Sunday, 7 August 2016

Kanchi Kailasanatha Vimana sculptures

I visited Kanchi last week, and took some photos of the sculptures hiding in the vimaana (or athimaana, to use Rajasimha Pallava’s term) of the Kailasanatha temple. For some strange reason, these vimaana sculptures have not attracted much attention, it seems. The scarcity of  books on this marvelous temple is astounding. Even among the mini shrine sculptures, there are quite a few puzzles.

The most comprehensive treatment of this temple is Alexander Rea’s Pallava Architecture, published in 1909 (with reprints by Asian Educational Services). Rea’s book has a pencil sketch practically every other sculpture in the temple, but the vimana sculptures are not represented among the sketches. From the photographs in Rea’s book, it is obvious that the roof was in a perilous state. We are fortunate that the ASI took over this temple and restored it to a state of safety, and accessible to visitors. While the ASI’s efforts in the 1960s to safeguard the Pallava paintings were successful (as listed in an article in South Asian Studies, Ed: Dr R Nagaswamy), the attempts to improve the sandstone sculptures are nothing less than a travesty. In most but not all cases, the lower level sculptures continue to be iconographically similar to the the sketches in Rea’s book. We have a much worse situation with Tripurantaka temple, now called Amaresvara, where the modern cement sculptures have nothing to do with the sketches in Rea’s book.

In Kailasanatha, we can only presume that the iconographicy of the vimana sculptures have not been altered, though the rendering leaves the aesthetics wanting. The sculptures on the lowest tala of the vimanam are hidden away behind the shaalas blocking them, and not easy to spot, view or photograph from the ground level. One marvels at the perfectionism of Rajasimha’s sthapathi and silpis – for their efforts in depiction that are practically invisble to a visitor on the ground level.

The shikhara is at the fourth and highest level of the vimana. Immediately below it, at the third level or tala is one shaala and two karna kutaas. Below this at the second tala or level, are two shaalas and two karna kutaas. Neither of these have any sculptures, except some faces in the nasis of the shaalas. At the fourth tala of the vimana are three shaalas and two karna kutaas. On all four faces of the vimaana, there are sculptures only on the shikara (first level) and the fourth or lowest level. Sculptures adorn the wall on either side of the central shaala on each face of the vimaana.

These shaalas themselves have interesting mini sculptures of Siva dancing in various poses.

South Face

The south face depicts a Dakshinamurthy on the shikara, perhaps in alignment with the magnificent Dakshinamurthy panel on the wall below it. There is an older rishi to Siva’s right and a younger rishi to his left. Instead of a banyan tree, there are vague botanical attempts over his head. Two of the four rishabas (bulls) on the shikhara are visible, whose zoology is much superior to the aforementioned botany.


L: Vishapaharana - R: Chouri bearer
Eight armed kneeling dancing Siva in Naasi

L: Chouri bearer   R: Siva

Siva's foot on a figure

At the fourth level, the right side – eastern segment – has Vishapaharana, and a chouri (fan) bearer female. The left side – western segment - has a dancing Siva on top of an unidentifiable antagonist and another chouri bearer. The south face is the only one with chouri bearers; the other three faces have male dvarapalakas on the extremes. The naasis of the shaalas have eight armed dancing Siva, kneeling on one leg, reminiscent of the large sculptre on the western wall of the temple and the Panamalai painting.

I took these photographs from the tar road flanking the temple.

West Face

The west side of the temple is occupied by locals who have built some houses. I managed to take these photographs without intruding on them, but the approach angles are not simple and the residents may not take kindly to too many visitors.

West face of Vimana

Vishnu on Shikhara

Back: Kalarimurthy
Naasi: Unknown
Below: Skanda or Kubera?

Back: Bhikshatana with rishi / rishipathnis
Naasi: Vinayaka
Below: Narasimha

The shikhara here has a seated Vishnu with conch and discus (shankhachakra). The lowest level has a Bhikshatana murthy, with a rishi and two rishipatnis on the northern left segment behind the left shaala, and a Kalarimurthy with a gana on the southern right segment behind the right shaala. The left shaala has Ganapathy in the nasi, and Narasimha seated below. The right shaala has an unidentified characted in the nasi and either Kubera or Skanda below him.

North Face

I forgot to take a photo of the sculpture on the shikhara here.

The left segment on the fourth level here seems to have Tripurantaka and the right segment seems to have Gangadhara. The naasis of the shaalas in front of these have Kalarimurthy and Gajasamharamurthy respectively. I took these photos from the northern corridor, better photos must be possible from the lawn outside.
Naasi: Gajasamharamurthy
Back: Tripurantaka
Nasi : Kalarimurthy

East Face

The east face is somewhat difficult to photograph, because the Nayak era mandapa blocks some of the angles. The shikhara has a seated Siva with an axe and deer in right and left hands, respectively.
Back: L - Dvarapalaka and R - SivaNaasi:  Kneeling 4-armed Siva

Back: L - Vishnu and R - Dvarapalaka
Naasi:  Kneeling 4-armed Siva
On the fourth level, on the right side (northern) segment are Vishnu and a dvarapalaka. To Vishnu’s left is a standing Sridevi or Bhudevi. In the naasi of the shaala is a four armed Siva, dancing while kneeling on his left knee, right arm across his chest; below him is Vinayaka. On the left (southern) segment, are a dvarapalaka and Siva (the left hand holding a deer is visible). In the naasi of the shaale before him, is a mirror image of the image on the other naasi, i.e., there is a four armed Siva, dancing while kneeling on his right knee, left arm across his chest.

Hopefully better photographs will help understand these.

Related Links
  1. காஞ்சி கைலாசநாதர் கோவில் வாழ்த்து
  2. Lecture on Kanchi Kailasantha temple (video –in Tamil)
  3. Pallava Grantha alphanet in Kanchi Kailasantha temple
  4. Rajasimha Pallava’s calligraphic script
  5. சிற்பத்தில் இந்திரன்
  6. Tripurantaka temple காஞ்சி திரிபுராந்தகர் கோவில்
  7. கல்லிலே ஆடவல்லான்
  8. கோயிலும் கல்கியும்


  1. new interesting find..i think chowry bearer scultures have some siginificance..k.sridaran

    1. Glad you think so.

      I wonder why the vimana here doesn't get as much attention as the vimanas of the Five Rathas in Mamallapuram.

  2. Good work Gopi. Would I be able to see them in my life time?

    1. Just waiting for a little bit of rain, Narasiah sir, but I will definitely take you for a personal tour.