In an earlier post ( Kanchi Diary-1 Vishnu Temples)I had covered the popular Vishnu temples of Kanchi. In this post we shall see some famous Siva temples. Kanchipuram District ( Kanchi city plus neighbouring towns) is home to 11 of the 275 most holy Siva shrines known as Paadal Petra Sthalams. ♠
Parvati, in a playful mood, came behind Siva and covered his eyes. This caused the whole universe to be plunged in darkness. Siva was not pleased, and asked her to take a break and do penance. Parvati was re-born in Kanchi as Katyayini. There, she raised a Siva Linga of sand on the banks of the river and chanted incessant prayers . Siva secretly watched over her from behind a mango tree. Once, there was a flash flood in the river and Parvati hugged the sand Linga to protect it. Siva was moved by her devotion and materialized in the Sand Linga. He then married Katyayini and took her back to Kailasa. He is therefore known here as Ekambra Natha (Ekam + Amram= Lord from the Mango tree) and Thazhuva-Kuzhaindavar or one who melted in (Parvati’s) embrace. The sthala vriksha (sacred tree of the shrine) is, naturally, the mango tree. This singular tree is said to be 3500 years old and yields 4 different varieties of mangoes (representing 4 Vedas).
Hindu scriptures recognise 5 building blocks of the Universe: Earth (Prithvi), Water (Jala), Fire (Agni), Air (Vayu) and Space (Aakasha). The Siva linga here represents the element Earth and is a Prithvi Linga.♥
Inside this complex is also a Vishnu shrine called Nilaathunda Perumal. According to legend, Vishnu’s skin was scorched by the acidic breath of the mythical serpent Vasuki. He came here and prayed to Siva; the cool light of the moon (Nilaa = moon) on Siva’s head healed Vishnu’s wounds. It is believed that those who worship here would be healed of skin and heat related diseases.
Spread over nearly 24 acres, this is the grandest temple in Kanchi. The majestic Rajagopuram♣ of 59 metres is one of the tallest pagodas in India. The original temple was probably built by the Early Cholas and then expanded during Pallava rule. The Medieval Cholas renovated it. The Rajagopuram was built by the Vijayanagara dynasty in the early 16th century, perhaps during Krishna-Deva-Raya’s reign.
The 4 Saivite Nayanmaars (Appar, Sundarar, Sambandar and Manikkavasagar) have composed hymns here and so too Kaalamega Pulavar. These, and various stone edicts in the site, indicate that this temple is around 1500 years old. There are 5 huge Praharas (square courtyards) around the temple. In the 2nd Prahara there is a beautiful Pancha Mukha Vinayaka. On the other side of the Prahara is a series of Siva Lingas of various dimensions and styles. The most beautiful of them is the Sahasra Linga (1008 lingams). This is a huge Linga with 1000 other lingas carved as bas-reliefs on it.
Next to the sthala vriksha is a lovely bronze depiction of Siva marrying Parvati. Siva has a serene smile and Parvati looks like a coy bride: the ancient sculptor has superbly captured the expression on their faces. My great regret was that I could not photograph these wonderful sights, because photography is prohibited inside the sanctum.
The unique feature of Nilathunda Perumal is that it is a Vaishnava shrine inside a Saiva temple. It is a Divya Desam (Tirumangai Alwar has composed hymns in its praise) within a Paadal Petra Sthalam !
The Devas of Indralok were continually harassed by the Asuras of Tripuri. The Asuras had obtained superhuman powers from their worship of Siva, so they could not be vanquished. So Vishnu went to Tripuri ( as Aadhiputhan) and converted the Asuras to a pagan religion. Once they stopped Siva-worship they lost their powers and were easily beaten by the Devas. The collateral damage was that Vishnu had to bear the sin of converting Siva-devotees into pagans. To expiate this sin, he came to Kanchi and received absolution from Kailasanatha or Siva. It is believed that anyone who circumambulates the shrine would get absolved from sins and be liberated from re-birth.
This temple is slightly outside the main Kanchi town, in a less populated area. There is a lovely lawn surrounding the temple, so one can see the full grandeur of the site from a distance. The temple was built by Narasimha Pallava II (a.k.a Rajasimha) in the 8th cent. CE. It was during the same king’s reign that the beautiful shore temples of Mahabalipuram came up — the archutectural styles are similar. As a layman, I could also see similarities with the Vaikunta Perumal Temple which was built by the Pallavas a few decades later. All these were built in sandstone which is essentially soft and relatively easy to carve. So the sculptures are extremely detailed and beautiful. The outer walls of the sanctum have 58 niches which show Siva in various manifestations.The other outstanding feature is the depiction of standing lions all over the temple.
Sadly, sandstone is also vulnerable to erosion and so many gems have been disfigured or completely lost. Daily ceremonies take place, though the temple is under the aegis of the Archaeological Survey of India. They (ASI) have tried to restore some of the broken sculptures but have failed to come anywhere near the beauty of the originals. The temple priest told us that the ASI halted reconstruction when the public protested about the quality of restoration. We are forced to accept the reality that that art is lost forever.
There is also a semi-historic reference (the miracle of Poosalar Nayanar) to this temple in the 12th C.E. Tamil epic Periya Puranam. But that is a story for another day!
Vishnu took the avataar ♦ of an amphibious tortoise to anchor the extraction of divine nectar (Amrita) from the Paarkadal Sea. In the process he upset the environment of the sea-dwelling creatures. To atone for it the Tortoise-Vishnu came to Kanchi and prayed to Siva. Lord Siva who blessed him came to be known as Kachapeswara (Kachapa+ Eswara = Tortoise + God) It is believed that those who bathe in the Temple Tank and worship the Lord here will receive all the good fortunes that they seek.
This temple is about 10 minutes walk from the Ekambaranatha temple. Although in the heart of the city, it is surrounded by ample open space. The Temple tank had enough water,despite the peak summer. I visited the temple on a moonlit night and there was a mild southerly breeze. The ambience was cool and conducive for contemplating the Divine.
It is believed that the Temple was built by the Pallavas about 1500 years ago.
In my next post I shall cover the temple that symbolizes Kanchi: The Kanchi Kamakshi Temple.
The small print…
♠Paadal Petra Sthalam = A holy place that has been worshipped by the 4 Saiva saints (Nayanmaars) who wrote the sacred hymns known as Tevaaram and Tiruvaasagam. There are 275 such places: 2 in Srilanka, 1 in Nepal, 1 in Tibet and the rest spread over India (but mostly in Tamilnadu). They are comparable to 108 Divya Desams or Holy places of Vaishnavas.
♣RajaGopuram = A tall pyramidical structure at the entrance to a temple. This is usually the tallest structure in the temple and adorned with rich stone carvings and sculptures.
♦Avataar = An earthly manifestation of a Heavenly Deity
♥Pancha Lingas = The other 4 Pancha Linga Temples in South India are Tiruvanaikaval (Jambu-Lingam), Tiruvannamalai (Agni-Lingam), Chidambaram (Aakasha-Lingam) and Kalahasti (Vayu-Lingam)