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Vishnu Temples of Kanchipuram
Author Name : R. Nagaswamy,
Binding : Hardbound
10 Digit ISBN : 8124605785
13 Digit ISBN : 9788124605783
Edition : 1st edition
Year : 2011
Pages : viii, 252p.
Bibliographic Details : Index
Size : 23 cm
Weight (approx.) : 1500 gm
Price : $ 120

About The Book

Kancipuram was the important capital of north Tamil Nadu for a long period -- from the first-second century ce to the end of the seventeenth century. It was a beautiful city laid out in the form of a lotus, according to the poem Perumbanarrupadai. It was admired by the world as a place famous for its festivals and noted for its temples. Through the ages, it has been the abode of many religious leaders who devoted their lives to the religious uplift of the people.

This well-illustrated work presents a history of the Vaishnavite temples of Kanci, focusing on the history of the ancient temples from the Sangam Age onwards, the many legends, myths and other accounts that refer to it, and its location and building. It provides a detailed account of some major temples of the city supported by numerous pictures of the temples that cover various aspects of each -- the entrance and other parts of each temple structure, its architecture, and its artistic engravings particularly its sculptural beauty. It delves into the Vaishnava tradition for concepts and ideas underlying the construction of the sanctum and the sub-shrines, and portrayal of divine forms on the walls, pillars and other parts of the temple. There is a detailed study of the sculptures in the main walls of the temples and the main deities in the shrines. It also examines the many inscriptions found in the temples to offer insights into the historical, religious, social and cultural value of the temples.

The volume is bound to interest a host of readers, particularly scholars and students of Indology involved in the study of the cultural traditions of south India and its religious art and architecture.

Book Contents

1. Uraham/Ulagalanda Perumal Temple of Kanci 
2. Thiru-Vehha 
3. Patakam 
4. Vaikuntha Perumal temple 
5. Varadaraja Perumal Temple 
6. Other Temples

Dipa Prakasha Temple 
Nilattingal Tundam 
Pavamla-vannar Temple 
The Paccai-vennar Temple 
The Temple of Narasimha 


Comment By A. Srivathsan
Appeared in The Hindu, July, 2011

Kanchipuram or ‘Kaccippedu’, as it is referred to in inscriptions, is one of the few ancient cities under continuous habitation for more than 2000 years. The city, which originally had a lotus-like compact formation, spread out extensively to emerge as a metropolis whose contours resembled a peacock. Unlike in the case of other temple towns such as Madurai and Srirangam, this expansion was sustained by the growth of not one but by many temple complexes. Hence its poly-nucleated urban pattern.


There have been numerous studies on the individual temples of Kanchipuram and monographs have also been published on them. What distinguishes well-known archaeologist Nagaswamy’s work under review is that it has looked at the temples as clusters and made a comparison.


In all, II prominent Vishnu temples are presented in this book. Of them, the Vaikuntha Perumal and Varadaraja Perumal temples get the maximum attention and claim more than half the space. Of the rest, the architecture and epigraphy of three — Uraham, Thiru-Vehha and Patakam — have been broadly discussed. The remaining six temples find a brief mention.


Most ancient

Based on his reading of the inscriptions and the location of temples, Nagaswamy suggests that Uraham is the most ancient of Vishnu temples and came into existence when the settlement was still a village. This temple, along with the one dedicated to Kamakshi Amman nearby, he says, constituted the core of the city for a thousand years. This is a new perspective on the urban history of Kanchipuram. But some of the existing views, such as the excavations and analysis of one expressed by K.V. Raman, run counter to it. The alternative formulation, based on the urban geography, holds that the core could have been a royal palace where the Kamakshi temple is situated.


An important feature of the book is the detailed analysis it provides of the epigraphs, some of which were discovered by the author himself. For example, the Uraham temple, the book shows, may lack in architecture and sculptural grandeur, but the 21 inscriptions found in it are valuable sources of information on South Indian polity and temple administration. The records of Kulothunga I found here speak of the ritual procedures associated with royal grants, the agama practices followed in the temples, and the link between Kanchipuram and Uttiramerur — an important Pallava period settlement nearby. Similarly, the inscriptions of Vaikuntha Perumal temple belonging to the Chola period describe how temples were extensively renovated and their Pallavas-linked names were changed to commemorate Chola kings.


The discussion on the historical significance of the sculptures in these temples, particularly those of Vaikuntha Perumal and Varadaraja Perumal, is backed by good illuetrations. Nagaswamy points out that the Vaikuntha Perumal temple is not only architecturally unique it is also the only temple in this counter to carry the sculptural depiction of an entire dynasty — the Pallavas, in this case. Photographs with detailed captions helps the reader appreciate the content of the panels better. However, those who may want to know more and read an elaborate interpretation of these sculptures may have to consult the works of C. Minakshi and Dennis Hudson. While Nagaswamy refers to these texts in the book, there is no mention of them in the bibliography.



Some of Nagaswamy’s conclusions are innovative. For example, going by the Ramayana depictions in one of the pillars close to the sanctum, he suggests that the seated figure in the ground floor sanctum of the three-storeyed Vaikuntha Perumal temple was possibly conceived as Rama. This is at variance with what scholars such as Dennis Hudson have to say. Nagaswamy’s postulates may need more supportive evidence before they could gain wider acceptability.


A comparison of these temples with other temple-clusters in Kanchipuram would have contributed to a better appreciatioon of the religious and urban history of the city. For instance, as a 16th century inscription records, there was an overlap of processional routes followed by deities of the Varadaraja Perumal and Ekambaranatha temples. After a mediation effort by Krishnadevaraya, this issue was settled and the routes modified to the satisfaction of both sides. A proper grasp of this later-period intervention is necessary to comprehend the ritual geography of the city in the present. So also, an analysis of architectural and iconographical similarities between various temple clusters would have enhanced the value of the book.

Comment By Indira S. Aiyai
Appeared in Marg Vol. 65, No. 1, September 2013

The history of Kanchipuram goes back to 2,000 years or more. Perumbanatruppadai, a poetic work of the beginning of the common era eulogizes Kanchi, and it was lauded by Kalidasa as “the best among cities”. The Alwars, Vaishnava saints, sang about the temple divinities in 108 sacred places, divya deshas. Of these, 14 are in Kanchi, two of which are situated inside two Shaiva temple compounds. The city was planned and laid out according to Vastu Shastra, with a Vishnu temple at its centre, Vishnu being the protector. The author of the book under review bemoans the present-day building activity giving rise to haphazard planning which is in stark contrast to the plan of the ancient city.
South Indian temple architecture saw great development during the reign of the Pallavas and reached its apogee under Chola and Pandya hegemony. From the time of Rajasimha Pallava around 700 CE, merchants were brought to Kanchipuram, and settled around the temples. They were given administrative responsibilities with regard to the finances of the temple and its rituals. This practice seems to have continued through other dynasties as well. There were silk weavers to the royal families amongst these merchants; their expertise in this field is a legacy enjoyed by the city till today.
The author states that the reign of Kulothunga Chola I (1070-1125) was a golden age for the city. The king made numerous improvements to the temples. He persuaded the merchants to give back the lands belonging to the temples and ruled that the produce be used towards their maintenance.
Based on inscriptions and its location at the centre of the city, Nagaswamy suggests that Uraham temple is the oldest of the Kanchipuram Vishnu temples. Inscriptions of Pallava and Chola kings give us vital information regarding the symbiotic growth of the city and this temple. From the Pallava inscriptions it is seen that the village assemblies were entrusted with the administration of temples. A record of Nandivarman III (845-860) states that a merchant class was exempted from paying tax, but had to channel the tax amount towards the maintenance of the temple. Other Pallava records note the same system, but under the Cholas these arrangements became elaborate, and an intricate pattern was followed regarding the income and expenditure of temples. We learn from the book that there is a copperplate inscription mentioning such arrangements even earlier than the Pallavas. Uraham temple did not receive a single donation from the Vijayanagara kings who ruled the city from 1361 to 1645, though the nearby temples of Ekamranatha and Kamakshi received generous grants from them as well as the later Nayaka rulers. Using a portion of the temple income, the village feeding houses would stage dance performances and plays during festival days. Thus these art forms received generous royal support at the village level. Though the priests of Uraham temple follow the Pancharatra Agama, the followers of both Vaikhanasa and Pancharatra systems lived in amity.
The deity at the Tiruvekka temple is affectionately called “Yathotkari”, or the lord who did as he was told (by his ardent devotee), illustrated by a charming legend. Nagaswamy prefers to call the temple Tiruvehha, deriving the name from the Tamil word “ehha”, meaning sandy slope. The recumbent Vishnu icon here is one of the rare stucco/mortar icons of the early period. Festivals celebrated in this temple fall under two categories — Agamic and those connected with Alwars and Acharyas — and are typical of all Vaishnavite temple festivals. The icon of the goddess Sarasvati is identified with the river Vegavati, similar to the identification of the goddess Bhudevi in the Vishnu temples along the river Kaveri with the river goddess. Though Sarasvati does not belong to Vishnu’s entourage, Nagaswamy finds a plausible explanation for her presence, stating that the Visishtadvaitins wanted to show the superiority of their theology over (Advaita’s emphasis on) jnana. Nagaswamy narrates with gentle humour Ramanujas victory over one Yajnamurti in debate, an episode from the Ramanuja Purana.
From inscriptions in Patakam, the next temple taken up, we learn the interesting detail that the priests serving there acted as bankers managing the donations from devotees.
The three-tiered temple of Vaikuntha Perumal (c. 750-796 CE) does not follow the Vaikhanasa rule that seated Vishnu should be in the sanctum of the middle level, while the standing and lying down icons of the god could be on the other two levels. Here the seated Vishnu is installed at the ground level, recumbent Vishnu in the second, and standing Vishnu at the top. This is the only temple, the author avers, that has all the vyuhas and vibhavas (manifestations) of Vishnu sculpted on the outer wall of the central sanctum. Though the Sundaravarada temple in Uttaramerur is similar to this temple and built within decades of it, it strictly follows the Vimanarchanakalpa of Marichi, and shows a stiffness of postures, lacking the vibrant depictions of the Vaikuntha Perumal sculptures. Nagaswamy infers this might be due to the free hand given to the sculptors in the Vaikuntha Perumal. The secular panels here are a very important source of Pallava history.
The Varadaraja Perumal temple is the most popular today. Nagaswamy draws our attention to the shrine of Anantalvar identified erroneously as Adishesha. He mentions Shesha, a form of Balarama, elder brother to Krishna, who was an agricultural divinity, and personified strength and virility. The cult of the brothers was very popular in Tamil Nadu in the early period, and their worship together was prevalent. Later Vaishnavas prefer to identify the icon with Shesha, the serpent bed of Vishnu. This temple was located in Attiyur, outside the precincts of Kanchi. The original icon was made of Udumbara wood (Ficus racemosa; Tamil — Atti), and is now preserved in a silver box in the temple tank, being taken out and worshipped every 40 years.
The Senesha-anugraha icon of this temple reminds one of the Chandisa-anugraha murti at Gangaikondacholapuram. The mural paintings in this temple complex are stunningly beautiful and belong to Krishnadevaraya’s time (early 16th century). On the walls around the sanctum there are paintings of the 108 sacred shrines, so as one circumambulates the shrines one symbolically visits all the sacred places. The artists have taken great care in distinguishing each icon by its distinctive dress and ornaments. These beautiful paintings are sadly in bad repair. As Nagaswamy bemoans, more than natural causes, electric wiring and over-painting with sectarian caste marks have wreaked havoc here. It is indeed saddening to note that those who are in charge of restoring the paintings are themselves responsible for destroying these priceless art treasures with their ignorant attempts at restoration. Some of the sculptures in the temple also seem to have deteriorated, as seen from the line drawings in the ASI Annual Report Vol. XXXIV (1934-35).
Each of these major temples is treated in detail in a separate chapter, and the socio-cultural life of the period is delineated, entirely based on the extant inscriptions. The last chapter covers six minor temples. The illustrations accompanying the narration are beautiful, and this book should be recommended reading for anybody planning a visit to Kanchipuram. One is reluctantly forced to observe that sometimes the narration and the illustration number do not match (e.g. narration on p. 171 about plate 5.81), and that some words are misspelt (e.g. Tondaim Andalam in caption 1.18, p. 35, whereas lower on the page it is spelt correctly as Mandalam). The book could have benefited from a smoother ending as it concludes abruptly, and a map or even a rough sketch of the city showing the locations of the temples would have been useful.

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