Kanchi Diary -1: The Vishnu Temples

Over 50 years, I have passed by Kanchipuram (Kanchi) many times; but have never stayed there as a free-spirited tourist even once. So when Bala & Diwa offered to drive me on a 2 day tour of Kanchi, I gleefully accepted.

“Nagareshu Kanchi” …

Orthodox Hindus believe that Kanchi is one of the 7 holy citiesthat one must visit in order to attain moksha . But there is more to Kanchi than just belief. It is one of the oldest continuously inhabited cities in the world. My guess is that the city is at least 3000 years old. Depending on royal patronage of the times, it has alternately been a centre of Buddhist, Jain, Saiva, and Vaishnava tradition and learning. Here, one can see the stamp of almost all Indian royal dynasties. Kanchi was capital city to the Early Cholas and the Pallavas. The other big royal houses that ruled or influenced the city: the Mauryas, Chalukyas, Medieval Cholas, Vijayanagara Empire, Bhamini Sultans, Mughals, Marathas and Arcot Nawabs. Buddha is said to have visited  Kanchi in the 5th cent. BC. At its height, Kanchi was so vibrant that the 4th century poet Kalidasa venerates it as “Nagareshu Kanchi”  — meaning that, of all cities in the world, Kanchi is without par.

Beautiful as it is, today’s Kanchi is but a ghost of Kalidasa’s Kanchi. Alas, most of the Buddhist and a substantial part of Jain heritage have withered away, but significant portions of Saiva & Vaishnava temples have survived. There are over 100 temples, many of them over 1000 years old; devotees worship all of them even today. Beyond religious significance, they are priceless national treasures of art.

We had only 2 days to soak in the city, so we focussed only on the prominent gems. (Hopefully, some day I will go back and experience the lesser known but equally precious gems — especially in Jina-Kanchi and Bouddha-Kanchi).

The Vaishnava Temples

Kanchi is home to 14 of the 108 Divya Desams © worshipped by Vaishnavites. This post covers 3 of the most popular temples, which house 6 Divya Desams between them.

Ulagalanda (a.k.a. Tiruvikrama) Perumal Temple

Folklore

This temple commemorates the Vamana Avatar of Lord Vishnu in Hindu mythology. Mahabali (son of Prahalada) was a generous and just king but suffered from an over-sized ego. This was his greatest barrier to self actualisation. Lord Vishnu decides to break his ego. He comes as Vamana, the poor Brahmin, and asks for a piece of land equal to 3 steps. When Mahabali agrees, Vamana transforms himself into the gigantic Tiruvikrama and covers the netherworld with one step and the heavens with another. With no other place to make the third step, Mahabali offers his own head in order to fulfill his promise. Tiruvikrama’s third step pushes Mahabali to the netherworld, where he ruled sincerely as emperor for the rest of his life. The temple is several steps below the street level, as though depressed by Tiruvikrama’s steps. In Tamil, Ulagalanda Perumal means the Lord who scaled all the 3 worlds.

UlagalandaRajagopura

The Rajagopuram of Ulagalanda Perumal Temple. If you look carefully at the entrance you can see that the temple floor is several feet below street level.

UlugalandaPerumal Vimana

The Vimana of the temple as seen from Vimana Darshan point

Fact

We do not know when exactly this temple was built but we know that it was in the Pallava period (circa 6th cent CE?). Kings of the subsequent dynasties like the Medieval Chola and Vijayanagar also contributed significantly to this shrine.

A unique feature here is that the temple complex houses 3 other temples: Tiruneeragam (Jagadeeswara Perumal) Tirukkaaragam (Karunakara Perumal) and Tirukkaarvaanam (Kaarvaana Perumal). It is not clear if they were part of the original temple or were transferred from elsewhere. But all 4 are Divya Desams and have been extolled in hymns sung by Tirumangai & Tirumazhisai Alwars.

Varadaraja Perumal Temple

Folklore

Legend has it that the God of creation, Brahma, had an intense desire to worship Vishnu in his full glory. A Divine voice directs Brahma to perform the Aswamedha Yaga at Kanchi, which he does in all sincerity. Before he could complete, there is a flash flood in the River Vegavaty (on whose banks Kanchi is situated) which threatens to ruin the yaga. Lord Vishnu not only halts the flood but also appears in his full glorious form and blesses Brahma. The deity which we see in this temple is the beautifully carved image of Lord Varadaraja (Varam + Raja= Varadaraja) or the Lord who granted the boon (to Brahma). The deity is also called Perarulalan (Lord with the utmost Grace).

Another legend concerns 2 disciples of Sage Gautama. While preparing for puja they did not notice that a lizard had fallen into the offerings. As a punishment, Gautama transformed them to Lizards with the proviso that they would be redeemed when they worship Varadaraja Perumal. They did, and thus attained moksha. So this temple has a chamber containing gold and silver lizards. It is believed that those who worship them will be relieved of all curses.

Varadarajagopuram

The Rajagopuram of the Varadaraja temple.

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Examples of stone-work in Varadaraja Perumal Temple: Hanuman carrying the Lord(L) and carved pillar of a mandapa(R)

Fact

The temple is situated in Vishnu Kanchi about 4km away from the centre of town. It is a grand structure situated in a 20 Acre site. It is believed that the boy-King Nandi Varma Pallava-II built the original structure; but the current temple was built by the Cholas in 1053. It was substantially expanded by Kulotunga Chola-I and Vikrama Chola. The beautifully carved 100 pillar mantapa was built by the Vijayanagar kings (KrishnaDeva Raya, perhaps?) in the 16th cent.CE.

This is the most important Divya Desam in Kanchi. Tirumangai Alwar, Bhoothath Alwar and Peiy Alwar have composed hymns here. Carnatic composers Thyagaraja and Muthuswami Dikshitar have composed songs praising Varadaraja Perumal. Ramanuja, the founder of the Advaita School of philosophy, lived in the temple premises for a while.

During the reign of Aurangazeb a Mughal invasion of Kanchi appeared imminent. So the main deity was moved to Udayarpalayam (near Tiruchy) and reinstalled only after his death. Robert Clive visited the temple once and presented an expensive necklace which adorns the deity only on certain festival days.

Underneath the Temple tank lies a silver box containing a deity called Atti Varada Perumal– so called because the statue is made of wood from the Atti (Fig) tree. This statue is excavated every 40 years and displayed to devotees for a mandala of 45 days. The last ceremony was in 1979; eager devotees may witness the next in 2019!

During the Vijayanagar reign the inner walls of the temples were adorned with murals. Now these are in a poor state;  if not carefully attended to the paintings could be lost forever. This is sad, because the temple is otherwise well preserved.

Vaikunta Perumal Temple

Folklore

King Viraocha of Vidarbha had no heirs and so he prayed to Kanchi-Kailasanatha (lord Siva). Siva blessed him such that Lord Vishnu’s bodyguards – Pallavan & Villavan—were born as Viraocha’s sons. The 2 princes were great devotees of Vishnu (naturally!) and they prayed to him in this site called Parameswara Vinnagaram, and Lord Vishnu appeared and blessed them.

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The Vimana of Vaikunta Perumal Temple

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Artistry in stone: 2 examples of the panels found in the Prahara of Vaikunta Perumal Temple

Fact

This temple was built by Pallava King Nandivarman-II circa 8th cent. CE. Later dynasties – Medieval Cholas and Vijayanagar — added to its glory. Tirumangai Alwar has sung Pasurams (hymns) in this Divya Desam.

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A bas-relief facsimile of the standing Perumal that is hidden inside the Vimana

The temple is built in sandstone. Sandstone is easy to carve but susceptible to erosion. The Rajagopuram has already been eroded. The temple is maintained by the Archeological Survey of India, but daily worship goes on.

The sanctum sanctorum is in 3 storeys. In the first storey is the main deity which is a beautiful seated Perumal. The second storey has a Sayana Perumal (lying down) and is open to the public on Ekadesi days only. The top storey has a standing Perumal and is not open to the public. It is covered by the Vimana (the pyramidical ceiling over the sanctum) and open only to the officials who maintain it.

Although a great monument, few people visit this temple, perhaps beause it  is slightly away from the centre of the town. When we went, we found only a few students who had come to study in the quiet atmosphere. We were lucky to find an eager ASI guide who was in search of clients.For a very small fee he showed interesting highlights which normal tourists would have missed. He helped us appreciate the beauty of the artistic stone panels all along the Prahara (square-shaped outer corridor)

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Abstract design carved as bas-relief at the Vaikunta Perumal Temple.Such designs have inspired  the weavers of Kanchi for centuries

I hope you liked this post. In my next post I shall cover the Siva Temples. (Kanchi Diary -2)

For those who like reading the small print….

7 Holy cities or Saptapuri: a Sanskrit sloka says: “Ayodhya Mathura Maya Kasi Kanchi Avantika Puri Dvaravati chaiva saptaita moksadayikah” meaning that Ayodhya, Mathura, Maya (Haridwar), Kasi, Kanchi, Avantika (Ujjain) and Puri are gateways to heaven.

Moksha: specifically, liberation from worldly suffering, or generically, Heaven

Buddha’s visit to Kanchi: HuenTsang the Chinese traveler who visited Kanchi circa 640 CE records that the Buddha visited Kanchi in the 5th cent. BC.

Nagareshu Kanchi: from the poem attributed to Kalidasa: “Pushpeshu Jati, purusheshu Vishnu; narishu Rambha, nagareshu Kanchi” which roughly translates as follows – “The following are without equal: Jasmine among flowers, Lord Vishnu among the male species, Ramba among beautiful women and Kanchi among cities”

© Divya Desams: Literal translation from Tamil= “Premium Places”. These are 108 Vishnu shrines extolled in the 4000 Hymns known as Divya Prabhandam. These were composed by 12 Tamil saints known collectively as the Alwars. 105 shrines are in India and 1 is in Nepal. The other 2 are from the heavenly worlds.

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3 thoughts on “Kanchi Diary -1: The Vishnu Temples

  1. Nice article! I have a question about the Kalidasa quote: Doesn’t “Nagareshu” translate to “I love the town of” or as you stated, “I venerate the town of”? My knowledge of Sanskrit is minimal, so I’m curious how it is interpreted as the city “without par”?

  2. Thanks Badri.
    I am no sanskrit scholar either, so I will attempt to answer your question with what I have learnt from others. A literal translation of “Nagareshu Kanchi” would be something like “Kanchi is THE city” or “Among cities it is Kanchi”. But you must read the whole couplet attributed to Kalidasa (given in the last section of my blogpost), to get the contextual meaning. A literal translation of the whole couplet would be “Among flowers it is Jasmine, among the male species it is Vishnu, among women it is Ramba, and among cities it is Kanchi” . When he says “it is”, the subtle meaning has to be inferred as “it is supreme”; he does not use the specific words “supreme” anywhere. Why? Perhaps, it upsets the metre! You must remember that poets have something called “poetic licence” which is not issued to lesser mortals like you & me ! 🙂
    But seriously, I think he expressed the idea quite well with limited words. And in his times Kanchi was well known for Religious studies (3 major religions covered) Linguistics (Tamil, Sanskrit, Pali at least) Art and Architecture (many of the great temples/ viharas had already come up). It was ruled by great kings with strong armies. An inference of being “without par” would have been justified.Huen Tsang, Chinese traveler validates the same idea in the 7th century as well. 🙂

  3. Pingback: Indian Gods & British Lords | Kowie's Korner

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