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Dance of the Divine Palanquins: Sapta Vidanga Sthalam


There was a Chola emper­or by name Muchukun­da chakravar­ti. Why was his name Muchukun­da chakravar­ti? Because his face was like a monkey’s. Why was his face like a monkey’s? There is a his­tor­i­cal anec­dote for it. Once, on a night, a mon­key, chased by a tiger, climbed up a tree to save his life. The tiger was prowl­ing below. Fright­ened that he might doze off and fall from the tree and get eat­en by the tiger, and not know­ing what else to do, the mon­key began to pluck the leaves of the tree one by one and drop it down below. That night hap­pened to be a Shiv­ara­tri, and below the tree was a Swayamb­hu lingam. And the leaves that were plucked by the mon­key and dropped onto the Swayamb­hu lingam hap­pened to be Bil­va leaves. (Bil­va leaves are con­sid­ered to be very spe­cial in the wor­ship of the Shi­va lingam.)

So, pleased with this mon­key who had wor­shipped him with a great many leaves, Shi­va appeared and said to him,“Ask of me a boon.”

The mon­key said,“I desire to con­quer the world. But I do not wish to relin­quish my iden­ti­ty. I want to be born with the same face – that of the mon­key that I am now.”

Hence, he was born as Muchukun­da chakravar­ti in the Chola king­dom. Once, he went to Indralo­ka (the world of the celes­tial beings), because Indra, the king of the devas, had sought his help to defeat a pow­er­ful demon called Vaala­sur­an. Extreme­ly pleased with Muchukun­da chakravar­ti and full of grat­i­tude for him, Indra said, ”Ask of me any­thing what­so­ev­er that you desire. I shall grant you the boon.”

Muchukun­da chakravar­ti replied,” I saw you wor­ship­ping a mara­gatha (emer­ald) lingam here. My heart is drawn to it. I desire to take it to Bhu­lo­ka (earth) to install it there and wor­ship it.”

Now, this vidan­ga* lingam had been pre­sent­ed to Indra by Mahav­ish­nu him­self, who had held it in wor­ship. Indra held this image in great rev­er­ence. He did not wish to part with it. So he said to Muchukun­da chakravarti,”Alright, come tomor­row.”

Indra did not wish to part with that lin­ga. But at the same time, he could not take back his word. So he had 6 oth­er iden­ti­cal lingams made and the next day, he showed Muchukun­da the 7 lingams, all of which looked exact­ly like the lingam pre­sent­ed by Mahav­ish­nu and which Muchukun­da chakravar­ti desired. Indra offered him, ”Please take with you whichev­er lingam that you like.” Muchukun­da chakravar­ti looked at the 7 lingams. Pray­ing to the Lord that he may make the right choice, the king picked the right lingam as soon as he set his eyes upon them! Hap­py with the true devo­tion of Muchukun­da, Indra gave away all the sev­en vidan­ga lin­gas to the king, who decid­ed to install them in and around Thiru­varur.

Now, this vidan­ga lingam (Vidan­ga refers to a lingam that has not been chis­elled out and is of Divine ori­gin. Vi + dan­ga – the form untouched by the sculptor’s ham­mer) had been pre­sent­ed to Indra by Mahav­ish­nu him­self, who had held it in wor­ship. Indra held this image in great rev­er­ence. He did not wish to part with it. So he said to Muchukun­da chakravarti,”Alright, come tomor­row.”

Though Muchukun­da chakravar­ti was a native of the Kongu region near Karur, under­stand­ing the spir­i­tu­al great­ness of the Cau­very delta region, he installed the orig­i­nal Veed­hi Vidan­gar (the emer­ald lingam once wor­shipped by Mahav­ish­nu him­self and pre­sent­ed to Indra) in Thiru­varur, the Sun­dara Vidan­gar at Naga­p­at­ti­nam, Avani Vidan­gar at Thiruku­valai, Nagara Vidan­gar at Tirunal­lar, Adi Vidan­gar at Thirukkar­avasal, Nila Vidan­gar at Thiru­voimur and Bhu­vani Vidan­gar at Vedaranyam

It is this Mara­gatha Vidan­ga lingam that was installed in Thiru­varur as the image of Thya­gara­jar – Mara­gatha Natara­ja. The places where the 7 Vidan­ga lingams were installed are called the Sap­ta Vidan­ga sthal­am. Sap­ta means sev­en. The Saptha Vidan­ga sthal­ams are the sev­en places around Thiru­varur with Lord Shi­va as Thya­gara­ja. Thya­gara­ja is the name giv­en to the man­i­fes­ta­tion of Shi­va at Thiru­varur called Somaskan­da, and 6 of the oth­er Sap­ta Vidan­ga sthal­ams. This image of Thya­gara­jar is referred to as Veed­hi Vidan­gar** in the sacred Tamil The­varam hymns. The term Vidan­ga (Veed­hi Vidan­ga as in Thiru­varur) rep­re­sents the Thya­gara­ja image, as well as the Shiv­alingam (made of Mara­gatha (emer­ald), placed in a sil­ver cas­ket) that is installed in the shrine ded­i­cat­ed to Thya­gara­ja.

Somaskanda – Sa + Uma + Skanda = Shiva along with Uma and Skanda. This form features Shiva, Uma and Skanda (Muruga or Karthikeya who is their son). Lord Shiva is seated with Parvathi to his left and Skanda seated in between them. It represents Sat – Shiva (Existence), Chit – Shakthi (knowledge) and Ananda – Skanda (bliss) arising out of their union. Veedhi Vidangar – The unchiseled form of the processional deity who is taken out in the streets. ‘Veedhi’ in Tamil means ‘street’.

So what is spe­cial about these 7 places? All the 7 places have the image of Natara­ja, but what is dif­fer­ent and spe­cial about each one? When the deity is car­ried in a pal­lak, or palan­quin, it is not a straight pro­ces­sion where peo­ple sim­ply walk car­ry­ing the deity in a palan­quin, as we might usu­al­ly imag­ine. It is a dance pro­ces­sion where the peo­ple per­form spe­cial dance move­ments while car­ry­ing the deity in the pal­lak. Every Vidan­gar is asso­ci­at­ed with a pecu­liar and unique nadanam or dance form that has a spir­i­tu­al mean­ing attached to it. In 7 places in and around Thiru­varur, prathish­ta has been done for the images of Natara­ja. Let us look at each of these places and its unique dance pro­ces­sion.

Thiru­vArUr — veed­hi viDaN­gar — ajapA naTanam

The orig­i­nal Veed­hi Vidan­gar was installed by Muchukun­da chakravar­ti at Thiru­varur. Thya­gara­ja is asso­ci­at­ed with the aja­ba nadanam. The aja­ba mantra is “ham­sa – soham”. It is the voice­less, silent japa rep­re­sent­ed by inhala­tion and exha­la­tion of breath. Thya­gara­ja is said to per­form this dance on the chest of Vish­nu who is in yoganidra. This con­trolled breath is known to yogis.

In Thiru­varur, the evening abhishekam is referred to as Saya rak­sha­pu­ja and Indra him­self is believed to come here with all the devas every­day dur­ing this time, to con­duct the poo­ja.

Thirunal­lar – “Unmatha nadanam”

The main deity is dar­baraneswarar. Here Natara­ja per­forms the unmatha nadanam. Natara­ja is in an intox­i­cat­ed state while per­form­ing this dance. In Tamil, one can say mei marand­hu – for­get­ting one­self in bliss of God con­scious­ness.

Nagaik kArOn­am — sund­hara viDan­gar — Vil­lathi naTanam

Shi­va is wor­shipped as Kayaro­ganeswarar. Here, the dance is like the waves of the ocean – vil­lathi nadanam. Kadal alai kon­jiyum varum, seeriyum varum. The waves can be soft and play­ful, or they can be wild and rag­ing. When the deity is tak­en on a pro­ces­sion in a pal­lak, the peo­ple who car­ry the pal­lak enact these dance move­ments – the move­ments of waves in an ocean. Hence Nataraja’s dance at this sthal­am resem­bles waves – small waves and big waves. The peo­ple who car­ry the pal­lak would know the pro­ce­dure as to how to coor­di­nate each of their move­ments so as to bring about this dance motion.

Thirukkaraiy­il – Adi Vidan­gar, “Kuku­ta nadanam”

The main deity is Kan­nayi­ra­mu­da­yar. The dance is like that of a cock, seval – kuku­ta nadanam. Peo­ple per­form move­ments resem­bling that of a cock, while car­ry­ing the deity in the pal­lak dur­ing the pro­ces­sion.

Thiruku­valai – Avani Vidan­gar, “Bringa nadanam”

Shi­va is wor­shipped as Brahma­pureeswarar. Here, the dance resem­bles the move­ments of a bee­tle, van­du – bringa nadanam. The cir­cu­lar pat­terns of move­ment, the ver­ti­cal and hor­i­zon­tal move­ment and the jump­ing move­ment of a bee­tle are enact­ed while car­ry­ing the pal­lak, dur­ing the pro­ces­sion of the deity.

Thiru­vay­mur – Nila Vidan­gar, “Kamala nadanam”

Shi­va is in the form of vaimur nathar. This is the tem­ple where Lord Shi­va invit­ed Thirunavukkarasar say­ing “thiru­vaimu­rukku va”. The dance resem­bles the grad­ual blos­som­ing of a lotus flower. The blos­som­ing hap­pens from the inner to the out­er. When they bring the deity in the pal­lak, they do so fol­low­ing the move­ment of a blos­som­ing lotus – from below to above. They do not car­ry the deity at a fast pace. The dance is slow, because it resem­bles a lotus sway­ing grace­ful­ly to a gen­tle breeze. Hence the pal­lak is car­ried in a slow man­ner, gen­tly sway­ing from side to side.

Thiru maRaikkAdu — buvanivi­Dan­gar — ham­sapA­da naTanam

Shi­va is wor­shipped in the form of Vedaranyeswarar. Here, the dance resem­bles the gait of a swan – ham­sa paa­da nadanam. The dance motion while car­ry­ing the deity in the pal­lak resem­bles the grace­ful move­ments of a swan.

Hence, we see that var­i­ous unique dance forms exist at the Sap­ta Vidan­ga sthal­ams.

Unmatha nadanam

Kuku­ta nadanam

Gen­er­al­ly, we imag­ine that a pro­ces­sion is just the car­ry­ing of the deity in a palan­quine . Actu­al­ly, there are dif­fer­ent pro­ce­dures to car­ry the deity in the pal­lak. Each deity has a dif­fer­ent pro­ce­dure by fol­low­ing which, it must be car­ried. This “nadana pro­ce­dure” has been fol­lowed for gen­er­a­tions togeth­er. Even today, when peo­ple car­ry the deity in the pal­lak, they fol­low the pro­ce­dure per­tain­ing to the unique nadanam of that deity.

Acknowl­edge­ment: Thank­ing Mrs. Anand­hi Jee­va who had nar­rat­ed the sto­ries dur­ing Anaa­di Shiv­o­daya 2017.

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