The town of Chidambaram is situated in the east-central part of Tamil Nadu state of southeastern India extending 11.24°N and 79.44°E. The town is in the Coleroon River Valley on the Madras-Thanjavur road and rail system.
Chidambaram (also Thillai) literally means the sky permeated by an atmosphere of intelligence and wisdom. According to legend, it was once a forest of tillai, a mangrove species of trees. There was once a small shrine on the banks of a tank. The saints Vyagrapada and Patanjali are said to have worshipped at this shrine, now called Thirumoolanathar. It is believed that their penance attained fruition with the revelation of Shiva's cosmic dance by Lord Nataraja on the auspicious Thai Poosam day. The golden hall of dance was built and covered with gold plates by Jatavarman Sundra Pandya (AD 1251-1272). He was very proud of his achievement, and as such assumed the title of Hemchandandana Raja (literally the king who covered the temple with gold).
Brahmotsavam, Ani Thirumanjanam, Thai Poosam, and Arudra Dharshan are some of the temple festivals that attract large crowds from far and nearby places.
During Arudra Dharshan, the icons of Shri Nataraja and Shivakama Sundari are decorated with flowers and taken around the town to the accompaniment of nadaswaram. The streets during this time are a veritable treasure of kolam art, in which the womenfolk of this area revel.
The Natyanjali festival held for five days during February is an eloquent tribute to this center as origin of dance. The dance avenue, which was originally in front of the 1000-pillared Raja Sabha, has now been shifted to the enclosure beyond the gopurams to facilitate closure of temple in time and accommodate a larger audience. The number of dance performers has been increasing year after year even though they are only paid travel and lodging expenses. The performance starts from 6.30 PM on the festival days and continues past midnight.
The climate of Chidambaram is tropical with mercury touching up to 37°C in the summers and around 20°C in the winters.
The Nataraja Temple is about 43 km from Cuddalore and 45 km from Neyveli. The temple is located in the center of Chidambaram town and covers an area of 40 acres. The roof of the sanctum sanctorum is covered with gold plates. The presiding deity of the temple is represented by air, one of the five elements of the universe and is known as Akasa Lingam. This is the temple of the Cosmic Dancer, where the presiding deity is called Nataraja. This temple has five halls, of which two-the Kanaka Sabha and the Chit Sabha-have gold-plated roofs. The main icon of Nataraja is in the Kanaka Sabha. One of the significant aspects of the temple is that there is no image of god in the Chit Sabha, which houses the Akasa lingam. This to signify that God exists in vacant space too. The Nritta Sabha or the Hall of Dance is the most beautiful and remarkable of the five halls, built in the form of a chariot on wheels drawn by horses. There are 56 pillars in the hall depicting the 108 poses of Bharat Natyam, the classical dance of Tamilnadu.
The Deva Sabha was the Hall of Festivals and the Raja Sabha, which is a thousand-pillared pavilion, was the Celebration Hall of the Pandyas and Cholas who gathered here after every victorious campaign to thank the Lord. Adjacent to the Nataraja shrine is a shrine dedicated to Lord Vishnu (Govindaraja). There are also shrines dedicated to Subramaniya and Vinayaka. The Sacred tank is called Sivaganga.
The Thillaikaliamman Temple is on the northern end of the town. Kopperunjingan, who ruled between AD 1229 and 1278, built this temple. This temple is dedicated to Goddess Kali. It is said that Goddess Kali's anger did not subside even after killing the demon Tarakasura. Hence, Lord Nataraja performed tandava dance to contain her anger. It is enjoined that all those who visit Chidambaram should pay a visit to Thillaikaliamman temple.
Other shrines to visit are Shivakama Sundari, Pandya Nayakam of Shanmuga, Karpaga Vinayaka, Navagraha Linga, Meenakshi Sundaresar, and Kumarakotta Murgan.
Sprawling over an area of three hundred acres is the Annamalai University, which is one of the foremost in the country. Founded in 1929, the university has grown from strength to strength. Both in the field of arts and science, the university has carved out a niche for itself. In technological fields like engineering and agriculture, the university has separate faculties. Recently medical and dentistry faculties have been added to it. The university has a department of music, which has been rendering yeoman service to Tamil music. As any other progressive university, it has a center for adult education and extension which functions viably in mass literacy programs and vocational training. A visit to the quaint little town of Chidambaram is a rich cultural experience that has attracted men and women down the ages. Its beautiful temple, the modern university, and the beautiful handicraft creations can leave one spellbound.
Situated around 16 km from Chidambaram is Pichavaram. The place is a scenic spot with abundant and varied tourism resources. A unique natural phenomenon in the form of mangrove forests, which sprawl over 11,000 hectares of backwaters, is the main tourist attraction here. The backwaters, which are interconnected by the Vellar and Coleroon system, offer abundant scope for water sports-parasailing, rowing, and canoeing. Pichavaram consists of a number of islands interspersing a vast expanse of water and covered with green trees. The area is separated from the sea by a sand bar, which is a patch of extraordinary loveliness. To a botanist, rare species like Avicennia and Rhizophora will present special attractions. Sirkazhi is about 20 km from Chidambaram. The temple here has the shrines of Sri Brahmapureeswarar, Sattanathar, and Thoniappar; the Goddess Tirunilai Nayaki shrine; and the shrine of God Child, Gnanasambandar.
Vaitheeswaran Koil is about 24 km from Chidambaram. The place is famous for a Shiva temple dedicated to Vaidyanatheswarar, the healer of all diseases, and his consort Thaiyalnayaki. It is believed that a bath in the holy waters of the Siddhamirtham tank within the temple complex will cure all diseases.
Neyveli is 45 km from Chidambaram. Lignite mines are located here.
Gangaikonda Cholapuram is situated 42 km from Chidambaram. The city was founded by the Chola king Rajendra I, who made it his capital. A temple of Lord Shiva with massive and richly carved sculptures exists here.
Poompuhar is a small city 40 km from Chidambaram. It served as a major port of the Chola Empire. It houses an art gallery built by the Government of Tamil Nadu in 1973. The gallery depicts scenes from the Silapathikaram of ancient Tamil literature.