45. A City of Temples

@Kanchipuram, Tamil Nadu, India.

Wandering through the city of Kanchipuram will take one back to the time of the Pallava kingdom which ruled the northern Tamil Nadu region and the southern Andhra Pradesh region along with some parts of Karnataka and a very little area of Kerala. The Pallavas captured Kanchipuram from the Cholas somewhat around the reign of the fifth king of the Pallava line and it was elevated to the status of the capital even as the best examples of Pallava architecture is seen at Mahabalipuram or Mamallapuram which could be visited on the same day of visiting Kanchipuram even if both are on different routes; both are accessible from Chennai itself and when Mahabalipuram is more historical than spiritual, Kanchipuram works the other way around; but both elements are present in these two cities in a tale of two cities which one will make up while visiting both on the same day. The Pallava kings ruled Mahabalipuram from Kanchipuram; therefore the latter should have been more important in a historical manner, but the roles have been twisted here with Mahabalipuram being a place which became popular for the architecture of Pallavas and it became the place of high significance of Tamil History; attracting so many tourists even from outside India as it gave rise to such an archeological interest. But Kanchipuram has taken a route which has more pilgrims than random tourists.

As some of the Pallava architecture, especially those of Mahabalipuram are modelled on the Buddhist viharas or monasteries, there has been discussions about the Pallava king bringing the sculptors and artisans back to Kanchipuram and Mahabalipuram as spoils of war. Compared to Mahabalipuram, Kanchipuram has more of the South India architecture, basically Tamil. The Cholas drove the Pallavas away from Kanchipuram during the tenth king of the Pallava line, but the Pallavas re-captured Kanchipuram during the fourteenth king of the Pallava dynasty and held on to Kanchipuram till the end. After the fall of Pallava dynasty, the Kadava dynasty also claimed descent from the Pallavas; such was the fame of this dynasty which ruled in the South. Ever since gaining prominence after the eclipse of the Satavahanas who ruled most parts of Andhra Pradesh and Maharashrashtra stretching upto the north of Tamil Nadu, Pallavas used to be that great a dynasty that they are still considered among the greatest of them all in South India, along with Cheras, Cholas and Pandyas. All the early Pallava royal inscriptions are either in Prakrit or in Sanskrit language though. The governance of Kanchipuram has been much studied by the later historians as the Pallava administration also had its own specialities even if not too different from the later kingdoms which came later.

As the word Pallava means “branch” in Sanskrit, while Chola meaning “new country”, Pandya meaning “old country” and Chera meaning “hill country”, the Pallavas are considered to be later offshoot of Cholas, who made Kanchipuram their capital and its glory was that it was the capital of the largest kingdom in South India of that time. When the major cities of Cholas were Cholapuram and Thanjavur, that of Cheras with their ancient capitals which were less known, followed by what is now Kollam and Kodungallur in Kerala, and that of Pandyas happened to be Madurai and Korkai, Kanchipuram had to be that wonderful a capital as the Pallavas were too strong a force for the Southern world around them. None of those big dynasties which preceded them gave that much importance to Kanchipuram before Pallavas; even the Kalabhras had their capital at Kaveripattanam which is not known as Puhar. Kanchipuram is one of the oldest cities in South India, and was a city of learning for Tamil, Sanskrit, and Pali even before the Pallava rule, but it was during this rule that the city came under the spotlight and most of the big temples which symbolize the city and gave it the name temple city, were built during the reign of this dynasty even as there were changes made to those complexes later.

Xuanzang or Huan Tsang, the famous Chinese Buddhist monk, scholar, traveler, and a highly skilled translator who travelled to India is supposed to have visited Kanchipuram too; how could someone forget this name which was always in those history books? Even in the Malayalam movie ‘Malappuram Haji Mahanaaya Joji’, there is mention for him which would remind so many people who studied History from Kerala syllabus about him, as he is one of the most seen figures in the text books who is from outside India, along with Napolean, Abraham Lincoln, Mao Tse Tung and George Washington along with those leaders on both sides during the First and the Second World Wars. But for some strange reason, South Indian History never had so much importance during the school days; they were so much ignored, and thanks to universities like Annamalai university which teaches the South Indian History as they added the History of Tamil country to the syllabus. It is the lack of this awareness of our history which keeps the sites like Kanchipuram unnoticed except for religious purposes; it is the same reason why people outside India come to visit Mahabalipuram more than the people of the same nation; they are even eager to know the history and culture of this part of the world rather than the local residents, which is a clear fault from the parents who hesitate to send their children to study arts; it is as if they have found a method in science to take all their wealth to the other world when the die.

While Huan Tsang is comparitively more known, the less known fact is that the founder of Zen Buddhism, Bodhidharma was born here, and so was the famous Sanskrit writer Dandin who wrote Dashakumaracharita, a Romantic prose in Sanskrit. The former might more known these days, with the movie 7aum Arivu, which is too fictional a story though; that would be something I call preverting history upto such an extent that the history would no longer be proud of you and your ancestry will abandon you. The mixture of science with history is the worst thing which can happen, considering it from a viewpoint which is free from all these influences of modernity. History has the soul which science lack, the soul which is related to religion, spirituality, literature, art and architecture; the combination will clearly remove that soul of history and make it just foolishness which will benefit science in return, but will drain history of its essence. History and Literature has to operate separate from science; they can have actresses who can’t act and talk about DNA, TNA or whatever they want to, but I wish they left history alone as it is; let the dead people live in peace being whatever they used to be, lets not make them a laughing stock just for the sake of some inferior entertainment which last only about two and half hours, as history is forever; when they exist as clear literary works and also when they surround you.

Varadharaja Perumal Temple dedicated to Lord Vishnu was the first temple we visited and the most interesting of them all, as confirmed by the taxi driver himself. This one was originally built by Cholas as extended during the ages. The second one was Kanchi Kamakshi temple dedicated to Kamakshi, one of the forms of the goddess Parvati; the structure which looked kind of same for me even if smaller in comparison; to be honest almost every temple looked somewhat similar from the outside except for the size. Sri Ekambaranathar temple dedicated to Lord Shiva was the third, looking similar from the front once again, but almost as big as the first one and the surroundings were better too. Considering the large number of Vaishnava and Shiva temples which existed there and after looking at their architectural similarity, I would refrain from describing them as it was a complicated procedure. There was actually the need for closer examination to enjoy the true beauty of ancient architecture, but as the temples were many and the time was limited due to a visit to Mahabalipuram earlier on the same day, it was an impossible task and should be left behind. There were two churches on the road between the two cities Kanchipuram and Mahabalipuram too, but they were just white structures which were not that huge, just like those usual one one see around Tamil Nadu. There were also some mosques and Islamic shrines which were build when Kanchipuram was under the Islamic rule. A special mention has to be made for the Kanchipuram silk sarees, but that is not of ay use to me; but it is still a silk city too.

Diving out —>



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