THE SMALL TEMPLE TOWN of Kanchipuram, or Kanchi, as it is popularly known, is one of the seven sacred cities of the Hindus. From the 6th to the 8th centuries, it was the capital of the Pallavas who built numerous temples here and founded universities for higher learning. Royal patronage from the succeeding Chola, Pandya and Vijayanagar dynasties further consolidated the city’s reputation as a religious and commercial centre.
Kanchipuram is sacred to Shaivites (devotees of Shiva) as well as to Vaishnavites (worshippers of Vishnu). The town is thus divided into two distinct zones, with the Shaivite temples to the north and the Vaishnavite temples to the southeast. It also has an important Devi (goddess) temple, the Kamakshi Temple, situated northeast of the bus stand. Dedicated to Kamakshi, or the “loving-eyed” Parvati, the temple was rebuilt in the 14th century, during the Vijayanagar period. It has four colourful gopuras and the main sanctum has a gold-plated roof. The Kailasanatha Temple, to the west of the bus stand, is the oldest and grandest structure in the town. Built in the early 8th century by Rajasimha, the last great Pallava king, this Shiva temple is surrounded by 58 smaller shrines, each with splendid carvings of the various representations of Shiva. The recently discovered frescoes here are the earliest in South India.
The sanctum has a Mircumambulatory passage with great symbolic meaning – seven steps (indicating seven births) lead to a dark passage (indicating the journey of life) and a narrow outlet (indicating death). The great Elcambareshvara Temple on Car Street, constructed originally by the Pallavas, has a 16-pillared mandapa in front of it, that was added later by the Vijayanagar kings. This is one of the five panchatinga shrines and houses a lingua made of earth (pritbv0 ). Legend says that the goddess Kamakshi, as part of her penance for disturbing Shiva’s meditation, created this linga with earth taken from under a mango tree. Lingas abound in the corridors of the temple complex, while on the western side of the shrine stands the sacred mango tree, said to be 3,000 years old, The Vailcuntha Perumal Temple, near the railway station, is one of the 18 temples dedicated to Vishnu. Erected by the Pallava king Nandi Varman II (r.731-96), this unique structure has three main sanctums, built one on top of the other.
Each of them enshrines an image of Vishnu in a different form – standing, sitting and reclining. The hall in the lower shrine has panels depicting the genealogy, coronations and martial conquests of the Pallava kings. The Varadaraja Temple. on Gandhi Road, is the town’s main Vishnu temple. The chief deity is a form of Vishnu known as Varadaraja (the “King who Bestows Benediction”). It is believed that the temple stands on the site where Brahma performed a yagna (sacrifice) to invoke Vishnu’s presence. Among the temple’s jewels is a valuable gold necklace, said to have been presented by Robert Clive. II adorns the deity during the Garuds festival. Kanchipuram, famous for its silk, is also the seat of one of the four Shankaracharyas. They belong to the long line of head priests of the matha (religious centre) founded by the 9thcentury philosopher-saint Adi Shankaracharya.
ENVIRONS: The bird sanctuary of Vedanthangal, 30 km (19 miles) southeast, attracts mom than 30,000 migratory birds, i Species such as cormorants, I egrets, white ibis, and grey 11 wagtails can be seen between October and February.