Why Kanchipuram deserves World Heritage status

01Kailasanatha Temple, Kanchipuram (Photo: Alamy)

NAGARESHU KANCHI IS the city of cities, said the greatest of poets, Kalidasa. But long before Kalidasa, Kanchi was known as the greatest city of south India, and is counted as one of the seven sacred cities of Hinduism, which include Ayodhya, Mathura, Gaya, Kasi, Kanchi, Avanti and Dwaraka. Death in any of these cities guarantees instant moksha, or liberation of the soul. Kanchi was a Shakti peetha and the confluence of every religious movement in India: Shaiva, Vaishnava, Buddhist, Jain, Shakta and Kaumara. Some of the greatest saints lived in or visited Kanchi. It was an ancient ghatika or university where princes and students from all over India came to study. The foundation and development of south Indian art and architecture were laid in Kanchi.

Patanjali refers to the Kanchipuraka, or one who is from Kanchi, in 200 BCE. The earliest Tamil reference to Kanchi is in the Tamil Sangam work Perumpanarruppadai, which describes it as a beautiful walled city. Ahananuru calls it the crown jewel of Tondaimandalam (northern Tamil Nadu), ruled by the Tirayans, an ancient seafaring people. The greatest ruler was Ilan Tirayan (3rd-4th century CE), and the Tirayaneri, one of the earliest manmade lakes built by him in Kanchi, is still in use. There are several explanations for the name Kanchi, but the most probable is its deriva­tion from the kanchi tree, since naming places after plants and animals was very popular in south India. The first time we come across the word Damila, from which is derived Tamil, is in ‘Avantisundarikatha’ by Dandin, who lived in the court of Simhavishnu Pallava in Kanchi in the 8th cen­tury, and in an Ikshvaku inscription at Nagarjunakonda describing Tondaimandalam as Damila country.

Kanchi was probably the southern end of Ashoka’s empire. Ashoka mentions the Cholas, Pandyas and Cheras, but none of them ruled Kanchi. The first Tamil Brahmi inscription is found at Mamandur in Kanchi. Parameshvaravarman Pallava refers to an ancient king of Kanchi as Ashokavarman, identified as Ashoka by KA Nilakanta Sastri, while Xuanzang visited the city in the 7th-8th century to see the 100 ft-tall stupa built here by the same king. Several images of the Buddha—one 7 feet high—and Bodhisattvas have been found in and around the temple of Kamakshi, the original ‘village’ Goddess of Kanchi, now the tutelary deity of the city. Satavahana coins reveal their existence in Kanchi, while the Kadambas of Karnataka ruled the region between 345 and 525 CE. But the stupa is gone and, while traces of Jina Kanchi and Tamil Jains remain, Buddhism has disappeared totally.

Kanchi is a veritable textbook of south Indian art his­tory. The earliest images precede the Pallavas: the reclin­ing Narayana of the Thiruvekka temple, the 30-ft high Trivikrama of the Ulagalanda Perumal temple and the 25-ft tall Pandava Dhootha Perumal temple of Padagam are three enormous images made of stucco. The origi­nal image of Varadaraja Perumal was made of wood from the fig tree (athi varadar), but was later replaced in the Vijayanagara period by stone. The fig tree image is still preserved in the temple tank and taken out once in 40 years. But it was under the Pallavas that Kanchi reached its artistic zenith. Sixty-eight kilometres from Kanchi is the former port of Mamallapuram, where the first cave temples were carved out of rock and where Chinese and Roman coins of the 4th century were found. It is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

02Gopurams and vimanas of the Kamakshi Temple

The Kailasanatha temple, along with the shore temples of Mamallapuram, were the first structur­al temples built in south India by Rajasimha Pallava in the 8th century CE, with exquisite sculptures of Shiva as Dakshinamurti, Lingodbhava, Bhikshatanar, Nataraja, Urdhva Tandava, Tripurantaka and Harihara. Surrounding the open circumambulatory passage is a wall lined with 58 small shrines of Somaskanda, each shrine capped by an octagonal vimana. These shrines are also studded with beautiful sculptures in relief of various forms of Shiva, while shrines for Brahma and Vishnu are placed on either side of the central shrine of Shiva, forming a trinity. Nataraja appears for the first time in Pallava art. We can also see the ear­liest traces of exquisite Pallava painting in this tem­ple, reminiscent of the Ajanta style, with scenes of Shiva, Parvati and their son, Skanda. It is a temple of several firsts: the first to be constructed as per the aga­mas, with a four-storeyed Dravida vimana, the first go­puram in a temple complex. Other Pallava temples in­clude the Airavataneshvara with its Nagara vimana, Mukteshvara and Matangeshvara with Vesara vimanas, and the Piravatana and Valishvara temples with octago­nal Dravida vimanas. They are all excellent examples of Pallava art and architecture.

The Pallava period was contemporaneous with the Tamil Bhakti movement and several Nayanmaars (Shaiva saints) and Alwars (Vaishnava saints) have sung in praise of these and several other temples of Kanchi. Poygai Alwar was born here and the founder of the Vaishnava movement, Ramanujacharya, was also born here in the 10th century, as was another great Vaishnava scholar, Vedanta Desikar.

The Tirayans and the Pallavas dug over 90 rainwater harvesting structures or enormous artificial lakes called eris in and around Kanchi. They were known as Kaadu Vettiyaar (tree cutters) who cleared forests to promote agri­culture and food production through these artificially con­structed lakes. The green revolution was possible in this region only due to the foresight of the Pallavas who made it possible for a rain-dependent district to produce three harvests and beat the famine of the 1960s. They also dug out temple tanks, which stored and maintained ground­water levels.

03Ekambareshvara Temple

THE CHIEF TEMPLE in Kanchi is that of Kamakshi. Originally one of the 51 Shakti peethas, she was known as Adi Pida Parameshvari Kalikambal. The present dei­ty belongs to the 8th century, and the temple to the 12th. In the 8th century, Adi Shankara, one of whose missions was to stop animal sacrifice, visited Kanchi and estab­lished the Kamakoti peetham. According to his disciple Chidvilasa, Adi Shankara persuaded King Rajasena (prob­ably Rajasimha, as there was never a Rajasena) of Kanchi to build a new Shakti temple for Kamakshi (“eyes of love”): he replaced the Tantric form of worship with the Vedic. He also consecrated a Shri Chakra, which he brought from the Himalayas, in the temple. But the old temple of Adi Pida Parameshvari Kalikambal lingers on, behind the grand new one, which is the pilgrimage centre of the city.

Interestingly, all the other temples in and around Kanchi face Kamakshi, and every temple chariot circumambulates Kamakshi.

An unusual Pallava temple is the Vaikuntha Perumal temple. King Parameshvaravarman II died in 731 CE, killed by the Chalukyas. He had no heir. So, a team of nobles decided to go to Cambodia, where an earlier Pallava king’s brother Bhimavarman had migrated 140 years ago, married a local princess and become the ruler. They of­fered the crown to the descendants of Bhimavarman. The first three sons were not interested, but the fourth, 13-year-old Parameshvara Pallavamalla, accepted and returned with them and was crowned King Nandivarman II. He defeated the Chalukyas, later married the Rashtrakuta princess, became a great scholar of Tamil and Sanskrit and built the Vaikuntha Perumal and Mukteshvara temples. The Vaikuntha Perumal temple is in Pallava style, with three shrines one above the other dedicated to the seated, reclining and standing forms of Vishnu, while the wall reliefs of Nandivarman’s coronation and several other unknown figures have typical Cambodian faces. Thus, Kanchi was enriched by the art and culture of Cambodia, and also enriched the temples of that Southeast Asian country.

Varadaraja Perumal Temple

The Pallavas were conquered by the Cholas who built the Chokkeshvara, Jvarahareshvara and Kachishvara tem­ples, all exquisite gems. But the period of the grand temples was to come with the Vijayanagara rulers. Ekambareshwara, the temple of the single mango tree, was built in 1509 by Krishnadevaraya. It has the tallest gopuram in Kanchi, nine storeys high, with several water tanks. Another tall tem­ple, the Varadaraja Perumal, was built by several dynas­ties. Special mention must be made of the Kakatiya king Pratapa Rudra Deva who constructed a 1,000-pillared hall in 1316 CE, with its famous sculpted stone chain. Paintings on the walls and ceilings reverberate with the richness of the Vijayanagara period. At Tirupparuthikunram, there are two Jain temples dedicated to Mahavira and Chandraprabha, built in the 14th century by Irugappa, the famous general of the Vijayanagara king, Bukka II. The Vardhamana temple has beautiful paintings of the lives of several Tirthankaras. There is still an ancient Jain community, going back to the days of Mahavira, in and around Kanchi.

Each temple in Kanchi is exquisite and it is believed that there are more than a thousand temples. Unlike the other temple cities of the south, every dynasty has left its artistic imprint here. In spite of the attacks by the Nawab of Arcot, Hyder Ali and Tipu Sultan, Kanchi somehow managed to retain its beautiful structures.

The capital of every dynasty in south India was situated near a textile weaving centre, for that was the biggest item of trade. The Pallava capital was Kanchipuram, the Chola capital was Uraiyur, the Pandya capital was Madurai and the Chera kingdom was situated in the Coimbatore region (Kongu Nadu). All these were traditional cotton-weaving centres, and are still noted for their textiles.

Kanchipuram is a textile paradise. The oldest fabric is cotton, whose origins are as old as Indian civilisation. Greek and Roman traders came to Kanchi to buy cotton fabrics, particularly cotton calicoes. The Roman trade with India was paid for in gold. Roman women were criticised for their love of Indian muslin, which was depleting the coffers of the Roman Empire. Even the British East India Company chose Madras as its port in order to buy and export the textiles of the region.

There are several references to silk and cotton weaving in Tamil Sangam literature. The Tamil epic Silappadikaram describes the cotton and silk weavers of Kaveripattinam, swallowed by the sea, whose fabrics were later stitched by tailors, thereby disproving the theory that tailoring entered India with the Islamic conquest of north India. The flourishing trade between the Indian subcontinent and China brought silk to the region. The old Tamil word for silk was sinam, meaning both Chinese and silk. Weavers were an honoured and privileged class, and those in Kanchipuram could even use the sangu (conch) to announce their arrival and a palanquin for travel. In the 18th century, Tipu Sultan captured Kanchipuram and brought weavers from Benares to develop the famous Kanchipuram silk sari. The Kanchipuram sari is unique in that the border and pallu are woven separately and then attached to the body of the sari. The Kanchipuram saris are famous for their bright colours and contrasting pallus and borders. Few people notice the intricate decoration woven in gold or coloured thread. The designs have poetic names: rudrakshavanki (arm­let), kuyilkan (eye of the cuckoo), mayilkan (eye of the pea­cock), uthiripoo (loose flowers), gopuram (temple doorway), kamala (lotus), hamsa (mythical swan), mallimoggu (jas­mine buds), kodimalar (flowering creeper), maanga (man­go), salangai (anklet) and kodivisiri (fan creeper). In recent times, saris are developed along themes: famous films, the dance of Shiva and so on. A Kanchi sari is an essential part of the girl’s trousseau. And the silks are handed down from mother to daughter, so sturdy and tough are they.

Belonging to Kanchipuram, I remember the regular visits to the weaver’s loom. My mother, grandmother and great grandmother would spend hours with the weaver, discussing colour schemes, the details of the design on each border and pallu and the weave of the body of the sari. Cotton cholis would be embellished with delicate zari buds. A wedding meant several days of designing, several months ahead of the event. Each sari was unique, a creation of love and beauty. The cholis were also designed with care, with some more colours—one for the body and another for the sleeves. The sari and choli were never of the same colour—“they aren’t uniforms” was the reasoning. Some saris were made of cotton, most were made of silk. By the second half of the 20th century, many of the earlier weaves were lost. Even Kalakshetra, which did much to revive dying and lost designs and weaves, could not replicate many of them.

Xuanzang’s sculpture at the Vaikuntha Perumal Temple

Inspite of the fondness for silk, the inherent cruelty in the silk-making process—which involves boiling baby worms in hot water, even as they are snuggled up in their co­coons, to make them release the slender silk threads they hold firm­ly in their mouths—made many women shun silk in preference for cotton on the advice of the late Paramacharya of Kanchi, Sri Chandrasekharendra Saraswathi.

British colonialists set out to destroy India’s textile trade. They broke the looms, took the raw ma­terial to England and made Indians buy the imported cloth. Today, cotton and silk have become the clothes of the rich—only they can afford to starch and maintain the former and purchase the latter. But this is not sustainable. Unless the middle class makes it a point to buy handlooms, we are destined to lose them. At one loom, a family had placed an order for several wedding saris. We were told that the retail price of exclusive wedding saris ranges from about ₹ 25,000 to over ₹ 1,00,000 per sari. Ordinary mixed silk saris cost ₹ 5,000 upwards.

In order to preserve the rich heritage of Kanchi, the CP Ramaswami Aiyar Foundation has established the Shakuntala Jagannathan Museum of Kanchi, a collection of saris, dolls, paintings, musical instruments, utensils, looms, furniture and much more, all representing the great heritage of Kanchi.

This most ancient of south Indian cities, this living textbook of south Indian art must be declared a UNESCO Heritage City for preserving its rich art heritage of over 2,000 years. Why not Madurai or Thanjavur or any oth­er city, you may ask. Thanjavur is a restricted Chola cita­del; the original Madurai was destroyed by Malik Kafur, Allauddin Khilji’s general, and was rebuilt by the Nayakas between the 16th and 18th centuries. Kanchi alone has pre­served a continuous 2,000-year-old heritage of art and ar­chitecture, with temples representing every dynasty and sculptures and paintings of every creed, which no other Indian city can boast of. It is now a traffic mess, with buses and bullock carts vying for space. Some thought and urban planning must go into the city to showcase its an­cient glory when travellers from all over the world visited Kanchipuram. That is why it should be declared a world heritage site.

Dr. Nanditha Krishna
Director, CPR Institute of Indological Research

Courtesy: Open Magazine, 22 October, 2021.

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