Temple of the Sky
Notes from South India from Marilyn Downing Staff, Asia Transpacific Journeys’ Founder and President
Chedambaram Temple at sunset is like no other. Devotees of the Hindu god Shiva scurry barefoot through the gates, children in tow, colorfully clad in their best saris and dhoti. They approach the alter for a sunset glimpse of this most sacred bronze figure of Shiva in his Nataraj phase, doing the cosmic dance of life. Shiva, the great god of destruction, is also the embodiment of creation and thus must be paid his due to keep the universe in balance. The object of their devotion, the bronze Nataraj image, circled with a flaming ring, has Shiva’s four arms aloft, each carrying a symbolic item or gesture, his right leg subduing the demon of ignorance and his left lifted high in a graceful, powerful pose, is a familiar Hindu icon. When understood, the sculpture offers the beholder an illustrated reminder for life – power, grace, compassion, enlightenment – ideal human qualities. Seen anywhere it evokes emotion, but seen at Chedambaram it carries its full sacred impact. As the smoke from hundreds of oil lamps illuminate the 2,000 year old exquisitely carved granite pillars, the bare-chested Braham priests, clad in their flowing white dhotis, top-knotted hair cuts and white forehead paint, rush forward toward the image carrying torches of cleansing fire. Devotees press closer to get a glimpse of the image being purified, as to lay eyes on such a moment is to purify the beholder. When finished, the priests, spent and drenched with sweat from the intense heat, move away, leaving the devotees to pray and ponder the spiritual moment.
Chedambaram is one of the five ancient Dravidian temples in South India. Each one dedicated to one of the five elements, this one is symbolic of the sky. Located in the Indian state of Tamil Nadu, about 50 miles south of Pondicherry, the old French colonial capital, it can be easily reached by car.
I recommend that anyone who has an opportunity to travel to India, makes an effort to visit the Temple of the Sky.