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Vol. XXVI No. 04, June 1-15, 2016

Kanchipuram visited – the concluding part Visiting Vishnu Kanchi

by Prema Nandakumar

Visiting Vishnu Kanchi

parameswara-vinnakramParameswara Vinnakram, Photo: Sridhar Selvaraj, courtesy: Wikimedia Commons.

The foremost temple of Vishnu Kanchi (also known as Chinna Kanchipuram) is that of Varadaraja located in the eastern side of the city. The temple is more than a millennium old.
Those who have contributed to its building and growth are the Cholas, beginning from Raja Raja the Great (1018-1054 C.E.), Pandyan kings like Sundara Pandya (13th Century) and the Cheras and the Hoysalas. From the 14th Century onwards, the kings of the Vijayanagar Empire took a great interest in the temple because their spiritual mentor was Kotikannikadhanam Lakshmijumara Tatadesikan.

Among the mammoth structures built during this period is the celebrated Kalyana Mandapa, verily a connoisseur’s delight. Each of the 96 pillars is exquisitely sculpted with innumerable figures. Some action figures seem to be ready to leap towards us. Viswamitra performing tapasya as Menaka dances, a cat trying to catch a dove, Hanuman giving the signet-ring to Sita, the battle of Krishna and Jambhavan, Rati and Manmatha flying on the parrot and swan mounts respectively and Gopikavastrapaharana are some of the lively stories told by the stone pillars. there are scenes from the Ramayana and trick sculptures aplenty (a figure with three faces, four hands and four legs, four monkey faces on the bodies of two monkeys, an elephant when seen from the front, a bull from the back). Some of the irresistible marvels in this mandapam are the stone chains hanging down. All the links including the corner-stone from which it hangs have been cut out of a single stone! Who was this divine sculptor? Who knows?

The temple’s front gopuram rises to thirty metres with seven tiers topped by nine kalasas. The gracious pond, Anantha Pushkarini, has various shrines around it including a Lakshmi varaha in a tiny niche, a tiny poem sculpted in stone. Going towards the hill which forms the centre of the complex, our first salutation is to Yoga Narasimha in a cave. The upper part of this cave is the Hasti Hill. Atop the hill is the sanctum of Varadaraja. You feel thrilled to remember that just here had stood great teachers like Sri Ramanuja, Srivatsanga Misra and Kanchipurana one thousand years ago, gathering illumination that would soon inundate the entire sub-continent with the Yoga of Divine Love.

The twin-lizard legend of the temple is quite popular with pilgrims. On the roof of the eastern corner of the parikrama, we see the etchings of two lizards and with two circles that seem to be the sun and the moon. The legend says that these lizards were originally Brahmin boys. One day, they went to the forest to bring water for their guru Rishi Gautama. They left the pot uncovered and when Gautama used the water, out leapt a lizard. The rishi cursed his disciples to be born as lizards for a while for their carelessness. After they were released from the curse, Indra had a gold and silver lizard made saying whoever stands in this corner and looks at the Hastigiri will get the punya of having recited Hari’s name on an ekadesi day.

Coming down the steps we salute at shrines to many divinities like Dhanvantri, Malayala Nachiyar and Perundevi Thayar (Goddess Mahadevi). She is a very noble presence who never fails to grant a sincere prayer. The huge prakara has niches to acharyas like Nammalvar, Ramanuja, Varavara Muni and Vedanta Desika.

Apart from Varadaraja’s temple, Kanchipuram’s Vaishnava ambience includes several others renowned in history, architecture and literature. There is the temple in Urakam where we worship a massive sculpted image of Trivikrama. His two hands are stretched sideways while the left leg is lifted upwards in the act of measuring the skies. Among other sacred places that are associated with Vaishnava presence in Kanchipuram are Tiruvekha, Ashtabhuyakaram, Tiruthangal and Tirukalvanur.

Of all the Kanchipuram temples, it is Paramesvara Vinnakaram which is talked about much in history and art. One of the most ancient Vishnu temples within a kilometre of the Kanchipuram railway station, it is built in sandstone with an admixture of granite. Originally, the place was math for the use of pilgrims on their way to Banaras. The present structure, with three tiers, was built by the Pallava king, Paramesvaravarman (also known as Nandivarman II) in the 8th Century. There are three sancta one above the other. Thus, we worship Vishnu in the asana or sitting posture (Vaikunta Perumal) in the sanctum on the ground floor, in the sayana or reclining posture (Ranganatha) in the first floor, and in the sthanaka or standing posture (Paramapadanatha) in the second floor.

What takes our breath away in this temple is the innumerable sculptures in the prakaras. Being sandstone, they are crumbling, which is very sad. You can only remain astonished at the subtle chisel of the sculptor that has created a video effect with several series: the battles between Pallavas and Chalukyas, the destruction of Hiranya by Narasimha, the killing of Narakasura by Krishna, the slaying of Vali by Rama, the events concerning the birth of Paramesvaravarman, his assuming kingship, and the Lord teaching the king all the shastras are some of them. The Pallavas were fond of performing the Aswamedha sacrifice and this too has been illustrated. You can even have a look at a pilgrim from China carved on the wall.

In recent history, Krishnadeva Raya of Vijayanagar provided amply for the upkeep of the temple. At present it is under the control of the Archaeological Survey of India. Just beside the temple there is a mosque. The mosque shares the tank of the ancient temple, underlining the tolerant attitude of the Hindu religion.

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Kanchipuram is inexhaustible. You are simply overwhelmed by the legends, history and historical monuments in the city and its environs. The city appears to be a crucible in a divine laboratory. Religion and spirituality are seamlessly woven with secular life even today. The presence of several math-s needs to be mentioned in this context. And the world-famous Kanchipuram silk sarees? But that is yet another story.

(Courtesy: Sri Aurobindo’s Action).

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