Kailasanathar in Kanchipuram/ Kanchi- A Pallava marvel in stucco and sandstone

Looking back at Kanchipuram


Kanchipuram as seen in the 1880s (photo from the internet). Kanchipuram has been variously called as Kanchipura, Kachchipedu, Kanchipuraka, Kachichi, and Kanchi

Kanchipuram, the city of thousand temples, was a part of Tondaimandalam division during the ancient and early medieval times. The city which lies between the two rivers Palar and Vegavati, is situated in the north-eastern part of Tamil Nadu. Kanchi is broadly divided into two main parts: the Vishnu Kanchi and Shiva Kanchi. The city finds mention in the GarudaPurana as being one of the seven most sacred teerths in India:

Ayodhyā Mathurā Māyā Kāśī Kāñcī Avantikā
Purī Dvārāvatī caiva saptaitā mokṣadāyikāḥ

It is believed that the ancient Tamil state was once broadly divided into five parts or Tenai, based on the nature of the soil in that area. The five areas namely were (a) Neydal, the strip of land adjoining the sea (b) Marudam, the flat lands located on the lower courses of the rivers (c) Palai, the dry and arid areas (d) Kurinji, the hilly parts and (e) Mullai, the forested areas which were situated between the hills and the flatlands. Many archaeological evidences from the paleolithic era have been found from the Kurinji region that covers the Nellore, Cuddapah, North Arcot, and Chengalput districts of modern Tamil Nadu. Kanchipuram, considered among the oldest cities of South India, was believed to lie in this Chengalput district of the ancient Kurinji Tenai (Srinivas, 1929, pp. 3-5)

Kanchipuram has found glorified mentions in many of our texts, and we see Kalidasa in 4th c. CE describing it as the best among all cities (Nagareshu Kanchi). Hsüan-tsang, the famous Chinese monk, in his 7th century CE travel records praised the citizens of Kanchi as being well known in their love for justice, piety, and bravery. The city is also mentioned in Patanjali’s Mahabhashya (2nd century BCE); while Manimekalai (a Buddhist epic) and Perumpanattu Padai, two great Tamil literary works describe the beauty of the city in great details. Pathupattu, a Sangam era literary work, states that Kanchi was ruled by Thondaiman Ilandirayan around 2500 years ago and the town was lovely like a many-petalled lotus.

Kanchipuram was the capital of the Pallavas from sometime in the 3rd to the 9th century CE, and at this time the city was fortified with ramparts and moats, while many beautiful temples were also built. The Cholas ruled Kanchi from 10th to 13th c. CE, and after them the Vijayanagara dynasty took over the reigns from 14th to 17th c. CE. Under these rulers, Kanchi turned into an important religious centre and was a major educational hub.

Kailasanathar temple: one among the Pallava era jewels

Kailashnathar temple easily stands as among the finest jewels of the Pallavan era architecture. This masterpiece was built between 685-705 CE, and was commissioned by the Pallavan king Rajasimha (Narasimhavarman II) and his wife Rangapataka, who took a special interest in building this temple. The temple, as seen in other Pallavan architecture, was built as per the traditions of the Smarttas (which includes worship of Shiva, Vishnu, Sakti/Durga, Surya, Kartikeya, and Ganesha without any sectarian divide). The plan of the temple is unique in its oblong shape, and was the first to have a prakara or wall built around the temple. There are two parts to the temple: the first part built earlier is known as Rajasimhesvara and occupies the western part of the complex; while the one on the eastern face is also a Shiva temple, known as Mahendravarmesvara, and built later by Rajasimha’s son Mahendravarman III. The garbhagrihas of the two temples hold faceted Shivalingas (dharalingas) with a Somaskanda panel on the rear wall. The inner face of the complex wall is entirely fitted with small shrines known as devakulikas, a pattern not seen seen anywhere, except at the Sri Virupaksha temple in Pattadakal. Kailsanathar temple has a foundation made of granite, while the entire superstructure is built of sandstone, with plaster and paint applied on it, most of which have now disappeared. There are signs of clumsy repair-work on the original plaster, which had likely taken place sometime in the 19th or early 20th century.

Photograph of the shrine of the Kailasanatha Temple, Chingleput District, Kanchipuram, taken by a photographer of the Archaeological Survey of India around 1900-01.
Image credit: The British Library Board.


“The plan of the temple shows the layout of a typical Pallava sanctuary. The temple, entirely made of sandstone, faces east and is dedicated to Shiva. It is entered to the east through a gateway or gopuram. The courtyard in which it stands is surrounded by smaller shrines framed by pillars rising from the heads of rampant lions, typical of the Pallava style. The sanctuary enshrining the linga is covered by a four-storeyed pyramidal tower. In front of it stands a pillared pavilion (mandapa) decorated with sculptures of rearing simha-yalis and Shaiva figures. This leads to another hall before the cell surrounded by a circumambulatory passageway. Seen here is a pen-and-ink and water-colour drawing of the plan of the Kailasanathar, dated 1780-1820. Inscribed on front in ink: ‘Plan of the Temple of Kylass Naud-Coil at Conjeveram.'” (source). 

The temple vimana and prakara with a subsidiary shrine or devakulika in front
Simha-yalis on the prakara (wall)


Simhas (lions) as pillar bases, a favorite theme of the Pallavas
Another Pallava favorite: Somskanda panel inside a devakulika at the entrance. It depicts Shiva and Parvati (Uma) sitting with their son Kartikeya (Skanda). The term Somaskanda when broken appears as Sa-Uma-Skanda, meaning Shiva with Uma and Skanda. The sanctum rear wall in Kailasanathar is also adorned with a similar Somaskanda panel. 
Dwarapala on the side of the mandapa entrance with a simha-yali
A rider/warrior on the simha. The theme which is commonly seen across temples in India has a complex meaning as per the Hindu temple iconography; a topic which I will take up later in another post


Simhavahini attended by Jyestha and Yogeswari on two sides
Tripurantaka Shiva with Yogesvari and Simhavahini on his two sides


Lingodbhava Shiva with Brahma sitting on top and Vishnu in his varaha avtaar digging below
Gangadhara Shiva in a devakulika
Dakshinamurti in a south-eastern devakostha
Shiva in an unknown samhara murti
On the right side of Shiva Parvati is a Gajalakshmi
Series of devakulikas or subshrines on the side of the circulambulatory pathway. There are 58 such subshrines or devakulikas on the inner wall and eight more on the temple facade. Each devakulika houses various images, such as Somaskanda, different manifestations of Shiva, Vishnu, and Sakti. There are also representations (few) of Ganesha, Kartikeya, Surya, and Yogisvera.
Yogisvara in utkutikasana in a devakulika
Umamaheswara murti in a south devakostha


A unique Bhiksatana murti inside a devakulika. The beautiful hair style and sandals are of particular notice. Photo Courtesy: VijayKumar
Ekadasa Rudras in a northern devakulika
While most of the paintings in Kailasanathar are now lost, the remnants show a semblance to the Ajanta style (classical Indian art form), while developing some unique identities of their own, like the theme of depicting Shiva and his family that often seemed to merge as one with the royal family. Showing the royal members in their imposing crowns was also an aspect not seen in the Ajanta form. It started here, and reached its zenith later in what we now term as the grand imperial style of the Chola art. The paintings here are said to consist of two layers of plasters: the first layer made of sand and lime mixed together, and the second layer consists of a thin lime plaster. A final  polish was then applied with a trowel.

Inscriptions made on the pillars by the Chalukyan king Vikramaditya II after his conquest of Kanchipuram, where one inscription states that the king was so overwhelmed by the beauty of this temple that he returned all his war loots.

Kailashanathar also holds one of the earliest instances of Calligraphy, while more than 240 titles of the king in Pallava-Grantha and Nagari scripts are seen beautifully engraved. The temple also holds the oldest stone inscription record of the twenty eight Saivagamas, where Rajasimhavarman also declares his faith in Shaivism.

The nandi madapa facing the temple is a little distance away. The bhoot ganas dance on the adhisthana panels


Kailsanathar, as it appears from the Nandi Mandapa


How to go and when to go:

Kanchipuram is located close to Chennai, and the  easiest way to travel from there is to hire a taxi. It is also closely located to Mahabalipuram, another well known site full of heritage monuments built by the Pallavas, and one can travel to Kanchi after seeing the sites at Mahabalipuram. Kanchipuram is a city of temples, and one should stay here at least for two to three days to see all the beautiful temples that dot the city.

The best time to visit Kanchipuram would be between November to January when the weather is relatively cooler. The temple sanctums and also some mandapas remain closed from 12-4 pm, so plan the temple visits accordingly.


Rao, P.V.L. Narasimha, 2008. Kanchipuram: Land of Legends, Saints and Temples. Readworthy Publications, Delhi.

Srinivas Iyengar P.T., 1929. History of the Tamils from the earliest times to 600 AD. C. Coomarasawmy and sons, Madras.

Gopalan, R., 1928. History of the Pallavas of Kanchi. University of Madras, Madras.


2 Comments Add yours

  1. Swadeep says:

    Thank u very much for the beautiful pictures and more importantly the descriptions.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. moni1706 says:

      Thank you 🙏


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