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.