Kanchipuram- Beyond its sarees

The first thing that hits your mind when you hear this city’s name are its Silk sarees. The Kanjeevaram or Kanchi silk sarees define a sense of style, gorgeousness, elegance, classy and royalty. But what goes rather un-noticed is the fact that Kanchipuram is also called as a ‘City of temples’. Despite, being the erstwhile capital of the Pallavas, the influences of Pandyas, Cholas, Hoysalas and Vijayanagaras can also be significantly observed in the artistic structures constructed across the city. Also, it is noteworthy that the influences in temple architecture are across different sects of faiths. The City of Kanchi can be broadly classified into three- Shiva Kanchi-the holy land of the Shaivaites, the Vishnu Kanchi- the holy land of the Vaishnavaites and the Jaina Kanchi- the holy land of the Jains. Kanchipuram is known to be a land of 108 ancient temples, all unique in their own way. Beyond its world-famous handloom, the sculptures, architecture, classical dance, music and all those traditional art forms of Kanchi puts up the city high up on centers of history and heritage on the map of India. That’s why I like to call Kanchipuram as ‘an abode of the trio- Art, culture and history’.

When my mom planned to buy some drapes from the local weavers of Kanchi, I chanced upon the opportunity to explore this city, beyond its sarees and handlooms. Obviously, one day wouldn’t be sufficient if I had to visit each of these 108 temples and hence, made a list of 10 temples based on their mythological importance. Given that I’m mostly a public transport dependent creature, the ease of commutation was also a factor considered while making my list. We boarded on an overnight bus from Bangalore to Kanchipuram.

As we alighted at Kanchipuram bus terminus, we were greeted by the drizzling rain. Usually, the autorickshaws work this way in this city. You tell them the purpose of your visit and they will plan and handle the entire itinerary for you. Thus, we hired an autorickshaw and that sorted our transportation for the entire duration of our visit around the city. Our auto driver took us to a travellers’ dormitory where we freshened up quickly and then headed to the first temple on my list.

1. Kanchi Kamakshiamman temple: The timing of our visit was important and we wanted to reach there before sunrise. This is one of the Shakthi peethas in India. The prayers in all other temples in Kanchi starts only after prayers are offered here. Unlike any other temples in India, the first pooja to the presiding deity is offered by an elephant and a cow in the sanctorum here. The positive energy we felt in witnessing the ritual was enough to keep us going for at least another week ahead.

The entrance of Kanchi Kamakshiamman temple

2. Next up was a quick visit to Adi Kanchi temple, a relatively smaller of the 3 main temples dedicated to Parvathi in Kanchi. But, this place is considered a must if one is on a pilgrimage in Kanchipuram.

3. Adjacent to the Adi Kanchi temple is the Kumarakottam- Murugan Swami temple. It is believed that Lord Bramha was imprisoned by Murugan at this place and later released with Shiva’s interference. The temple is known for the idol in the Soma Skanda posture.

4. Ekambareshwara temple: This is the biggest temple in the city. I’d need a separate post altogether to write about the significance of this temple alone. But, the primary reason for me to include this temple in my itinerary is the fact that this is one of the Panchabhuta sthalas of Shiva’s manifestations. The linga here is made up of sand and hence represents Prithvi or the element ‘Earth’. This majestic temple complex houses a very sacred mango tree at its centre, whose 4 branches are believed to represent 4 vedas that gives its name to the temple. Each branch bears mangoes of four different tastes(sweet, sour, bitter and spicy) in the 4 seasons. The special souvenir that I take back from Kanchi was not a saree, but a priceless green leaf that withered off from this holy tree right there, as if the tree was communicating with me.. I was quick to pick it up and wrap it carefully to be kept in my handbag.

Under the mango tree at the Ekambareshwara temple

5. Next was the Varadaraja Perumal temple. We had to stand in a really long queue to get a glimpse of the main deity seated atop the elephant hill. As if this wasn’t enough, another long queue to get to touch the sculptures of the holy lizards. These metal lizards are believed to have been installed by lord Indra after he was released of the curse by goddess Saraswati. It is also believed that people who touch these 2 lizard sculptures (Golden lizard representing the sun and the silver lizard representing the moon) will be relieved of all sins that are associated with lizards. Another specialty of this temple is the fact that the wooden idol of lord Vishnu is kept deep down inside a 3 tiered well that in turn is in between a large pond at the temple entrance. The idol is taken out only once in 40 years for pooja offerings. (The latest, this festival was held was in 2019). I would recommend you to hire a guide at this complex so that you can get a better insight into the intricacies of the ornate pillars adorning a 100 pillared hall. You can find sculptures of vivid yogic postures, representation of usage of arms and ammunitions in ancient battles, musical pillars etc. which explains the rich heritage of Indian art, history and science.

A mural at Varadaraja Perumal temple

Thus, with Kamkshiamman temple, Ekambareshwar temple and the Varadaraja Perumal temple, we had completed the mumurthivasam- or the abode of the trio in Kanchipuram.

6. Just a few meters away from there is the Ulagalandar temple, primarily constructed by the Cholas. Here, Vishnu is celebrated in his Trivikrama pose or the Vamana Avatar. The main idol is a massive 30+ feet tall and the devotees can see only the legs of the Vamana moorthi. The temple itself is small but an important one for pilgrims on the Divyadesams circuit.

7. Further from here, is the Kacchappa Eshwarar temple. Here, Vishnu is seen in his Kuruma avatar or the Tortoise form, worshipping Lord Shiva.

8. We did a quick stopover at Vaikunta Perumal temple or the Tiruparameshwara Vinnagaram, another among the 108 divyadesams. The temple houses lord Vishnu in 3 different postures- sitting, lying and standing. The corridors are decorated with fine carvings from Ramayana and Mahabharatha and fine stone pillars around the sanctorum.

9. The Kailasanathar temple needs a special mention. This temple dating back to the Pallava period, is located slightly on the outskirts and hence away from the regular tourists / pilgrim circuit. It is an entire complex of intricate artwork sculpted on limestone. Although a board claims it to be a protected monument, most of the statues have eroded over time and needs maintenance. Yet, this place has a very powerful force to draw art lovers and travelers looking for an offbeat experience. One really needs to spend lot of time here to appreciate the intricacies with which legends and mythological episodes have been carved out. Don’t miss to spot the statue of laughing Parvathi and Shiva performing the thandava here.

The Kailasanathar temple

10. There is also the Vijayaraghava Perumal temple at about 7kms from the city center. It is one of the 108 divyadesams of Rama where he is believed to have performed the funeral rites of Jatayu- The vulture friend. Since the vulture(Pul) was burried in a pit(Kuli), this place is also called Thiruputkuli.

Not only Hinduism, the city is an important place for the Jains too.. Bonus for your temple tour, if you have some more time left with you. You can include the Trilokyanatha & Chandraprabha twin temples dedicated to lord Mahaveer at Tirupparuthikkundram. It has inscriptions belonging to Pallavas, Cholas and the Vijayanagara periods. I’m told that the place houses beautiful paintings of these periods but lies in utter neglect. The place is frequented by fewer tourists and more vandals, gamblers and hawkers.

Enroute, we passed through ‘Kanchi Kudil’- an old traditional house that has now been converted to a museum that exhibits the rich Tamilian tradition.

But well, Saree shopping was why the entire visit to Kanchipuram was prepensed at the first place. Hence off we were, on a handloom ciurcuit. Our driver took us through the narrow bylanes of Kanchi to some of the finest weavers and their handloom workshops. A spectrum of colours, heavy brocades, golden zaris , heavy pattu sarees… we were spoilt for choices… We thanked our driver Mr.Ravi heartily for taking us around the city and bearing with us so patiently as we hopped from one shop to another. We picked up some beautiful sarees in silk and cotton and returned to Bangalore in an evening bus.

Thus, ended an eventful weekend…. 🙂

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