puShpEShu jAti puruShEShu viShNu nadIShu ganga nagarEShu kAnci

Among the flowers it is the jAti that is most superior, among males it is Vishnu, among rivers the Ganga and among towns Kanchi.

The above line has many variants, with the first three changing, but all versions agree on the superiority of Kanchipuram as an urban center. The name is said to derive from Ka (Brahma) worshipping (anci) Vishnu. The town is considered to be one of the seven holy cities of India, of which the others are Haridwar, Kashi, Avanti, Mathura, Ayodhya and Dwaraka. The town was originally planned in a dhanur AkAra (bow shape) with the Vegavati river forming its boundary. Located close to the administrative capital of Madras (Chennai), Kanchipuram is famed for its temples, of which it is said it is impossible to estimate their true number. Kanchipuram has been well known for its Vaishnavite, Shaivite and Shaktaic forms of worship. The Shaivites throng Shiva Kanchi with the Ekambreswarar temple as their citadel, while the Vaishnavites look towards Vishnu Kanchi, which has the Varadaraja Perumal temple as its epicenter. In between is the Kamakshi temple, the hub of Shakti worship. Close by is the Kumara Kottam Subrahmanya Swami temple representing the Kaumaram form of worship. Kanchipuram is truly a Kshetra of great magnitude.

The Origins

Lord Shiva was worshipped by Goddess Parvati, under a mango tree in the shape of a Siva linga made of sand. In order to test Her dedication, Lord Shiva caused the nearby Vegavati river to run in spate thereby threatening to dissolve the linga. Goddess Parvati embraced the lingam in an effort to protect it. A pleased Lord Shiva appeared before Her and united Her with Himself. Goddess Parvati, supremely happy, looked around to find Rati, the wife of Manmatha (God Of Love) mourning his death. He had been burnt to ashes by Shiva. Goddess Parvati restored him to his original form, with the proviso that he would be visible to Rati only. As She restored Kama (another name for Manmatha) with a glance of her eyes (aksha) She is called Kamakshi. As He was softened by the embrace of the Goddess, Shiva is referred to in Tamizh as Tazhuvakuzhaindar. As the linga was made of sand, Kanchi is considered to be the Prithvi (Earth) Kshetra where among the five elements (Earth, Water, Fire, Air and Space), Shiva manifests himself as the Earth.

There are a number of Shiva shrines in Kanchi. But none of them have a separate sanctum for the Goddess as she is considered to be united with Shiva. The only shrine for the Goddess is the Kamakshi temple, which in turn has no shrine for Lord Shiva in it. Kamakshi is said to have been an ugra dEvata, or a Goddess in a malevolent form till the great reformer and saint, Adi Sankara passed that way. He made Her a shAnta mUrti, or a Goddess of benevolent aspect. It is also said that he installed the shrI cakra (a symbolic representation of Devi) in front of Her idol in the sanctum sanctorum. This is worshipped till date. Goddess Kamakshi is seen in seated posture with four arms, each holding a bow, a floral arrow, the noose and the elephant goad. She is said to be parabrhma svarUpiNi or symbolic of the supreme.

The linga that She made for her worship is today referred to as Lord Ekambreswara. He is worshipped in a separate shrine nearby. The mango tree (Amra) is said to have given one (Eka) fruit on each day for offering to the Lord by the Goddess and hence He is referred to as Ekamranatha. Behind the main sanctum stands a mango tree which is said to be over 3500 years old. It gives mangoes of four different flavours which are said to represent the four vEdAs. Beneath this tree is a shrine of Lord Shiva and Kamakshi. In addition behind the main Shiva shrine is a panel depicting Shiva as sOmAskanda (sa Uma skanda, he who is with Uma and Skanda). The concept of Somaskanda is said to be the bedrock of Shiva Kanchi, with the Ekambreswara, Kumara Kottam and the Kamakshi temples together being symbolic of this manifestation.

Besides the Ekambreswara Temple, there are a number of other Shiva temples in the town. The Kailasanatha Temple is known for its sculptures and carvings.

Turning to Vaishnavism, Vishnu Kanchi is home to no less than fourteen of the 108 Divya Desams that are sacred to Lord Vishnu. Foremost among these is the Varadaraja Perumal Temple, whose idol is considered by Vaishnavites to be THE idol of worship. The word Murthy in Vaishnavite parlance only means the Varadaraja idol. The legend of Vishnu Kanchi begins in the Krita Yuga when Lord Brahma prepared for a sacrifice at Kanchi without consulting his consort Saraswathi. The Goddess was enraged and vowed to destroy the sacrifice. She took the form of a river of swift flow (Vegavati) and rushed towards the sacrificial site. Lord Brahma prayed to Vishnu, who immediately lay down across the course of the river. Saraswathi, who was abashed, immediately calmed down and the sacrifice was saved. This event is commemorated at the temple of Tiruvekka, one of the Divya Desams in Kanchipuram.

In Treta Yuga, an elephant by name Gajendra was in the habit of worshipping Lord Vishnu with a lotus after bathing in the Vegavati river. One day a crocodile caught its leg and try as it might the elephant could not extricate itself. It appealed to the primordial source (AdimUlam) of all creation. Lord Vishnu immediately mounted his Garuda and rushed to the spot, where he killed the crocodile with his discus and gave salvation to the elephant. He is said be the King among givers of boons and hence the name Varadaraja. The consort here is called Perundevi. The sthala is called Hasti Giri as it is said to be a hillock in the shape of an elephant. Another version has it that Indra’s elephant Airavata took the form of the hill so that it could have the honour of bearing Vishnu and hence the name. The Lord is called Hasti Giri Varada and in Tamizh He is referred to as Athi Varadan. The main idol of Vishnu is tall and imposing and has four arms. This is a replacement though quite ancient by itself. The original idol, which is made of wood of the athi tree (ficus religiosa) is stored in a casket at the bottom of the sacred tank. It is brought out once in forty years and the next happening will be in 2019.

In addition to Tiruvekka and Athigiri, the other sacred Divya Desams in Kanchi include Ashtabujakaram, Tiruttankka, Tiruppadagam, Tiruneeragam, Karagam, Uragam, Tiruvelukka, Tirukkaarvanam, Parameswaravinnagaram, Tiruppavalavannam, Tirukalvanur and Nilatingaltundam. The last two are located interestingly inside the Kamakshi and Ekambreswara shrines respectively. In Nilatingaltundam, Vishnu is said to have revived the sacred mango tree which had been scorched by Shiva’s gaze. Another version has it that Vishnu was burnt by the poison Halahala during the churning of the ocean and Shiva alleviated his discomfort by casting the rays of the moon on Him. Tirukalvanur is a pillar inside the Kamakshi shrine where there is a tiny idol of Lord Vishnu. He is said to have hidden here to overhear a conversation between His consort Lakshmi and Goddess Kamakshi.

The deity at Tiruppadagam is called the Pandava Dhuta and represents Krishna as he went to the court of the Kauravas to plead the case of the Pandavas just before the Kurukshetra war. It is an enormous deity that is most awe inspiring. However the largest deity at 35 feet is the Ulagalanda Perumal at Uragam. This temple complex also houses Niragam and Karagam. Kanchi is also interestingly the only place where there is a temple to Chitragupta, the accountant of Yama, the God of Death.

In addition to being a center for Hinduism, Kanchi was also a flourishing center for Buddhism and Jainism. Tirupparuttikunram, near Kanchi is referred to as Jain Kanchi and has a temple to Vardhamana.

Historic References :

That such a hoary site as Kanchi should abound with historic references is no surprise. It is referred to by Patanjali in the 2nd Century BC. Manimekhalai, a Tamizh epic of the 2nd Century AD describes Kanchi with a wealth of detail. The Tiruvachakam and the Kanchipuranam also speak of this city.

The Cholas are said to have ruled Kanchi at a very early period. This was followed by the Pallavas who ruled from the seventh to the tenth century AD. Heun Tsang the Buddhist traveler who visited Kanchi in c 600 AD has written about its surviving Buddhist monuments. In the 8th Century Narasimhavarman II Rajasimha began the construction of the Kailasanatha Temple. His son Mahendravarman added to it. He also refers to the Ekambranatha temple in his Sanskrit play Matta Vilasa Prahasana. The Pallavas built both Vishnu and Shiva shrines. The Parameswara Vinnagaram temple was built by Nandivarman Pallava Malla (731-795AD). Interestingly Mahendravarman converted to Jainism for a brief while and added to the Jain heritage of Kanchi before reverting to Hinduism once again.

The Cholas regained control of Kanchi by the 10th Century and ruled till the 13th Century. They contributed to many temples and the Jvaraharesvara temple is attributed to this period. Then followed a period of confusion, which ended only with the rise of the Vijayanagar empire. The Rayas contributed to the expansion of the three big temples namely the Kamakshi, the Varadaraja and the Ekambreshwara shrines. King Krishnadeva Raya built the Gopuram of the Ekambreshwara shrine in 1509. King Achyuta Raya visited the Kamakshi temple in 1554 and made grants to it. He had himself weighed against pearls in the Varadaraja Temple in 1532 and the Tulabhara Mantapa there commemorates this event.

After the decline of the Vijayanagar empire (1565), Kanchipuram saw a period of chaos. Temples were not considered to be safe and many of the utsava murthys in the Vaishnavite shrines were moved to other locations. One such was the Varadaraja Perumal idol which was sent to Tirupati for many years. The golden utsava idol of Goddess Kamakshi, Bangaru Kamakshi, was secreted away in the temple drum by a group of priests and their families and after a long trek that took in places such as Gingee and Udayarpalayam, they finally arrived in Tanjore in the 1780s. There they were given a street to stay in by King Tulaja and a temple was built for the Goddess, which is where the idol remains till date.

The British too arrived in Kanchipuram and a battle was fought in which Robert Clive used the Ekambreshwara Temple as a fortress. In 1799, Hodson, the collector of the District had the Gopuram of the temple repaired. Clive in the meanwhile donated jewels to the Varadaraja shrine and even now a gem called the Clive makarakaNTi is used to decorate the Lord during Garuda Seva. With reorganisation of the districts by the British, Kanchipuram (or Conjeevaram as they called it) became the headquarters of the Chengalpattu Collectorate. The name Kanchipuram was restored post Independence.

Kanchi, for all its religious tilt, was the birthplace of the great rationalist leader and Chief Minister of Tamil Nadu, CN Annadurai. His house, close to the Varadaraja Shrine is now a memorial.

Visiting Saints and Savants:

Kanchipuram has been a favoured spot for several of the 63 nAyanmArs. The big three, namely Sundarar, Sambandar and Appar have sung in praise of Lord Ekambreshwara. Sundarar is said to have recovered the vision of his left eye after worshipping at this temple. The fourth savant, Manikkavacagar, who is not one of the 63, has also extensively sung in praise of the Lord in his Tiruvacakam. Besides Sakkiya, Tirukurippu Tondar and Iyadigal Kadaverku Nayanars lived in the city.

Among the Azhwars, Tirumangai, Bhutam and Pey Azhwars have all sung of Lord Varadaraja. The prolific Tirumangai Azhwar has also created verses in praise of all the other Divya Desams in Kanchipuram. The highly selective Nammazhwar has sung in praise of Tiruvekka only. Tirumazhisai Azhwar has composed on the deities at Tiruvekka, Uragam and Padagam. The Lord at Tiruvekka, Yathothkari, is said to have got up and followed Tirumazhisai Azhwar at his command, when a disciple of the Azhwar was banished wrongly from Kanchi by a chieftain. When the order was rescinded, the Azhwar commanded the Lord to return and so He did. Pey Azhwar has sung on Ashtabhujakaram, Tiruvekka, Tiruvelukka and Padagam. Bhutattazhwar has left verses on Padagam. The sole temple that Poigai Azhwar praises is Tiruvekka. Tirukacci Nambigal was associated with the Varadaraja shrine to which he sent flowers everyday. Sri Ramanuja,(1017-1137) the great Vaishnavite seer is intimately associated with the temples of Kanchi and in particular with the Varadaraja Temple. Vedanta Desika, (1268-1369) the most erudite of Vaishnavite scholars, who was responsible for the restoration of the Srirangam temple after its desecration by the Muslim invasion, was born in Thooppul, near Kanchipuram. He too was closely associated with the town and has composed an aShTakam on the Lord of Ashtabujakaram. He composed the varadarAja pancashat on the deity of Hastigiri.

Arunagirinathar has created verses on Lord Subrahmanya of Kumara Kottam. Kachhiappa Sivacchariyar who wrote the Kanda Puranam is associated with this temple and the hereditary priests here are said to be his direct descendants.

Goddess Kamakshi has been the subject of shlOkAs by Adi Sankara (c 600AD) and also Muka Kavi. Sankara it is said entered the Kamakshi temple through a secret door called the bila AkAsha and then quelled the intensity of the Goddess’ anger. He created the Kamakoti Mutt of his order of which the seer Sri Chandrashekharendra Saraswathi was a saint of our times.

Moving on to music, Kanchipuram occupies a unique status for it is one of the few kshetras where all three members of the trinity, Tyagaraja, Muttuswami Dikshitar and Syama Sastry have composed. Tyagaraja ( 1767-1847) visited the place quite late in life (1837-39 AD). He came in response to the invitation of Upanishad Brahmam, a sanyasi of Kanchipuram. During his visit he composed varadarAja ninu kOri in rAga svarabhUShaNi in praise of Lord Varadaraja and vinAyakuni in praise of Goddess Kamakshi in rAga madhyamAvati. As per the Paramacharya of Kanchi, Tyagaraja chose to bring in Lord Ganesha into a kriti on Goddess Kamakshi because Her temple abounds in numerous sub shrines for Ganesha.

Muttuswami Dikshitar (1776-1835 AD) too visited Kanchipuram at the invitation of Upanishad Brahmam. He stayed at the Upanishad Brahmam Mutt and set Brahmam’s rAma aShTapadi to music, which is now lost. In addition he composed numerous kritis on the deities of the town. On Goddess Kamakshi he created EkAmrEshanAyikE (shuddha sAvEri), EkAmrEshanAyakIm (cAmaram), hE mAyE (this is a note swara set in shankarAbharaNam), kanjadalAyatAkshi (manOhari), kAmakOTipItha (saugandhini), kAmAkshi (simhEndramadhyamam), kAmAkshIm (kalyANi), nIrajAkshi (hindOLam), shrI sarasvati hitE (mAnji), sarasvati manOhari (sarasvati manOhari), sAmagAnapriyE (yet another note in shankarAbharaNam) and kAmAkshi varalakshmi (bilahari). In addition there are a few kritis on Goddess Bangaru Kamakshi at Tanjavur.

On Lord Ekambreshwara, Dikshitar sang EkAmranAtham (gamakakriya), EkAmranAthAya (vIra vasanta) and EkAmranAthEshvarENa (caturangiNi). His song on the prithvi lingam and the sOmAskanda panel is cintaya mAkanda in bhairavi. A note in shankarAbharaNam, shankaravara is on Lord Ekamranatha. The song shailEshvaram in sumadhyuti is attributed to Lord Ekamranatha, though it could be on Lord Varadaraja as well.

ShrI krShNO of the composer in rAga nAsAmaNi could be on Padagam for it is the only Kanchi shrine where the deity is Lord Krishna. Lord Varadaraja is praised in two compositions, varadarAjam upAsmahE in rAga sAranga and a note swara song in shankarAbharaNam.

Syama Sastry (1762-1827AD) was born into the family of hereditary archakas of Bangaru Kamakshi, by then enshrined in Tanjavur. He too became the chief priest in time and dedicated most of his compositions to Goddess Kamakshi. His dEvi brOva is set in a rare rAga cintAmaNi and was composed before he set out to vanquish Bobbili Kesavayya in a musical duel. Syama Sastry has also composed a varnam in Ananda bhairavi on Lord Varadaraja. His son Subbaraya Sastry (1803 –1862 AD) too visited Kanchi and sang EmA ninE (mukhari) on Goddess Kamakshi.

Kanchi since then continues to attract and numerous modern day composers such as the great Papanasam Sivan too have left their songs on the deities of the town. Perhaps the most colourful description of Kanchi as it was in its heydays during Pallava times comes from Kalki Krishnamurthy’s historic novel Sivakamiyin Sabhatam.

Today the town still thrives as a pilgrimage center where devotees come and spiritually recharge themselves. It is considered to be a Satyavrata Kshetra, a place where only the Truth is spoken.

This account of Kanchi was written as a sleeve note for Charsur’s album of songs on Kanchi, sung by Sanjay Subrahmanyan