Lions and Yalis, on Stones and Sarees – the Kailasanathar Temple of Kanchi
About a two-hour drive on a picturesque road outside Chennai is Kanchipuram or Kanchi – the capital of the Pallava Dynasty from the 6th to 8th century. They built the place as a place of worship and learning and hence we see the more than hundred finely created temples. The Pallavas created some of the most magnificent stone temple structures during that period and so Kanchipuram is known as the temple city. Later, the Cholas built more temples. The place was briefly occupied by the Chalukyas and the Rashtrakutas. Apart from the hand-woven silk sarees of Kanchipuram, it is known for one of the temple structures that stands out - the Kailasanathar temple.
The oldest structure in Kanchipuram, Kailasanathar is a Shiva temple. It is not only impressive in its size and stone carving, but for the historical presence as well. It is one of the three Kanchis, the other two being the Vishnu Kanchi and the Jain Kanchi. A living temple, it is quieter than other temples. Situated on the banks of river Vedavathi. It was built in the 8th century by king Narasimhavarman II (Rajasimha), who also created Mamallapuram famous Shore Temple.
An architectural delight
Built in the Dravidian style of architecture, the temple has a beautiful presence and stands firm as a strong historical legacy.
Whereas the other temples were made out of stone and rock carvings, the Kailasanathar temple is the first of its kind to be made out of stones. The foundation of this temple is made of granite stone, while the outer structure and carvings are made of sandstone.
The temple has 58 small shrines built on the niches of the wall enclosing the main shrine – the garbha gruha. Almost as a protection to the main shrine. The sub shrines lead to the mandapa – the main hall and the sanctum sanctorum – main shrine. The temple also has a high compound wall and the entrance – the gopuram. The temple has a tower – the shikhara on top, at the center. The tower rises in a pyramid shape with a dome-shaped roof.
The garbha gruha has a sixteen sided shivalinga made out of granite stone. The shrine has sculptural depictions of Lord Shiva and Goddess Parvathi in numerous dance postures. The inner and outer walls are adorned with sculptures of gods and goddesses – Brahma, Vishnu, Durga, Nandi and Shiva in Samhara Tandava (the destructive dancing form), while the Nandi guards the entrance.
The inner walls of the temple depict Durga, Skanda, Bhavati, Tripurantaka, Garudarudha Vishnu, Narasimha Vishnu, desecrating of Yagna of Daksha, Brahma, and his wife, Vishnu flanked by Bhudevi and Sridevi, Lingodbhava, and other sculptures depicting mythological narratives. A number of erect lions are depicted all along the sidewalls of the temple. The low-slung sandstone compound contains a large number of carvings, including many half-animal deities, which were popular during the early Dravidian architectural period.
The festival of Mahashivaratri at the temple
Celebrated every year on the 13th night and 14th day of the Magha month of the Hindu calendar, devotees consider visiting the temple on Mahashivaratri auspicious. It is visited by thousands of devotees during the festival. The otherwise quiet temple comes alive in a different manner during the festival. The devotees consider the experience of making circumambulation around the temple on the day of the festival divine.
The Kailasanathar temple and Kanjeevaram sarees connections
If the temples are a legacy of history and culture, so are the kanjeevaram sarees that are woven in Kanchipuram. Around the 13th century, the reign of the Cholas ended and Kanchipuram came under the rule of the Vijayanagar kings. According to legend, it was the great king Krishnadevaraya who commissioned saree weaving for the women of the palace. These sarees were to be worn for religious ceremonies, weddings, and other festivities. The craft was picked up by two weaving communities — the Devangas and the Saligars, who were reputed for their weaving skills.
Look closely and you will find motifs and decorative patterns from the temple architecture and sculptural details on the sarees. Motifs of animals, flowers, vines, yalis, and birds from the pillars, walls, and vimanas of the Kailasanathar temple can be seen translated onto the textile. That is why, when you own a kanjeevaram saree, it’s more than a nine-yard hand-woven textile. It is a legacy, history and an art form that carries the weight of hundreds of years of stories, creativity, and narrations. It is an epic yarn.
A pretty road
Kanchipuram isn’t too far from Chennai. A short 2-hour drive or a local train from Chennai can get you there. For those who love riding, it’s a beautiful scenic road flanked on either side by green fields and tiny villages. Open skies and fresh air greet you as soon as you leave the Chennai city limits. Soon you will see glimpses of temple architecture as you reach closer to Kanchipuram. Next time you’re in Chennai, we suggest you keep a day or two aside for a visit to Kanchipuram, especially to experience the Kailasanathar temple.