The temple has 9 gateways and four of these have towering pagodas or gopurams each with 7 levels in the East, South, West and North. The eastern pagoda has all the 108 postures (karnams) of the Indian dance form Bharathanatyam sculpted on it.
The Five Sabhais
There are 5 sabhas or diases or halls:
- the Chit sabhai, which is the sanctum sanctorum housing Lord Nataraja, his consort Goddess Shivagamasundari
- the Kanaka sabhai in front of the Chitsabhai, from which the daily rituals are conducted
- the Nrithya sabhai or Natya sabhai, to the south of the temple's flag mast (or kodi maram or dwaja sthambam) where the Lord is said to have danced with Goddess Kali an embodiment energy and established His supremacy
- the Raja sabhai or the 1000-pillared hall which symbolizes the yogic chakra of thousand pillared lotus or Sahasraram (which in yoga is a 'chakra' at the crown of the head and is a seat where the soul unites with God. This chakra is represented as a 1000-petalled lotus. Meditating by concentrating at the Sahasrara Chakra is said to lead to a state of union with the Divine force and is the pinnacle of yogic practice)
- the Deva sabhai, which houses the Pancha moorthis (pancha - five, moorthis - deities, namely the deities of Lord Ganesh - the remover of hurdles, Lord Somaskanda, a form where
- the Lord is in a seated posture with his grace and consort, the Lord's consort Sivananda nayaki, the Lord Muruga and the deity of Chandikeswarar - the principal and chief of the devotees of the Lord).
Apart from the five sabhais are:
- the shrines for the original Shivalingam worshipped by Saints Patanjali and Vyagrapathar called the Thirumoolattaneswarar and his consort Umaiyammai (உமையம்மை) or Umaiya parvathi
- the shrines for the 63 prime devotees of Lord Siva or the Arubathu moovar
- the shrines for Sivagami an embodiment of knowledge or Gyanasakthi
- for Lord Ganesha in his manifestation of one who removes hurdles
- for Lord Muruga or Pandiya nayakan in his manifestation of one who holds the three forms of energy Itchai or "desire" represented by his consort Valli, Kriya or "action" represented by his consort Deivayanai and Gnana or "Knowledge" represented by the spear He carries to destroy ignorance.
There are also several smaller shrines in the temple complex.
Water bodies in and around the temple
Moorthi (Idol), Sthalam (Place) and Theertham (Waterbodies) signify the holiness of a temple. The Chidambaram temple is well endowed with several water bodies within and around it.
The temple complex on 40 acres (160,000 m2) houses the temple tank called the Sivaganga (சிவகங்கை). This large tank is in the third corridor of the temple opposite to the shrine for Goddess Sivagami.
- The Paramanandha koobham is the well on the eastern side of the Chitsabhai from which water is drawn for performing pooja in the temple.
- The Kuyya theertham is situated to the north-east of Chidambaram near Killai near the Bay of Bengal and has the shore called Pasamaruthanthurai.
- The Pulimadu is situated around a kilometer and a half to the south of Chidambaram.
- The Vyagrapatha theertham is situated on to the west of the Chidambaram temple opposite the temple of Lord Ilamai akkinaar.
- The Anantha theertham is to the west of Chidambaram temple in front of the Anantheswarar temple.
- The Nagaseri is the tank to the west of the Anantha theertham.
- The Brahma theertham is to the north-west of the Chidambaram temple at Thirukalaanjeri.
- The Siva piriyai is a tank to the north of the Chidambaram temple and opposite the Brahma chamundeswari temple (aka the Thillai Kali temple).
- Thiruparkadal is the tank to the south-east of the Siva piriyai.
The Chidambaram temple complex houses a shrine for the Lord Govindaraja Perumal and his consort Pundareegavalli Thaayar. This shrine is claimed to be the Thillai Thiruchitrakootam and is one of the 108 divyadesas or the key shrines of Vishnu, which have been sanctified (mangala saasanam) by hymns (the Naalayira divya prabantham) sung by the chief devotees of Lord Vishnu (called the Aalwars) . Tillai Chitrakootam (but not the Givindaraja Temple in its current form) has been sung by Kulasekara Alwar and Tirumangai Mannan Alwar. Both Alwars have recorded that the Chidambaram Brahmins(Dikshitars)were ones who were doing vedic and proper (in Tamil" muraiyaha")poojas for the Lord in Chitrakootam.There are controversies however, since many feel that the chitrakootam originally referenced to by alwars could have been the one at UP where Rama spent time in ashrams of sages like viswamitra and atri. This is because the currently available versions of works of alwars were copied and re-written centuries after the time of alwars sometime during late medieval ages. Many hymns written by alwars are missing and many have changes incorporated in them. This apart some sources hold the founding of thillai chitrakootam to 1400 or probably 1600.C.E only.
Significance of the temple design
The layout and architecture of the temple is replete with philosophical meanings.
- The 9 gateways signify the 9 orifices in the human body.
- The Chitsabai or Ponnambalam, the sanctum sanctorum represents the heart which is reached by a flight of 5 stairs called the Panchaatchara padi - pancha meaning 5, achhara indestructible syllables "SI VA YA NA MA", from a raised anterior dias - the Kanakasabai. The access to the Sabhai is through the sides of the stage (and not from the front as in most temples).
- The Ponnambalam or the Sanctum sanctorum is held by 28 pillars representing the 28 agamas or set methodologies for the worship of Lord Shiva. The roof is held by a set of 64 beams representing the 64 forms of art and is held by several cross-beams representing the innumerable blood vessels. The roof has been laid by 21600 golden tiles with the word SIVAYANAMA inscribed on them representing 21600 breaths. The golden tiles are fixed using 72000 golden nails which represents the no. of nadis exists in human body. The roof is topped by a set of 9 sacred pots or kalasas, representing the 9 forms of energy. (refer Umapathy Sivams Kunchitaangristhavam)
The Chidambaram temple car is, perhaps, the most beautiful example of a temple car in all of Tamil Nadu. This car, on which Lord Nataraja descends twice a year, is drawn by several thousand devotees during the festivals.