Chidambaram temple in Tamil Nadu is a special place for dancers. This temple is dedicated to the god Shiva in his aspect as Nataraja, the lord of dance. Every year the Natyanjali dance festival is held in his honour, starting on the day of Maha Shivaratri, the feast day of Lord Shiva. For five days Indian classical dancers perform for audiences in the temple grounds. Dancers also have the unique opportunity to dance in the temple sanctum as an offering to Lord Nataraja, as dancers dedicated to the temple once did in the past.
Above: Statues of Shiva as Nataraja, the Lord of Dance.
Chidambaram temple is also special because it is one of the five South Indian temples representing the five elements (panchabhoota stalam in Sanskrit). Here the element is space. The other four temples are Kalahasti (wind), Tiruvanaikka (water), Tiruvannamalai (fire) and Kanchipuram (earth).
An important and noteworthy aspect of the temple are the 108 relief sculptures which decorate the inside of the temple’s four gopurams (the towers located at each entrance which serve as gateways to the temple). These intricate sculptures illustrate static dance poses from the 108 karanas which are featured in the ancient treatise on performing arts, the Natya Shastra. These relief sculptures are poses frozen in time taken from the karanas, which are dance movements. Interestingly, these poses are also yoga asanas (yoga postures).
Above: One of the gopurams of Chidambaram Temple. The sculptures are found in the entranceway.
In these sculptures we see the characteristic half-seated position which is the basic position of South Indian dance styles. Some of the poses are very acrobatic that only a contortionist could possibly attempt!
You can see some more sculptures of karanas here: