Kanchi Diary -3: the Shakti Temples

There is a rich Indian tradition of Mother-Goddess (Shakti) worship that runs in tandem with Siva and Vishnu worship. (Perhaps the Indian male is quite comfortable with the female being placed on a high pedestal— it is gender equality that confuses him!). In this last edition of Kanchi Diary, we explore Shakti Temples.

Kamakshi Temple

Folklore

The story of how Parvati came to Kanchi has already been covered in my earlier post (see Kanchi Diary – 2 ), so I will skip it. A related story is about the name Kanchi Kamakoti — the name by which the adjoining Sankara Mutt is known. Some say that the name is a derivative from Kama-Kodi = Loving- Creeper: Parvati entwined the Siva Linga like a creeper-plant, and hence this place is Kamakodi. I have no means of verifying the etymological correctness of this story.

Inside the Kamakshi temple there is a popular shrine for Vishnu, who is called Kallar-Perumal (Tamil for “the Thief-Lord”). Once, Vishnu and his consort Mahalakshmi had a lovers’ tiff. Mahalakshmi came to Goddess Kamakshi to seek counsel. Vishnu followed Mahalakshmi and hid behind a pillar to eavesdrop on the conversation between the two ladies. Since he performed this stealthy act, he was called Kallar.

Fact

Though technically this is a Saiva Temple, its claim to fame is that it is a significant Shakti Peetham ♠. Traditionally, all temples have a separate sanctum for the Goddess consort of the main Deity. None of the Siva temples in Kanchi have this, because the Goddess Kamakshi in this temple is consort to all the Sivas in all the temples here. Usually the Goddess is represented in standing form; here, Kamakshi-amman is seated in Padmasana with a sugarcane bow and flower arrows. This is by far the most popular Kanchi temple. On the first day we had to turn back because the long queue looked hopeless; even the next day, when we joined the queue early , we could only get a glimpse of the deity – such was the pressure of the crowds. Later my friend Bala identified a vantage balcony, from which we could get a peaceful overhead darshan of the Goddess.

KamakshiElephants

The elephants of the temple relaxing. Note the pictures of the Pontiffs of the Kanchi Mutt in the background.

The Pallavas of the 6th cent CE built this temple. The Kanchi Kamakoti Sankara Mutt is very close by. Adi Sankaracharya visited this temple in 8th Cent. CE and the association has continued ever since. The Gopuram is supposed to be gold lined; unfortunately when I visited it was undergoing repairs and I missed the majestic sight.

KamakshiTank

The Kamakshi Temple Tank. Note the renovation works in the Gopurams in the background.

The Kallar Perumal shrine inside the temple is a much worshipped Divya Desam. This is another rare case of a Siva & Vishnu temple being in the same complex.

Kausikeswara Temple

Folklore

The demoniac duo of Sumban & Visumban were harassing innocent people . So Parvati took the form of a dark angel, Kausiki, and descended on earth to destroy them. Her mission accomplished, she prayed to Siva to restore her golden complexion and take her back to Kailasa. And Siva obliged. This temple commemorates the exploit of the mother Goddess Kausiki. The presiding deity of this temple is known as Kausikeswara or Chokkeeswara.

Kausikeswara

Entrance to the Kausikeswara temple. If you look carefully, you can see that the temple is about 4 feet below street level

Fact

This temple is less than 100 metres away from the Kamakshi temple. It is built about 4 feet below street level (notice the similarity with Ulagalanda Perumal) .Though small, it has a Vimana  with beautiful granite sculptures.

KausikiVimana

The Vimana: artistry in granite.

The temple was built during the reign of Uttama Chola in the 9th cent. CE. The Kanchi Kamakoti Sankaracharya Mutt takes care of the daily rituals, but the site is under the protection of the ASI.

Kumarakottam

Folklore

Brahma behaved arrogantly towards Lord Muruga; moreover he was unable to explain the meaning of the Mantra Aum to Muruga. Enraged, Muruga ordered his guards to jail Brahma. News reached Siva who sent his messenger Nandi to release Brahma. Muruga ignored Nandi, so Siva & Parvati came in person and made Muruga release Brahma. Since he ignored Siva’s original message, Muruga was ordered to go to Kanchi and do penance. Muruga came down and raised a Linga called Devasenapateesar (Deva + Senapati +Eesar = The God of the commander of the divine army—or Muruga’s Lord) and prayed to him. Siva blessed him and this became Kumarakottam. (Kumara= Muruga)

Fact

The exact date of the temple is subject to interpretation. It is widely believed that it was built by Rajasimha Pallava (he also commissioned the Kailasanatha temple) in the 8th cent. CE. The temple is sited between the Kamakshi & Ekambaranatha temples in a Somaskanda position: that is, Muruga seated in between Siva and Parvati. There is a small lane behind Kumarakottam temple that directly leads to Kamakshi temple.

Somaskanda

Somaskanda arrangement: Muruga between Siva-Parvati . Chola bronze at Tanjavur Museum. (Pic courtesy Wikipedia)

The 8th cent. Poet and Vedantist, Kachiyappa Sivachariyar, published Kanda Puranam from the mandapa inside the temple. This work is the Tamil equivalent of Skanda Purana (one of the 18 Maha-Puranas in Hindu scriptures) composed by sage Vyasa. The 15th cent saint Arunagiri Nathar has also worshipped here and composed songs in praise.

Logistics

Kanchi is 80 Km from Chennai, just a little distance away from NH 4. It is well connected with frequent Road and Rail service. There are a number of value- for-money hotels in the centre of town, and there are a few luxury hotels as well. If you stay in the centre of town (not far from the bus stand) many temples are within walking distance. The ones that are a few kilometers away can be easily reached by autorikshaw. The metre system does not work here, so you need to check the distances at the hotel before you negotiate the rates with the auto driver! Surprisingly, most temples are not crowded. The exceptions are Kanchi Kamakshi and Varadaraja Perumal temples, where it is best to beat the crowds by visiting early in the morning.

Last words

Thus ends my travelogue.

For the average tourist, information is not easily available on the architecture and history of the temples. Perhaps there are scholarly works, but these have not been simplified for public consumption. I even suspect (?) that no seminal work has been done after Neelakanta Sastry or C. Meenakshi, who were historians of my grandfather’s era! The Archaeological Survey which manages many sites, has aggressive sign-boards (promising punishment for vandals) but inadequate display of educative information. In a state where politicians wax eloquent on Tamil Culture, not much has been done on the ground.

For ages, Kanchi has been a melting pot of religious faiths. Sometimes religious leaders engaged in cut-throat (literally) competition to get royal patronage. But that is not remarkable; the remarkable thing is that there has been peaceful co-existence most of the time. Most rulers have been positively neutral – i.e. they encouraged scholars of every faith! Rulers of one dynasty did not hesitate to nurture temples built by a previous dynasty. That is indeed a lesson here for our pseudo-secular worthies who run the politics of today. Jai Hind!

The small print…

Shakti Peethams = These are temples where the presiding deity is the Mother-Goddess.  The Brahmanda Purana mentions 64 Peethams, while the MahapithaPurana (17th century) mentions only 52. They are spread over India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Srilanka, Nepal, Tibet & China. Adi Sankara’s Ashta Dasa Sakthi stotram shortlists only 18 and arguably, Kanchi is the most important. Each temple represents a body part of Parvati. Kamakshi represents the eyes of Parvati: Kama+ Akshi = One with the lustful eyes: Parvati had loving eyes for Siva.

 Vimana = This is the pyramidical structure that covers the sanctum sanctorum of the temple

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2 thoughts on “Kanchi Diary -3: the Shakti Temples

  1. ‘Vimana’ looks unusual – it has a rounded gopura – a bit rarer in south indian temples. Mani Mama

  2. Yes, Mani Mama. My own (uneducated) guess is that they followed the style followed by an earlier dynasty — the Pallavas. The ASI says this Kausikeswara temple was built by Uttama Chola — 9th Cent. CE. The temples built by Rajasimha Pallava (Mahabalipuram, Kailasanatha…) in the 8th cent. have gopurams like this. The difference is that they used sandstone, which is soft. Kausikeswara Temple is made out of granite– much more difficult to carve!

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