Thursday, September 18, 2008

Dancing With Shiva, Part 14

The next morning, Annamalai took us to the Nataraja Temple, a 40-acre complex that dates to the fifth century, although most of the structures were built between the 12th and 16th centuries. According to Hindu tradition, this Chidambaram site is the center of the universe.
From the Footloose Guide:
"Chidambaram takes its name from two words – 'chid,' which, according to Saiva philosophy, means thinking consciousness, and 'ambaram,' the expanse of the skies or heaven. Thus the city believes itself to be the center from which all human knowledge expands."

After entering the east gate of this massive temple, Annamalai led us to a place where a small crowd had gathered in front of a stone building housing a statue of Shiva, the god often depicted dancing in a ring of fire on the back of a baby devil. Annamalai pushed people aside and entered the building and emerged with an aged holy man, whom we were asked to gather around. The priest held a stone dish, black and greasy and sprinkled with flower petals, and on the dish burned a pot of scented oil between piles of ash and scarlet powder. As instructed, I dipped my fingers into the ash and drew a line down the middle of my forehead to the bridge of my nose, then dabbed a bit of scarlet between my eyes. The ash is a reminder of our mortality, of what our bodies will soon become. The red signifies the immortality of God. (Contrary to popular belief, Hinduism is not a polytheistic religion. My Hindu friends insist that the "gods" that are worshiped are simply aspects of the one Creator.)

Annamalai took me by the elbow and led me to an area with a smooth marble floor inlaid with a star about four feet across.
"Stand here and look this way, you will see Shiva," Annamalai said. "Turn this way, you see Rama. Turn around again, you see Vishnu. This, this spot… center of universe!"

I stood on the star and waited for some sensation, for an epiphany, but there was nothing. As others took their turn on the star, I imagined how the architects of this temple felt when they raised these enormous columns and embedded this star. Here was Vishnu, the preserver. Here was Shiva, the destroyer. Preservation and destruction meeting at this point, in this place, which at the time it was built must have seemed to everyone in this part of the world the ultimate in human achievement.

Preservation and destruction meeting at one point. How strange that the center of the universe should be here, in the middle of the two. Strange for me, anyway, not being Hindu, not raised to think of all things around me, animate and inanimate, as being the fabric of my spirituality.

This temple visit did not make a Hindu of me, nor did it make me any less of a skeptic of religion in general. But I was a wiser person when I left it than when I entered, and I can credit the figure dancing in a ring of fire for that.

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