Why Kanchi? Why not Madurai or Thanjavur? The original Madurai was destroyed by Malik Kafur, Alauddin Khilji’s general, and rebuilt by the Nayaks around the 17th century. Thanjavur was created by the Cholas with little before and a few Maratha monuments after. Kanchi alone has an uninterrupted history and monuments covering over 2,000 years, not to mention even earlier archaeological artefacts. It is a living testimony to Tamil Nadu’s art history. The temples, sculptures and paintings represent every dynasty and creed. Kalidasa described it as the city of cities—“Nagareshu Kanchi”. It is a Shakti peetha and the confluence of every sect— Shaiva, Vaishnava, Buddhist and Jain—and one of the seven sacred cities of Hinduism.
In 200 BCE, Patanjali refers to the Kanchipuraka or one who is from Kanchi. The city was the southern end of Ashoka’s empire. Parameshvaravarman Pallava refers to Ashokavarman, the ancient king of Kanchi, while Xuanzang visited the city in the 7th–8th century CE to see the 100 feet tall stupa built here by Ashoka. The first Tamil Brahmi inscription is found at Mamandur, very close to Kanchi. But the stupa is gone and while the traces of Jina Kanchi remain, Buddhism has disappeared. It was an ancient ghatika or university for princes and students from all over India.
The Sangam text Perumpaaaarruppadai refers to Kanchi as a beautiful walled city. Ahanaanooru calls it the crown jewel of Tondaimandalam (Northern Tamil Nadu), ruled by the Tirayans, the ancient seafarers. Ilan Tirayan (3rd–4th century CE) built the Tirayaneri, the earliest man-made lake, which is still in use. The Tirayans and Pallavas dug over 90 rainwater harvesting lakes or eris around Kanchi, clearing forests to promote agriculture. The green revolution was possible here due to the foresight of the Pallavas who made a rain-dependent district produce three harvests and beat the famine of the 1960s. They also established temple tanks to maintain groundwater levels.
The first time we come across the word Damila or Tamil is in Dandin’s Avantisundarikatha, written in Kanchi for Narasimhavarman II in the 8th century, and in an Ikshvaku inscription at Nagarjunakonda describing Tondaimandalam as Damila country.
The foundations of South Indian art and architecture were laid in Kanchi. The earliest images precede the Pallavas: the reclining Narayana of the Thiruvekka Temple, the 30-feet high Trivikrama of the Ulagalanda Perumal Temple and the 25-feet tall Pandavadhutar of Padagam, three enormous images made of stucco. The original Varadaraja Perumal image was made of fig wood (athi varadar) and is probably pre-Pallava too. Kailasanatha Temple was South India’s first structural stone temple, built by Rajasimha Pallava in the 8th century CE. Surrounding the circumambulatory passage is a wall lined with 58 small shrines of Somaskanda, each capped by an octagonal vimana and decorated with reliefs of the various forms of Shiva. Nataraja appears for the first time in Pallava art. We can also see early traces of Pallava painting in this temple, with scenes of Shiva, Parvati and Skanda. It is a temple of several firsts: the first to be constructed as per the agamas, with a four-storeyed Dravida vimana, and the first gopuram in a temple complex. Kanchi also has Vesara vimanas. The Pallava period was contemporaneous with the Tamil Bhakti movement and several Shaivite Nayanmaars and Vaishnavite Alwars have sung in praise of the temples of Kanchi.
The chief temple in Kanchi is that of Kamakshi, one of the 51 Shakti peethas. Adi Shankara, one of whose missions was to stop animal sacrifice, visited Kanchi and, according to his disciple Chidvilasa, persuaded King Rajasena (probably Rajasimha) of Kanchi to build a new Shakti temple for Kamakshi (“eyes of love”), replacing the Tantric worship with the Vedic. He consecrated a Shrichakra, which he brought from the Himalayas, in the temple. All the other temples in and around Kanchi face Kamakshi, and every temple chariot circumambulates Kamakshi.
The Vaikuntha Perumal temple is unusual. King Parameshvaravarman II died in 731 CE leaving no heir. So a team went to Cambodia, where an earlier Pallava king’s brother Bhimavarman had migrated and married a local princess. The crown was offered to Bhimavarman’s descendants: The fourth son, 13 year-old Parameshvara Pallavamalla, agreed to return with them and was crowned King Nandivarman II. He became a great scholar of Tamil and Sanskrit and built the unique Vaikuntha Perumal Temple, with three shrines one above the other dedicated to the seated, reclining and standing forms of Vishnu. The reliefs of Nandivarman’s coronation and several figures have typical Cambodian faces. Thus Kanchi was enriched by the art of Cambodia and also enriched the temples of that Southeast Asian country.
The Cholas who followed them built the Chokkeshwara, Jvarahareshvara and Kachishvara temples. But the grand temples came with the Vijayanagara rulers. Ekambareshwara, a Pallava temple of the single mango tree, was rebuilt by Krishnadevaraya with a nine-storey high gopuram, the tallest in Kanchi. Varadaraja Perumal Temple has a 1,000-pillared hall with the famous sculpted stone chain. The walls and ceilings have beautiful Vijayanagara paintings.
At Tirupparuthikunram, there are two Jain temples: Vardhamana Temple is illustrated with paintings of several Tirthankaras. There is still an ancient Jain community, going back to the days of Mahavira in and around Kanchi. Each temple in Kanchi is exquisite and it is believed that there are more than a thousand of them. Every dynasty has left its artistic imprint here, in spite of the attacks by Hyder Ali and Tipu Sultan.
The capital of every dynasty in South India was situated near a textile weaving centre, which was the biggest item of trade. The Pallava capital was Kanchipuram, a traditional cotton weaving centre still noted for its textiles. The Romans paid in gold for cotton calicos, thereby depleting their coffers. Even the British East India Company chose Madras as a port in order to buy and export the textiles of this region. The flourishing trade between India and China brought silk. Weavers were an honoured and privileged class. In the 18th century, Tipu Sultan brought weavers from Benares to develop the famous Kanchipuram silk sari. A Kanchi sari is an essential part of a bride’s trousseau and a family heirloom. Today, cottons and silks have become the clothes of the rich who can afford to starch the former and purchase the latter. The retail price of wedding sarees ranges from about `25,000 to over `1,00,000 per sari.
This ancient city, this living textbook of the art of Tamil Nadu, must be declared a UNESCO Heritage Centre for preserving its rich heritage over 2,000 years. It is now a chaos, with buses competing with bullock carts on narrow streets. Urban planning is essential to showcase its ancient glory, a time when travellers from all over the world visited Kanchipuram.
Historian, environmentalist and writer based in Chennai