The city of Kanchipuram is located in the state of Tamil Nadu on the banks of the Vegavathi River, thirty-one miles from the city of Madras (Schellinger 435). It is known as Siva Visnu Kanchi, or simply as Kanchi (Schellinger 435). In the Hindu culture, there are seven cities that are held as sacred, Kanchipuram being one of them. Although the city has earned the name “The City of a Thousand Temples,” it does not actually have a thousand temples located within the city. The city does however have a sizeable amount of religious sites and monuments that are used for worship. Centuries of Indian history can be seen when one travels to this holy city. Kanchipuram was established by the Pallava Dynasty and was named the capital of their empire (Schellinger 435). After the reign of the Pallava Dynasty the history of this city is very vague. It was controlled by many other dynasties none of which lasted any substantial amount of years.
During the reign of Asoka (who was an adamant supporter of Buddhism and actively worked to spread the religion throughout India), the city fell under the control of his empire and had Buddhist stupas built within it. Records of various pilgrimages suggest that the Buddha himself may have visited Kanchipuram, which explains the flourishing of the Buddhist tradition within the city, however, there are many other reasons for the city’s popularity that are based on fact and not on religious speculation. The first king to rule over Kanchipuram was Sivaskandavarman, who ruled in the middle of the third century BCE (Schellinger 436). His status as the first king of Kanchipuram has been disputed, though there is a certain mythological story of how a man named Virakurcha married the daughter of a naga (a serpentine type creature) and became the first king of the Pallava Dynasty (Schellinger 435). This story is purely mythological but still raises the question about Sivaskandavarman really being the first king. During the Pallava Dynasty, temple building in India turned from using wood as a primary source for building temples, to stone, a material that is much stronger and adds greater strength to the structure – this is why the temples in Kanchipuram have withstood weathering for centuries (Schellinger 437). Education grew during the Pallava Dynasty, particularly in the religious studies of Buddhism and Hinduism; Kanchipuram now has several colleges affiliated with the University of Madras (Schellinger 438). Over the centuries temples dedicated to Hinduism, Jainism and Buddhism have been constructed by the followers of these religions (Schellinger 436). The fame Kanchipuram has gained as a holy city is undoubtedly due to the fact that it has been the site for visits from great spiritual teachers and the many magnificent temples that have been constructed to various gods and goddesses. Another factor is the religious teachings and enhanced sense of spirituality that one gains from venturing into the city, which is a major factor in the pilgrimages that the people of India make to Kanchipuram.
Kanchipuram has some of India’s most beautiful temples; one such temple is the Kanchi Kailasanathar temple. The emperor Rajasimha of the Pallava Dynasty is credited with commissioning the temples’ construction from 685 to 705 CE and dedicating it to the God Siva (Hudson 50), although there are other gods for whom the temple is also dedicated. It is the oldest temple in Kanchipuram and is famous for its architecture. An example of the famed architecture is one of the depictions of the god Siva carved into the temple as a begging ascetic on the south wall (Hudson 51), other carvings accompany this one and tell various stories that relate to Siva. This great temple was built in the 8th century by the architect Rajasimha and his son Mehendra (Dobbie 111), and is surrounded by smaller shrines. It is dedicated to the gods Visnu, Siva, Devi, Surya, Ganapathi and Kartikey, and its name means “Lord of the Cosmic Mountain” (Narasimha 96). Another temple situated in the northern part of Kanchipuram is Ekambareswarar, which is the largest temple in the city and one of the main tourist attractions. It is dedicated to the god Siva; the temple is one of five major monuments built specifically to worship the god, each temple representing a different element (Ninan 132). The legend behind this temple and one of the main reasons for its popularity is the story of Parvati. The legend states that Parvati, who was a companion of Siva, was praying underneath the temple’s mango tree, In order to test her faith and dedication, Siva set her on fire. Even while on fire, Parvati continued to pray and passed Siva’s test. She then constructed a Siva Linga (a mark used to worship Siva) out of sand to unite herself with Siva and the god came to be known as Ekambareswarar or “Lord of the Mango Trees” (Ayyar 71-72). There are many other legends pertaining to how this temple became one of the most revered places to worship Siva and a place of peace and spirituality but this is just one such example.
The Vaikuntha Perumal is the second imperial city built by Nandivarman II Pallavamalla, who was one of the emperors of the Pallava Dynasty (Hudson 52). It has many architectural marvels such as the massive vimana or towered sanctuary that rises above the temple and is said to be the place that the god of the temple dwells (Hudson 52). This structure has carvings depicting the establishment and history of the Pallava Dynasty, from its founding to the construction of the Vaikuntha Perumal (Hudson 52). Inside, a huge carving of Visnu is depicted as a god king and is facing west. On the outside of the temple there are three other sculptures facing the remaining cardinal directions (Hudson 53).
Rituals and ceremonies are a part of daily life in Kanchipuram. Various temples, sometimes share the same rituals. For example, a ritual performed at the Ekamra temple is also performed at the Varadaraja temple. The ceremony features priests of the temple making offerings to Varadaraja five times a day (Hudson 58). Yet, before the offerings are made, the Brahmins (priests) must summon Visnu’s presence within the temple through the uttering of mantras (Hudson 58). This praying to Visnu essentially wakes up the god and sets into motion all other rituals that are to take place that day. Along with the daily rituals and ceremonies are festivals that take place throughout the year. Festivals are conducted according to solstices and equinoxes. They are timed to coordinate with a day in the life of a god, where the winter solstice is the sunrise and the summer solstice is the sunset (Hudson 60). The year is also divided into different sections of months in which various festivals are to be performed. The beginning of the year, January, is a time to be thankful for the sun and a time to renew friendships (Hudson 61). The end of a year is called Margali and is from December to January and is the time of the year for meditation at the temples of Kanchipuram and reflection on the new knowledge one has gained throughout the year (Hudson 62).
Kanchipuram silk weavers are credited with producing the finest saris not just in South East Asia but also in the entire world. One factor that sets Kanchi saris above other saris is the silk that these garments are made from. Hand-woven, they are designed for auspiciousness. This means that the saris are meant to bring good fortune and happiness to the women who wear them and is directly related to the auspiciousness of events and persons the wearer may encounter (Kawlra 62); this quality of the saris gives them a religious appeal to their buyers. Also considered a part of the stages of life for women, various designs and patterns of the cloth can indicate the women’s different statuses – for instance, whether or not they are married (Kwalra 62). The makers of the clothing are called Padma Saliyars, and along with being skillfully trained in the art of weaving, they also have to have great knowledge of auspiciousness and inauspiciousness. The weavers also conduct their lives and work with good practice so as to heighten their own auspiciousness and allow them to transfer this into their weaving (Kwalra 64). The weavers of raasi saris consult constellations in an effort to remain in accordance with the cosmos and avoid inauspiciousness. Failure to avoid weaving during certain times of the year is said to result in “bad luck” for anybody involved in its selling, weaving or even wearing (Kwalra 64). The shop that produces the saris is regarded as an auspicious shop and purchases made there have to follow an almost ritualistic transaction. This means that when a customer purchases from the shop the sari has to be exchanged in front of the shop deity and wrapped in white cloth to ensure purity and auspiciousness (Kwalra 65). This concept of auspiciousness is not a factual reason for the saris’ high value; a more concrete reason is likely the quality of the product and its importance in religious rituals and wedding ceremonies that take place within the city.
The city of Kanchipuram is undoubtedly one of the most beautiful and spiritual cities in India. Its history is permeated in mythology and mysticism and can inspire a sense of wonder in the visitor or researcher. The large number of temples offers an interesting view into the Hindu religion and its practices. They have been the sites of many pilgrimages for the ascetic traveler and the aspiring scholar. Famous religious figures have been said to have traveled to the city and worshipped there. This has added to the fame of Kanchipuram, as well as its revered status as a “sacred city.” Depictions of various gods and the beautiful architecture of the city shed light on a not-so-distant Hindu past that has influenced many religious followers. The rituals and ceremonies that are daily occurrences in Kanchipuram give the city a sacred appeal to the outsider. Along with a very prominent religious appeal, some of the residents profit from the production of the city’s famed saris and offer potential auspiciousness for the person that owns one. Kanchipuram will undoubtedly remain a place where worship and spiritual teaching of the Hindu religion can occur and will hold its place as one of the most sacred cities in India.
References and Further Recommended Reading
Ayyar P.V. Jagadisa (1993) South Indian Shrines: Illustrated. New Delhi: Asian Educational Services.
Dobbie, Aline (2006) India: The Elephants Blessing. Cambridgeshire: Melrose Book Press Limited.
Gopal, Madan (1990) India through the ages. K.S. Gautam, (ed). Ministry of Information and Broadcasting, Government of India.
Hudson, D. Dennis, and Stratton Hawley John (2010) Krishna’s Mandala: Bhagavata Religion and Beyond. New Delhi: Oxford University Press.
Kawlra, Aarti (2005) Kanchipuram Sari: Design for Auspiciousness. Massachusetts: The MIT Press.
Narasimha Rao, P.V.L (2008) Kanchipuram: Land of Legends, Saints and Temples. New Delhi: Readworthy Publications.
Ninan, M.M. (2008) The Development of Hinduism. CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform.
Padman, Kaimal (2005) Learning to See the Goddess Once Again: Male and Female in Balance at the Kailāsanāth Temple in Kāñcīpuram. Oxford University Press
Schellinger, Paul E (1996) International dictionary of historic places: Asia and Oceania. Singapore: Toppan Co.
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Article Written By: Josh Prefontaine (March 2015) who is solely responsible for its content.