Located 70km southwest of Chennai, Kanchipuram is known as the “Golden City of Temples.” It is considered one of the seven main sacred cities of India. It has over one hundred temples now, but at one time it is said to have had about one thousand. Kanchipuram is believed to give eternal happiness to one who goes there.
It is said that “Ka” (Brahma) “anchi” (worshiped) Lord Vishnu at this place and that is why the city was given the name Kanchipuram. Puram means “city.” Kanchipuram is 71km (45 miles) southwest of Chennai on the Vegavati River, and 64km west of Mamallapuram. While Kanchipuram has some outstanding temples, the town itself is not so interesting.
Most people just see the temples here in a day and leave. Kanchipuram was the capital of the Pallavas rulers from the 7th to 9th centuries. It was also important during the Chola, Vijayanagar, and Nayaka periods. It is an ancient place. It was mentioned in the Mahabhasya, written by Patanjali in the 2nd century BC.
Ramanujacharya lived in Kanchipuram during his youth, and Sri Chaitanya visited here 500 years ago. Four of the Alwars—Pey Alwar, Poygai Alwar, Bhutatt Alwar, and Thirumalisai—were born within 50 miles of Kanchipuram. Kanchipuram Temples The city is divided into two main parts—Siva-kanchi, which is the northern suburb, and Vishnu-kanchi, which is the extreme east section of town. There is a group of Jain temples south, across the river. Kailasanatha and Vaikuntha Perumal temples were the most important temples built by the Pallavas. Varadaraja, Kamakshi, and Ekambareswara temples were originally built by the Cholas, but were added onto by the Vijayanagar and Nayaka rulers. Most of the temples are open from sunrise to 12.30 pm and from 4 pm to sunset. Many temples restrict entry to Hindus only.
Sri Ekambaranatha Temple
This temple is dedicated to Lord Siva and is the largest temple in Kanchipuram. The Pallava kings built parts of the main temple, but the rest of the temple complex was mainly built in the 16th and 17th centuries. It has the towering 60m (188 ft) high Raja Gopuram, which was built by Krishna Deva Raya of the Vijayanagar Empire in 1509.
No two towers of the temple are opposite each other, nor are the walls of the temple parallel to each other. There are almost no right angles in the temple. It has a 1,000-pillar hall (actually 540). Most of the pillars are intricately and beautifully carved.
There is a mango tree behind the inner sanctum (main temple) that is said to be 3,500 years old. It has four branches, said to represent the four Vedas (sacred Hindu scriptures). Each leaf of this tree is a different shape. The name of the deity itself is believed to have been derived thus: Eka-Amra-Natha, meaning the “Lord of the Mango Tree.” The fruit from each branch has a different taste. In the path around the tree is a Siva-linga made of 108 small lingas and another one made up of 1008 lingas. You should circle around the tree clockwise (the other way is considered inauspicious). The huge linga is known as the Prithvi-linga, or earth linga, and is one of the five xe "element lingas" element lingas of South India.
The story of the temple is that while Lord Siva was meditating, Parvati playfully covered his eyes for a moment. This resulted in the earth being covered with darkness for years. This angered Siva who cursed Parvati to go to earth and do severe penance. She came to earth and created the earth linga and worshiped it under a single (eka) mango tree in Kanchipuram.
Siva sent different obstacles to test Parvati’s sincerity. When he sent a flood, she clasped to the linga so tightly that imprints were made on it. It is believed that if a woman seeking a child worships here, her desire will be fulfilled. Non-Hindus are not allowed in the inner sanctum.
Kailasanatha means “Lord of Mount Kailash.” It is famous for its sculptures. Most famous of these is the sculpture of Ardhanariswara, who has a vina in her hand. There are fresco-style paintings on the inner walls of the shrine. The outer wall of the temple has 58 small shrines showing different aspects of Siva. The architecture resembles that of the Shore Temple in Mamallapuram. There is a major festival here during Siva-ratri in Feb/March. Non-Hindus can enter the inner sanctum.
Open 8 am to noon and 4 to 6 pm. It is on Putteri Street, in the western part of the city, about a km from the bus station.
Sri Varadaraja Temple
This is a major Vishnu temple built by the Vijayanagar kings in the 12th century. It is counted along with Tirupati and Sri Ranganatha (in Srirangam) as one of the major Vaishnava temples in South India. Varada means the “bestower of benedictions,” and raja means “king.” Thus, Varadaraja means the “king of those who give benedictions.” There is a beautiful garden inside the walls of the temple.
The Deity of Sri Perundevi Thayar goes every Friday to this garden and there is a festival there. There is a Narasimha deity when you first enter the main temple area, called Yoga Narasimha Swami. This temple has a 30m (100 ft) high gopuram originally built in the 11th century and later renovated in the 16th century by the Vijayanagar kings. The 100 (actually 96) pillar mandapa, which has exquisite sculptures, is one of the beauties of India. Mainly avatars of Vishnu, and scenes from the Mahabharata and Ramayana, are carved on the pillars. The main hall is supported by giant pillars, each carved from a different rock.
There are also riders on horseback, beautiful figures of Rathi and Manmatha, and a massive chain carved out of a single stone. The temple covers about 23 acres, which is one of the biggest areas covered by any temple in India.
The temple’s outer walls are 365m (1200 ft) by 545m (1800 ft). Ananta-tirtham, the temple tank, is north of the 100 pillar mandapa hall. The temple ratha (cart) is 18m (60 ft) high. It is beautifully carved and very old. The temple has an exquisite collection of temple jewelry that may be seen if you give a donation. One of the necklaces is said to have been given by Clive, the British Governor of the Madras Presidency. It is said that Clive came on the day of the Garuda-seva festival of Lord Varadaraja and that he presented his wife’s necklace to the priest to adorn the Lord. The necklace is known as Clive Makara-kandi and is used to decorate Lord Varadaraja on the Garudotsavam day.
The original deity of Lord Varadaraja (Atti Varadar), who is said to have been installed by Lord Brahma himself, is in a silver casket inside the temple tank. The deity is taken out every forty to fifty years for 45 to 48 days (some say 10 days). The last occasion was in 1979 and the next will be around 2019.
The story is that Lord Brahma had Visvakarma, the architect of the demigods, make a wooden deity of Lord Varadaraja. The utsava-murti is said to have emerged from Lord Brahma’s sacrificial fire. It was felt that the wooden deity would be ruined if constantly exposed and worshiped.
Therefore the deity was immersed in the temple tank, and a granite deity was installed in its place. Ramanujacarya used to regularly come to this temple in his youth. He is said to have met the great Vaishnava acharya Alavandar for the first time in the courtyard of this temple.