Lord Nataraja at Konerirajapuram- The Swayambu Idol

In this New Year, “Arudra Darisanam”, the festival commemorating Lord Shiva’s incarnation as Lord Nataraja, falls on Jan 2nd,2018 and I thought it befitting to bring to you a lesser known legend of Lord Nataraja who resides in an equally lesser known place by name Konerirajapuram.

Konerirajapuram is a village in the Nagapattinam district of Tamilnadu, South India and lies between the two towns of Mayiladuthurai and Kumbakonam. This village houses a temple for Uma Maheswara (Lord Shiva) and in this temple is the Nataraja whose legend I am going to narrate.

The Cholas were mighty rulers in Tamil Nadu for the longest period between 3rd century BC and 13th century AD and their fame rose to dizzying heights between 9th century AD to 11th century AD. Many famous temples were built at this time including the Brihadeeswara temple at Tanjavur by the emperor Raja Raja Chola and its replica at Gangai Konda Cholapuram by his son Rajendra Chola. It is very significant that the ladies of the royal family also had enough wealth at their disposal. The queens mostly engaged in activities aimed at bringing the society together. Building temples and hospitals by the ladies of the royal families were common.

Though many queens had the title “Sembiyan Mahadevi”, the title mostly refers to the queen of the King Gandaraditya Chola, who was Raja Raja Chola’s uncle. Sembiyan Mahadevi was instrumental in building many Shiva temples for over sixty years, as she was an ardent devotee of the lord. This legend is said to have happened during her time.

King Gandaraditya Chola wanted a life size Nataraja idol with consort Sivakami to be made in the Uma Maheswara temple at Konerirajapuram. He wanted it to be very tall and instructed the sculptor to make an idol using ‘Panchaloha’.

‘Panchaloha’ as the name indicates is a mixture of Gold, Silver, Brass, Copper and Bronze and this mixture of metals is extensively used in making metallic idols even to this day. Usually such metal idols used to be in the range of two to four feet and making such a big idol as per the king’s wish was indeed a challenge for the sculptor.

The sculptor had built a shed inside the temple where he tried to execute this task but try as he might the idol always fell short of the king’s expectation, and three times the king had seen it and had rejected it outright.

One day on his usual visit to check the progress of the idol, the king got terribly annoyed that the sculptor was not being able to create the idol the way he visualised it for so long.

“What is the use of your knowledge, if you are not able to execute my order? I think you are not focussed enough to do the job I have given you. Your callous attitude is a disrespect to the royal family!” he shouted in anger. “I shall come again tomorrow evening and by that time if the idol has not been done as per my specifications, be ready for capital punishment!”

He stomped out of the place, his face, red with fury.

The sculptor was crestfallen. He was a much focussed person with great knowledge and greater commitment but somehow this time this image was eluding him. And he shuddered at the thought of capital punishment the day after. The images of his wife and young children and aged parents came to his mind’s eye and he was in tears thinking of what they would do without him. He was their life support.

He could not sleep a wink that night and the next day he again kept the pot to melt the metal for the last time and overcome by tiredness and fear, he was mentally pleading with Lord Shiva. He was feeling helpless. He was doing his very best but somehow the king could not be satisfied.

“Why are you testing me thus, O Lord? What harm have I done to anyone to deserve capital punishment?” he thought. He sat down , leaning his back against the wall, closed his eyes and was lost in thought, tears rolling down his cheeks. He was sobbing silently and deep in his thought was the Lord Shiva. He did not realise it was past noon.

“We have walked a long way in the heat. May we have something to drink?” – The deep voice of a man woke him up with a start. There was a couple at the entrance of the shed, near the stove where the metal mixture had melted and was boiling. The couple looked divine, but the anger and frustration of the sculptor overshadowed his sense of hospitality and in a fit of rage, the sculptor said, “I don’t have any water here. All I have is the molten metal. Drink it if you want!” and rudely turned back.

In few seconds, he thought he heard the sound of someone gulping the liquid and when he turned around, he was horrified to see the man and his wife drinking the molten liquid from two small containers, he had kept to pour it in the mould. Instinctively he darted across to snatch the containers from them and lo and behold, they had turned into the statues of Nataraja and his consort Sivakami and what beautiful statues they were. The statue of the Lord was more than life size (about 7 to 8 feet- still it is the tallest Nataraja idol in the world) and the statue of Sivakami was bewitchingly beautiful.

The sculptor was overjoyed and overwhelmed at this show of mercy of his beloved lord and he prostrated before the idol conveying his gratitude. The statue was so very life like including a mole under the left arm. So full of awe, peace and joy, he awaited the arrival of the king.

Soon, he heard the guards announcing the arrival of the king and queen and this time, he enthusiastically went to welcome them. The king and queen looked at the statues with awe and could not take their eyes off the idols. When the king asked the sculptor how he was able to make it, the sculptor, true to his nature, told them what had happened. The king thought he had stolen this idol from somewhere and was lying to him, and in a sudden fit of anger pulled out his sword to harm the sculptor when the tip of the sword hit the idol’s leg and instantly blood started oozing out. It was the turn of the King to be shocked and at that moment he realized his folly and sought forgiveness from the Lord and the sculptor. It is said that he had to endure some physical suffering as a result of his attitude towards the sculptor but after continuous repentance by offering prayers to the Lord, he was cured.

The statue is still at the temple for us to see, with the mole on the left arm and the scar on the leg caused by the sword…. The world’s largest Nataraja.

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