Having spent a rainy weekend at Puducherry, I decide to explore the vibrant Kanchipuram, the temple town of the coastal state of Tamil Nadu. It takes me just under three hours to drive down to Kanchipuram from the east-coastal settlement of Puducherry. Also known as Kanchi, Kanchipuram is one of the most colourful religious centres of south India. The town has more than 50 temples, many of which are multiple centuries old and are dedicated to different Hindu deities; primarily Shiva, the Goddess and Vishnu. Apart from the imposing temples that dot just about every corner of the city, Kanchi is also popular for its thriving silk industry.
The profusion of shrines also means proliferation of religious sanctities into the layout and planning of the city. The larger of the two, Shiva Kanchi – where most of the Shiva temples are located – occupies the western portion of the city and the smaller one called Vishnu Kanchi – where most of the Vishnu temples lie – is spread along the eastern fringes of the city. The religious festivals that take place in the city keep the administration occupied almost continuously all through the year. Noticing the lofty imposing ancient structures that appear to be blocking the streets of the town is a first for me. But then, even with all its historical temples, the current spread of Kanchipuram fails to testify the fact the city once served as the capital of the mighty Pallavas from seventh to ninth centuries and later continued to maintain its hold during the succeeding empires of Cholas and Vijayanagaras, etc. Before coming here, I actually imagined the city to be much larger than what I am seeing currently.
The shopping aficionado in me decides to first explore the silk products. I straightway head towards the Gandhi Street where most showrooms are located. Shops and shacks to suit all budgets dot both sides of the road. I end up buying a pair of dhoti, locally called waistie, for myself. Not only silk and cotton, the street also has a few restaurants which serve authentic local cuisine. I decide to have brunch at a local branch of the South Indian foods chain, the Saravana Bhawan. The restaurant is much larger and crowded (by locals) than what I had expected it to be. The thalis, which are most preferred items from its South Indian Menu, are almost instantly readied and served. My choice is a Tamil thali.
Having munched on a Tamil veg-feast, I now head towards the Kailasanathar Temple, which stands on the edge of an open space about 500m west of Shiva Kanchi. It is a thing of much curiosity to imagine why historically so many temples continued to be built in an around Kanchipuram. Legend has it that the city Kanchipuram – literally meaning a sacred place – gets its name from the Kanchi Tree that bears fragrant Kanchi flowers which are meant for Gods. The tree is said to be found only at the sacred place of Kanchi; and hence the uniqueness.
The ancient temple of Kailasanathar is protected by the ASI. A walled and fenced enclosure protects the temple premises from street walkers and stray animals. Just in front of the narrow passageway to the temple complex, souvenir and prasad selling shops dot the wide street. The temple appears to be a likely evolution of the seventh century panch rathas of Mahabalipuram. Started by the Pallava king Rajasimha, also known as Narasimhavarman II, in the late seventh century, Kailasanathar is the oldest standing building in the confines of the city; however, older temples still exist outside the settlement but within the district Kanchipuram. The temple, an ancient monument now, still attracts followers who throng the complex every year in the month of February, when a gala festival is held on the occasion of Mahashivaratri.
Minute designing must have gone into planning the temple which is constructed mostly out of sandstone. A rectangular wall lined with small shrines surrounds the main temple. One of the two opposite doorways; the one towards the west, is now blocked up. The inner sanctum of the temple houses a multi-faceted linga, with a Somaskanda representation carved onto the rear wall. An old man in white outfit asks me not to take any photographs inside the main temple, which is surrounded by a narrow passageway. The outer walls of the main shrine are raised on a square basement. Outwardly projecting shrines from the corners and in the middle of three sides are framed by columns with Tamil yalis towards the base.
The walls adorn different figurines and representations of Shaivism. In one of such representations, the Shiva who is flanked by Vishnu and Brahma is shown to appear out of a linga; while in the other, surrounded by Durga and Bhairavi, the Shiva is portrayed shooting arrows from a chariot. The figures are enclosed by columns donning sea creatures and crocos with decorated tails. The same scheme of figures adorns the pyramidal walls of the main shrine. The storeys of the pyramidal tower that rise above repeat the wall scheme below at diminishing scales, the capping roof is an octagonal dome. The top is decorated with an octagonal shaped dome. The small pillared outdoor hall next to the shrine was initially built as a separate structure.
It might be the oldest one in the town, but Kailasanathar is a fairly small temple complex. An unaware visitor might not take more than ten minutes to complete a visit. A walk through the passageway around the main shrine makes me wonder about the intricateness of craftsmanship. The circumambulatory passage comprises a display of various deities including multiple sculptures of dancing Shiva. The temple of Kailasanathar is a fine example of the might and beauty of the ancient Indian temples. Even though, the images of Shiva and other deities are mostly eroded and overlaid with coloured plaster that seems recent, a few paintings from the Pallava period still lay preserved on the interior of the shrine walls. The smaller shrines lining the compound wall of the temple complex; all have domed roofs with carved Nandis and elephants in the sitting posture.
Fine manicured lawns surround the temple compound from two sides. Just a few metres away from the main shrine in the green lawn is a seated Nandi on a low plinth. It is lunch time and the caretaker has gone out somewhere leaving the garden tap running. I still manage to make a few photographs as the sky gets cloudy. Quite uncommon of a touristy place, there isn’t any reputed restaurant, a café or a food joint outside the premises of the temple of Kailasanathar which is thronged by domestic travellers as well as foreigners. Having spent a couple of hours at the temple, before the clouds precipitate, I head towards the most imposing structure of the town.
Returning to the crowded streets of the city, I am on the street that leads to the Ekambareshwara or Ekambaranathar Temple, the largest in Shiva Kanchi. Straight ahead of me is the 60m lofty tower of slender columns, which stands in the middle of the street, and serves as the south-entrance to the main complex. This impressive seventeenth century temple has a later year’s pyramidal tower comprising nine stories mounting on granite walls. The imposing temple is also the site for the yearly festival of Panguni Utiram held every spring. Above, the clouds and sun are playing hide and seek. The temple adores a dull look as it darkens.
Just as I conclude making photographs of the tower, it starts raining incessantly. I take hide inside my vehicle and head towards another Saravana Bhawan outlet located nearby. Many cups of filter coffees follow as I prepare my travel notes before heading back to my place in the evening.
The town of Kanchipuram is 75 km from Chennai and 125km from Puducherry. Bengaluru is 300km from Kanchipuram.
Best time to visit: Any time of the year
Travel Lure: Heritage and Silk Shopping