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A Voyage to Kanchipuram
by Thomas Cole

text and photos © and the author except as where otherwise noted

June 07, 2010

(click on small images for large images with captions)

I have been fascinated with Asian classical art for years. In fact, the impetus to venture out into the world and a life of adventure on the road in India at an early age was first provided by my contact with Tibetan thangkhas. That was so long ago that it seems like a lifetime, but more like someone else’s life than my own. I can barely remember NOT being on the road in Asia in my life.

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But after a few years of self imposed exile from the subcontinent, in part enforced by current political realities since 9/11, I chose to return to India, a place I had not seen in 18 years. Yes, I had been to Pakistan, an inextricable component of the subcontinent, as India (or ‘Hindustan’) derives its name from the Indus River, which passes through the heart of present-day Pakistan, emptying into the Arabian Sea. But Pakistan is not India; rather it is merely a small part.

So with some hesitation, I decided to re-visit India. Little did I realize that this visit would evolve into more of a revelation than a reminder. I decided I wanted to go to Kanchipuram in Tamil Nadu, to see the art of those ancient temples. Kanchipuram has been a ‘destination’ of sorts to the odd traveller for many centuries now, and was first mentioned in the 7th century by the early Chinese explorer Hiuen Tsang, who made no mention of the grand temples there, even though it was known as the ‘city of a thousand temples’. He reserved his few remarks to extolling the benign rule of the Pallava king in addition to the piety and bravery of the local populace.

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Kanchi, as it was known at the time, was also a Buddhist centre. It is believed that Bodhidharma, who went to China in the 6th century to spread Buddhism, is originally from there, and it is said that the Buddha himself visited this once great city. It was known as a centre of learning, reputedly second only to Benares, and served as the capital of the Pallavas, who ruled over extensive areas of south India from the 3rd to the 9th century.

But curiously no one I’ve met has ever been there, save for the odd ex-pat saddhu/mystic types who still thrive in 21st century India, or the occasional art dealer, one of whom first mentioned Kanchipuram to me last summer, suggesting I go. The town can hardly be termed a tourist destination as I saw only one stray backpacker, sprawled on the lush grounds of the Kailasanathar Temple, and while one finds a cursory mention in travel guides, Kanchipuram remains a minor footnote to the attractions of Chennai (formerly Madras) and the more popular beach/temple site of Mahaballipuram.

Getting there was remarkably cheap and easy, a two hour ride on a local train from Chennai with none of the crowds one might expect. And where else in the world could one board a train for two hours for 35¢ (15 rupees)? Not unexpectedly, the five minute rickshaw ride to the station from our modest hotel cost more than the train ticket! 

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Passing through the verdant landscape of south India (in contrast to the parched countryside of the north from whence we had come), one can’t help but recall the epic tales of the Ramayana and the Mahabharata, stories of chivalry and treachery, virtue and deceit, as well as enduring love and extended war.  Paintings and sculpture depict some of the epic events of this history, complete with aspects of the rich landscape that could be seen from the windows of our train.

India has been described by travellers as magic, a land of pious people and instant karma, but until one ventures to Tamil Nadu and Karnataka, one really has yet to experience all that India has to offer. I knew we must be close to our destination when, as the train slowed to a crawl, I spotted a huge temple standing alone in a field. Eventually our carriage heaved and jerked to sudden stop. The station appeared to be a candidate for preservation by the Archaeological Office of India, a small run down remnant of British colonial rule. 

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We alighted at Kanchipuram East, unaware of the newer station just a few minutes down the line, and wandered into the street where one rickshaw waited for the stray passenger. Knowing where we wanted to go was not an issue, but our driver had other plans. He immediately set off, irrespective of the direction of our hotel, to meet a friend who aspired to be a tour guide in this ‘city of temples’. We declined their offers.

Dropping our belongings at the hotel, we started to walk in the direction of Kailasanathar Temple, the first stop on our ‘art quest’ itinerary.  Kanchipuram is not a large town (approximately 155,000 people, small by Indian standards), but signs of the learning tradition that dominates the intellectual landscape are omnipresent in the form of clinics, hospitals, and many physicians with private practices. Medical students from all over India come to the south to study, and some apparently stay.

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At first glance, Kanchipuram seems to be a ‘poor’ place and certainly its past glories have dissipated with time. Few signs of the emerging ‘Asian Tiger’ economy of modern India can be seen there. But beggars were few, even around the temples where they traditionally gather, and there is a pleasant rhythm to the lives of the local population. 

Finally, tiring of our search by foot we caught a rickshaw to the temple grounds. Surrounded by lush green lawns featuring a huge stone Nandi (the sacred bull often seen as Shiva’s mount) to one side, the temple compound is not large but obviously ancient. The outer walls of sandstone are slowly melting, and the mythical beasts decorating these ramparts have been worn by time.

The inner sanctum is odd. Currently there is a restoration project underway, the second of its type at this location. The first, a British effort undertaken in the early 20th century, is a miserable failure with crudely applied light grey cement repairs completing the worn and decaying original brown sandstone carving. The second is no better as the decoration of the main walls in the primary temple area is being totally ‘restored’. 

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But there is much to see, with more good art intact from an early period than I have ever seen in one place during my travels in Asia. Dedicated to Lord Shiva, the images are an incredible statement to the artistry of the period and the dedication of the Pallava kings to their beliefs. A handful of  Indian tourists wandered through the site as we took our time, absorbing the incredible sculpture as well as the hidden alcoves containing wall paintings from the same early period. It was an exceptional feast for the eyes, a soothing and awe inspiring experience.

Tearing ourselves away, we ventured on to the next temple on our list, Ekambareswar. Also dedicated to Shiva, it contains a hallway of 1,000 pillars, and was, when we visited it, overrun with pilgrims and local residents gathering for a festival.

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The atmosphere was like a raucous carnival (there was even a ferris wheel for the children), with thousands of people wandering about, including vendors of everything from women’s plastic bangles to colourful Hindu poster art to Indian fast food (home made onion samosas, banana chips, as well as fresh fruit) vying for the attention of the milling masses. 

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We mingled with the crowd, partaking in a spectacle that could only happen in India, enjoying the attention of small children politely asking for ball point pens as their parents occasionally asked us to take their photograph. With darkness falling, the festival culminated in the preparation of traditional chariots bearing large wooden images to be dragged through the streets with stout ropes by men, women and children alike. After hours of revelry, we wearily made our way back to the hotel, thankful for our good timing to be present for this festive occasion.

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The next day was not unlike the first. Wandering the baking streets was punctuated by fresh young tender coconut water, fresh pineapple and grape juice followed by a pit stop at the Saravana Bhavan, a franchise of nutritious (and clean) vegetarian restaurants scattered across the Subcontinent. We decided to go to the Varadharaja Perumal Temple in the southeast corner of the city. Dedicated to Vishnu, it was built in the 11th century by the Pallavas, and expanded by successive Chola kings.

Here we stumbled into yet another festival, though totally unlike that of the previous day. It celebrated the union of Lakshmi and Vishnu, whose images were carried around the 23-acre temple grounds and finally deposited within the large inner sanctum.

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The crowds were absent – only a few people came to witness the ceremony and worship the idols, mostly Brahmin priests, who appeared to have come from all walks of life before joining the religious hierarchy of this temple.

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As the pomp and ceremony subsided, we did as well, retiring to rest up for the return journey to Chennai the next morning.

We considered ourselves extremely fortunate as the ‘gods’ were certainly smiling, allowing us to be a part of two very special events in this ancient town as well as to appreciate the ancient classical art of Tamil Nadu.  The medieval glories of Kanchipuran have been somewhat compromised by the changes in modern India, including priests with mobile phones, the obnoxious horns and whistles of toy vendors plying their wares, and flashing lights in the shape of the timeless Shiva lingam. But our time was well spent and we could have asked for nothing more in our quest to experience the real India that is still alive and well in the south. | articles