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Sunday, November 26, 2000

Kancheepuram: The divine city
By Tejwant Singh

ACCORDING to Brahmand Purana Kasi and Kanchi are the two eyes of Lord Shiv. Both the cities are believed to be Moksha Puris. So by taking a yatra to these holy places, can one hope break the cycle of birth and rebirth and attain Moksha. i.e., eternal peace and salvation.

Kanchi’s modern name is Kancheepuram. It is considered sacred by the devotees of Shiva, Shakti and Vishnu alike. The great Sanskrit poet Kalidasa mentions sage Vyasa’s pilgrimage to this place in his verses and Markandya Purana tells about the many sages who came here to perform penance. In Bhagwat Purana, Moksha Puri is associated with the holiest of Vishnu Kshetras of Sri Rangam, located on the banks of Kaveri which is as sacred as Ganga.

Kancheepuram — hallowed be thy name! But what really sanctifies this place for veneration and worship? You’d ask! Okay. Let’s listen to the echoes emanating from the immemorial past of the shrines of Kanchi. The chief among them is Ekamaranatha (Lord Shiva) Temple. It is interesting to note that Lord Shiva’s (Siva in Tamil) five sacred shrines in South India are collectively formed by panchbhutas — the elements — of which the prithvi (Earth) is at Kancheepuram. Conforming to this, the Ekamaranatha Temple is consecrated with a lingam made of only sand and protected with a metal covering.

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Exquisitely chiselled monolithic pillars depict scenes from a bygone era. This is no ordinary lingam. It was made by goddess Parvati (Kamakhshi Devi) herself! It is believed that once while in a playful mood, she happened to cover the eyes of Lord Shiva with her hands. As a result, the entire universe was plunged into darkness. Realising her mistake, she descended from Kailash and chose Kanchi — the navel of the Earth — as a place for penance which was necessary to get herself united with her husband. But as she began to pray, the nearby river (Vegavathi) began flooding the region. Afraid of the lingam getting dissolved , she kept holding it high above the surging waters and saved it.

This pleased Lord Shiva and she was re-united with Him. However, the sanctuary that shelters this holy lingam is believed to have been constructed later by Chola kings, around the 6th century B.C.

A special feature of not only this shrine but of all other shrines of South India is that the carvings of the kings’ images who constructed or made additions to them, have been added to premises of each temple. The epigraphical inscriptions on walls of these temples indicate that Kanci was the capital of Pallava, Chola and Andhra kingdoms. The city flourished even during the Vijay Nagram empire in the 14th and 15th centuries.

This city was destined to become a great centre of art and literature. Many references to it can be found in the Sangam Tamil compositions. Institutions for the advanced study of Vedas called Ghatikas were also established here and this gave literary pre-eminence to Kancheepuram. The great philosopher-saint Ramanuja (born at Sriperumbudur near here) had his early education in these institutions and entered the ascetic order at the Vishnu Temple before leaving for Sri Rangam. 

The city’s eminence was further elevated by Adi Sankara Bhagvatapada Acharya, the founder of a line of ascetic thinkers and saints. He established his first math here and helped in the reconstruction of all the three main shrines. Now the many maths of Advaita and Dvaita Sampradayas have branches in the city. Udasin Math set up by Yoga Dayananda Das Bhavji here, provides facilities for lodging, food and clothing to sadhus coming to Kanchi on pilgrimage.

Now proceeding from Ekamaranatha Temple to Sri Kamakhshi temple learned priests will inform you. that during festivals all the utsava-murtis must pass through a specified route around the Kamakshi Amma Temple. During her stay here, goddess Kamakhshi was pleased with the penance of Manmatha (Kama) and blessed him. Childless couples come here to pray to Kamakshi Amma and get her blessings. Another important and unique feature of this shrine is that when Brahma prayed to the goddess here, she ordained that all the temples of Shiva — barring those inside Kanci — would have her murtis. This explains the absence of her murtis from Siva’s garbagraha (sanctum sanctorums) here.

The third most sacred shrine here is of Sri Vardaraja (Lord Vishnu). It is as famous as Sri Rangam or Tirupati. His sanctum sanctorum is on the top of an elephant-shaped rock inside a hall and is reached by a flight of steep steps.

Kancheepuram is a place of countless temples and each one has a history behind it. You’ll find one or more temples in every street. And you can’t miss the umpteen silk-shops! Due to a stiff competition, silk merchants tail youThe Sivaganga tank at Ekamara Natha Temple. everywhere. The cabbies and the Auto rickshawwallahs are their agents. They’ll even show the looms kept in their annexes or attics. These well-polished contraptions are kept there just as pieces of decoration. Nothing is woven there! The silk comes from the weavers’ colony — located a little distance away from the city. So if you have the time and inclination to buy Kancheepuram silk, better go there.

Incidentally, this was my second trip to Kanchi. And what a transformation the city has witnessed! The countryside that looked like a desert earlier has given way to lush green rice fields! It’s about 74 km from Chennai and 120 km from Tirupati.

The famous Vellore-Hospital is also nearby. It is celebrating its centenary this year. But don’t forget the power of prayers. Goddess Kamakshi will take care!

Home This feature was published on November 12, 2000