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 Vaisnavite 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 Vaisnava 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.
Dr R. Nagaswamy (b. 1930) is MA in Sanskrit Language and Literature, and PhD in Art and History with Sakta cult in Tamil Nadu. His fields of specialisation are:
Indian Art and Aesthetics, Architecture, Iconography, Bronzes, Numismatics, Epigraphy, Music, Dance, etc. He served as Curator for Art and Archaeology, Government Museum (1959-62); Assistant Special Officer, Archaeology (1963-65); the First Director of Archaeology, Tamil Nadu (1966-88); and after retirement he served as the first Vice Chancellor of Kanchipuram University. A versatile scholar, he has published several books in English, Tamil and Sanskrit. An epigraphist and palaeographer, his articles have been published in 24 languages of the world by UNESCO. His books Masterpieces of Early South Indian Bronzes published by National Museum, New Delhi, and Timeless Delight published by Sarvai Foundation are landmarks in the subject. He has written several dance dramas and presented them all over the world. With Dr Kapila Vatsyayan, he founded the now-famous Natyanjali Festival at Chidambaram. Presently, he is specialising in South-East Asian Art.
This work is mainly a history of the Vaisnavite temples of Kanci with an emphasis more on factual history than religious life. Different building activities in each temple are brought out, with the help of epigraphic records that trace from the beginning to the end of the recent historical period. Even the history of rituals in each temple culminates in the philosophy of the respective temples. These are not generally available, but only myths and legends are found portrayed as real history. A study of available published literature shows that the histories of some religious people are generally depicted as the history of these temples. This work concentrates on men who made solid contributions to art, architecture, rituals, festivals, etc. that made each temple to grow into its present state. In short the present work may be said to be the real life of these temples. The reader is invited to refer to other books on the legendary movements and myths connected with them. There are 108 temples dedicated to Visnu in Tamil Nadu sung by the great Vaisnava Alvars that are called sacred centres — divya desas. As many as fourteen out of these 108 divya desas are situated in Kancipuram. Four divya desas are in one temple complex, namely the Uraham (Ulakalanda-Perumal) temple which incidentally is one of the oldest temples of Kanci. Two of them interestingly are inside two Sivaksetras, one Nilattingal Tundam is in Ekamranatha temple and the other, Adi-Varaha is inside the famous Kamaksi temple.
It is also important to mention that the development of Kancipuram city is intimately connected with the history of the merchant community in the city for the past 2000 years. The kings who took personal interest in the temples appointed the merchant guilds, particularly the weavers, to take care of the day-to-day administration of the temples and gave them privileges for their services. A study shows that Varadaraja, the most important Visnu temple now in Kanci, was not included in the city till almost twelfth century when enormous building activities by the Colas and their contributions got that temple integrated into the city. There is so much material, the history of each temple could be enlarged into a big book but here a balance is struck to present an overview of all the temples. As these temples have enough art material like sculpture, painting, bronzes, architecture, etc. considerable number of illustrations are included to present the ethos of these edifices. Hope this will give enough insight into the main Visnu temples of Kanci and stimulate a similar work on the Siva temples and other temples of Kanci. All the photographs were taken by the author.
I am thankful to Mrs Malathy Sundaram, for helping me to check the text, illustrations and other bibliographical material.
I wish to thank Mr Susheel Mittal for taking great interest in this work and bringing it out neatly and beautifully.
Kancipuram, known as the beautiful city of India in ancient times, was the most important capital of north Tamil Nadu from its known history to the end of seventeenth century for nearly 2000 years. This was captured by the famous Cola ruler Karikalam and passed on to his son Killivalavan’s in the Sangam Age, first-second century CE. Killivalavan’s son through a Naga princess was Tondaiman Ilamtiraiyan who ruled the northern Tami1nac with Kanci as his capital.
A long poem named Perumbanarrupadai on Ilamtiraiyan, by a poet, Kadiyalur Rudram Kannanar gives the description of Kanci. It calls the place Pala-viral-mudur Kacci, admired by the world as a place of festivals. It mentions that the city was laid out in the form of a lotus with Ilamtiraiyan’s palace, “Pon-tuncu-viyan nagar,” in the centre, built of brick and its superstructure covered with gold. The tower could be seen from a long distance. Such lotus layouts are called Padmakcara plan in Vastusastra (Traditional Architectural texts). Pallidal tamarai pokuttil kavara, cuduman ongiya nedunagar. The city of ancient Madurai was laid out in the same lows plan.
The Vastu texts also specify that a Visnu temple should be built in its central part since Visnu is the protector of the universe. As the king was the protector of the country and likened to Visnu in ancient times, his palace should also be in the centre. In Gahgai-konda-colapuram is a fine example of such a capital with a temple of Visnu and also the king’s palace in the centre of the layout with other temples distributed in appropriate directions.
In the ancient city of Kanci there existed a temple dedicated to Visnu as Trivikrama, called Uraham, i.e. “the heart or centre of the city.” The temple continues to exist to this day as Uraham or Ulakalanta-Perumal temple near Kamaksi temple. A study of the inscriptions, literature and also the existing monuments shows that the ancient city was centred around this temple. All the great and well-known temples of Siva, Visnu, Sakti, Kumara, etc. of Kanci are located in this region which was called in ancient times Kaccippedu.
The present Kancipuram city is divided mainly into three parts called
1. Siva Kanci, with Ekamranatha temple,
2. Visnu Kanci with Varadaraja temple, and
3. Jina Kanci with Jaina temples.
There was also a Buddhist temple here up to the thirteenth century. The temple of Varadaraja which is now the most famous Visnu temple was not originally part of the ancient city, but situated beyond its eastern borders and was known as Attiyur.
Important temples in the ancient part of the city are as follows:
9. Thiru-Vehha (Connavannam-Ceyda-Perumal)
11. Patakam alias Pandava-Perumal
14. Dipa Prakasa
16. Pavalavannar and so on.
The Vaikuntha-Perumal temple, originally called Paramesvara Vinnagaram, was built by the Pallava Nandivarman II in around CE 750, was renovated by Kulottuaga Cola I and came to be called Kulottunga-Cola-Vinnagar.
The ancient Kanci extended from Kailasanatha in the west to Thiru-Vehha in the east.
There were many merchant colonies that existed up to thirteenth century, within this area mainly centred around Uraham temple. A good number of inscriptions and royal charters speak about the temple of Uraham, mainly placed under the control of these merchants, financially, administratively and religiously that helped the city to prosper.
Around CE 700 when the great Pallava ruler Rajasimha built the Kailasanatha temple he established four merchant colonies around the centre of the city named after his titles as
• Atimanappadi and
These were active for more than 300 years. There were merchants supplying clothes to the royal household who resided in settlements at the same time named
These were made in-charge of the administration of the temple by the ruling kings. The merchants who lived in the area were called Tantuvayas in Sanskrit and Patasalis in Tamil portion of the record who were supplying cloth to the royal families.
The merchants had received orders from the following kings to
regulate the services of the Uraham temple:
• Pallava Tellarrerinda Nandivarman CE 845-60
• Vijayalaya Cola CE 850-80
• Pallava Vijaya Kampavarman CE 860-90
• Parantaka Cola CE 906-50
The earliest inscription in the temple of Uraham is that of the Pallava Tellarrerinda Nandivarman CE 845-60. At the request of his officer, the Pallava ruler granted permission to the merchants attached to the “Videlvidugu-kudiraicceri” to sell all commodities in their shops without paying any tax. It means that instead of paying the tax to the king it should be paid to the temple. Thus it is seen from the earliest known period, the merchants were associated with the temple.
Uttama Cola’s Order, CE 9S5
Uttama Cola, the immediate predecessor of Rajaraja I, issued a royal order in CE 985, inscribed on copperplates, that have survived to this date, now known as Madras Museum Plates of Uttama Cola. It gives a clear picture of the interest of the rulers in this royal temple of Uraham and detailed information of administration of this temple by the merchants. Uttama ordered the merchants first to verify the existing sources of income of the temple, granted by earlier kings, recorded in stone inscriptions and copperplates. The earlier grants of the kings Vijayalaya Cola, Pallava Kampavarman, and Parantaka Cola were mentioned in the records as a result of verification.
It was found that the temple received incomes from three sources:
1. Lands purchased by the temple from its own funds.
2. Taxes paid to the temple as ordered by the rulers.
3. Interests paid by the merchants and villagers who had taken gold
from the temple treasury on loan.
Uttama Cola ordered division of expenditure into two major heads:
(a) The daily puja services in the temple, its expenditure and administration.
(b) The utsava (festivals), their expenditure and administration.
Two merchant colonies were given the responsibility of collecting the respective revenue, and administer the daily services. They should also audit the account every year.
Other colonies (padis) should collect the revenue relating to festivals, conduct the seven days festivals, enrol special musicians, lamp holders, flower suppliers, etc.
They should audit the accounts of expenditure immediately after the festival was over.
The quantity of proceeds and the revenue to be collected are detailed in the record. Similarly the annual interest on the gold taken on loan was to be calculated at the rate of 12 per cent and collected. An interesting stipulation was that some of these arrangements were in existence from the time of the earlier kings and that should continue.
There was one another merchant colony named “Cola Niyamam,” in which lived some merchants named “Tolacceviyar,” and “Elak-kaiyar.” Their population had dwindled and those who were still there were reduced to poverty. The king ordered that they should not be taxed at all. Instead new immigrant merchants were to be taxed at the rate of one nali of rice and oil per month. No other tax should be levied.
The administration was in the hands of Tanattars in most of the other temples but here we find the merchants responsible for the administration that shows the city was primarily a commercial settlement and its prosperity depended on trade. The merchants were co-opted in the administration of the central temple for the economic wealth of the city. The merchants were to carry lamps, flags, parasols and other paraphernalia of the temple in front of the deity during festivals in lieu of their wages.
One of the inscriptions says “nam ur grama devataiyakiya Urahattupperum an,” the “deity (Visnu of Graham) the presiding god of the town” which shows that the god of Graham was worshipped as the central presiding deity of the city.
Rajaraja Cola I, who succeeded Uttama Cola, added more merchant colonies increasing the commercial nature of the city. He established three more great merchant markets called Peruntheru:
1. Rajaraja Perun-theru,
2. Mummudi Cola Peruntheru, and
3. Ravikula-Manikka Perun-theru.
Rajaraja Cola I and Rajendra Cola I (Ce 985-1044) added more constructions to the Graham Visnu temple.
Under the reign of Rajendra Cola a new shrine was built inside the Graham temple by his Senapati, Raman Krishnan and this temple was dedicated to Krsna.
Their inscriptions are found in fragments built into the enclosure.
The age of Kulottunga I who ascended the throne in CE 1070 and ruled up to CE 1125 was the golden age of Kanci. He built the present stone structure of the main tower and gilded the finial with gold. He found that a considerable area of cultivable lands belonging to the temple was lying fallow without cultivation. The merchants of the region of Kaccippedu took these lands and were cultivating and using their produce. At the request of his queens, the king invited the merchants and persuaded them to return the lands to the temple which they readily agreed. Kulottunga himself went to the temple and standing in the sanctum with his queens gifted these lands back to the temple for its expenses. Kulottunga rebuilt the sanctum towers of all the ancient Visnu temples in the city and made gifts which saw a great flowering of Vaisnavism in the city.
The temple of Sri Krsna called Padakam, presently known as Pandavadutar was a great centre of architects who built temples at other places like Uttaramerur.
Kulottunga’s inscription is found in this temple. Another famous Visnu temple in the city called Thiru-Vehha (Yatotkari-Connavannam Ceyda Perumal) temple was the eastern boundary of ancient Kanci. Kulottunga I built the temple of Varadaraja with stone encasing the hillock and built the enclosure and gopura with the result the village temple of Varadaraja became a great temple. Kulottunga’s son built more shrines, kitchen, etc. The Varadaraja has emerged into the limelight.
One of the late Cola inscriptions gives the boundaries of the city which still retained the old status from Thiru-Vehha in the east to Kailasanatha in the west and calls it Mnagaram. Up to the middle fourteenth century we find this situation continued.
The latter half of the fourteenth century saw the establishment of Vijayanagara rule.
The Vijayanagara rulers patronised every religion alike. Suddenly we find enormous activity of buildings and inscriptions shifted to Varadaraja temple in the east. There is practically no inscription in the Uraham temple after fourteenth century till the end of nineteenth century.
More or less the same condition is noticed in other temples and where found they are nothing compared to the enormous activity in Varadaraja. The great Krishnadevaraya and his brother Acyutaraya who succeeded him contributed enormously to the enrichment of the Varadaraja temple and also Ekamranatha temple.
The merchants who were found around the Uraham temple (the centre of the ancient city) have now moved towards the Varadaraja temple and its surroundings. The Varadaraja temple is now integrated with the ancient city of Kanci.
A portrait of Krishnadevaraya in metal is found in the Tayar shrine. The Kalyana Mandapa in the enclosure known for its beauty was built by Acyutaraya. The temple car of Varadaraja was made in the Vijayanagara Age.
Kanci went through some disturbance in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. From its known history it was a great commercial town with merchants playing a vital role in its development. It continues to this day as a leading weaving centre and silk trade. It has been the abode of many religious leaders who were responsible for the religious upliftment of the people.
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