<---previous article

In Search of "The Ideal Image"
Journey to Kanchipuram

by Tom Cole
© 2010

The grounds of the Kailasnathar Temple with a huge nandi bull carved from one piece of stone. The woman in blue is employed by the Archaeological Survey of India, to care for the grounds.

For years, I have been fascinated with classical Asian art.  In fact, the impetus to venture out into the world and a life of adventure on the road in India was first provided by my contact with Tibetan thangkhas at an .

early age.  It was so long before that it seems like a lifetime ago, but more like someone else’s life than my own.  I can barely remember NOT being on the road in Asia in my life

The entry to the inner sanctum of the Kailasnathar Temple, Kanchupuram

But after a few hard years of self imposed exile from the subcontinent, in part, enforced by current political realities since 9/11, I chose to return to India, a place I had not seen in 18 years.  Yes, I had been to Pakistan, undeniably an inextricable component of  the

subcontinent, as India (or ‘Hindustan’) derives its name from the Indus River, which passes through the heart of present-day Pakistan, emptying into the Arabian Sea.  But Pakistan is not India; rather it is merely a small part.

Shiva with devotees, including a bearded attendant saint to the left with, presumably, Parvati at his feet. The niche is flanked by guardians in the form of mythical beasts. Kailasnathar Temple, 8th century

So with little hesitation, I decided to re-visit India.  Little did I realize, this visit would evolve into more a revelation, than a reminder.  I decided I wanted to go to Kanchipuram in Tamil Nadu, to see the art of those ancient temples, thankfully none of which are prominently featured in any tourist guides.

It has been a “destination” of sorts to the odd traveller for some time now, first mentioned by the early Chinese explorer, Hiuen Tsang, in the 7th century, who curiously made no mention of the grand temples there, even though it was known as the “city of a thousand temples”.  He must have passed through prior to the date they were constructed.  He apparently reserved his few remarks to extolling benign rule of the Pallava king in addition to the piety and bravery of the local populace.

Shiva trampling the demon of ignorance (Apasmara), in his timeless
dance of destruction and creation. Kailasnathar Temple, 8th century

Kanchi, as it was known at the time, was also a Buddhist centre, and it is believed that Bodhidharma, who went to China in the 6th century to spread Buddhism, is originally from there and it is said that the Buddha, himself, visited this once great city. It was also known as a centre of learning, reputedly second only to Benares and served as the capital of the Pallavas, who ruled over

extensive areas of South India from the 3rd to the 9th century.

But curiously no one I’ve met has ever been there, save for the odd ex-pat saddhu/mystic types who still thrive in 21st century India or the odd art dealer, who first mentioned Kanchipuram to me last summer, suggesting I go. 

Shiva dancing, Kailasnathar Temple, 8th century

It can hardly be termed a tourist destination as I saw only one stray backpacker, sprawled on the lush grounds of the Kailasanathar Temple and while one finds a cursory mention in travel guides, it remains a minor footnote to the attractions of Chennai (formerly Madras) and the more popular beach/temple site of Mahaballipuram.

Getting there was remarkably easy (and cheap), a two hour ride on a local train from Chennai with none of the crowds one might expect.  But where else in the world could one board a train for two hours at a cost of US $0.35 (Rs. 15)?  Curiously (but not unexpectedly), the five minute rickshaw ride to the station from our modest hotel cost more than the train ticket! 

Shiva in a contest with Kali, defeats her as he performs an energetic Tandava dance.

Passing through the verdant landscape of South India (in contrast to the parched countryside of northern India from where we had come), one can’t help but recall the epic tales of the Ramayana and the Mahabharata, stories of chivalry and treachery, virtue and deceit as well as enduring love and extended war. 

Paintings and sculpture depict some of the epic events of this history, complete with aspects of the rich landscape that could be seen from the windows of our train.

Shiva with his consort, Parvati 8th century, Kailasnathar Temple, 8th century

Wall paintings of Shiva (detail, below) and Parvati (detail, above) in two of the hidden alcoves
at the Kailasnathar Temple, Kanchipuram, 8th century

India has been described by travellers as magic, a land of pious people and instant karma but until one ventures to Tamil Nadu (and Karnataka), one really has yet to experience all that India has to offer.  I knew we must be close if not actually arrived at our destination when I spotted a huge temple standing alone in a field,

as our train slowed to a crawl.  Eventually our carriage heaved and jerked to sudden stop.  The station itself appeared to be a genuine candidate for preservation by the Archaeological Office of India, a small run down remnant of British colonial rule. 

A chariot being drawn through the streets of Kanchipuram at night, bearing Brahmin priests with a large wooden image of Hanuman behind them.

We alighted at Kanchipuram East, unaware of the newer station just a few minutes down the line, and wandered into the street where one rickshaw waited for the stray passenger. Knowing where we wanted to go was not an issue, but our driver had other plans. He immediately set off, irrespective of the direction of our hotel, to meet a friend who aspired to be a tour guide in this ‘city of temples’. We declined their offers.

Dropping our belongings at the hotel,  we started to walk in the general direction of Kailasanathar Temple, the first stop

on our art quest itinerary.  Kanchipuram is not a large town (approximate population – 155,000, small by Indian standards) but signs of the learning tradition that dominatesthe intellectual landscape are omnipresent, in the form of clinics, hospitals, and many physicians with a private practice.  Apparently medical students from all over India come to the south to study at some point during their schooling, and some apparently stay.

An older couple contemplate the carvings on a chariot that was to be drawn through the streets, bearing idols for the festival.

At first glance, Kanchipuram may seem to be a ‘poor’ place and certainly the past glories have dissipated with time.  Few signs of the emerging economy of modern India can be seen there.  But beggars were few, even around the temples where they traditionally gather, and there seems to be a pleasant rhythm to the lives of the local population. 

Finally, we tired of our search by foot and caught a rickshaw to the temple grounds.  Surrounded by lush green lawns featuring a huge stone ‘nandi’ (the sacred bull often seen as Shiva’s mount) to one side, the temple compound itself is not large but is obviously ancient.  The outer walls of sandstone are slowly melting, and the mythical beasts decorating these ramparts have been worn by time.

A view of some of the carved pillars at the Varadharaja Perumal Temple, 8th century, Kanchipuram

The inner sanctum of the compound is odd.  Currently there is a restoration project underway, the second of its type at this location.  The first, a British effort undertaken in the early 20th century, is a miserable failure with  light grey concrete repairs completing

worn, brown sandstone carving, crudely applied to the decaying originals.  The second is no better as the decoration of the main walls in the primary temple area are totally “restored”. 

A dancing female 'dakini' figure , Varadharaja Perumal Temple

But there is much to see, with more good art intact from an  early period, more than I have ever seen in one place during the course of my travels in Asia.  Dedicated to Lord Shiva, the images are an incredible statement to the artistry of the period and dedication of the Pallava kings to their beliefs.  A handful of  Indian

tourists wandered through the site as we took our time, absorbing the incredible sculpture as well as the few hidden alcoves containing wall paintings from the same early period.  It was an exceptional feast for the eyes, a soothing and awe inspiring experience.

A mounted guardian figure brandishing a sword from the Varadharaja Perumal Temple

Brahmin priests at the Varadharaja Perumal Temple awaiting the start of the ceremonial procession

Tearing ourselves away, we ventured on to the next temple on our list, Ekambareswar Temple.  Another temple dedicated to Shiva, it contains a hallway of 1000 pillars, and was, at the time we saw it, overrun with pilgrims and local residents gathering for a festival.  The atmosphere was like a raucous carnival

(including ferris wheels for children), with literally thousands of people wandering about, including vendors of everything from plastic women’s bangles, to colourful Hindu poster art to Indian fast food (home made onion samosas, banana chips, as well as fresh fruit) vying for the attention of the milling masses. 

A Brahmin priest at the Varadharaja Perumal Temple, standing in the entry way to the main temple inspecting the chains cut from a single piece of stone from which the palanquins bearing the images of Vishnu and Lakshmi are to be suspended.

We mingled with the gathering, partaking in a spectacle that could only happen in India, enjoying the attention of small children politely asking for ball point pens as their parents occasionally requested us to take their photograph.  With darkness falling, the festival

culminated in the preparation of traditional chariots bearing large wooden images to be dragged through the streets with stout ropes by men, women and children alike.  After hours of revelry, we wearily made our way back to the hotel, thankful for our good timing to be present for this festive occasion.

The entry to the  Varadharaja Perumal Temple, with an applique cotton textile used to surround the entry depicting images of
Lakshmi and Visnu (behind a pillar) with the wooden palanquins suspended by the stone chains.

The next day was not unlike the first.  Wandering the baking streets was punctuated by fresh young tender coconut water, fresh pineapple and grape juice followed by a pit stop at the Saravana Bhavan, a franchise of nutritious (and clean) vegetarian restaurants scattered across the subcontinent. 

We decided to go to the Varadharaja Perumal Temple in the southeast corner of the city.  Dedicated to Vishnu, it was built in the 11th century by the Pallavas, and expanded by the successive Chola kings.

The faithful gather at the  Varadharaja Perumal Temple, including a Brahmin priest seated with two women, presumably family members.

Again, we stumbled into yet another wonderful festival, though totally unlike that of the previous day.  Celebrating the union of Lakshmi and Vishnu, images of the two were carried around the 23 acre temple grounds and finally deposited within the large inner sanctum.  The teeming masses were thoroughly absent; only a few people came to witness the ceremony and worship the idols.  The ceremony was attended mostly by  Brahmin

priests, who appeared to have come from all walks of life before joining the religious hierarchy of this temple. Included were children in white robes too; apparently some of these youngsters were the offspring of older priests on site.  As the pomp and ceremony subsided, we did as well, retiring to rest up for the return journey to Chennai the next morning.

Younger priests, some of whom are presumably the offspring of the older priests taking part in the ceremonies at Varadharaja Perumal Temple

We considered ourselves extremely fortunate as the ‘gods’ were certainly smiling, allowing us to be a part of two very special events in this ancient town as well as appreciate the classical ancient art of Tamil Nadu.  The medieval glories of Kanchipuram have been compromised a bit by the changes in modern India,

including priests with mobile phones, obnoxious horns and whistles of toy vendors plying their wares, and flashing lights in the shape of the timeless Shiva lingam.  But our time was well spent and we could have asked for nothing more in our quest to experience the real India that is still alive and well in the south.