Getting to Kanchipuram from Thiruvannamalai should be easy, or so I thought. I can’t get a direct bus to Kanchipuram. They appear to be in short supply. I don’t mind changing buses along the way. There are plenty of buses on their way to Arani, another town like Kanchipuram famous for its silk sarees. I consult my map. Arani is midway to my destination. I board one of the Arani buses.
These bus journeys are quite interesting on their own. They are a first hand experience of local cultures. A couple of young women seated in the front sport yellow feet, hands and face. Their skins are black but they wear a thick application of turmeric paste, something they do by mixing ground turmeric with water for their morning baths. Turmeric is supposed to be a beauty secret that contributes to smooth and supple skin. Even if this secret is lost on Tamil women, their idea of beauty is perhaps a yellow shade to cover their natural blacks.
Two men seated in front of me are conversing. One of them is nodding as if in agreement to what the other has to say. Interestingly, his nod is the typical South India nod that often trips foreigners when they visit India for the first time. The nod is a mix of confused circles and zig-zag swivels. Is it a yes or a no? Apparently it is a yes.
Then there is the famous English word that comes out of years of colonial service under the British. The word is here to stay. It is a token India’s beauracracy and red tape. The word is ‘sir.’ Beyond politics, the word has infiltrated every aspect of Indian society from movie actors addressing their esteemed producers to school children paying due respect to their teachers. Who cares about knighthood? It doesn’t take much in India to assume this title. At times it appears that nothing in India can ever get done without using this word. In rural Tamil Nadu, as in this bus, the Tamil equivalent of the word is used: ‘ayya.’
The fact that I know Tamil makes me appreciate certain phrases to which I would not have normally paid due attention. Every phrase, if analyzed to sufficient detail, is an insight into cultural nuances and beliefs. Take for example ‘Murugan thunai.’ Lord Muruga is not just a God who blesses you but a companion in your journeys, someone to assist you in all difficulties. So the next time you see this on a bus in Tamil Nadu, try to see more than what it shows.
Then there is ‘anbe sivam.’ Love is God. Lord Shiva is a personal God but he is also impersonal. Another phrase often seen in these parts relates to the way life ought to be. ‘Vaazhga valamudan’ is a statement that speaks of life which ought to be lived in prosperity. A companion phrase is ‘vaazhga vaiyagam’ which is like a mantra blessing the whole world. With such thoughts, I enter the ancient temple town of Kanchipuram.
I take a room and have a late lunch. Lunch at Saravana Bhavan comes highly recommended and I enjoy every morsel of it. I then rest for a couple of hours. The temples here, like in many other towns, are closed for the afternoon. They will reopen only at four. I have been to Kanchipuram before. I have seen all the temples before, stood in long queues, had countless darshans and done eccentric religious rituals. One such ritual involved climbing to what feels like an attic and touching a metal lizard, supposedly a lucky charm or blessing of some sort. This trip is different. I am without my relatives to drag me around from temple to temple. I can sit in one temple and admire the sculptures for all the time in the world.
In the evening I walk to the Ekambaranathar Temple, also known as the Ekambareshwar Temple. I pass a couple of other temples along the way, temples not even listed on my map. That’s the thing about Kanchipuram. There are so many old temples here that it is impossible to see them all in one day. I am here to see only the main ones.
The high gopuram of the temple greets me from a great distance. The very purpose of the gopuram is served. I no longer need my map. I know the way. Outside the temple is one particular mandapa with beautiful pillar reliefs. The sun is at an angle and brings out the reliefs sharply. Among the many fine ones is an eccentric relief of a naked yogi standing on three legs, his ribs poking through his fleshless skins, his beard pointing to the ground and his hair rolled into knots and flowing down in thick locks.
‘Prasad teesko,’ comes around a pilgrim with a pot and a spoon. His words are spoken in Telugu. I accept the prasad which he pours into my cusped palms. I take a sip of the sweetened milk he has offered.
I wander among the pillars in the mandapa. The reliefs here superb. Some of the pillars are composite with stellate slender columns joined to the main pillar by stone lattice work. After some minutes, I wander into the sanctum and have an easy darshan. Foreign tourists come and go but they are not allowed into the inner sanctums. In the sanctum, the linga is clad in gold. Behind that are idols of Shiva and Parvati. In another sanctum within the temple, I am ushered in by the presiding priest.
‘Made of different types of rudraksha beads,’ he points out the ceiling. The room is otherwise packed with mirrors. It is somewhat like the palli arai I had seen at the Nageshwara Temple at Kumbakonam.
‘Pada puja pannala for rupees fifty-one,’ hints the priest. ‘You can pray for anything: marriage, kids, job, money, promotion.’
It always amuses me how he jumps quickly from marriage to having kids, from getting a job to securing a promotion. It seems that his list is enough to cover every sort of customer. Apparently, this ritual of pada puja is usually done for Vishnu but in this sanctum it is done for Shiva. He thinks it is a unique opportunity that one should not miss. He senses my lack of interest in such rituals.
‘For kumkum, only ten rupees,’ he quotes as a last resort. I am not interested.
The fame of this temple, besides its vast proportions discernible in its long pillared corridors, is a lone mango tree standing in an enclosed courtyard. Some say the tree is over 3000 years old but no one believes these tall claims. At least, I don’t. They have heard of carbon dating, haven’t they? But temple priests with a mind to perpetuate their legendary claims will not adopt scientific techniques. It took the Church a long time to accept Copernicus view of the world. The last time I saw this sorry-looking tree was perhaps six years ago. Today the tree is looking good and healthy. The leaves are green and fresh. They cover every branch. Apparently there are four branches, each representing one of the Vedas. Had it been three, they would have said the three worlds. Had it been ten, they would have linked it to the Vishnu avatars. It is easy to associate numbers and create legends.
Walking down a little distance from the Ekambaranathar Temple, I spot another temple almost hidden within a neat courtyard. I say hidden because you can’t actually see it from a distance or from the other side of the road. There is no tall gopuram or great mandapas on the outside. It appears to be a government protected monument. A bodhi tree casts its spreading shade to the left at the entrance. Its tangled roots spawn the ground. The temple is quite modest: a small Nandi mandapa, a balipeeta, a mukha mandapa, maha mandapa, antarala and the sanctum within.
From the mukha mandapa a two-pillared porch projects out towards the Nandi mandapa. This porch has its own Nandi in a much smaller version. What is interesting is that a devotee can look right into the sanctum and have darshan by standing right behind this Nandi and peering between its horns. A small square hole in the mukha mandapa’s wall enables this long view. I have read somewhere that this feature was really meant for lower caste folks who were kept away from entering into the temple.
Architecturally, this temple stands out from the others of Kanchipuram. The sanctum and the vimana that rises over it are circular. I cannot think of any other temple in Tamil Nadu that bears any resemblance to this type of a vimana, which is more commonly pyramidal.
I hang around in this shady courtyard for many minutes. It is a quiet setting in contrast to the busy scenes of worship to be found in the more famous temples of Kanchipuram. A couple of boys are sitting next to the mukha mandapa. They are studying for their exams. I am glad that they are studying and not praying. I take note of a board at the entrance. It names this temple the Jvaraharesvara Temple.
Vaikunta Perumal Temple
Among the temples dedicated to Vishnu is this one from the 8th century Pallava Period. It is not far from town and it becomes my first stop for the morning. I have quite a number of temples to cover this morning before all of them close for the afternoon hours.
First thing that strikes me in this temple is its intimate architecture. It is a medium-sized temple and lacks the grandeur of Chidambaram or Madurai. But as we all know, size isn’t everything. Antiquity is stamped on the wealth of sculptures in the form of grainy sandstone smoothened by age. The outer walls of the temple support lions raring up on their hind legs, looking outwards in a fearsome countenance. This may very well signify an ominous message to all evil forces out there.
Passing mandapas and entrance doorways, I arrive at the innermost courtyard which is the most interesting of them all. The walls are lined with pillared corridors a few feet from the floor. The pradakshina patha between these corridors and the temple in the middle is just ten feet wide. This gives the space an intimacy rarely found in bigger temples. The walls of the corridors contain stone reliefs depicting scenes of coronation, of court, of battle, of gods and goddesses.
When travelling, sometimes it happens that you arrive at a place at the right time. It is five minutes past seven. The sun has been up for sometime now but it is still low on the horizon. As I wander around this courtyard admiring the sculptural wall panels and the superbly sculpted pillars of weathered sandstone, the sun peeps from above the wall. The golden rays bathe the lion pillars in all splendour. Suddenly the lions look alive and real. Their abundant manes assume full form. Their tails curve beautifully on their backs. Their eyes bulge out in a fixed unnatural gaze. I run my palms over them. The rough texture takes me back to an age I can only imagine.
The lion heads smoothly give way to elegant tassels and floral motifs. It then rises along the shaft as a 12-sided polygon and ends in a bulbous capital which is crowned by a square abacus. The entire compostion of these pillared corridors is balanced and beautiful. It is one of the wonders of ancient Indian art and architecture. These are the early inspirations from Pallava art that might have led to similar pillars from the later Chola Period as seen in Darasuram.
The inner shrine is locked but I am content to spend all my time amongst these pillars and the wall reliefs. The vimana over the sanctum is pyramidal. I am told that there are actually three sanctums stacked one above the other, each enshrining a different aspect of Vishnu. I believe this would be like the Koodal Alagar Temple of Madurai. I see a priest chatting outside in a mandapa. He is with a musician whose thavil is idle at the moment. This temple isn’t really busy and I wonder why. Perhaps it is still early in the day.
‘Chakkara pongal podano permuallukku,’ tells me another priest as I stand studying one of the reliefs of Vishnu seated on Garuda. He means to say that an offering of jaggery sweetened rice must be offered to Lord Vishnu. Would I care for a donation? I make no reply.
‘Roopave illaiya. Seri,’ he responds to my silence and moves off. Opportunity to donate for a good cause comes only once and decisions must be made in a moment. If the world had been more honest, there would be no need to be cynical.
I come out and take note of the gateway, which is sort of a substitute for the gopuram. Gopurams in South Indian architecture developed a little later. However, this gateway is not of sandstone and its pilasters are finely sculpted. It is probably from a later period. The vimana of this temple is much more impressive. The large capstone on top of it is copied by similar ones that line the top of the temple walls. These are interleaved with Nandis looking inwards.
Kamakshi Amman Temple
A short walk brings me to the Kamakshi Amman Temple, a temple I remember visiting some years ago after sunset. My uncle had a chat with the temple priests and got me a quick darshan without the need to join the long queue into the sanctum. I remember clearly the face of the goddess. It was fully covered in a thick paste of turmeric. Her eyes were marked out in black. She looked a fearsome spectacle. For the first time I had felt the meaning of the phrase god-fearing. I can never forget that face.
Today the goddess is dressed quite differently. Her face is red. Her eyes are a little less intimidating. I have darshan from a distance and then walk around to have darshan of the Oorgola Amman, the image of the goddess taken out in procession.
The temple has many fine reliefs on pillars. Among the wonders of this temple is the kalyana mandapam. It has four composite pillars with the main pillar stone-laced with three slender stellate columns. They remind me of similar ones at the Ekambaranathar Temple. A couple of priests are preparing for a wedding. Helpers are busy decorating the mandapam. To get wedded in such a place is quite special just as it is for Christians getting married in a church or a Cathedral.
Ulagalanda Perumal Temple
Not very far from the Kamakshi Amman Temple is the Ulagalanda Perumal Temple. It is dedicated to that form of Vishnu who measured the world in three steps. A woman is picking jasmines from a tree in the courtyard. Inside the sanctum, the image of the Lord appears to be hewn out of solid rock. He towers over me and makes me feel diminutive. It has a black texture and consistency due to decades of oil offering and worship. The priest blesses me with a silver crown and hands me some prasad.
The image of Vishnu is magnificent. His left leg is raised high, parallel to the ground. The pleats and decoration of His dress spread out beautifully. He extends both his arms horizontally touching both corners of the sanctum. It is quite suggestive of His avatar. The mudras made out by his fingers signify something but I can only declare my ignorance on this matter. His face is black which appears more so in the dimness of the sanctum. Yet for all the dark interiors, the expression in His eyes is wonderful. His face has a radiance that grants praise to its sculptor.
The Kailasanathar Temple is the oldest temple in town. Actually, it is bit of a walk since it is a little removed from the town center. It is from the 8th century and belongs to the same Pallava Period as the Vaikunta Perumal Temple. When I visited it last evening, the sun had already set. This morning the day is warm and sunny, sort of perfect to admire in leisure the splendid sculptures.
As can be expected, the temple has the same intimate architecture as the Vaikunta Perumal Temple. On the outside are unique subsidiary shrines, not all of which have survived. The outer walls have lions raring on their hind legs, some with riders. The wealth of sculptural panels on walls and aedicules have the same grandeur as in the Kailasha Temple of Ellora. The walls of the inner courtyard are lined with pillared lion porticos. They are topped with vimanas. From the outside, the line of vimanas along the wall is reminiscent of many Jain temples with shikaras over each tirthankara shrine.
Between any two of these porticos small meditation chambers make unique spaces. These spaces also contain old and obliterated wall murals. Many of these murals are barely visible but some of them are better preserved. It does look like modern plaster has spoilt some of them, clearly the result of poor efforts in restoration. The fact that they are in sheltered spaces means that not all is lost. Secondly, the temple itself is not as exposed to nature’s elements as their contemporaries of Mamallapuram. Hence they stand in better shape.
By now the sun is fully out and about. This is one of those temples of Kanchipuram that sees few devotees and more tourists. Even though it is a weekday, I see a group from Bangalore and a couple of foreign tourists from elsewhere. The sanctum is open and there is a priest officiating proceedings. I am more interested in Pallava architecture. The Nandis are huge and so are some of the famous sculptures hiding in deep aedicules. Raring lions stare at me from everywhere. Kala Samharar is seen. The tussle between Shiva and Arjuna with a boar at their feet is seen. Shiva as an ascetic is a common sculpture here. Among the best is a superb relief panel of Durga. Her left foot is placed on her lion. Her right foot is on the ground. All Her weapons in their magnificent array are spread about in Her many hands. This is one of the best preserved ones in the temple.
I finish taking pictures to my satisfaction but I am aware that it is impossible to capture the wonder of this temple even with a thousand snaps. You have to be here to experience it. Of the early temples of India, this one is as great as the Virupaksha Temple of Pattadakal.
It is now half past ten. I walk quickly back into town. On the way I notice many rice mills. I step into one of them. In the front room many sacks have been stacked up. Beyond this room, is a large open courtyard where the grains have been spread out to dry.
‘First the harvest is washed, then spread out in the courtyard to dry. The husk is removed later. There are machines to do this. Finally they are packed and despatched,’ explains an old man sitting in the room. There is work all year round but right after the rains is busy season.
‘Mootta moottaiya inga vandu erankuthu,’ tells me the man.
From here I walk to the Ekambaranathar Temple I visited last evening. Near the temple is a Museum of Folk Art. I had seen it from the outside yesterday but it had already closed for the day.
‘No current,’ tells me a woman as she steps out from an inner room into the outer verandah.
‘Any idea when it will be back?’ I ask hopelessly.
‘How old is this place?’
‘More than 400 years,’ she replies. ‘The owner lives in Chennai. She has converted the house into a museum.’
Good for her and for Tamil culture as a whole. I hope this house will remain in this way for years to come, a window into our rich past and heritage. A board says that it is under the C.P. Ramaswami Aiyar Foundation. The verandah has smooth wooden pillars. Traditional long windows open out from the verandah to the first inner room. On the white walls are simple line paintings that are essentially derived from traditional kolams. Glass lanterns hang from the rafters of the ceiling. I regret having to miss a chance to see this museum; and it costs only Rs. 20.
Time check. It is 11 am. There is still time to visit one more famous temple, the Varadaraja Perumal Temple. It is at the other end of town. It will be quite a walk to get there. I think I have had enough of temple traipsing in Kanchipuram. I am going to call it a day.