Chidambaram, 58km south of Puducherry, is so steeped in myth that its history is hard to unravel. As the site of the tandav, the cosmic dance of Shiva as Nataraja, King of the Dance, it’s one of the holiest sites in south India, and a visit to its Sabhanayaka Temple affords a fascinating glimpse into ancient Tamil religious practice and belief. The legendary king Hiranyavarman is said to have made a pilgrimage here from Kashmir, seeking to rid himself of leprosy by bathing in the temple’s Shivaganga tank. In thanks for a successful cure, he enlarged the temple. He also brought three thousand brahmins, of the Dikshitar caste, whose descendants, distinguishable by top-knots of hair at the front of their heads, are the ritual specialists of the temple to this day. Few of the fifty mathas (monasteries) that once stood here remain, but the temple itself is still a hive of activity and hosts numerous festivals.

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