Kanchipuram: An Ancient Temple City There Is So Much To Know About 

Kanchipuram: An Ancient Temple City There Is So Much To Know About Nadavavi Kinaru, an ancient step-well at Kanchipuram (Harsha Bhat)
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  • Kanchipuram: A township of temples, melting pot of cultures, abode of architectural excellence across ages, many such superlatives can be used to describe this town that has enough to satiate one’s senses and beyond.

Earlier this year I visited Kanchipuram along with a group of 60 heritage enthusiasts as part of a trip organised by the Tamil Heritage Trust. When I received the email forwarded by a heritage group in Chennai last year on this proposed ‘site seminar’, I had no clue what I was in for.

A trip to a temple town is what I thought it would be. But the onslaught of highly informative and intense preparatory lectures for almost four months post signing up for the trip, a ‘Kacheri’ exclusively focussed on heritage should have given me a hint that this was anything but just that.

What would a tier-2 city that most of the nation may not even know about except that it has something to do with the Kanjivaram sari, have in store I wondered? Twelve-hour schedules per day, visiting over 24 heritage complexes over four days was definitely not what I was game for. Was it how I wanted to spend the first long weekend of the year, I mused.

The temple tank (anantasaras) with the sanctum that holds the original wood idol of Varadaraja at the Varadaraja Perumal temple.
The temple tank (anantasaras) with the sanctum that holds the original wood idol of Varadaraja at the Varadaraja Perumal temple.

Well, all my misgivings were quashed as by the time I boarded the bus back to Bengaluru I couldn’t agree more with Kalidasa who said, “Pushpeshu jati, purusheshu Vishnu; narishu Rambha, nagareshu Kanchi.”

Of cities, it is Kanchi, he said. Well, it sure could have been. I was humbled gazing at the wonders that are strewn around this town that is a microcosm of India, its magnificent structures testifying to its glorious past as a melting pot of cultures and faiths.

Kanchipuram, a town in Tamil Nadu, 72 km from Chennai, was a cosmopolitan city back then. It was home to all major faiths - Shaivism, Vaishnavism, Jainism, Buddhism, which blossomed in all their glory. It is a city that witnessed the reign of many majestic kingdoms - the Pallavas, the Cholas, the Vijayanagara empire - that have all left their imprints in time in the form of the matchless pieces of architecture that be its temples. Another distinguishing feature of this ‘city of thousand temples’ is that unlike other temple towns like Bhubaneshwar or the like, most of its temples, be it ancient or new, are living (functional).

Kanchipuram was also one of the biggest educational centres. While we have at least the ruins and remnants of the likes of a Nalanda or a Takshashila, it is sad that none knows what happened to this ‘Ghatikasthanam’ or centre of learning. The city as an educational hub is mentioned in various inscriptions like the Kadamba copper plate of the fifth century. And it was not just a centre for Vedic education but also an active Jain and Buddhist centre of advanced education from the 1st to the 5th centuries.

You don’t stumble upon stones here, instead you stumble upon sculpture, inscriptions and history.

A detailed explanation of every site I had the fortune of visiting is beyond the scope of this article, and requires a dedicated series, like the preparatory lectures conducted by the Tamil Heritage Trust that conducted this site seminar to Kanchipuram (which were also combined into a book Nagareshu Kanchi - a primer of sorts).

For the devout there is the divine at every nook and corner, for those with a nose for the past, history stands there in all its grandeur and diversity, for those who seek to capture it all in their lenses, the town has more frames than one can imagine.

For someone with just streaks of all these, a four-day engagement with this culture cosmos was overwhelming, to say the least. Especially the sites that will not feature in or be the focus of the usual trips that one may make to this temple town. Be it while alighting the steps into the Nadavavi, the step well, or taking the flight of steps up the coiled stairway leading to the top of the multi-storeyed vimana (pyramid-like roof of the sanctum sanctorum) of the Varadaraja Perumal temple, one can see that every step is a story waiting to be told.

Into The Womb Of The Earth

One sunny afternoon, the bus came to a halt outside a large space of fenced land. Driving closer, all that one could see is a large Vijayanagara style arch at one end and two tall pillars at the other at the centre of the land stretch. Having been haunted by stories of fallen structures and kingdoms and ‘what was once a …’ tales, one begins to wonder what this site could probably have been. Walking further into the fenced land, brings us face to face with the intricately carved arch that has a Gajalakshmi engraved on its perch. We realise it is indeed the doorway to a magnificent structure; just that this one is in the womb of the earth.

As you enter the arch and walk towards the two pillars, you notice a large square structure with steps leading into the earth. It is a step-well - the Nadavavi Kinaru. One doesn't really find many step-wells in this part of the country any longer, and of the few still in use is the Nadvavi Kinaru, or also called the Nada-vavi (walk-well), which is located close to the Sanjeevaraayar temple at Ayyangarakulam.

The Nadavavi Kinaru at Ayyangarkulam (Raghav Hari Krishna V S)
The Nadavavi Kinaru at Ayyangarkulam (Raghav Hari Krishna V S)

This step well is one where the divine, the diety Varadaraj Perumal, steps down for a ceremonial visit once a year on the full moon of the Indian month of Chaitra that falls around April-May. The central portion of the well has been now covered with a metallic net but else the well is open for rainwater to collect, with two large canal-like structures also directing the flow of water into the underground storage space.

The arch (left) and the steps (right) leading into the well. 
The arch (left) and the steps (right) leading into the well. 

Almost 4,000 square feet in area, this step well has a flight of 27 stairs that leads to a mandapam underground. Twelve beautifully carved pillars are said to surround this mandapam which has a well within. The water generally dries up by mid-summer and the remaining is emptied, earlier using the mechanism (a traditional cantilever based water fetching system supported by the two large pillars which held a rod that functioned as a fulcrum) and now using an electric motor. This could irrigate nearby fields as well as effectively harvest rainwater.

My visit there took me just a few steps down beyond which the stagnant water made it difficult to even see the mandapam. But images available online give us an idea of the space within. As per sources, the well was built by Lakshmi Kumara Thathacharyar, the royal preceptor of the Vijayanagara kingdom during the end of 16th century, the structure is now maintained by the Archeological Survey of India (ASI). It definitely calls for another visit when I can probably go see the exquisitely carved pillars and the mandapam minus the stagnant water.

Buddha In A Playground:

While at all the other sites we saw tall gopurams (ornate tower at the entrance of the temple) or typical ASI curated gardens and architecture galore, this one had no such thing. A large metal gate with a high compound wall opened into a sprawling space that looked like a school playground. And a playground it was. As the school bell rang and the children scrambled out of their classrooms, we headed to the other end of the school ground. The principal sent someone to fetch the key to a small metal structure around a tree. Inside the grilled structure sat a huge stone Buddha.

The stone Buddha (Raghav Hari Krishna V S)
The stone Buddha (Raghav Hari Krishna V S)

A residue of Buddhist Kanchi, this idol is a testimony to the fact that the town was an important centre for Buddhism, one that gave the world the famous Buddhist monk Bodhi Dharma, who in turn gave Chan Buddhism to China.

This ninth-century statue of Buddha was found four decades ago, and from what one finds on Youtube, the present sight is much better than what it was even a decade ago, as the mandapam ensures it is no longer at the mercy of nature.

Mighty, Magnificent Mandapams

Another feast to my senses that stayed etched were the massive majestic mandapams (hall like structures) in many big temples of the town. While the gopurams of each of the temple have so much to reveal, these mandapams as standalone structures held me spellbound. Such importance was given to building these mandapams that every block of every pillar had a tale to tell from the epics or the history of the place, even though most would be used only for a day or two in the year when the deity arrived there for a particular ritual.

Ekambareshwar

As one arrived at the Ekambareshwar shrine, there is the Sankara Pathar mandapam, a huge mandapam which is now fenced by a metal grilled structure.

Sankara Pathar Mandapam at Ekambareshwar temple (Raghav Hari Krishna V S)
Sankara Pathar Mandapam at Ekambareshwar temple (Raghav Hari Krishna V S)

This mandapam on the Sannidhi street although sadly doubles up sometimes as a bus-stop, and serves as the backdrop to some kiosks, has pillars that showcased many interesting sculptures like the Matsyasamhara murthy (idol), the Raavana Anugraha murthy, the Mahishasuramardhini murthy and the like.

Raavana Anugraha murthy on one of the pillars of the mandapam (Raghav Hari Krishna V S)
Raavana Anugraha murthy on one of the pillars of the mandapam (Raghav Hari Krishna V S)

This 16-pillar structure bears inscriptions on the ceiling in Tamil, Telugu and Sanskrit.

Inscriptions on the ceiling of the Sankara Pathar mandapam.
Inscriptions on the ceiling of the Sankara Pathar mandapam.

A smaller mandapam, as one heads towards the South Raja Gopuram, is an eye sore and a stark reminder that we are not the best of people, who despite inheriting such cultural wealth, to protect it.

Mandapam outside the Ekambareshwar temple which has turned into a shopping area with kiosks
Mandapam outside the Ekambareshwar temple which has turned into a shopping area with kiosks

This mandapam outside has sculptures that have teddy bears for company as the pillars have been used to erect the stalls. One of the sculptures, tucked away inside a tea stall is apparently “offered tea every morning”. No nation can give away its glory like we do, can it?

Hundred Pillar Mandapam At Varadaraja Perumal Temple

The 100-pillar mandapam or the kalyana mandapam is one of the many mandapams at the Varadaraja Perumal temple.

The magnificience of Vijayanagara architecture
The magnificience of Vijayanagara architecture

But this, an exemplary display of the Vijayanagara style architecture, catches the eye with its sheer architectural grandeur displayed on the monolithic pillars.

The ones facing outside have large yalis while the interior ones are resplendent with sculptures that portray characters from the Ramayana and the Mahabharata, various forms of Vishnu, Vijayanagara soldiers and European ones both distinguished by their costumes, various kings and queens of the Vijayanagara empire, the Rati-Manmatha duo with Rati atop a parrot and Manmatha seated on a swan. Apart from these, there is the sthala purana or the mythological tale about the temple that is also portrayed here.

The 100-pillar mandapam at Varadaraja Perumal temple
The 100-pillar mandapam at Varadaraja Perumal temple

Even if one were to pass by this structure oblivious to what it holds within, the free hanging chain of stone rings suspended from the intricate cornice is a fine example of the finesse and skill of the sthapathis (temple architects) of the time and draws one to this mandapam.

Sangeeta Mandapam At Trailokyanatha Temple

Another interesting mandapam of the trip was the Sangita Mandapam at the Jain temple at Tirupparutikunram. The Jain community of Kanchipurama inhabited the locality of Tirupparuttikunram of today which came to be known as Jina-Kanchi. The vastness of the temple complex here is a testimony to the sizeable population of Jains and the royal patronage they received. The Trailokyanatha temple complex is the largest Jain temple complex in Tamil Nadu. It has two shrines, one of the eight Tirthankara Chandraprabha and the other of the 24th Tirthankara Vardhamana popularly called Trailokyanatha, apart from various small shrines and structures.

The mandapam at the Jain temple at Kanchipuram (Gopu Rangarathnam)
The mandapam at the Jain temple at Kanchipuram (Gopu Rangarathnam)

The sangita mandapam in front of the shrines is said to have been built by Irugappa, a minister of the Vijayanagara kingdom in 1387 CE, whose image is sculpted on one of the pillars. While the pillars are certainly noteworthy with intricate designs that are very Vijayanagara in style, the ceilings have paintings that belong to Vijayanagara-Nayaka era between the 14th and 16th centuries.

Paintings on the ceiling of the Sangita Mandapam at  Tirupparutikunram. (Gopu Rangarathnam)
Paintings on the ceiling of the Sangita Mandapam at Tirupparutikunram. (Gopu Rangarathnam)

The paintings mostly portray various Jain legends and are accompanied by captions in the form of short inscriptions in Tamil below them. Although many of them have been touched up in the name of renovation and may not have retained the original subtlety, they still are worth paying attention to.

Exhausting, Enlightening And Definitely Exhilarating

Well, like the mandapams are just one part of these temples whose every portion calls for an article each, what with each of them having served as the canvas for the artisans of yore to display their skill, this piece too is just a glimpse into some parts of the Kanchi sojourn that turned into portraits within my mind.

To explore it in its entirety, not just the giant ones like the Kailasanatha temple, which can engulf your thought and imagination both with its sculptural opulence, or the Vaikunta Perumal Shrine whose multi-tiered Vimanam, or sculpture layered prakharams have had authors penning books on them, even small shrines like the Chokkishwara Temple close to the Kamakshi temple, which is an all stone structure unlike most of the sandstones ones around, will surely take many, many more trips.

This article is part of Swarajya’s series on Indic heritage. If you liked this article and would like us to do more such ones, consider being a sponsor – you can contribute as little as Rs 2,999. Read more here.

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