceilings decorated with relief panels.
Of particular note at Chidambaram are the thousands of sculptures adorning its buildings. In particular there are many statues of women in a wide variety of dance postures. Many statues are accompanied by quotations from Hindu literature which provide an invaluable reference for scholars. There are also figures of the four dvarapalas (guardian demons), the dikpalas (cardinal directions), many figures of Shiva performing heroic deeds, various other deities such as Vishnu, Devi, Sarasvati, and, unusually in southern architecture, river goddesses.
Finally, Chidambaram is also famous for its 17th century CE Nayaka ceiling paintings which decorate the Shivakamasundari shrine of the Nataraja Temple. More than 40 panels depict scenes from the life of the saint Manikkavachakar, a devotee of Shiva.