According to legend, Shiva and Kali got into a dance-off judged by Vishnu. Shiva dropped an earring and picked it up with his foot, a move that Kali could not duplicate, so Shiva won the title Nataraja (Lord of the Dance). It's in this form that endless streams of people come to worship him at this great temple. It was built during Chola times (Chidambaram was a Chola capital), but the main shrines date to at least the 6th century.
The high-walled 22-hectare complex has four towering 12th-century gopurams decked out in schizophrenic Dravidian stone and stucco work. The main entrance is through the east (oldest) gopuram. The 108 sacred positions of classical Tamil dance are carved in its passageway. To your right through the gopuram are the 1000-pillared 12th-century Raja Sabha (King's Hall; open only festival days), with carved elephants, and the large Sivaganga tank.
You enter the central compound (no cameras) from the east. In its southern part (left from the entrance) is the 13th-century Nritta Sabha (Dance Hall), shaped like a chariot with 56 finely carved pillars. Some say this is the spot where Shiva out-danced Kali.
North of the Nritta Sabha, through a door, you enter the inner courtyard, where most temple rituals are performed. Right in front are the attached hut-like, golden-roofed Kanaka Sabha and Chit Sabha (Wisdom Hall). The Chit Sabha, the innermost sanctum, holds the temple's central bronze image of Nataraja – Shiva the cosmic dancer, ending one cycle of creation, beginning another and uniting all opposites. Shiva's invisible 'space' form is also worshipped here.
At puja times devotees crowd into the encircling pavilion to witness rites performed by the temple's hereditary Brahmin priests, the Dikshithars, who shave off some of their hair but grow the rest of it long (thus representing both Shiva and Parvati) and tie it into topknots.
On the south side of the two inner shrines is the Govindaraja Shrine with a reclining Vishnu. Overlooking the tank from the west, the Shivakamasundari Shrine displays fine ochre-and-white 17th-century Nayak ceiling murals.
Priests may offer to guide you around the temple for ₹200 to ₹300. Unusually for Tamil Nadu, this magnificent temple is privately funded and managed, so you may wish to support it by hiring one, but there are no official guides.