Kanchipuram – Art, History & Architecture (Part 1)

Ever since I went for Dr. Chithra Madhavan’s talk on ‘Some lesser known temples of Madras’ last year, I had been eagerly waiting to go for another talk of hers. And it wasn’t until about a month back that it finally happened. ‘Kanchipuram – Art, History & Architecture’ was the topic for this talk that happened on 17th January at Tattvaloka. I just loved this talk as much as the previous one.

I managed to note down most of the things (I don’t remember taking notes like this even during my school/college days. 😛 ) and here is all that was covered in the talk: (As usual, please don’t forget to let me know if there are any mistakes in what I have written. Thanks in advance!)


The fact that Kanchipuram was one of the greatest cities is evident from the Sanskrit lines ‘pushpEshu jAti purushEshu vishNu nArIshu rambA nagarEshu kAnci’. It also happens to be one of the 7 mOkshapuris. Ayodhya, Kashi, Hardwar, Ujjain, Mathura and Dwaraka are the other mOkshapuris.

Why the name Kanchipuram?

Karikaala Chola (whose capital city was Urayur) is said to have embellished this city with gold and hence the name kAnci, which is a derivative of kAncana meaning gold. Another possible reason attributed for the place getting the name kAnci is that a species of tree called kAnci is said to have grown in abundance here. ‘puram’ was the suffix that was added to a city that was strongly fortified. kAncipuram was earlier known by the names kacchibEDu, kAnci mAnagaram and kacchi mAnagaram among others.

Kanchipuram – The Ancient City

Kanchipuram is an ancient city. The place is mentioned in mahAbhAshya of Patanjali and other works dating back to the Sangam Age (3rd century BC to 3rd century AD).

Kanchipuram had lots of temples and palaces. Apart from the temples, vestiges of the past are found in the form of street names like kizhakku rAja veedi and mErkku rAja veedi in the present day Kanchi.

For a city to have flourished with so many temples and palaces, it should surely have had some good source of water. Like how Tanjavur, Madurai and Nellai had the rivers Kaveri, Vaigai and Tamraparni respectively, Kanchi had Palar – the river which is completely dry now. Vegavati, a tributary of Palar which is very near Kanchipuram, finds a mention in the works of many poets. Palar is considered to be a sacred river because of its proximity to Kanchi.

History of Tamil Nadu & Kanchipuram

1st Sangam Age

The 3 Vishnu temples, yatOktakAri, pANDavadUta and ulagaLanda perumAL temples at Kanchi are the vestiges of the 1st Sangam Age. The mUla vigraha (main idol) and the shrine at these three temples belong to pre-pallava period. Pallavas, Cholas, Nayakas, etc. later added to these temples. Similar to the main idol of ranganAta in Srirangam temple, the idol of Vishnu in these temples are also made of stucco (sOdhai in Tamil) and not stone. Hence, no abhishekam/tirumanjam/anointment is done for the main idols. Only tailakkAppu is done.

The Sangam work, perumpAnAtruppaDai has a mention of the yatOktakAri perumAL temple.

Pallavas (5th -9th century AD)

Pallavas came to Kanchi around 5th century AD and made it their capital city. Mamallapuram was their port. They constructed temples in almost every street. The reason for their building so many temples was that it was during this time that the Bhakti Movement was in full swing since this was the period when the AlwArs and nAyanArs were there. Kanchipuram itself has 14 divya dEsams & 5 pADal peRRa stalams.

Since Kanchipuram was their capital, the Pallavas must surely have built palaces there. But the reason why we find no palaces there today is because their palaces were made of brick or wood and not of stone. So, they must have been destroyed when invaders had attacked.

The Pallava king, Mahendravarman 1st was a Sanskrit scholar, poet and an artist. He called himself vichitrachitta which means unique-minded. He wrote the Sanskrit plays, mattavilAsa prahAsana & bhAgavatajjuka. He is also supposed to have written a book called dakshinachitra, which is not found today. mattavilAsa prahAsana gives a lot of information about Kanchi. Mahendravarman I was so straight-forward that he even talks about the corruption in the judicial system during his time in mattavilAsa prahAsana. Mahendravarman I was dedicated to temple architecture and it was he who had said that ‘never again will a temple be made of perishable material’. That was why he built the artificial cave temple on the outskirts of Mamallapuram.

King Narasimhavarman 1st, known as mAmalla, was the son of Mahendravarman I. He followed what his father had said about using imperishable materials for temples and built a cave temple in Mamallapuram, the city named after him. His great-grandson, Narasimhavarman 2nd, was the one who built the maximum number of temples. Narasimhavarman II was known as Rajasimha.

Cholas (Mid 9th century to 1279)

The Cholas added architecturally to the Pallava & pre-pallava temples. They added manTapAs, prAkArAs and inscriptions. Rajaraja Chola and Rajendra Chola built palaces in Kanchipuram. Their palaces too were made of perishable material. Rajendra Chola’s inscription refers to his palace as mahAshAla. Kanchipuram can be called as Chola’s secondary capital since their capital, Tanjavur/ Gangaikondachozhapuram, was in central Tamil Nadu.

The Pandyas came after Cholas and they too architecturally added to the temples.


1310 was the year when Karnataka, Andhra and TN were invaded by the able general Malik Kafur from Delhi. Though Madurai and Srirangam were completely ruined because of the invasion, Kanchi was only slightly affected by it.


It was in this year that Ulugh Khan invaded Tamil Nadu and temples were plundered.

1336 (Golden Period)

Swami Vidyaranya founded the Vijayanagara empire on the bank of river Tungabhadra in 1336. Swami Vidyaranya’s contribution to the Vijayanagar included political, religious, cultural, social and even economic too.

The Vijayanagaras ensured that the invaders didn’t attack Kanchi and it is only because of them that the temples are still there in Kanchi today. This was the time when Vishnu Kanchi & Shiva Kanchi had come into being. Kanchipuram was architecturally expanded and built by the Vijayanagars. manTapAs, prAkArAs, sub-shrines, etc. were added to the temples (those temples that were added to as well as not added to by the Cholas) by them. Apart from that, they also arranged utsavas in temples and they also financially helped the scholars and educational institutions.

There are a lot more religious seers and leaders who have contributed to Kanchipuram and made it the place it is today.

Part 2 here
Part 3 here

20 thoughts on “Kanchipuram – Art, History & Architecture (Part 1)

  1. sundar

    OMG!! Corruption in judicial system way back in Pallava regime… so we should be the pioneers of this menace…sigh..

    When I read about Cholas relation with Kanchipuram, I could very well imagine the facts and figures beautifully covered by KALKI in Ponniyin Selvan.

    Good write up.

  2. R Sathyamurthy

    //The fact that Kanchipuram was one of the greatest cities is evident from the Sanskrit lines ‘pushpEshu jAti purushEshu vishNu nArIshu rambA nagarEshu kAnci’. It also happens to be one of the 7 mOkshapuris. Ayodhya, Kashi, Hardwar, Ujjain, Mathura and Dwaraka are the other mOkshapuris.//

    Just about ten days back, in the JAYA TV, Engey Brahmanan serial, Mr. Cho mentioned this.

    Last July I went to the Kanchipuram temple and was amazed by the architecture.

  3. Aparna

    Thank you. Her talk was even more fantastic 🙂

    Welcome to my blog! Thank you.

    I wouldn’t be surprised if corruption had been there even before that! I haven’t read Ponniyin Selvan 🙁

    Welcome to my blog! Thank you

    I saw it too.

    🙂 Welcome to my blog! I have some pics for the next part 🙂

  4. IN

    Good write up. Ponniyin Selvan has a lot of detail and is worth referring to.

    Which specific temples of Kanchipuram would you recommend for a visit for someone who has just about 6 hours max. From an architectural point of view, and also where photography is permitted.

    Also, could you suggest a route to visit these monuments, given the limited time.


  5. Aparna

    Welcome to my blog! Thank you.

    From an architectural point of view, Kailasanatar temple is a must visit. Other temples that I would recommend are vaikuNTa perumAL (I have not been to this one. But seems this one too is as good as Kailasanatar temple from an architectural point of view), Varadaraja perumAL and EkAmranAtar temples. Though not an architectural marvel and photography is also not permitted, you can also visit Kamakshi temple. After all, how can one not visit Kamakshi Amman temple when going to Kanchipuram? 🙂

    You might not have enough time to cover the above-mentioned temples itself. But if time permits, you can visit ulagaLanda perumAL and pAnDavadUta perumAL (I have not visited this one) temples too, both of which have more than 25 feet high main idols!

  6. Pingback: Aparna’s Blog » Kanchipuram - Art, History & Architecture (Part 2)

  7. Sami

    Great work aparna. It was totally fantastic write up. Next time if any such events are happening in the weekends, can you please inform me? All the informations are too good esp the name kanchipuram.
    I never knew that The greatest of greatest king, karikala chola of urayur (the modern tiruchirappalli) had named the city, kanchi. I always thought about city’s name relation to the world kanchana meaning gold but this one i never knew.

    //Since Kanchipuram was their capital, the Pallavas must surely have built palaces there. But the reason why we find no palaces there today is because their palaces were made of brick or wood and not of stone. So, they must have been destroyed when invaders had attacked.//

    One of the reasons i have ever thinking about is this mystery. In the places like urayur, kanchi, thanjavur where those kings have lived and had built many palaces. But why nothing is seen now but those temples have existed. One of the reason might be as u had given here other might be as those are religious and considered sacred, nobody wanted to touch. It is the army of the invaders which used to destroy palaces. Mostl Most of the the king who were artistic, would have ordered his army not to touch these artistic temples and chitrakudams but will order to fire the palaces where the enemy kings used to live. When narasimha varma pallavan raided vadhabi (somewhere north karnataka, reason is to avenge pulikesi II’s invade of kanchi and killing of his father mahendra varman), he ordered his army not to touch vadhabi cities aristic creatures but he didnt show mercy towards the city’s jewellery and pulikesi’s palace. His thalapathy, the great paranjothi (who later became siruthondar nayanmar) also took only a ganapathy who is later called as vadhabi ganapathy) and didnt touch any wealth. smilarly after narasimha varama pallava’s period, revenge from chalukya had ruined kanchi but they also didnt touch kanchi’s artistic things.

    Also from the book, A Forgotten Empire Vijayanagar Kingdom, it is known that they have protected the temples of kanchi and others. Also through the defated hoysalas, malikafur invaded madurai pandya kingdom and these two battled at trichy. Because of fate (poor water supply, not having proficient armors etc), pandya lost the war, trichy and madurai were victims of these war as they are governed by pandyas. During this time vijayangar kingdom had started raising the power and watned to drive out mughals and got the control of mysore and kanchi. Also malik kafur got heavily weakened by the pandyan army and dont want to go with any other war, he is left no choice but to return to delhi. So kanchi and other northern TN temples were saved.

  8. Pingback: Aparna’s Blog » Kanchipuram - Art, History & Architecture (Part 3)

  9. Aparna

    Thank you. Will surely let you know if any prog like this happens on weekends. Your comment is, as usual, informative 🙂 Thanks. Btw, I have just started reading ‘A forgotten empire’.

  10. Balaji S

    I’m not a native of the city at all. Though I visit the city very often to see various temples in and around the city. Once I land there it really takes me to a different world!There is so much history in this city. Thanks for sharing this info.

  11. Pradeep

    Amazing Facts, after completing Ponniyin selvan, Sivagamiyin sabatham and Parthiban Kanavu my luv for once hated subject History has really gone crazy.. this blog of urs had definitely given something for me.. being a native of kanchi i always wonder why there weren’t no palaces there, even a big archealogical survey been made but people over there refused to dig (Political reasons).. i am not too sure that palaces are destroyed over there.. a place called pillayarpalayam (Near kailasanathar temple) was identified for this particular research… anyhows really i will travel to kanchi during 642 if i have the time machine to see mamallan going in his ratham after burning vatapi…
    thanks aparna for sharing…

  12. Raj Rudran

    Dear Aparna,

    I will be visiting Kanchi in Decmber this year and started reading about history etc. Yours is an excellent Blog. Just what the doctor ordered !



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