Kanchipuram cannot be explored in a day. Spinning tales of silk, the city is woven with a rich tapestry of history that traces it back to the 1st century. Walking along the ancient town built on the banks of the River Vegavathy, one can find a temple in almost every corner. The Jains and the Buddhists were here, establishing it as an ancient learning centre with universities - traces of which are hardly found today. The Pallavas came later and made it their capital, even as other dynasties followed. Yet, my tryst with Kanchipuram is not as much historic as it is artistic.
Sitting in a weaving centre and watching the magic of fingers at work on the handloom units, I see cocoons of silk threads unfurl into yards of sarees. Colours merge, threads twine and a lovely motif appears in gold, in the form of a temple gopuram. I watch them mesmerised, as these weavers tell me a bit about the history of weaving. The Cholas were probably the first to patronize the weavers of Kanchipuram but the art and the artisans seem to have flourished, despite being destroyed and revived during different eras and regimes.
During the French siege in 1757, the city was burned down but the art did not die. Like a phoenix, it raised itself from the ashes of colonial rule to establish itself in this heritage city. But according to the legend of Kanchipuram, the weavers believe that they are descendants of the celestial weaver of the Gods, the sage Markanda. Vishnu, they say, likes to be draped in silk while Shiva prefers cotton. I wonder about the goddesses and their preferences.
The rustle of silks is tempting but I want to keep my date with the deities. I head to the Ekambareshwar temple, dedicated to Shiva. About 60 metres tall, the gopuram towers over me as the largest temple in Kanchipuram is in the midst of a flurry. Although the temple is one of the oldest here, the mandapa adorned with more than thousand pillars was built during the Vijayanagar era. There are several courtyards here with shrines, while the temple tank is believed to have a perennial flow of water from an underground holy river. There are many temples of Shiva representing the five elements and Ekambareshwar temple symbolises the earth among them.
I am fascinated by legends, which refers to Shiva as Lord of the Mango Tree. The story speaks of the devotion of his consort Parvati or Kamakshi who made a lingam out of sand while she was seated under a mango tree. Even as the waters of the river threatened to erode the sands, Parvati held on to her lingam, prompting Shiva to “melt in her embrace” and marry her. As all temple legends go, there are many versions, but I hold on to this one.
We pay our respects to the patron deity housed in the Kamakshi temple, which is the consort to the Ekambareshwar shrine. We then head to one of the most ancient and oldest temples in Kanchipuram - the mother of all temples, as the Kanchi Kailasanatha temple is known. As evening rays glow on the multiple mythical tigers referred to as yaalis, a group of Russian tourists walks in.
The temple, built by the Pallava rulers Rajasimha and Mahendravarman III and their queens in the 8th century, was the inspiration for many rulers to build temples in India. Raja Raja Chola, who built his Brihadeshwara temple in Thanjavur almost 300 years later, visited this shrine and is said to have been inspired by it. The Virupaksha temple in Pattadakal built by the Chalukya queen, Lokmahadevi of King Vikramaditya II, was based on the model of this temple and she brought in workers from Kanchipuram to give it the finish as well. She was in fact commemorating her husband’s victory over the Pallavas. The Kailasanatha temple built at Ellora was in turn based on the model of the Virupaksha temple.
One of the best examples of Pallava architecture, the temple is housed in a rectangular enclosure filled with innumerable cells while the main sanctum is connected to a mandapa filled with pillars in front. The vimana towers over you while the cells have traces of paintings from the Pallava era. Sculptures and pillars beckon you as you sit for a while and wait for the group of foreign tourists who are evidently impressed by the architecture to take their photographs.
The day ends and it is time to head back to Chennai. My tryst with Kanchipuram is not yet over. Lured by ancient sites, temples, sculptures and monuments, the Chinese pilgrim Hiuen Tsang (or Xuanzang) visited this town in the 7th century. I hope to follow in his steps soon.