Chidambaram’s Dikshitar priests have faithfully served the temple for over two millennia
By Choodie Shivaram, Bengaluru
The magnificent chidambaram siva Temple, 141 miles south of Chennai, India, is widely regarded by worshipers of Siva as the most powerful in the world, and its traditional custodians are the Podu Dikshitars. After fighting legal battles since 1885 for the right to manage the temple without government interference, the Dikshitars won their struggle in 2014 when India’s Supreme Court reversed lower-court decisions which had led to Tamil Nadu’s aggressive move in 2009 to take over the temple (see Hinduism Today’s report at the time: bit.ly/dikshitars).
Affirming the Dikshitars’ status as a religious denomination, the 2014 ruling restored their unhindered management rights of the temple. In Indian law, a denomination is a small group that shares a common heritage and is the living embodiment of a tradition that needs to be preserved, as endorsed by the Constitution of India. Because of the Dikshitars’ unique heritage and practices the Supreme Court recognized them as a religious denomination and granted them full rights to manage the temple.
The decision was widely celebrated in India, as it augured well for the ultimate release to community control of tens of thousands of Hindu temples which have been taken over by state governments. For their perseverance over the last 145 years to claim their rights and set a precedent for all temples, HINDUISM TODAY presents its Hindu Renaissance Award to the Dikshitar community as “2020 Hindus of the Year.”
Who Are the Dikshitars?
According to scripture, God Siva appeared at Chidambaram thousands of years ago at the beseeching of sages Vyagrapada and Patanjali. He came accompanied by Goddess Parvati and 3,000 companions, or Sivaganas. Siva performed the Ananda Tandava dance before this multitude, expressing His five powers: creation, preservation, dissolution, concealing grace and revealing grace.
Siva then commanded the Sivaganas to remain at Chidambaram and worship Him there as Siva Nataraja (King of Dance) along with the Goddess in the form of Sivagami Sundari. The Dikshitars are the modern descendants of these 3,000 Sivaganas. There are currently 420 Dikshitar priests. Including their families, their number is close to 2,000.
Various Saivite saints, including Appar in the 7th century and Sundarar in the 8th, extolled the dedication of the Dikshitars. According to scholar D. Nataraja Dikshitar, they are the only people who have the right to conduct worship at Chidambaram, “a legacy we have inherited as a birthright.” The 14th-century Tamil poet Umapathi Sivachariar referred to the Dikshitars as “blemishless persons.”
From February 2009 to 2014 when the court case was finally decided, a government representative had been stationed in the temple. The Dikshitars suffered state interference for those years, and there was palpable fear of a takeover. For example, breaking age-old tradition, the government placed a hundi (collection box) in the temple. Protest from the Dikshitars yielded no result. Raju Dikshitar, who helped extensively with this report, recalls, “They tried to divide the community, but the case strengthened our resolve and bonding further. It strengthened us as a community.”
Winning the case has given the Dikshitars a fresh lease on life. According to Nataraja Dikshitar, “We have inherited it from generations past and we have to leave it in good condition for our future generations. Now we are assured of our position for posterity. The Supreme Court has strengthened our position.”
Like the sacred Rahasya (“secret”) chamber, the origins of Chidambaram Temple itself remain a mystery. It is believed it was constructed in a forest of tillai trees (Exoecaria agallocha, a form of mangrove) by the divine architect, Visvakarma, after receiving knowledge of the Chidambaram Rahasya from Sage Patanjali, who is dated between the second and fourth centuries bce.
Nataraja Dikshitar explains, “We have copper-plate inscriptions dating to 700ce that mention the Dikshitars. When King Maravarman Sundara Pandyan visited Chidambaram in the mid-13th century, he applauded the Dikshitars for meticulously performing pujas and managing the finances well.”
The temple was a repository of rich literary texts. Works of the great Tamil bhakti saints—Appar, Sambandar, Mannikavasagar, Sundaramurti, Umapathi Sivachariyar, and Sekkilar—were found here. In some cases, these were the only surviving copies. Appar considered the ground so sacred that on entering the temple he would roll to the sanctum sanctorum and back, not wanting to put his sullied feet on the holy ground.
The temple is an architectural marvel, with a 1,000-pillared hall, the golden dome over the Kanaka Sabha and innumerable inscriptions adorning its walls. Wall carvings display all the 108 dance poses described in the Natya Shastra by Bharata Muni, which form the foundation of classical Bharatanatyam dance.
The temple suffered severe damage through the centuries, first from the Muslim invaders and then British and French battles. It was built, rebuilt and expanded numerous times in its history by multiple South Indian rulers, including kings of the Pallava, Chola, Pandya and Vijayanagar dynasties.
History records painful narrations of how the Dikshitars protected the Nataraja Deity during the Islamic invasions of Malik Kafur and Tippu Sultan. The former’s invasion, in the early 14th century, was detailed by court poet Amir Khusro in his book Victory Treasures. In the 18th century, Chidambaram Temple came under attack by Hyder Ali’s regime.
“These invasions were the dark period of Chidambaram,” recounts Nataraja Dikshitar. “Not fearing for their safety, the Dikshitars carried Nataraja, Shivakamasundari and important Deities in a huge wooden box—which is there in the temple even today—and traveled during the night from Chidambaram across South India to Kerala. Many Dikshitars died during the arduous journey. For close to 39 years, Nataraja was kept securely hidden near Allepey, south of Kochi.
“When peace returned to Chidambaram in the 14th century, the Dikshitars frantically looked for the murtis. They found them in a tamarind grove, hidden underground, brought them back to Chidambaram and resumed worship. This explains why the Dikshitars are so protective of Nataraja. During the 18th and 19th centuries, many temples in the region were desecrated by invaders. Chidambaram Temple was converted into a fort by the British—you can see the fort walls even now. For nearly 110 years during this period, pujas were again stopped.”
Chidambaram Temple once owned huge tracts of lands, estimated at 3,000 acres, gifted by various kings and benevolent devotees. The rights were in the name of the Deity, Nataraja. The Dikshitars, being forbidden from engaging in any outside occupation, entrusted the tilling of these lands to farmers who would give a portion of their harvest to the temple each year. This served as a major source of the temple’s income.
“The British,” Bharani explained, “were disdainful of Hindu temples and helped usurpers and opportunists. Any person named Nataraja could claim some of the temple’s land as his, and be granted lawful rights. Many usurped these lands, arguing that their family had occupied it for generations.” Today, the temple has no landed property, yet still manages to be financially stable.
How the Temple Is Managed
The Tamil Nadu government has taken over 36,425 Hindu temples to date, under the claim of local mismanagement. It has never taken control of the places of worship of any other religion: no mosques, no churches, no gurudwaras. This discriminatory treatment of Hinduism has been a continued point of contention in every state in India, as each state government has likewise asserted control over the temples within its borders. It has even come up as we go to press with the Uttarakhand BJP state government’s July 21st takeover of 51 temples, including the famed Kedarnath and Badrinath.
This is not an issue of ownership as such, because the temples are owned by the presiding Deity, who is a legal person. At issue is the management—most specifically, control of the temple’s income. There have been continuous complaints of temple funds being used by governments for purposes unrelated to the temple, or even to religion. The Dikshitars’ competent management of Chidambaram Temple disproves the state governments’ contention that temples so run will always be mismanaged.
By way of corroboration, we explored just how Chidambaram Temple operates. It is, first of all, a democracy. Each of the 420 married Dikshitars eligible to perform pujas and touch the Deity in the temple has equal rights, regardless of age.
The temple is administered by a nine-member committee that serves for a one-year term. Each Dikshitar has a unique identity number. Once a year, these numbers are put in a pot and nine slips are pulled out. These nine form the committee for the year. These nine numbers are put back in a pot a month later and one is picked out; this individual becomes the secretary and heads the committee.
“If a young, inexperienced Dikshitar is chosen as secretary, elders in the family guide him. There is no hierarchy of age; everyone respects his word in matters of temple administration,” says Raju.
Besides performing pujas, the duties of committee members include administrative responsibilities such as supervising maintenance of infrastructure, keeping financial records, enforcing rules, setting the roster for when priests are on duty and levying fines if a priest is found violating rules. They also decide on temple policy, discipline of the community and planning of special events.
“Differences do arise, but they don’t blow out of proportion and affect relationships. Elders and family members intervene and advise. People in our community don’t carry any ill will; the bonding is strong. The community of Dikshitars is like a large joint family,” says Raju Dikshitar.
The priests work on a 20-day cycle, with two days at each shrine in rotation. Four priests are assigned to each of the five major shrines: Nataraja, Amman Koyil, Subramanya Temple, Shiva Linga at the Mulasthanam and the Deva Sabha where the parade murtis are kept. They perform all the rituals for the Deities and the private rituals of individual worshipers, and they receive a share of the offerings at the shrines. Priests on duty are responsible for the security of the valuables.
For special rituals and festivals, a main priest is selected by drawing lots. Each Dikshitar serves one day in two years as the main priest at the central Nataraja shrine. Perhaps just once in a lifetime they may be selected by lot to perform the abhishekam (sacred bath) to Nataraja during the temple’s annual festival.
Twice a year, twenty are chosen to manage for the next six months the treasury that houses the Deity’s valuables. The main vault has 20 locks, and each of the 20 priests holds one of the keys. All must be present for the vault to be opened. Raju affirms, “This is a tight security system that ensures the protection of jewelry and valuables belonging to the Deities. There is no room for theft and mishandling. A meticulous record of the operations is maintained.”
The Dikshitars themselves are the security guards, with 42 on duty every night. They split into groups and take turns going around the huge complex. The young ones can be seen scurrying around the flat rooftops. Nataraja Dikshitar explains, “The invasions by Muslim rulers and the dangers posed to the shrine have made the Dikshitars realize the criticality of protecting the temple. The night watchmen duty has been in practice for generations. The Dikshitars make their rounds with just a flashlight and a stick.”
System for the Temple Income
The Chidambaram Temple is perhaps unique in that it does not solicit funds or fees from devotees. There is no hundi, and there is no specified amount for sponsoring pujas or aratis. According to Bharani Kanda Dikshitar, “Devotees for generations have engaged the Dikshitars to perform rituals and specific pujas for them. They pay whatever they wish. We perform the pujas and send them vibhuti and kumkuma prasadam if they reside outside Chidambaram. We have to give the temple a substantial percentage for each day, and whatever remains will be our earnings.” The fixed amount is reviewed and increased every few years to adjust for inflation.
Such donations are offered under a kind of informal contract called kattalai. The seva or services provided range from a simple monthly archana to conducting an entire festival. Each priest has 200 to 500 clients who regularly engage them for pujas. Clients can withdraw from their kattalai at any time or choose to engage a different Dikshitar. Some clients have been associated with the temple for generations. The priests may also approach devotees at the temple and offer their services, even to visitors who may be unaware of the kattalai system.
Certain daily pujas and festivals are financed as a hereditary practice by several religious institutions and philanthropists associated with the temple. For example, Tiruppanantal Matam and some devotees donate towards the offering of food to the Deity, which is then shared with the priests on duty and their families.
The Dikshitar in charge of prasada (sugar pongal and tamarind rice) must give the cook an estimate of the quantity of food required for the day; he also pays for the provisions. After sales of the prasada, leftover food is fed to the fishes in the pond; the Dikshitar absorbs any loss incurred. If all the prasada is sold, he gets to keep the profit after giving the temple what is mandated.
A major part of a priest’s income consists of his share of offerings at the various shrines during the 20-day cycle, dakshina (contributions) received while assisting with central rituals. He also receives any profit from the sale of prasada and keeps a portion of the proceeds from the kattalais. Dikshitars seek kattalai more for running the temple than for their personal benefit. All the expenses for temple, rituals, maintenance and celebrations are dependent on the contributions of the Dikshitars.
It is no mean task running and maintaining such a huge complex. Issues sometimes arise if clients don’t renew a seva or switch to another Dikshitar, but these are sorted out in due course. The community is not much concerned with income. “We are content with what we get.” Raju says. “If a priest gets us$270 a month in other temples, here at Chidambaram we earn just about $100 a month.”
“Our requirements are frugal,” adds Nataraja Dikshitar. “There is contentment in the community. We are not materialistic and are not attracted to fancy gadgets, cars, air conditioning or expensive things. We spend most of our time at the temple. If a Dikshitar is not at home, he’s at the temple. For us, the temple is our home, and all glory is there.”
“Thanks to technology and connectivity, clients have increased and life has become comfortable. Those days we were dependant on a few families, mostly Chettiars (businessmen) who were connected to the temple for generations. We did not see this kind of money,” says Raju’s grandfather, Dr. A. Ananda Nataraja Dikshitar, former linguistics dean at Annamalai University. He has observed many generations and witnessed the highs and lows of the temple.
The Dikshitar Lifestyle
While other 21st-century families are battling to keep their children in the fold of tradition, in a world of prolific technologies and connectivity, the Dikshitar community has not compromised their customs. They continue to lead an orthodox lifestyle, immersed in rituals at home and at the temple, fully cognizant of the privilege and responsibility of serving at a temple of such great power.
Dikshitars young and old sport the traditional hair style, a partially shaven head with a long tuft drawn into a knot over the left ear, just as they did centuries ago. Their dress code is the white cotton dhoti and veshti, worn with a shirt when outside the temple. The women wear the traditional nine-yard sari with ease, while elsewhere Hindu women are resorting to YouTube to learn how to wrap a sari.
Nataraja Dikshitar explains their philosophy on child rearing: “We are progressing only by offering pujas to Nataraja, not by academic excellence or material achievements. We don’t teach our children to aim at becoming a doctor or engineer. We keep telling them, as they grow, that they are Dikshitars, an exclusive privilege, and this is the greatest opportunity they could have in life, to worship Nataraja. They develop a relationship with Nataraja.” Visitors to the temple will notice the active presence and participation of the young Dikshitars.
Bharani Dikshitar adds, “At a very young age our children are taught that this is what they will inherit and the responsibility to preserve it is on them. They grow up learning and practicing our traditions despite going to school and mingling with the outside world.” Dikshitars do have outside friends but keep their interactions limited. They live in joint families, with three to four generations under one roof.
Marriage is sacrosanct for Dikshitars. A Dikshitar is not eligible to perform temple puja unless he is married. Unmarried Dikshitars cannot go into the sanctum sanctorum, touch the Deity or partake in ritualistic activities. They can attend temple meetings, but have no say in any decisions of the temple. They are not eligible to receive the food offerings presented to the Deity.
Once married, a Dikshitar man becomes an earning member of the community. The families celebrate the birth of a girl child with great joy; she will become a vital part of the clan, a partner with her priest husband, qualifying him for the privilege of serving at the temple.
Child marriage was the practice in the pre-independence era. When the girl was two or three years old, she would be chosen as a bride for a Dikshitar boy, their horoscopes having been carefully matched. The families would hold a formal engagement ceremony, and marriage would follow, though the girl continue living in her parents’ home, only joining the husband’s family at an appropriate age. In the meantime the young husband, would start serving as a priest.
Today the Dikshitars adhere to modern state laws and marry at a legally permissible age. Marriages are still arranged, but at a later age. The chosen bride closely interacts with the family she will marry into, spending an entire day with them during festivals and other occasions. According to Bharani Dikshitar, “This helps her bond with the family and pick up the nuances of that family’s practices. When the girl moves into the home as a daughter-in-law, the mother-in-law will be as endearing to her as her own mother. We don’t have marital issues in the community; minor issues are counseled, and there is great acceptance among the two families. Girls prefer not to study much; they are mainly home-oriented. We are a family-oriented community.” Love marriage is nonexistent, according to the Dikshitars.
How the Priests Are Trained
Worship at Chidambaram Temple, while unique, is based on Vedic rites and the Saiva Agamas. Children are initiated into Vedic studies at a young age, and by seven or eight are assisting the elders with puja. According to Raju, “Most of the Dikshitars are sent to gurukulas in Kumbakonam, Ramanasramam in Thiruvannamalai, Hyderabad or Chennai. Gurukula education is virtually compulsory, since this study while away from home ingrains self discipline. Dikshitars are adept at the Vedas; some have memorized the entire Yajur Veda.”
Dikshitar children are sent for formal schooling as well, and there is no objection to higher studies. However, it is mandatory that they complete their basic education in mantras and rituals. Since they know their livelihood is within the temple, most Dikshitars don’t pursue higher studies but immerse themselves in temple activities at an early age. Academic pursuits are not popular, though several priests have doctorate degrees.
Currently about forty Dikshitars are unmarried. They assist with non-ritualistic odd jobs at the temple. Others, who married a non-Dikshitar because no bride was available within the community, leave and settle elsewhere. They come to the temple only as devotees.
Dikshitars are prohibited from taking up vocations outside of temple service. A few have gone out to work, but returned to the temple a few years later. Some of the priests also serve in other private temples. Nataraja Dikshitar explains, “Young Dikshitars feel only a Dikshitar can serve Lord Nataraja, and by working elsewhere they would be doing disservice to the temple and the community. But no matter where they are, they maintain the austerities and rituals of Dikshitars as mandated by the community. A Dikshitar is always a Dikshitar.”
The Temple’s Major Rituals
The Chidambaram Temple observes the Vaidika form of worship as set down by the sage Patanjali, who witnessed the Ananda Tandava. The Dikshitars believe that because of their pujas here, Siva continues to perform his Ananda Tandava dance for the perpetuation of the universe—which contributes to their strong sense of responsibility.
The idea that worship at Chidambaram sustains the whole world is narrated in the verses of Periyapuranam, where the poet Sekkizhar attributes the illumination of the world to the recitation of Vedas in the Chidambaram Temple. The Dikshitars believe that reciting the Vedas sustains the well-being of the cosmos. “My father,” Raju said, “doesn’t have breakfast until after he has recited the 1,008 names of Siva and chanted the Vedas at the Nataraja shrine each day. Many Dikshitars follow this practice.”
Many different rituals are regularly conducted across the huge 52-acre compound. One of the most significant is the rahasya—“secret” or “hidden”—puja, a daily ritual performed inside the sanctum sanctorum of the Nataraja shrine in a curtained area to the left when facing the main Deity. There is no murti or image in this chamber, only a yantra, mystical diagram etched on a gold plate, called the Samagama Yantra, with a gold bilva leaf garland adorning it. The curtain is removed only for a few seconds during puja to allow darshan of the empty space, which signifies akasha. Devotees find this puja a profoundly mystical experience. The uninitiated can be perplexed by the nothingness.
Yearly, the Deity is brought out of the inner sanctum to the Raja Sabha for ritual bathing on auspicious days. The Nataraja Deity is around three and a half feet tall, and so precious that thirty to forty Dikshitars are required to carry Him safely to the abhishekam pedestal. It then takes nearly six hours to perform the abhishekam, which may use over 210 gallons of milk and many other offerings. The main priest for the ceremony is chosen by lot. This is a rare opportunity that every Dikshitar yearns for. According to Bharani Dikshitar, the rituals have not changed over the centuries.
What the Future Holds
Chidambaram Temple represents the ancient heritage of Hindu faith and civilization. Here, it is believed, Siva eternally performs His cosmic dance of bliss, the Ananda Tandava. All Hindus must ensure this continues unhindered forever. The Dikshitars in particular have a huge responsibility and must tread with extreme caution. They are under the close watch of the media, the government and opponents of our heritage; any lapse or misstep can be used against them. They do not take their status for granted. They know the responsibility rests on them to preserve the temple for posterity. It is this dedication that HINDUISM TODAY honors with its award of “Hindus of the Year.”