CHENNAI: I love history and antiquities get me excited. Leave me in a century-old monument, I will explore it stone by stone, inscription by inscription. So, on a chilly Sunday morning, when I set out on a curated road trip by KeyTerns to Kancheepuram, I was thrilled, to say the least. Why wouldn’t I be? The sprawling ancient city, less than 80 kilometres from Chennai, once governed by several dynasties including the Pallavas, Cholas, Pandyas, followed by the Vijayanagara empire, Nawabs of the Carnatic and finally the British, has several hidden gems and magnificent structures left behind by the rulers as reminiscent of their past glory. On the day-long trip to ‘The City of Thousand Temples’, we visited some of the most celebrated temples, explored pillars, motifs and their symbolism, stopped at colossal caves and gorged on delicious Kanchi temple idlis.
It’s 6.30 am, and after a tumbler of heady filter kaapi and crispy dosa for breakfast, we are all set for the journey ahead. Two hours later, our mini AC van streams right into the heart of the city — the bustling and noisy Gandhi Road market, dotted with clothing stores, supermarkets, roadside hawkers, and a few old temples tucked amid all the chaos. We inch our way towards our first stop — Ekambareswarar temple. From a few metres away, we spot the majestic southern gopuram of the temple — the sixth tallest in the world.
Of legends and a mango tree
We reach our destination at around 9.30 am. The weather is now warm, and we are occasionally shrouded with spurts of sharp sunshine. Cars and tourist vans ply the road leading to the temple entrance dedicated to Shiva — some are meticulously parked in front of a mandapam. We make our way through shops selling trinkets, clothes and flowers lined on either side of the busy square. While most of the tourists and visitors move past us at the entrance of the gopuram, we stop. “It is very important to look at the sides and on top of the entrance before you enter a temple. There are several motifs replete with historical facts,” announces Vijay Sundararaman, an archaeologist, our guide for the day.
We buy our entrance and camera tickets (`20 to `100) and proceed towards one of the mandapas of the temple. “As the legend goes, Goddess Parvathi did a tapasya for Shiva under a mango tree in this very temple. The 3,500-year-old mango tree is still well-preserved in the premises, and a clone sapling created from the original tree is under active worship here,” he says.
Unlike our other temple outings — entering the sanctum, hurriedly worshipping, and rushing out for the prasadam — this was different. We find ourselves in the middle of history, tracing structures which go back to 7th century. I had to try hard to take my eyes off the stunning pillar stones encrusted with intricate stories from different epics — stories of Kannappar, Kama, different forms of Shiva, court jesters and female dancers. Sadly, the architectural marvel received scant traction in comparison to the prasadam queue.
We trail through the ancient structure and reached the Vahana Mandapa (Vehicle hall) brimming with tourists, catch a quick glimpse of the touted mango tree, descend a few more mandapas, came across a few blink-and-you-miss-it appearances of ‘love’, cast on stone pillars. When you are at Ekambareshwarar temple ask for the Buddha sculptures, and you’ll be directed to a temple wall embedded with these figures, giving us a taste of the last remaining traces of Buddhism influence in the south Indian town.
The Kalyana Mandapa
Back on the road, we head to Sri Varadharaja Perumal Temple dedicated to Vishnu, five kilometres away from our location. Except for the faint chatter of the usual stream of visitors, the temple is rather tranquil. We don’t head inside the sanctum, nor do we see the famous gilded lizards, instead, we go straight to the temple’s Kalyana Mandapa — an art gallery, a genius of the Vijayanagara Empire. “There is a wooden image of Varadar kept in a silver casket within a mandapa inside the temple tank. It is taken out and exhibited once in 40 years. It might initially have been kept under water to safeguard the deity during invasions. Later, it was forgotten. But, forty years later, during the rule of the Vijayanagara Empire, the water in the tank receded, and the idol was discovered. Since then, the idol is taken out once in every forty years,” explains Vijay.
The exquisitely carved 100-pillared mandapa is ornate. The chains carved out of single stones, mythical animals, Manmadha, and sculptures depicting Ramayana and Mahabharata are notable. If you are one for details, you can’t miss the sculptures of women vividly decked in different hairdos. We can’t but wonder about the skills of the Sthapathis who turned stone into their personal art canvas.
Story of weaves
By afternoon, we were to take a trip down the sari town and explore the weaving process. But, we decide to gorge on some comforting and delicious local Kancheepuram kovil idlis. The cylindrical idlis, made by steaming a mixture of fermented batter and curry leaves were cut into circular pieces and served on dry plantain leaves. A huge cylindrical portion of the idli, inside the temple costs `350 and can serve up to 20 people.
We didn’t make it to the actual ‘silk trail’, but a local showroom — Sri Kanchi Ganapthi Silk House invited us for a demo on how the rich saris are made. Sekar, a 57-year-old, has been a weaver for the past four decades. From processing the raw silk, de-gumming, dying, drying it, processing the zari, weaving to creating border designs, he does it all. “The designs for the borders are drawn to a scale on a paper and then traced on a graph sheet. Then cards are punched according to the requirement or customisation of design and are processed by jacquard. This creates the patterns on the sari,” he tells us.
Fairly famished after the knowledge gathering on popular border designs and warping, we reward ourselves with a wholesome ‘full-meals’. A set of like-minded enthusiasts in the trip and the meal amid some riveting conversations about history was all I needed to satiate my appetite.
The ‘unfinished’ caves
Vijay shares trivia about our next destination. Quite excited, I look outside the glass window of our van. Lush green fields, cattle, and tall grown grass, all lead us to a village off the Kanchipuram-Vandavasi road, near Dusi — 12-odd kilometres from Kanchi. After a 40-minute drive, we reached an expansive yet secluded site. Were we off the track? I wondered. But, at a distance, I spot our trophy — a string of four 7th-century rock-cut caves, attributed to the Pallava king, Mahendravarman. Even if you miss the signboard, the massive caves will lead you to it, and chances of you getting lost are little.
We stop our vehicle at the base of the first cave and climb the staircase cut into the hill. It’s hard to overlook traces of used liquor cups on the sides of the path to an ASI-preserved monument. But, we are assured it’s safe, and proceed to ascend. “Out of the four caves here, the first two are finished and the other two are unfinished,” says Vijay. Moving closer to the structure, we notice pillars and pilasters, and lotus medallions. “These structures are typically a Mahendravarman style of architecture,” he says. Mahendravarman was the chitrakar who pioneered the famous rock-cut temples in present Mahabalipuram.
Our view turns from the cave to the skyline and down to the meadows — a moment of solitude. I am exhilarated and walk towards the adjacent cave. Exploring the three sanctums in the cave, we find traces of paintings inside the sanctum, and inscriptions dating to Parantaka I.
The consecutive unfinished caves are equally beautiful with corbels and pillars. “The work might have come to a halt due to the cracks you see on the pillars and rock,” says Vijay, pointing to crannies. We descend, stand in a vantage point and soak in the view of all four caves.
Our seven-member group is momentarily joined by a few neighbourhood children collecting lemongrass. We hear one of them shout: “Oye, Madras!” Their voice fades as we walk further away from the cave.
We are told to expect and feast our eyes on something spectacular before we head to this temple, the oldest structure in Kanchi. After spending almost half a day in the town, we are fairly accustomed to the grandeur of the town. But the Kailasanathar temple, gleaming in all its glory right before sunset takes our breath away, quite literally.
Once, Vikramaditya, a Chalukya ruler conquered Kanchi, but on seeing the exquisite Kailasanathar temple he decided to leave the city untouched. “He also gave away his personal wealth to the temple. He took the temple architects from the kingdom to build the Virupaksha temple in Pattadakal. Maybe it’s at this exact hour that Vikramaditya saw the temple and fell in love with its beauty,” smiles Vijay. We couldn’t agree more.
The temple built by Narasimhavarman II is constructed of sandstone, and with a base made out of granite. A word of advice to travellers: If you are planning to head to this temple, make sure you plan the itinerary accordingly. A couple of hours are not enough to explore this structure decked with numerous shrines, unique sculptures of Yoga Dakshinamurthy, Gajasamharamurthy, Durga Mahishasuramardini, Kalasamharamurthy, Ganas; inscriptions, fine forms of calligraphy and frescos — a reminder of how richly it was once painted.
It’s 6 pm and the sandstone façade gently shimmers. Tourists and photographers are busy capturing the perfect frame of the temple. But, I would highly recommend you to sit and capture the moment in your very own ‘576 megapixels’.
The trip has almost come to an end, and it is time to say goodbye. I turn to catch a quick, last glimpse — staring into the distance I see the silhouette of the temple in a pink sky sunset.
A perfect end
Piping hot potato bondas, plates of bhajjis, and a classic davara-tumbler brimming with coffee at one of the Kumbakonam Degree Coffee stalls on the highway — (budget snacks for the win) perfect end to a wonderful trip!