Thursday, 11 January 2018

2222 Years of Kanchipuram

Kanchipuram, the temple capital of India, and one of the seven most sacred cities considered to be mukthisthalas – cities that can help one reach heaven – was the capital of the Pallava kingdom for several centuries.

The city is most likely named after the Kacci or Kaanchi tree, Trewia nudiflora.

Poets have merrily punned on the word Kanchi, (Sanskrit: girdle), to imply that Kanchi is the beautiful girdle on the waist of Bhudevi.

Sources of history

The political history of Kanchipuram can be gleaned from inscriptions on temples, copperplates, and coins, which mention several dynasties, wars, land grants, donations, judgments, and descriptions of administration, law, rituals, finance, the arts, medicine and education. A number of literary sources in several languages also help us discover Kanchi’s history. The religious literature, especially the poems of the Vaishnavite Alwars and Saivite Nayanmars, commentaries by Acharyas and other scholars,also are quite informative. Literary sources in foreign languages, add to the trove. But as typical of Indian history, most of it has been deduced and reconstructed; few contemporary accounts remain.


The earliest literary reference is in Mahabhashya, a commentary on Panini’s Sanskrit grammar, wherein the city KanchipuraH is mentioned. Scholars estimate that Patanjali composed MahabhashyaH in the 2nd century BC.

PerumpaaN aaRRuppadai and Purananooru, an epic poem and an anthology of the Sangam era, respectively, are Tamil sources that mention Kanchipuram. The former, composed by Kadiyalur Uruthiran Kannanaar, has a poet – a paanan - advising another to visit the city of Kanchipuram, famous for the generosity of its ruler Tondaimaan, and detailed descriptions of the sights and villages on the way, and paints a vivid picture of society two millenia ago. The latter includes a poem by the lady Avvaiyar, advising Tondaimaan, with his armoury of shiny weapons, to avoid war with the army of Athiyamaan, whose armoury reeks with old rusted and blood stained weapons, gently but shrewdly describing the latter’s expertise and experience.

The city was contained in a fort, in the shape of a lotus or peacock, perhaps at different times. No remnant of any fort or palace survives today.

A later work, Manimekalai, describes the eponymous heroine entering the city in direr times.
Literary giants adorned the royal courts, temples, streets, schools and arenas of Kanchipuram. One of first three Tamil Vaishnavite poets, muthal aazhvaars, was born here and bears the name Poygai. Local legend claims that he was born in the temple tank (poygai) of the Tiruvekkhaa temple, but perhaps he was born in a village of that name, now merged into the city.

The poet Bharavi, author of the Sanksrit Brhatkaavya, Kirataarjuniyam, visited Kanchipuram, perhaps in the time of SimhaVishnu around the late sixth century AD, and was so awestruck by its beauty and splendor that he immortalized the city in a poem with the phrase Nagareshu Kanchi.

SimhaVishnu’s son, the most creative and unusual king Mahendra Varma Pallava, composed at least two Sanskrit plays, Matta Vilasa and Bhagavad Ajjukam, which have survived till date. They were perhaps lost but rediscovered in a collection in Trivandrum in Kerala, around the beginning of the twentieth century. The Matta Vilasa is performed at an annual temple ritual in Kerala.
Simha Vishnu Pallava,
Adi Varaha cave, Mamallapuram

Huen Tsang, the Chinese pilgrim, visited Kanchipuram, most likely during the rule of Mahendra’s son Narasimha Pallava. He records several thousand buddhist monks, many monasteries, and a stupa built by Asoka Maurya, none of which are extant.

Dandin, the great Sanskrit poet and author of two Sanskrit plays Dasa Kumara Charitam and Avanti Sundari Katha, and a study of poetics, Kaavya Darsha, lived during the reign of Parameshvara and his son Rajasimha. This last work inspired a Tamil composition Dandi Alangaaram.

Nandi Kalambagam, a magnificent Tamil anthology, has as its hero Nandivarma III, called Tellarru Erindaan or victor of Tellaru. He is also refered to as MallaiyarKon and Myali Kaavalan, Ruler of Mallai and Protector of Mylai.

The Kalingathu Barani, an epic poem describing the Chola conquest of Kalinga, has as its hero Karunakara Tondaiman, the Pallava general of Kulothunga Chola’s army.

Kachiyappa Sivachariyar, composed the Tamil Kanda Puranam, and inaugurated it in the Kumara Kottam temple. Vedanta Desika (1268–1369) and Appaya Deekshita (1520 – 1593), were multilingual scholars who spent several years of their lives in Kanchi. Lists of their composition are too extensive to be mentioned here.

Parimelazhagar, a priest of the Ulagalanda Perumal temple, wrote a monumental commentary on the Tirukkural.

Numerous scholars have been left out of this section, for the sake of brevity.


About seventy km from the eastern shores of the Coromandel Coast of the Bay of Bengal, and today’s capital of Tamilnadu, Madras, lies ancient Kanchi. The river Vegavathi flows through it, though sadly dry and dilapidated. The river Paalaaru and Cheyaaru, run south of the city.

Dr Nagaswamy opines and Dr Sankaranarayan concurs, that Ulagalanda Perumal, mentioned as Ooragam in literature and inscription, must have been the heart of the historic cities. Though of diminished importance now, it sits at the heart of four streets still referred to as Raja Veethis or Royal roads, and most of the oldest temples not only surround it, but also face it, in some manner. From the position of some of these temples, relative to Ooragam, it can be inferred that it was indeed the centre of the city.

In the era of Kulothunga Chola, the city expanded southward, and the Varadaraja temple gained both prominence and patronage, and became the locus of Vaishnavism.

Inscriptions in Varadaraja temple mention four divisions, Siva Kanchi, Vishnu Kanchi, Buddha Kanchi and Jaina Kanchi. The first two regions are extant. While no conclusive evidence for Buddha Kanchi survives, Tiruparithikunram west of the city is most likely Jaina Kanchi.

Political History

The architecture of the temples in Kanchi amazingly reflect the various co-eval dynasties that ruled Kanchi. This chart summarizes this commonality.

Kanchi was capital of the Pallavas, and had its most glorious era during the period between the regins of Simha Vishnu to Aparajita Pallava, roughly from mid fifth to late ninth centuries AD. After the fall of this last Pallava, to Aditya Chola, it remained an important political and military center well into the era of the Chola’s successors, the Pandyas and their  successors the Vijayanagar empire.
Few remnants of its grandeur under the Pallavas survive today. 

A site called Pallavamedu, now occupied, may have archaeological remains. Samudragupta’s Allahabad pillar describes his conquest of Kanchi and triumph over VishnuGopa in the fourth century. 

In the mid sixth century, Simha Vishnu established this city as his capital by defeating the Cholas and Kalabhras. Chalukya Pulikeshi conquered parts of the northern Pallava empire, and enthroned his brother Vishnuvardhana as the first eastern Chalukya king in Vengi, during the reign of Mahendra. But Pulikeshi’s seige of Kanchi failed. Mahendra’s son Narasimha, invaded Vatapi, and ruled the Chalukya kingdom for some years, but then returned to Kanchi. The Chalukyas invaded Kanchi multiple times after his death, but serious devastation was avoided as Parameshvara Pallava tempted the Chalukya army to chase him all the way to the Kaveri, then turned around and conquered Vatapi. 

The reign of Rajasimha (690-728), son of Parameshvara saw not even an attempt at invasion, but the death of his issueless son Parameshvara II caused turmoil. A descendant of a brother of SimhaVishnu, a young prince called NandiVarma Pallavamalla was coronated. His long reign saw frequent battles, but Kanchi stayed in Pallava hands under his 65 year monarchy, and those of his son Dantivarma and grandson NandiVamra III, also called Tellarrerinda Nandi.

An enormous remapping of the city happened under Kulotunga Chola as can be seen from various inscriptions in various temples. His detailed inscription in Ooragam states that his Pallava queen objected to a community of merchants taking over the temple and its surroundings. Kulotunga conducted an inquiry. The merchants stated that they had merely occupied abandoned buildings and restored them, and were willing to hand over the temple and its lands to rightful owners as determined by the king. The merchants then were settled around the Varadaraja temple, which acquired a primacy in SriVaishnavism thence, which was cemented with services of Ramanuja and his legacy.

Kulotunga also allocated lands belonging to the Kailasanatha temple to the Anekatangavadam temple, which were restored by Kumara Kampanna centuries later.

The city was spared the ravages of Malik Kafur and Ulugh Khan, because it had was no longer as big a political center under the Pandyas, but revived under the Vijayanagara kingdom. Krishnadevaraya built the towering gopuram of the Ekamra and Varadaraja temples, and the inscriptions of Achyutha Raya are also all over the latter temple especially. Krishnadevaraya resolved an internecine feuds between the Saivas and Vaishnavas. References to Siva and Vishnu Kanchi as Big and Little Kanchi start appearing around this period.

Inscriptions of various dynasties including Sambuvarayars, Telugu Cholas especially of Vijaya GandaGopala, the Warangal Kakatiyas are found in Kanchi. It was an important town for the Nawabs of Arcot role, who buit some mosques and established the nearby towns of Walajahpet and Walajahbad. The French and British armies skirmished, using temples as their fortresses.



Ayodhya Mathura and Dwarka are Vaishnava mukti sthalas. Kashi Haradwar and Ujjain are Saiva mukti sthalas. Kanchi alone makes both lists, in an ancient convention.

The Alwars and Nayanmars, Tamil poets par excellence, are considered by historians to have lived during the sixth to eighth centuries, and composed their famous poems, which refer to fourteen Vishnu and five Siva temples in Kanchi. Ooragam, Paadagam and Tiruvekhaa linked in a very beautiful poem by Tirumashizai Alwar, may be the oldest temples in Kanchi, since the images of the primary deities in their sanctums are made of stucco, rather than the granite or sandstone that was common in the Pallava and later eras. They are today popularly known as Ulagalanda Perumal, Pandava Thootha Perumal and Sonna Vannam Seytha Perumal. Unfortunately, we have only such literary religious references to the period preceding Rajasimha Pallava in Kanchi. Even these temples were rebuilt during the Chola era, and bear only Chola or later inscriptions.

Fourteen DivyaDesam temples, that is, shrines important to SriVaishnavites, because they have been sung at length by the Alwars exist in Kanchi. Two of these, oddly, may be found inside a Siva and Shaakta temple. Respectively, they are the NilaTingaL Tundattu Perumal and Kalvar Perumal. The walls of Ooragam enclose three other DivyaDesams, Neeragam, Kaaragam and Karvaanam, all perceptibly recent structures with far later primary sculptures than Ulagalanda Perumal himself.

The others are Ashtabhujakara, Dipaprakasa at Thooppul, Pachia Vannar, Pavala Vannar, Azhagiya Singar at Tiruvellukkai, Vaikunda Perumal and what is today the largest temple, Varadaraja, referred to as Athiyur in the paasurams of the Alwars. Several Vaishnava acharyas including Ramanuja, Tiru Kacci Nambi, and Vedanta Desika have extensive connections with Kanchi, and especially the Varadaraja Perumal temple.


Five temples, Ekamra, Merrali, Anekatankaavadam, Onam Kaanthan, and Kachi Nerikaraikkaadu (now called Satyanatheshvara) are the பாடல் பெற்ற கோயில் paadal perra sthalas of Saivism, sanctified by the songs of the Nayanmars.

Six historical Siva temples of the Pallava era, Piravasthanam, Iravasthanam (also called Mrtyunjeshvara), Airavathesvara, Matangeshvara, Mukteshvara and Amareshvara retain some traces of their original structure. The first five are still substantially sandstone, with few Chola or Vijayanagar modifications, but bear some feature of modern attempts at restoration. Amareshvara, originally called Tripurantakeshvara, is a brick structure, but its originally stucco koshtam sculptures have been eradicated and replaced.

The Jvarahareshvara and Chokkeeshvara (also called Kaushikeshvara) temples are fascinating for their architecture and preserve their granite Chola features.

The Kaayarohanam temple, attributed to the Lakulisa sect of ancient Saivism, one of three surviving in Tamilnadu, has unfortunately been renovated with no trace of its age.

The Kailasanatha temple built by Rajasimha, is the pinnacle of art and architecture in Kanchi, aptly described by its author the Ocean of Arts, Kalaasamudra as the Gem of Kanchi - Kanchi Mahamani


The Kamakshi or Kamakoti shrine, is at the heart of the city, and is referred to in the poems of the Nayanmars and has historical inscriptions of various eras. It serves as the only Ambal shrine for the major Siva temples.


Tiruparithikundram to the west of the city, nestling as a separate village, is considered the remnant of Jaina Kanchi. It has an ancient Pallava temple dedicated to the tirthankara Chandraprabha, mentioned also in the Pallankoil inscription of SimhaVarman. It is now not in worship. It is a two storey structure,with the sanctum in the upper floor.

The larger but later Trailokyanatha temple is a temple complex, with sanctums for several tirthankaras, of the Chola period, with later additions in the Vijayanagar era. A significant feature is the Gajaprashta vimana for one shrine and a tree with its own inscription. The sangeetha mandapa in front, with every pillar and the entire celeing painted, was the contribution of a Vijayanagar general Irugappa, who features in a small sculpture at the base of a pillar. Beside the painted images of Mahavira, Vasupuja and Pushpadanta, there are smaller shrines to Parshvanatha, and Dharmadevi or Padmavati Yakshi. This temple also has an extensive collection of bronzes of several tirthankaras and yakshis. It is taken care of a by a small family nearby, and the serves the small community of  Tamil Jains of Digambara sect. This community is better known as the Nainars today.
Ceiling painting,
Jain temple Tiruparithikunram
Adi Sankara, the founder of Advaita doctrine, is said to have estabished a mutt here, which continues today as the famous Kanchi Sankara Mutt.

Several other mutts of various sects are also to located in Kanchipuram. The mutt of Upanishad Brahmendra, now preserved as a memorial, is near the Anekatangavadam temple.

One of the leading lights of the Dravidian movement, which spearheaded Atheism and Rationalism, CN Annadurai, who was Chief Minister of Tamil Nadu, was born in Kanchipuram. His house is now a museum of his artifacts.

There is also a Jumma Masjid near the Ekamresvara temple and mosque near the Vaikunta Perumal temple. Several churches are also active in Kanchi.


Water management, intricately linked with managament of agricultural land, called kaani aatchi, in Tamil, was accorded great importance in Kanchi, a somewhat dry area. The agricultural communities of the present 2018, boast that they surpass the fertile Kaveri delta in farm productivity, due to superior and more efficient practices. Ekambaresvara Padigam, a poem of the twin poets Irattai Pulavar, one lame, the other blind, illustrates this brilliantly with the following poem.

பாணியிற் கங்கை நதி மலையினிற் கயிலைமலை பாரழகினிற் தண்டகம்
பழமொழியில் ஔவை சொல் அரசரிற் சேரமான் பத்தியிற் சிறிய தொண்டன்
காணியிற் தொண்டை புகழில் வேளாளர் புகழ் கான்முனையினிற் பகீரதன்

Among rivers Ganga, mountains Kailasa, beauty Dhandaka
Among proverbs Avvai, kings Cheraman, devotion SiRuTondan
In Land Management Tondai, fame Vellalas, children Bhagirathan

The Mamandur lake, mentioned in Mahendra’s inscription in a nearby cave temple as Chitra Megha Tadaakam, still serves as a major reservoir for agriculture. A similar huge lake near Uthiramerur is called Vaira Megha Tadaakam, also dating from the Pallava era. Hundreds of ponds lakes and catchments dot the former Pallava territory, though the city of Madras and industrial growth have drained a significant portion. Glorious temple tanks still dot the city, but some are often dry nowadays.

Modern piped water and sewerage systems were laid in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries following their advent in Madras city. A slab proclaiming Conjeevaram Water Works in a building on the north street of the Mangala Theertham water tank.
Kachapeshvara temple water tank


கல்வியைக் கரையிலாத காஞ்சிமாநகர் Kanchi, unbounded in its learning, lauds Appar in his Tevaram, and indeed it was a center of great learning for millenia. A ghatika for Vedic learning is mentioned in Kadamba copper plate inscriptions from the fifth century, and in Vikramaditya the Second’s inscription in Kailasanatha temple. 

Art and sculpture, music and dance flourished, as did medicine, commerce, and the textile industry. A number of dancers’ names are listed in the inscriptions of the Mukteshvara temple. Mahendra Varma and Rajasimha take pride in their knowledge of music and mention it in their inscriptions. Inscriptions at the Tirumukkoodal temple describe provisions for medicines and treatment.

The textile heritage of silks, and silk looms continue to this day, though the industry went through several transformations with the introduction of mechanized looms and imported textiles. Cultural performances by communities, in villages and towns in the geographical terrain of the Pallava domain, continue an unbroken tradition, whose origins are lost in time.

Note This document was created for the Tamil Heritage Trust 2018 Kanchipuram Site Seminar and for the preparatory lecture to serve as an Introduction to the history of Kanchi

Note March 9,2018 I had written wrongly, that Vedanta Desikar and Appayya Deekshitar were contemporaries. I have corrected this.


  1. Good one. I hope a multi volume book on the history of Kanchipuram. As a man whose ancestral village lies in Tondaimandalam, near SingaperumalKoil, I am keen to give Kanchi it's due place and prestige in the galaxy of world cities of bygone times

    1. Could you please share the name of the book and it's author

  2. Great summary on 2000+ years of Kanchi, this would help me in preparing for this year site seminar. Thanks.

  3. What a treasure if information about Kanchi ,right from ancient days,across beliefs of Saiva, Vaishnavas and across religion and even about athiests and life style then and now .Thanks for the wonderful blog post.All in a nutshell.


  4. RVNATHAN17 January 2018 at 17:18
    What a treasure of information about Kanchi ,right from ancient days,across beliefs of Saiva, Vaishnavas and across religion and even about athiests and life style then and now .Thanks for the wonderful blog post.All in a nutshell.

  5.  I like the valuable info you provide in your articles. I will bookmark your weblog and check again here frequently.

  6. Amazing! I know nothing about traveling all over the country, what a wonderful looking place to explore.