Kanchipuram Temples

Kanchipuram is one of India's seven holy cities.  Ancient Kanchi was an important place of pilgrimage for Buddhists, Jains and Hindus.  It is said the Buddha visited this place, as did Adi Sankara.  Kanchi stood next only to Varanasi as a centre of learning.  The great poet, Kalidasa, described it as the best among the cities (Nagareshu Kanchi).  The Tamil classics, Manimekalai and Perumpanattu Padai, vividly describe the city, as it was 2,000 years ago. Kanchipuram, located on the banks of the Vegavati, was the capital of the early Cholas, and, later, of the Pallavas between the 6th and 8th centuries.  More than any other dynasty, it was the Pallavas with which this place is best identified.  If the Pallavas could be described as the builders of Kanchi's temples, it was the Vijayanagar kings who restored them to their former glory, besides building new ones.  The Kanchi temples represent the first phase in the art of temple building, which was followed and improved upon by the Cholas and the Vijayanagar monarchs.  There are two Kanchis: Big Kanchi, and Small Kanchi.

Sri Ulagalanda Perumal temple

Sri Ulagalanda Perumal temple is a small temple, with a mighty moolavar.  Sri Ulagalanda Perumal is an awe-inspiring ten meteres tall (45 feet).  He represents Sriman Narayan at the apex of the Vamana avatar.  According to the Bhagavatam, the Lord, as the tiny Vamana, had asked for just three lengths of land (as measured by His feet)  from Emperor Mahabali, the grandson of His great devotee, Prahalada.  Mahabali was surprised at this apparently trivial boon, for he had no idea what was in store.  Vamana grew and grew.  His first step covered the sky and earth; the second, the entire universe.  Not finding a place for the third step, He inquired of Bali as to where to place His foot.  The great king then pointed to his own head.  Vamana duly obliged.  The huge idol here depicts Sri Vishnu placing His foot on Bali.  While He is called Trivikrama (Ruler of the Three Worlds).

Sri Maha Vishnu assumed the Vamana avatar to intervene in the unseemly fight between Indra, head of the devas, and Bali who wanted to possess the Deva loka.  In the process he taught both feudatories a lesson: everything in this and the other worlds belongs to the Supreme.  The temple was built by Rajendra Chola in the 11th century.  The Lord's consort here is Sri Amudavalli thayar, while the utsavar is known as Sri Loganathan. The temple is located in Big Kanchi, near Sri Kamakshi Amman temple.

Sri Kamakshi Amman temple

Sri Kamakshi Amman temple is said to be nearly 2,000 years old.  Second century Tamil poetry refer to this shrine as "Kamakottam."  Sri Kamakshiamman temple is an important Shakti sthal, said to be on a par with that of Sri Meenakshiamman of Madurai and Sri Visalakshi of Kasi.  In a town scattered with Shiva shrines, Sri Kamakshiamman temple is the sole shrine for Shakti, who is worshipped here as Parabrahma Swaroopini.  Kamakshi was at first said to be an Ugra Swaroopini, but Adi Sankara installed the Sri Chakram and persuaded the Goddess into becoming a Shanta Swaroopini.  Even now, the utsava image of the Goddess, symbolically, takes leave from Adi Sankara, in his shrine in the inner prakaram, before going out of the temple premises.

The temple covers an extent of five acres.  The present structure was built in the 12th century by the Cholas.  The sanctum, housing the Amman, is surrounded by smaller shrines to Bangaru Kamakshi, Maha Saraswati and Adi Sankara.  The Amman is in a sitting posture, flanked by Brahma, Vishnu and Rudra(Shiva).  The vimanam over the sanctum is gold-plated.  In the outer prakaram are the temple tank, several mandapams, including the one hundred-pillared hall.

Sri Ekambaranathar temple

Sri Ekambaranathar temple, also known as Sri Ekambareswarar temple, is a hallowed shrine, which finds mention in the hymns of saints Appar, Sambandar and Sundarar.  Sundarar is said to have regained vision in his left eye, after worshipping here.  The temple is one of the Panchabhotta sthalams, signifying the five elements.  If Shiva stands for Fire in Tiruvannamalai, and as Space in Chidambaam, here he is worshipped Earth(Prithvi), Many ancient classics, including "Manimekalai," speak about this temple.  The Pallavas and the Cholas had contributed to its upkeep.  The Pallavas had pulled down the then existing structure and rebuilt it.  But the present structure owes its existence to the Vijayanagar Kings.  The towering Rajagopuram can be seen miles away from Kanchi.  It rises to a height of more than 58.5m (194 feet), and was built by the great Vijayanagar emperor, Sri Krishnadeva Raya, in 1509, the first year of his rule.  Indeed, the rayas were great benefactors of this 40-acre temple, building its towering gopurams, long corridors and mandapams, including the pillared hall in front of the sanctum.

Sri Ekambareswarar is worshipped here in the Lingam form.  According to legends, Goddess Kamakshi offered worship to this Lingam, fashioned out of sand, under a mango tree.  When the Vegavati, in flood, threatened to engulf the Lingam, Parvati protected it by embracing it.  Touched by this gesture, Shiva appeared before Here and wedded Her.  There is no separate shrine for the Mother Goddess here.  She is, however, present in the sanctum as Elavar Kuzhali, while Shiva is referred to, in Tamil, as Tazhuvakkuzhainthaar.  There is a shinge for Shiva and Parvati under the Legendary mango tree, which is said to bear fruits of four different tastes, denoting the seasons. The present tree is ayoung one, an offshoot of the old one (said to be 3,500 years old), which was felled by heavy rains a few years back.

Sri Nilaa Thingal Thunda Perumal temple

Sri Nilaa Thingal Thunda Perumal temple, within the Sri Ekambareswarar temple complex, is one of the 108 Divya Desams Like in Chidambaram, this Divya Desam too is inside a prominent Shiva temple.  It is said that Shiva wanted to test Parvati's determination.  So he set the mango tree on fire.  Parvati then prayed to Vishnu, in the form of Vamana, for help. Sri Vamana took out Chandra (Moon) from Shiva's head and fanned the fire out.  The tree blossomed once again.  Since Vishnu removed Chandra from Shiva's head to help Parvati, He is known here as Sri Chandra Chooda Perumal, in Sanskrit, and as Sri Nila thingal thundathan, in Tamil Nila refers to the moon.  The priests in this Vaishnava shrine are Shivachaariyas.

Sri Sankara Mutt is located, not far from Sri Ekambaranathar temple.  Though the mutt is large inside, the entrance is rather modest.  The mutt was reportedly established by Sri Adi Sankara more than 2,500 years ago.  Historians, though, place Sri Sankara around the Seventh century CE.  According to the Mutt account, Sri Sankara passed away in Kanchipuram, after years of selfless service, during which he criss-crossed India, re-establishing Santana Dharma. Besides maintaining several temples, the Mutt is active in the social and educational spheres.

Sri Kailasanathar temple

Sri Kailasanathar temple, in the outskirts of Kanchi, was built by Narasimha Varma II alias Rajasimha (700-728 CE).  Emperor Raja Raja Chola is said to have worshipped at this temple in Kanchipettu (Kanchi's ancient name).  He is said to have drawn inspiration from the splended vimanam here for building his magnum opus in Thanjavur (Sri Brihadeeswarar temple).  The Lingam, in the sanctum, is more than three metres (ten feet) tall.  There is a passage near the Lingam, through which devotees are encouraged to go round.  You have to crawl into it, walk free in the middle, then crawl out of the exit.  It symbolizes the three stages of human life: crawl, walk, crawl.  There is no rebirth for those who go through this process in the temple, it is said.

The temple contains numerous panels depicting Shiva as Nataraja.  Entrance is through a modest Rajagopuram.  There are a number of small shrines around the temple, which is maintained by the ASI.  A medium-sized nandi sits in front of the shrine, whose walls are protected by huge, fierce lions/Yaghi's standing and facing us.  The shrine is replete with intricate, minutely sculpted figures, big and small, animal and human that have withstood the ravages of time.  Particular mention must be made of a huge niche in what an eight armed Durga stands with her paraphernalia, one foot daringly placed over her lion vehicle.  She is flanked to Her right by huge Yahgi's, and on Her left, in a smaller niche, by Her own benign form, doing penance on a pedestal, while the lion crouches beneath.

Sri Vaikunta Perumal temple

Sri Vaikunta Perumal temple in big Kanchi is a divya desam Dedicated to Lord Vishnu, the shrine was built by Nandivarma Pallavamalla (731-795), a few years after the construction of Sri Kailasanathar temple.  Inscriptions and carvings of battle scenes, in bas relief, around the main prakaram, refer to the wars between the Pallavas and the Gangaes and the early Chalukya.

Sri Vaikunta Perumal temple in big Kanchi is a divya desam Dedicated to Lord Vishnu, the shrine was built by Nandivarma Pallavamalla (731-795), a few years after the construction of Sri Kailasanathar temple.  Instructions and carvings of battle scenes, in bas relief around the main prakaram, refer to the wars between the Pallavas and the Gangas and the early Chalukyas.

According to the sthala purana of this temple, Veerochana, an ancient king was childless, He prayed to Lord Kailasanathar, after which two boys were born.  The two were staunch devotees of Vishnu and performed the Aswamedha yagam.  At the end of the yagna, the Lord, pleased with their devotion, gave darshan in His Vaikunta form, the reason behind the temple's name.  The brothers are seen as dwarapalakas on either side of the entrance to the sanctum.  The vimanam here is in the Astanga form.  Vishnu is depicted here in three forms: sitting, reclining and standing.  The moolavar is in the sitting form, facing west.  He is known as Vaikuntanathan. At the middle level, he is reclining, attended by Periya piratti and Bhoomi Devi.  The top level shows Him in standing form.  No poojas are performed to this deity.  The divine consort, Sri Vaikunta Valli, is in a separate shrine.  The temple is maintained by the ASI.

Sri Varadaraja Perumal temple

Sri Varadaraja Perumal temple is easily the most popular temple in Kanchipuram.  It is a huge complex, topped by an impressive seven tiered Rajagopuram.  The pushkarni here is special, for under it is hidden the Aththi Varadar, a wooden replica of the lord.  It is taken out and displayed every forty years.  The origins of this worship is not clear, but it is said to be the original image of Sri Varadaraja.  Nearby is the 100-pillared hall, a masterful exposition of sculptures in the Vijayanagar style.  The front facade, however, needs a bit of cleaning up. At the entrance are a chain of rings, entirely made of stone, in front of the Yali, a lion-like creature, made famous in our temple sculpture.  Intricate carvings can be seen over the Yaghi's head.  Inside, among the many sculptures, are warriors on horseback, in full gallop.  On other pillars are gods and goddesses, two of which stand out.  One is of Krishna playing the flute, and the other, Godha Devi (Andal), holding a garland over her head.

The main temple is a little further down.  In front of it is the flag staff, sandwiched between the entrance and a long, lean mandapam.  The carvings at the top of the entrance reveal Vishnu in several roles: a particularly attractive one is the Lord sitting on Garuda. Incidentally, Garuda seva, when the lord is taken out of His Garuda vehicle, is the main feature during the annual Brahmotsvam.  It is said that Robert Clive (1725-74), regarded as one of the key figures behind the creation of British India, was so impressed by the Garudotsavam that he instantly presented his wife's necklace to the Lord.  The necklace even now adorns the Lord during Garudotsavam.  There are more figures of horsemen here, unmistakable evidence of Vijayanagar handiwork.

The main shrine is on a hillock called Hastigiri.  Sri Varadaraja Swamy, also known as Devaraja Swamy, is the presiding deity.  It is said Brahma desired to have a glimpse of Vishnu with Chathur bhujam (four hands).  Towards this end he did penance, but did not meet with the desired results.  He then performed the Aswamedha yagam (horse sacrifice) here, as it is said that doing this sacrifice in Kanchi is equivalent to performing 100 such yagams elsewhere.  Vishnu not only saved the yagna from flooding, but also emerged out of the sacred fire, as Sri Devarajaswamy (king of gods), giving Brahma the opportunity to see Him as he desired.  Ka refers to Brahma, while Anjitham refers to the deity who worshipped .  Hence, the place came to be known as Kanchi/Kanchipuram.

The moolavar is in a standing position, facing west, giving darshan to among others, Brighu muni, Narada and Brahma.  The sanctum is said to be the womb of fire, the manifested universe, where Vishnu appeared.  Sri Perundevi thayar is the divine consort here.  There are several sub-shrines, notable among them is one for Sri Yoga Narasimha, beside the hillock, which was first built by the Cholas in 1053.  Later Kullotunga Chola I and his son, Vikarama Chola (1120-35), undertook a massive expansion scheme.  Then followed the Vijayanagar monarchs who lavished their attention on this 20 acre temple.  The great Vaishnava acharya, Sri Ramanuja, spent several years here.

Not far from the sanctum is the carving of two lizards, one gold and the other silver plated.  They are, perhaps, next only in popularity to Sri Devaraja Himself.  The two son and daughter-in-law of King Satkarni of Ayodhya were said to be the accursed disciples of a rishi.  They were liberated from the curse after worshipping at Kanchi.  The taint of a lizard falling on our bodies is removed by the mere touch of the carving here, it is further said.

Sri Ashtabhuja Perumal temple

Sri Ashtabhuja Perumal temple is located a km and a half, west of Sri Varadaraja Perumal temple, in a quiet neighborhood.  This is a Divya Desam temple, with a three-tiered Rajagopuram.  The moolavar here is Sri Ashtabhuja (eight-armed) Perumal.  He is also known as Adikesava Perumal, Gajendra Varadan and Chakradhar.  He is in a standing posture, with eight arms, holding eight objects: discus, sword, flower, arrow, conch, bow, shield and a mace.  In a separate shrine is in divine consort, Sri Alarmelmangai, also known as Sri Padmasini.  The one-acre shrine has a single prakaram, bus several sub-shrines.
In front of the Pushkarni is a hoarding, which says it was here that Gajendra, the elephant, was sought to be pulled to his death by the infamous crocodile, and it was here that his pleas for mercy was answered by Vishnu, who severed the crocodile's neck with His discus.  Sri Karya Manikyaswami temple, in Nagari, in Chittoor district of Andhra Pradesh also claims to have hosted the great event.  We have already read about Brahma conducting a huge yagna in Kanchi.  It is said that a vast army of hostile forces sought to disrupt it.  Vishnu, as Ashtabhuja Perumal, vanquished these demons, hence the shrine here depicts Him as such.

Sri Yathothakaari Perumal temple

Sri Yathothakaari Perumal temple is located about a km from Sri Varadaraja Perumal temple.  The story goes that one Kani Kannan was summoned by the ruler of Kanchi to persuade Tirumalisai Alwar to sing in praise of his (ruler).  On Kani Kannan's refusal to do so, he was ordered by the king to leave Kanchi.  Kannan then informed the Alwar of the king's order.  The Alwar then said that he too would leave the place.  Not only that, he also requested the Perumal of this temple to accompany them.  The Lord, who was reclining on his snake bed, promptly acceded to the request.  When the ruler came to known of this, he, along with his subjects, apologized to Tirumalisai Alwar and begged of him to stay.  The Alwar did so, and the Lord was back on his couch.
The moolvar here is known as Sri Yathothakaari.  He is known, in Tamil, as Sonnavannam seitha Perumal (the Lord who did as He was told).  He is in the reclining position here.  The divine consort is Sri Komalavalli Nachiyaar.  Poigai Alwar is said to have been born in the Pushkarni here.
How to get there:  Kanchipuram is about 80km from Chennai, the nearest airport.  It is easily accessible by road, with a bus leaving the CMBT terminal every ten/fifteen minutes.  It is also on the rail route, with a couple of express trains running on the route, one of them connecting it to Mumbai. Accommodation:  Plenty of good hotels available here.

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