The temples in Kanchipuram are numerous, and it’s not surprising that the place is known as ‘the city of temples’. A walk through the roads spring up temples at all possible nooks and corners. Pretty colourful temples, some appear quite old, while some look newer possibly renovated, and they give a very unique look to the city. When we went to Kanchipuram on our temple run, we had limited time to explore the city, so we focused on the more famous ones, those that are listed as heritage sites. Beyond the ones we visited, lies an entire galaxy of temples that we completely missed out. So my advice for those travelling to Kanchipuram would be: do stay in the city for 2-3 days and explore it well. It’s an ancient city, one among the sacred seven Vaishnavite kshetras, and with its gaily painted temples and kunds, the city is forever ready to throw up unexpected heritage jewels at any turn in the road.
“Ayodhyā Mathurā Māyā Kāśī Kāñcī Avantikā
Purī Dvārāvatī caiva saptaitā mokṣadāyikāḥ” – Garuḍa Purāṇa I XVI .14
Translated it means: The seven holy sites are Ayodhya, Mathura, Haridwar (Maya), Kashi, Kanchi, Avantika (Ujjain) and Puri/ Dwaraka are the seven holy kshetras. Interestingly, of the 108 Divya-Desams or holy Vishnu temples, Kanchipuram alone has 15 of them located in a part of the city specifically known as Vishnu Kanchi.
Situated on the banks of the Vegavathy river, Kanchipuram has seen the coming and going of the Pallavas, Cholas, later Pandyas, the Vijayanagara dynasty, the Carnatic kingdom, and lastly the British. Historically, the city was once a great centre of religion and education; a ghatikasthanam, which meant a place for learning. The city was also a hub for the Jains and Buddhists (1st to 6th c. CE) under the different royal patronages. The city is also important to the Shaivites, with many well known Shiva temples located here. Kanchipuram is famous for its hand woven silk sarees, and many people living here are associated with the weaving industry.
Varadharaja Perumal Temple or Hastagiri or Attiyuran
Varadharaja Perumal Temple or Hastagiri or Attiyuran is a Vishnu temple, and one of the Divya Desams, the 108 Vishnu temples visited by the 12 Alwars (poet saints). Among the Divya Desams, the Varadaraja Perumal temple is also known as Perumal Koil, and is one of the most sacred teerths for the Vaishnavites.
The temple has nearly 350 inscriptions from various dynasties such as Chodas, Cholas, Pandyas, Cheras, Kakatiyas, Hoysalas, and Vijayanagara dynasty recording the donations and socio-political situations during those times. While some belief that the temple was originally constructed by the Pallavas under the reign of king Nandivarman II; another point of view states that it was built in 1053 CE by the Cholas, and later parts were added by the later Cholas and other different dynasties. The main deity was removed from the sanctum owing to fear of a Mughal invasion under Aurangzeb in 1688, and taken to a different destination in Udayarpalayam; however, it was later restored after various interventions in 1710. Robert Clive, the British Major-General had visited this temple and gifted an expensive necklace (Clive Maharkandi), which is still used during special occasions.
The temple has three outer prakarams or walled areas, known as Azhwar Prakaram, Madai Palli Prakaram, and Thiru Malai Prakaram. Within the enclosed areas there are in all total 32 shrines, 19 vimanams, 389 pillared halls, and many sacred tanks some of which are even located outside. The beautiful temple tank within the core area is known as Anantha Theertham. The main sanctum is west facing, and is entered through a 130 feet tall, 7-tiered gateway tower or rajagopuram. One of the architectural marvels of this temple are the huge monolithic stone chains. A 100 pillared hall within the temple premises is another famous architectural masterpiece built by the Vijaynagara dynasty, which has fantastic sculptures carved on pillars depicting many stories mainly from our epics.
Vaikuntha Perumal Temple
Vaikuntha Perumal Temple or Thiru Parameswara Vinnagaram Temple is a Vishnu temple which finds mention in the early medieval Tamil text Divya Prabandha (6th–9th c. CE), and is one among the 108 Divyadesam. Vishnu here is worshipped as Vaikuntanathan and his consort as Sri Vaikundavalli. The temple is believed to have been built few years after the Kailasanthar temple, by the Pallava king Nandivarman (late 7th – early 8th century CE). Later additions to the temple were made by the Cholas and Vijaynagara kings. The significance of this temple comes from the fact that it contains many inscription panels, which depict various events, like accession of king Nandivarman, political and socio-economic situation of the Pallavan times, details of gifts made to the temple, and wars between Pallavas, Gangas and Chalukyas. An 8th c. inscription tells us about a gift of a gold murti by king Abhimanasiddhi that measured 1000 sovereigns. Another inscription of the 9th c. CE tells us about a golden bowl weighing ten thousand kalanju being gifted to the temple. There is another record of a gift of 3,000 gold kalanju to cover the daily temple expenses.
The temple is rectangular in plan, built of granite mixed with sandstone, and surrounded by a granite wall with lions all along the wall. The entry is through a granite flat-topped gateway. The vimana shows stepped pyramidal roof, while inside there are three sanctums with three Vishnus in three different postures: a seated Vishnu in the ground floor, a lying down Vishnu in the first floor; accessible only on ekadashi days, and a standing Vishnu in the second floor that remains inaccessible at all times. The three stories have been made by three concentric squares with a small passage in between, a filial closing the third floor. Like the Kailasanathar this temple too has external cloisters with lion pillars, and the niches closely resemble the Mahabalipuram monuments. The cloister walls show relief sculptures depicting Pallavan lineage, with the first few panels starting with Brahma, followed by the rishis Angiras, Bṛihaspati, Bharadwaja, Drona, and Ashwatthama. After them in the next panels are depicted the actual Pallavan rulers, which show their coronation and the various battles they fought in. The wall niches around the sanctum depict various stories from the Mahabharata.
Ulagalantha Perumal temple
Situated near the Kanchipuram bus stand and close to the famous Kamakshi amman temple, this temple is dedicated to Vishnu, and is mentioned in the early medieval Tamil text Divya Prabandha. One among the 108 divyadeshams, here Vishnu is worshipped as Ulagalanta Perumal along with his consort Amudvalli (Lakshmi). It is believed that Vishnu in his Vamana ruup/form appeared here to face king MahaBali. The temple was most likely built by the Pallavas, with many later period additions by the later Cholas, Vijaynagara kings, and the Madurai Nayakas. Vishnu here stands 35 feet tall, in the Trivikrama posture with his right leg on the head of Mahabali. Two stretched fingers of his left hand denote he took two steps, while the third finger is in the posture of asking Bali where to put his third step.
Kanchipuram is perpetually hot, and unless one is visiting only for puja purposes or for some special occasions, visitors should go there only during December to January, when the weather is relatively cooler. Also important are the temple timings, when sanctum and often mandapas too remain closed from 12 pm to 4pm.
Rao Narasimha, 2008. Kanchipuram – Land of Legends, Saints & Temples. Readworthy Publications (P) Ltd., New Delhi.