Looking down at the stones beneath my feet, early morning, Chidambaram courtyard

Exchanging Glances in Southern India

In the late morning the stones of the temple courtyard burn the soles of your feet, so you walk very quickly scanning for the light-colored ones while headed for the shade of the main complex.  You say hello to Ganesha at the temple threshold, and then move more deeply into its center, passing by the priests engaged in business and ritual, weaving through streams of other visitors headed for different shrines in the seemingly infinite corners of the temple, which is essentially a walled village the size of multiple football fields.

Swamimalai

When you arrive at the heart of the temple, you find Nataraja, intricately adorned in vibrant silks, jewels, and garlanded with flowers. Endless patterns of ritual revolve around him involving fire, liquid, smoke, and substance, immersing you in a complex synesthetic experience.

The dusty grooves of the temple stones capture occasional puddles of coconut water, milk, sandal, and ghee that cool your toes as you step through them.  The bats swoop and chatter through the air accompanied by the temple music’s drums, bells, and horns. Smoke from the ghee lamps and the homa drifts through pillars and columns. Your forehead is host to sweet-smelling smears of ash that mingle with the scent of jasmine from your hair. And you listen or join in with the murmurs of mantras that swell like tiny whispering waves. You are permeated in every sensory manner and you release into it. The temple is a body, pulsing with life. When you are in it, you become an element of its chemistry.

Jasmine outside the temple

Most people who visit Chidambaram come to see Nataraja. This is his temple, the site of the Ananda Tandava, his Dance of Bliss. Shiva presides over the temple in the form of Nataraja, the dancer, the artist, who, with every movement, dances everything that exists into being and non-being. If you love Nataraja, this is the center of the universe. If you love Nataraja, you have come to see him and to be seen by him. The word for this is darshan, which my teacher Douglas Brooks explains as “the exchange of glances.” By entering, you have offered yourself to the temple, and then the temple offers itself back. As you inhabit the temple, the temple takes up residence within you.

A Nataraja murti

If you want to meditate, you can choose to close your eyes and go inside your own body, heart and mind. Or you can do the very same thing with your eyes open, drawing the outside in as an entirely different way of moving into the very same places. Through this invitation, this conversation, the body of the temple becomes your body. You gaze upon the deity and the deity shows you yourself. You exchange glances with Nataraja, This is why you are here.

 Morning in the Chidambaram Temple courtyard, South Gate

 There are times when you want to be within the quiet of your own inner vision. This is when you close your eyes. There are other times when you want to invite in all of the wild delirious diversity of the world, and this is when you open them.  This receptivity enables you to converse more deeply with your surroundings and consequently, within yourself. Everything outside of you calls upon something within you. You begin to recognize that you are in a state of constant conversation with the world.

Om Namah Shivaya

Vishali walks through the Chidambaram Temple Courtyard
Susanna Harwood Rubin

Author Susanna Harwood Rubin

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