Shiv Jee | Shiv Temples
Written by Raja Deekshitar in "US Brahmins" Group on Feb 6, 2011
It was the night of December 24-25. The night of Full Moon as well as the night in which Christianity celebrates the birth of Jesus Christ. It is a few hours after midnight. It is also in a rare coincidence, the night when the Moon resides in the lunar mansion Arudra (Aardraa), and thousands of people have gathered in the Temple square in Chidaambaram to witness the main ritual performance of the chariot festival or Rath Utsav. I stand in their midst and look up. Right over the Temple, at the zenith of his path across the firmament, dances the Nataraaj high up in the southern sky. As the constellation of stars known in the West as Orion.
While the attention of the people around me is directed towards the great Mandap, the hall in front of us, only I - wandering between Earth and Heaven - see Him dancing in the hall as well as in the sky. My physical eyes are watching His Dance in the hall. My inner vision is seeing His Dance in the sky - Orion. In the frontal part of the building, Shiv Nataraaj Moorti dances in his earthly embodied form. Nataraaj, Cosmic Dancer, Lord of Creation and Dissolution for his devotees. He is accompanied by his consort Paarvatee, his sons Ganesh and Murugan, and by the deified saint Chandikeshwar. It is the ninth night of the 11-day festival, and the high priest officiating the festival is performing the Abhishek. This is the ablution or pouring of sacred substances on the Moorti or images. Never before have I been so aware of the great significance of my ancestor's tradition as on this particular night. Of its universality and timelessness, as well as its depth of knowledge and spirituality.
Being a Deekshitar myself, a member of the community responsible for the maintenance of the worship of Shiv Nataraaj for the past few thousand years, I am well aware that the performance of the Abhishek of the mid-winter festival of the Temple is celebrated when the Moon is in the star Aardraa. The importance of this can easily be gathered from the Tamil name of the winter chariot festival: Margari Tiruvadirai. The holy Aardraa in the month of Margari. Margari being the month in the Tamil calendar, from the middle of December till the middle of January in the Gregorian calendar. In the Tamil calendar this is the month of Dhanur or Sagittarius. My intuition told me long ago that the importance of the performance and the depth of the contexts of the festival were not limited to Hindu or Indians only, but that it had been initiated for the whole of humanity. Proof of this came to me just recently and accidentally.
The Orion Mystery
The three pyramids of Gizeh, and the pyramids of Zawyat-al-Aryan and Abu Ruwash, all built by the fourth dynasty, represent a terrestrial projection of the heavenly image of the god Osiris. Osiris ascended to the heavens after his murder and mummification as the constellation Sahu, now known in the West as Orion. The five stars and five pyramids represent respectively the three stars of "Orion's Belt", and his left foot and right shoulder. While the three small pyramids at Abusir, build by the first three pharaohs of the fifth dynasty represent the head of Osiris - Sahu - Orion.
The "other world", called the Duat, where the deceased and mummified Pharaoh was transcended or transported towards through rituals was actually not thought of as a "nether world", placed under the earth, but was situated in the constellation Sahu - Orion in the sky. The sacred geography created by the pyramids on the earth was the Duat or "other world" on the earth (the necropolis of Sakkara near Memphis). This sacred geography also established a "gate", connecting the earthly Duat with the heavenly Duat in the sky, in the constellation Sahu - Orion.
Especially, the great pyramid of the Pharaoh Cheops played a crucial role in the rituals that transformed the deceased Pharaoh into the god Osiris and transported him to his heavenly abode where he became a star. It represents the star Zeta Orionis, the brightest star of the "Belt of Orion". Four shafts running north and south of the so-called King's and Queen's chambers inside the pyramid were proven to be exactly directed to certain stars in the year 2450 BC, thus fixing the building date of the great pyramid.
The southern shaft of the King's chamber was directed to the star Zeta Orionis. The southern shaft running from the Queen's chamber towards the surface of the pyramid was directed to the star Sirius, which represents the consort of Osiris, the goddess Isis. The northern shaft from the King's room was directed to the star Alpha Draconis, the Polar Star at the time of the building of the great pyramid. The northern shaft of the Queen's chamber was directed to the star Beta Ursa Minor.
These four shafts, rising north and south, two by two, played a crucial role in the rituals that transported the deceased Pharaoh to the Heavens, where he became a star in the 'other world' of the Duat in Sahu - Orion. Two other pyramids, at Dasjur, are also part of this sacred geography, representing two of the stars of the constellation Hyades. This constellation is connected to Seth, brother and enemy of Osiris. And to Horus, son and avenger of Osiris. So far the thesis of the authors of "The Orion Mystery"...
Indian and Western astrology are based on the same principles, but their practical functioning is quite different. Where Western astrology is fully functioning on the basis of the solar calendar through the Tropical Zodiac, Indian astrology functions on the basis of the lunar calendar within the context of the Sidereal Zodiac. Therefore, besides using the solar zodiac of the 12 signs, Indian astrology also employs the asterisms or lunar mansions, called Nakshatra, which are 27 in number. They are located on or near the ecliptic, and some are part of the larger solar zodiac signs. The Moon passes through the Nakshatra during the month, traversing approximately one asterism a day.
As all Hindu rituals, the chariot festivals of the Shiv Nataraaj Temple of Chidaambaram are fixed according to the solar and Sidereal Zodiac and the lunar asterisms. The most significant ritual of the festival is the Abhishek, or holy ablution, performed during the night between the 9th and 10th day of the festival. The other days of this 11-day festival are fixed relatively to this ritual. The Abhishek of the mid-winter festival takes place when the Moon is in the asterism Aardraa, in the month Margari, which is Dhanur Maas, or the month of the zodiac sign Sagittarius. In the western calendar this Tamil month falls between the middle of December till the middle of January.
Nakshatra And Pyramids
The day before the night of the Abhishek on the 9th day of the festival, Shiv Nataraaj and his consort, the goddess Paarvatee, are carried by the Deekshitar and the devotees from the sanctum sanctorum of the Temple to the great festival chariots, ready and waiting for them in the East Car Street. Preceded by their sons Ganesh and Murugan, and followed by the deified saint Chandikeshwar, they circumambulate the four car streets surrounding the Temple. The public pulls the great chariots. In the evening the Deekshitar and the devotees carry the murtis of Shri Nataraaj and the goddess to the Raaj Sabhaa, the Hall of Thousand Pillars, situated in the north-eastern part of the Temple. There, from a few hours after midnight till early morning, the Abhishekam is performed.
The occasion of Nataraaj circumambulating the town on his chariot is performed under the Nakshatra Mrigshiraa. This Sanskrit name means 'Deer's Head'. It is described as three stars in the shape of the head of a deer. In the sacred geography of Osiris-Sahu-Orion in Egypt it would be marked by the three small pyramids built by Pharaohs of the fifth dynasty at Abusir. These represent Orion's head, according to the authors of "The Orion Mystery". Mrigshiraa is also mentioned in the ancient Hindu texts as the birth star of the Purush Mrig, the Indian Sphinx. The Sphinx plays a significant and mysterious role in the mythology of the Chidaambaram Temple. (This I have described earlier in my article 'The Mysterious Sphinx' published on Sulekha on 15th July 2003)
On the 8th day of the festival Lord Shiv appears as Bhikshatana, the Mendicant. This day is celebrated under the Nakshatra Rohinee. Rohinee is the Red Cow, Mother of all Cattle, of Hindu mythology. She is the "Red One" because the red star Aldebaran is the main star of this asterism that consists of five stars (alpha, beta, gamma, delta, epsilon, and Tauri) and is called the constellation Hyades in western astronomy. Rohinee is represented by a wheeled vehicle, a chariot or Rath. The two pyramids of Dasjur represent the star Aldebaran and one of the other stars of the Hyades. This constellation was in the Egyptian mythology connected to Seth, the brother and enemy of Osiris. As well as to Horus, the son of Osiris.
Heaven On Earth
Lord Nataraaj dances in the Raaj Sabhaa, the Hall of Thousand Pillars, while his Abhishek is performed. This hall represents the Sahasraar Chakra, the energy point at the top of the skull described as a lotus with a thousand petals. He faces towards the south, the only deity to do so. With his right hand, the Hand of Hope, he dispels the fear of death for the humanity. The south being the direction of the god of Death.
The screen that veiled the mystery of the meaning behind the performance of thefestival of Margari Tiruvadirai has been pulled away, and the chariot festival, the Temple, and Shiv Nataraaj have been lifted above their local environment, tradition and significance. They have been shown to transcend the boundaries of space, time and culture. They are now permanently connected to the universal history of the development of human spirituality. The old Tamil book gave me the first key, many years ago, it said the constellation Orion is the Shiv Nataraaj.
The newly discovered meaning of the pyramids of Egypt as described in "The Orion Mystery" gave me a further set of keys. The Moon, crossing the asterisms one by one on the significant days of the festival, in a way turns those keys, uncovering new layers of meaning. I have seen the Moon traverse the asterisms of Rohinee - Hyades on the 8th day, and of Mrigshiraa - Lambda Orionis on the 9th day. And now, during the night after the 9th day I see the full moon in Aardraa - Betelgeuse.
A powerful vision has been generated. On the 8th day, the chariot or Rath is prepared and made ready for the festival. It stands ready in the East Car Street of the Akaash Kshetra, the City of Ether, which is Chidaambaram. Then the Sphinx, or Purush Mrig, born in the Nakshatra Mrigshiraa (Lambda Orionis), descends on the chariot, on the morning of the 9th day. Amidst the sound of thunder, the bells, drums and Tankaa, and the burning perfumed incense, Lord Nataraaj and goddess Paarvatee appear and are seated on the chariot. After circumambulating the town, they are taken to the Hall of Thousand Pillars. There, as the Moon crosses the star Aardraa or Betelgeuse, the holy ablution is performed. This is the place of the seventh Chakra, the Sahasraar Chakra, where the human aura connects to the divine. The witnessing humanity experiences Heaven on Earth.
Nataraaj - Orion - Osiris
What caused both ancient civilizations, seemingly so far apart in time and space, to recognize their chief deity in this particular constellation? Both deities are seemingly very different. What meeting points are there between them? Shiv Nataraaj, the Cosmic Dancer, dancing his five activities - Creation, Preservation, Dissolution, Illusion and Salvation, in the Temple of Chidaambaram in South India. And Osiris, ancient Egypt's god of rebirth and fertility - the one who brought civilization to the Egyptian people in the mythical 'First Time', when he was their king, later murdered by his brother Seth and resurrected by his consort, the goddess Isis. And succeeded by his son Horus.
Was it just the consequence of Orion's shape and prominence in the sky? Were there possibly any historical connections? Or were there deeper, as yet unknown and more mysterious reasons? Do both deities somehow represent the same energy or cosmic principle? Shaped into different words and images by the mythologies of both lands and peoples. The mythology of Osiris speaks of him as the great king of the 'First Time', bringer of civilization, god of fertility and rebirth, and ruler over deceased souls in the 'other world'. Lord Nataraaj shows and creates the whole universe through dance. Dance is the first symbol of human civilization. And he is Rajaadhiraaj, King of Kings, and Emperor of the Universe.
What other proof do we have at the moment to link these two phases of the development of human spirituality and civilization? The Egyptian and the Indian, the ancient and the contemporary.
The Great Sphinx is a well-known image to people from all over the world, but the less-known are the two pairs of Sphinxes that once guarded the entrances to the Temple of the Pharaoh Chefren. This temple is situated in front, and slightly to the south of the Great Sphinx, at the end of the ancient passage way which leads from the pyramids to the Sphinx and the temple complex situated in front of it. These two pairs of Sphinxes, which once upon a time faced each other, and the temple they guard, were built at the same time as the pyramids and are unique.
The Shiv Nataraaj Temple in Chidaambaram is the first temple in India where I found a pair of sphinxes guarding the entrance. As we enter the main shrine within the complex, through the east entrance, we descend the 21 steps that lead into the heart of the Temple. There, on either side of the entrance, on a raised platform, our eyes meet those sphinxes. They are called Purush Mrig which means human beast. Their lion bodies are sitting in an upright, watchful position. Their human faces surrounded by full mane. They are part of the ritual practice of the Temple, and people burn lamps for them. They purify those devotees that look at them, upon entering.
The one on the southern side of the entrance, there is a male Purush Mrig or sphinx. He wears a ferocious expression on his human face and has a pair of sharp fangs. The one on the northern side is a female sphinx. Her expression is one of tranquility, and she has no fangs. Although they are sculptured in a style that is uniquely Indian, it is not possible to classify them in any of the three main styles of medieval southern India: Chole, Pandyaa or Pallav (after the three main dynasties of the period). They are unique in style, expression and structure.
The lion bodies and the human faces of the Purush Mrig are sculptured with great care and in detail. The sculptors have given them the appropriate male and female ear-studs in their elongated ear-lobes. The mythology and tradition speak of them having been there from prehistoric times onward. From the very origins of the Temple. Legend has it that they first guarded the great ritual fire sacrifice performed by the Paandav, the five heroes of the epic, Mahaabhaarat. This Vaidik ritual was called Raajsooya Yagya. After the conclusion of the ritual the Purush Mrig asked what they might do now that their task was concluded. They were told to go to Chidaambaram, where Shiv would one day perform his Cosmic Dance for humanity. Their task would be to purify the devotees visiting the Temple.
They face inwards, towards the shrine of Nataraaj, and right in front of them, carved in the ceiling is a sculptured zodiac. Just as the Great Sphinx of Gizeh is watching over the actual heavenly zodiac.
From the entrance with the 21 steps we turn left, and follow the pillared gallery in a clockwise direction. At the center of the southern corridor we emerge from the shadows into a courtyard area open to the light of the sky. There our eyes are arrested by an imposing pillared edifice. A pavilion in the form of a stone chariot, with two giant stone wheels, drawn by two yoked stone horses. This is the Nritya Sabha, or Dance Hall, the place of the mythical dance contest between Lord Shiv and the goddess Kaalee. Drawing closer, we see beautifully sculpted panels filled with the intriguing figures of hermaphrodites, musicians and exuberant dancers lining the base of the structure. Raising our eyes slightly and coming still closer, we forget even to blink, as hundreds of miniature dancers, mythological figures and mysterious symbols come into focus. These cover the pavilion's massive 12-foot high pillars, each one carved in intricate detail on the granite columns.
Dropping our gaze once again to the sculpted face of the plinth, we see that it is adorned with a number of layers, each with its own repeating motive. Just above eye-level, on the top Pattikaa or belt, unfolds a breath-taking scene: a row of reclining sphinxes, alternating with lions, wrapping around the front part of the pavilion. These Sphinxes face the golden flag mast, which has a similar position in the temple structure as the Egyptian Obelisk. Following their gaze beyond this flag mast, we enter through a high doorway, the innermost courtyard of the temple. Just here, above the spot from which one can see both the Dancing Shiv straight ahead, and the Dreaming Vishnu off to one side, we find the twelve signs of the zodiac sculpted into the ceiling. Again under the gaze of the Sphinxes sitting peacefully in their prominent and elevated position, they also witness, as they have witnessed for centuries, Shiv's Shaanti Kuttu - the Cosmic Dance of Peace, and are filled with His eternal bliss.
Following the row of Sphinxes to the west, we come to two forms of Shiv in elevated niches projecting from the side of the Nritya Sabhaa (Dance Court). One facing north and the other facing west. Both Moorti, or images, are flanked by pairs of elegant pillars, which support the roof of the niches. And at the base of each pillar again we find a sphinx. Male on one side and female on the other, these four Sphinxes stoically support the pillars. And although all have fangs, they guard Shiv with expressions of peace and benevolence. Although much about these sculptures is totally unique - their place in the structure of the building, the style of the sculptural work, their jewelry, hairstyle and facial expressions - still they exhibit the unmistakable form of the sphinx: a human face with a lion's body.
The Sphinx also plays an important role in the daily rituals of the Nataraaj Temple, in the form of a silver lamp on which a Sphinx is seen in a standing, worshipping position. This lamp is used in several rituals during the day.
In the Ved, the oldest texts of Hinduism, the stars or the Nakshatra are considered as the abode of the gods and of pious persons after death. The sacred texts of the Hindu also speak of the Seven Lok, or worlds, situated one above the other. Bhoor Lok is our Earth, inhabited by humans, Bhuvar Lok is the space between the Earth and the Sun, inhabited by Muni (wise men), Siddh (sorcerers) etc. Swar Lok is the Heaven, he Lok of Indra and is located between the Sun and the Polar Star. Mahar Lok, a region above the Polar Star, is inhabited by Bhrigu and other saints who survive the destruction of the three lower worlds. Jan Lok is inhabited by Brahmaa's sona, Sanat Kumaar etc. Tap Lok is inhabited by deified Vairaagee (those who have freed themselves from all worldly desires). And Satya Lok or Brahm Lok is the abode of Brahmaa, where one is exempted from rebirth.
The author of the old Tamil book describes Nataraaj - Orion as surrounded by three Lok. He mentions them with the names of the Cosmic Trinity; Brahm Lok, Vishnu Lok and Shiv Lok, while Swar Lok and Mahar Lok are connected to the northern sky and the Polar Star by their own descriptions.The Chariot And Manikavasakar
The stone Rath or chariot is situated opposite the sanctum. It is as though Lord Nataraaj has just arrived on his chariot, descending from Heaven to Earth, and ascended into the sanctum with the Golden Roof to bless us with the experience of his Dance. The Chariot Hall is the oldest building within the complex after the sanctum itself. All announcements by Indologists as to its age are merely guesses. And it is also not known what its original function may have been in the doctrine of the temple. The asterism Rohinee that is figured as a Rath is also situated in front of Orion - Nataraaj in the sky.
The wooden festival chariot is the Vaahan or vehicle of the Nataraaj Moorti on the 9th day of the festival, celebrated under the asterism Mrigahiraa. Traditionally this is translated as 'deer's head' and this has its own meaning and mythology. But Mrigshiraa can also be translated as 'seeking or reaching the pinnacle or summit'. The wooden chariot is shaped as an inverted step pyramid and represents Meru Parvat - the Cosmic Mountain.
After the chariot with Nataraaj has returned to its starting point in the late afternoon, the image of the great Tamil saint and poet Manikavasakar is brought from the Temple to worship the Dancing Shiv. This ritual is only performed during the winter festival. The following day Manikavasakar comes again, to see his Lord and Goddess return to the sanctum from the Thousand Pillars Hall, after which he attains 'Moksh'- Liberation. The legend of this saint tells that he entered the sanctum and disappeared, transported in his physical form to heaven. This event is connected with the winter festival. Manikavasakar is thought to have lived in the 5th century AD. Several saintly people are known to have 'reached the pinnacle' and achieved Heaven in the body, through the sanctum of Nataraaj in Chidaambaram.The Mid-Summer Festival
The Nataraaj Temple is the only temple in India, as far as I know that celebrates two chariot festivals every year. One is performed around mid-winter and one around mid-summer. The mid-summer festival is called Ani Tirumanjanam: the holy Abhishekam in the month of Ani. This is the month between the middle of June till the middle of July. The Abhishekam is performed under the Nakshatra Uttaraa Phaalgunee. Ancient texts state that this Nakshatra is the equivalent of Dhruv, the Polar Star. During mid-summer the northern constellations of Ursa Minor, Draco and the present day Polar Star are prominently visible above the Raaj Sabhaa or Hall of Thousand Pillars in the northern sky.
The association of Uttaraa Phaalgunee and Dhruv, the Polar Star and the position of the northern constellations at the time of the mid-summer chariot festival, establish one more connection between the living traditions of the Chidaambaram temple of Shiv Nataraaj, and the religion of the pyramid builders in ancient Egypt.The Step Pyramid
To conclude this article I want to point out one more conclusive connection between ancient Egypt and our living tradition. My temple is one of a very few temples where the Vaidik tradition is practiced through an unbroken, oral, tradition. At the center of the Vaidik doctrine stands the fire-sacrifice. This is performed in a fire-pit that has the shape of a flattened, inverted step-pyramid. The earliest Egyptian pyramids were also shaped as flattened step-pyramids.
The procedure and effect of the ritual is based on the presence of an energy point in every pyramid. This has also been established in the West through certain experiments. The energy of the sacrificial substances, together with the energy of the mantras, of the fire itself, and the energy of the performer towards the ritual, all taken together constitute the transformation and transport of the essence of the energy to the 'other world'. Resulting in Punya, or merit, for the person or purpose in whose name or function the ritual is performed.
Conclusion And Summing Up
The 'sacred geography' constituted by the pyramids of Gizeh and others in northern Egypt, reconstituted by the three high days of the mid-winter chariot festival of the Nataraaj Temple of Chidaambaram in southern India. Rohinee - Hyades - pyramids of Dasjur; Mrigshirsa - Lambda Orion is (and two other stars) - pyramids of Abusir; Aardraa - Betelgeuse - pyramid of Zawyat-al-Aryan. A unique association of the Chidaambaram Temple with the Purush Mrig or sphinx. Extra-ordinary people known to have been transported to the 'other world' in body or spirit through the pyramids and through the sanctum sanctorum of the Chidaambaram Temple. The pyramid and its energy point functioning as a point of transformation and transference in the rituals of both the ancient Egyptian civilization and Vaidik Hinduism.
Were the pyramids of Egypt really built as grave monuments for dead pharaohs? This has been called into question by several authorities. Were the pyramids used by initiates to travel to 'the other world' and back, in spirit, or possibly even in body - to gain knowledge and wisdom? What is the strong connection between Osiris and Orion, and Nataraaj and Orion? Does Orion somehow emit a special energy? Are the Moorti, or physical forms of Osiris and Nataraaj the shadows or projections of this energy on our Earth?
But anybody who would like to experience the mystery of Orion can come to Chidaambaram to celebrate Margari Tiruvadirai, the midwinter chariot festival of Shiv Nataraaj. They can see the Full Moon traverse the stars of Rohinee, Mrigshiraa and Aardra in December - January. Seek the pinnacle of the Cosmic Mountain, and witness the Cosmic Dance of Lord Nataraaj on the chariot. See Lord Nataraaj and the Goddess dance in the Sahasradara Chakra, the Hall of a Thousand Pillars. And be transported to 'Heaven on Earth'.
Created and Maintained by Sushma Gupta
Created on March 15, 2003 and Updated on February 12, 2013