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Notes on ‘Space of Consciousness (Chidambaram, Early Morning)’

Ernst Karel


The small city of Chidambaram, Tamilnadu, is home to an ancient and massive temple complex, at the center of which is the famous site where Śiva, as Naṭarāja, the Lord of the Dance, performs the Cosmic Dance of Bliss, the ānanda tāṇḍava, in the Hall of Consciousness. The temple is specifically associated with ākāśa (aether, space, or sky), the fifth of the five elements which is known as the medium of sound, and Śiva Naṭarāja is celebrated here with sonorous practices that include the ringing of two large temple bells. The sound piece published here, ‘Space of consciousness (Chidambaram, early morning)’, represents the situatedness of the temple complex within the city, the main shrine at the center of the temple, and finally the immersive sonic and semiotic resonances of the large bells. The accompanying text describes a network of embodied meanings implicated experientially in sound.

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Space of consciousness (Chidambaram, early morning)

stereo audio, 17 minutes

Credits : Ernst Karel


3For the Mining Imagination workshop, I took the opportunity to compose a piece that revisits some older recordings of mine, recordings I made while doing ethnographic research at the Hindu temple of Chidambaram, Tamilnadu, in South India (Karel 1997). Over a period of several months, I spent much of my time in this temple, participating in the multisensory nature of Hindu ritual or puja, talking with people I met there, and seeking to understand something of the lived experience of sound for participants, especially with respect to the overwhelming resonances of the two large bells rung during the six daily pujas at the main shrine. For Mining Imagination, I presented this sound piece first thing in the morning, as an introduction to our day together; I hoped it might allow us to enter an imaginative space, a space of relation, of semiotic play, of devotion, of connectedness, of wholeness, of engagement, of repetition, of wellness, of coolness.

4Meaningful experience is firmly emplaced and embodied at the temple of Chidambaram. The temple is most famous as the site where Śiva, as Naṭarāja, the Lord of the Dance, performs the Cosmic Dance of Bliss, the ānanda tāṇḍava. Here, in the tradition of Śaiva Siddhānta philosophy reflected in the Tirumantiram of Tirumūlar, a Tamil text from about the 11th century CE (cf. Weiss 2009:58), Śiva is identified with nāda, or primordial sound.

He is Supreme Light of Cit [consciousness]

He dances the Dance of Bliss;

He is Nada that is ‘Aum’ [Om]

He dances the Dance of Beauty;

He dances in the Golden Hall;

He dances in Golden Tillai [Chidambaram];

He dances the Dance Wondrous;

Who can ever know him?

  • 1 Translations from B. Natarajan (1991).

(Tirumantiram verse 2723)1

  • 2 Four of these are in Tamilnadu, and one is in Andhra Pradesh. In addition to the Tillai Naṭarāja Te (...)

5Chidambaram is also one of the five major Śiva temples in South India which are each associated with one of the five elements; Chidambaram represents ākāśa (aether, space, or sky).2 The five elements are associated with the five senses, and act as the gross medium for the experience of sensations. The basest element, earth, created using all the other elements, can be perceived by all five senses — hearing, touch, sight, taste, and smell. The next higher element, water, has no odor but can be heard, felt, seen and tasted. Next comes fire, which can be heard, felt and seen. Air can be heard and felt. The fifth and most subtle element, ākāśa, is the medium of sound, but is inaccessible to all other senses.

"Siva is Nada (Sound). Sound (Nada) is the attribute of Akasa (ether). Of the five elements, the fifth element, ether (Akasa) is the medium through which sound is transmitted. So the determined goal of Nada – Nadanta – is the Cosmic Dance of Nataraja, who represents ether, among the five elements. He dances in the universe and in the Cit akasa (soul)." [Natarajan 1994:253]

6The five elements are further each associated with a material of the body, as I was told (without even having to ask) on my first evening in the temple by a group of young men who would become my friends: earth is flesh, water is blood and fluids, fire is body heat, air is breath, and ākāśa, being empty space, is all the openings and pores of the body. As blood flows through one’s veins, so does ākāśa pervade one’s body and the whole of the universe – and one is never more aware of this permeability as when sound fills all of space and all of one’s being.

7There are two etymologies to the name Chidambaram, not mutually exclusive. One is that it comes from the Tamiḻl ciṟṟampalam, meaning ‘Little Hall’, after its humble beginnings probably before the beginning of the last millenium as a thatched hut near a sacred pool in a dense forest of Tillai trees. The name of Chidambaram is also interpreted as the Sanskrit cit (consciousness) and ambara (space or sky): the Space of Consciousness. As Margaret Trawick puts it in her poetic 1978 dissertation from the University of Chicago, The sacred spell and other conceptions of life in Tamil culture, “All of this has merged over the centuries to mean the space within the heart, which is the space of consciousness, and which also is a small place, but open and ‘empty’ like the sky, and common to all creatures” (Trawick Egnor 1978:14). The famous central shrine of the temple has come to be known as the Cit Sabha, or Hall of Consciousness; it is the site of Śiva’s dance.

8Siva too, capable of taking the form of ākāśa, is all-pervasive, infinitely subtle, becoming manifest only when invoked through sound, as into the murti [image/form] with the recitation of mantras, or as sound, as Om, as Om nama śivāya, indeed as the sound of the great bells.

The Lord is in our heart,

As Om is He there,

As Fire is He there,

As Order is He there,

As Space [ākāśa] in body is He there,

He, the One Being.

(Tirumantiram verse 2804)

9The body symbolism/iconicity of the physical structure of the Naṭarāja temple is widely known among devotees and was frequently mentioned to me during my research. R.N. Natarajarathina Deekshithar, a hereditary temple priest who served as my main teacher that summer, has written that the 20,600 golden tiles of the roof are the breaths that a person takes in a day, the 72,000 iron threads with which they are attached are the veins in the body, and the nine stūpas atop the Golden Roof are either the nine bodily orifices, or nine goddesses (śaktis or mātrikas), or both (cf. Deekshithar 1997:20). The five pillars on the front of the Cit Sabha “are identified as the five senses” (Natarajan 1994:133). The five silver-covered steps which lead to the feet of Naṭarāja are known as the pancāksara (five-syllable) steps, because it is by chanting the five-syllable mantra nama śivāya that one can attain to the Lord Śiva (cf. Deekshithar 1996:70) – and the pancāksara is often to be heard.

Letters ‘Na’ and ‘Ma’ to commence,

Letter ‘Si’ in centre,

Letter ‘Va’ intoned in breath regulated,

Together with ‘OM’ at beginning of all,

If you even once chant thus,

The Lord of ‘Ma’ (Maya)

Will in your heart be.

(Tirumantiram verse 976)

10In talking with people about their experience of sound, my fieldwork came to focus on the sound of two very large bells rung during the main puja or worship ceremony, five times per day. In the accompanying sound piece, we approach an experience of the bell sound, but mediated as this experience is, we do not arrive there. We might start to think about this sound by taking up the physicality of it, the emergent resonances of certain overtones, and the architectural space of the huge stone temple in which it reverberates – and this piece momentarily hones in on the most prominent resonances through filtering, using sharp band-pass EQs, reducing.

11But through my daily visits to the temple and conversations with devotees, priests, musicians, and others, it quickly became apparent that for worshippers, the sound is multivalent and exists in a highly elaborate, and widely-shared, network of significations which strongly influence the ways in which it is experienced at a phenomenological level, and which had to do more with place than with space. Priests told me that first of all the bell sound serves to summon and to establish a connection with the deity; in a favored metaphor, it was like a telephone line over which their chanted mantras travel; or like an electrical line, which when switched on activates the deity. For devotees, at the most basic level hearing the bells is an indexical sign of the deity’s presence, calling them from other parts of the vast temple complex. Once at the main shrine, the bell sound blocks or masks outside sounds, the hectic sounds of the street – air horns, motors, and so on – which can be considered harmful, disturbing, ‘heating’ the body; the bell sounds, in contrast, are calming, ‘cooling’ the body. A physician in the Siddha system of Tamil medicine described this in holistic terms, saying that the bell sound is at once “cooling the brain, cooling the ātma [soul], cooling the mind, cooling the organs.” Others talked about how the great sound can defuse ‘hot’ emotions such as anger; it can displace one’s own thoughts of mundane problems, and focus the mind on the deity.

12Simultaneously and at another level, the immense sound one is immersed in and pervaded by is identical with the deity. Echoing the equivalence between Śiva and nāda, people spoke of the bell sound as equivalent to Omkara, to the syllable Om. It’s not that it resembles Om; in Susanne Langer’s terms, it’s doesn’t represent Omkara, but rather actually presents it. Emplaced in the temple of ākāśa, the bell sound is Om is Śiva.

13This sound piece, ‘Space of consciousness (Chidambaram, early morning)’, is a single-take recording (with the exception of the aforementioned transformational intervention, near the end) which represents an early morning walk from the Star Lodge, at the corner of East Car Street and South Car Street, up East Car Street and and left onto East Sannadhi, towards the temple entrance. I pause (2:30) to slip off my sandals in front of the home of the priest R.N. Natarajarathina Deekshithar, and continue on down the street and through the Eastern gopuram, or tower-gateway (3:45). After crossing the open temple courtyard, I enter the massive stone temple complex (4:30), the voices of human visitors and of resident bats echoing in the long, reverberant passageways (6:00), and make my way through to the central Cit Sabha, open to the sky. Here I stop to listen to the daily devotional singing of the widow, dressed in white, who has sung to Śiva nearly every morning for twenty years. Her singing ends, and then begins the morning puja or worship ceremony for Śiva Naṭarāja begins: an awakening. At the signal of a silver bell ringing out from the central sanctum as silver lamps alight with flaming camphor are brought before the murti, the woman pulls a chain to shake a rack of bells which jangles, and devotees – usually young men, perhaps students from Annamalai University across town – begin to rock the large temple bells, tugging with all their strength at the ropes, and the clappers inside them swing and begin to strike more and more steadily. The interplay of the strikes of the two bells remains rhythmically indeterminate, each swinging and striking independently, although the upper harmonic partials that are sounded by the combination of the two bells remain constant, emerging, it seems, from empty space. The central stone temple area open to the sky is filled with sound – the sound is Om – which then displaces all other sounds.

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Deekshithar, R. N. Natarajarathina. 1996. Chidambaram -- The home of Nataraja. Tattvaloka 19.2:68-72 [Reprinting of original, published in 1992].

Deekshithar, R. N. Natarajarathina. 1997. The hidden treasure in the City of Ether: A passage to the Akasha Lingam. Chennai: Inspiration.

Egnor, Margaret Trawick. 1978. The sacred spell and other conceptions of life in Tamil culture. Ph.D. Dissertation, Department of Anthropology, The University of Chicago.

Karel, Ernst. 1997. Ringing Omkara: Sonic significations in the Hall of Consciousness (Chidambaram, Tamilnadu). M.A. Thesis, Committee on Human Development, The University of Chicago.

Tirumantiram: A Tamil spiritual classic. 1991. (By Tirumular. Translated by B. Natajaran) Madras: Sri Ramakrishna Math.

Natarajan, B. 1994. Tillai and Nataraja. Madras: Mudgala Trust.

Weiss, Richard S. 2009. Recipes for immortality: medicine, religion, and community in South India. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

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1 Translations from B. Natarajan (1991).

2 Four of these are in Tamilnadu, and one is in Andhra Pradesh. In addition to the Tillai Naṭarāja Temple in Chidambaram, the other four pancabhūtasthalas are Ekāmbareswara Temple (earth) in Kanchipuram, Jambukeswara Temple (water) in Thiruvanaikaval, Arunāchaleswara Temple (fire) in Thiruvaṇṇāmalai, and Sri Kalahasthīswara Temple (air) in Kalahasthi, Andhra Pradesh.

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Electronic reference

Ernst Karel, Notes on ‘Space of Consciousness (Chidambaram, Early Morning)’Anthrovision [Online], 4.2 | 2016, Online since 31 December 2016, connection on 28 November 2023. URL:; DOI:

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About the author

Ernst Karel

Sensory Ethnography Lab, Harvard University

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The text and other elements (illustrations, imported files) are “All rights reserved”, unless otherwise stated.

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