Kanchipuram – Carved in Stone and Woven in Silk

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Painted Floor pillared Praharam in Ekambaranathar Temple

Arriving at Chengalpattu station, the glistening massive Kolavai Lake, took my breath away. My train changes direction here, taking me through lush green farms of plantains and paddy fields towards Kanchipuram, the land of spirituality, temple architecture and silk weavers. Kanchipuram is revered as one of the seven sacred pilgrimage centers in the Hindu scriptures. To understand the impact this place had on people, we have to go back in history by about 1500 years, when this place was the crowning glory for the Pallavas. Such is the legend of Kanchipuram.

Bodhi Dharma a Pallava prince of the 5th and 6th century AD
Bodhi Dharma a Pallava prince of the 5th and 6th century AD

Bodhi Dharma and traditions of Kanchipuram
I engaged in a little friendly chat while inside the local train meandering its way towards Kanchipuram. Have you heard of Bodhi Dharma? I ask. An elderly gentleman sitting alongside offered an interesting perspective. Kanchipuram was where Bodhi Dharma, a Pallava prince (popularly known as DaMo in China, Japan and South Asia), lived before he left for China, at the peak of Pallava power around the 5th and 6th century AD.
What he said next was a revelation. He mastered our rich spiritual traditions of Dhyanam (deep meditation) and Varmakalai (unarmed offence and defence), and turned it into a global phenomenon as Zen Buddhism and Shaolin Kung Fu. We have lost Varmakalai, except for Kalaripayattu in Kerala and KuthuVarisai in TamilNadu, where it exists as a sport. What exists though, are the architectural wonders of the Pallava age, since the times of Bodhi Dharma.

Kailasanatha Temple in Kanchipuram
Kailasanatha Temple in Kanchipuram – 1500 year old sandstone rock carved temple

Rock carvings with a difference
I don’t see the usual hustle and bustle of city temples here, as I enter the living legend of Pallava architecture, the Kailasanatha Temple. Sparrows chirping in unison, gives the tranquil Kailasanatha temple, a pleasing vibe. A temple built in the 5th or 6th century AD, and still functional on a daily basis, made me curious. Kanchipuram and Mahabalipuram are both famous for their rock temples. Yet Kanchipuram beckoned the advancement of temple architecture. Mahabalipuram Shore Temple’s rock cut, while Kanchipuram Kailasanatha Temple’s rock carved. From granite to sandstone, I realise, temple architecture moved on with time.

The flower vendor outside Kailasanatha Temple in Kanchipuram
The flower vendor outside Kailasanatha Temple in Kanchipuram

Life goes on near the temple
Soft winds waft across a sunny morning bringing in the scent of fresh flowers from vendors on my way to the Kailasanatha Temple.  Sir, “oru mozham poo”, the flower vendor, sitting outside the Kailasanatha temple, appeals asking me, to take a single measure of knotted fresh white jasmine flowers, the fragrance of which pulls me aside. I know that in this small town as this, I must buy, for her survival. So I accept. I dedicate the flowers to the temple. Her shy smile and the blessings I earned from her are both priceless.

The spellbinding Pallava architecture
Serene and quiet this temple reverberates with an air of religious fervor. It is rare that a temple premises is so neatly carpeted with green grass. Contrasting to it were the sandstone temple walls with neat carvings. It’s a grand sight not to miss. Capturing my attention, are sculptures of “Yazhi” (ferocious standing lions) and “Nandi” (peaceful seated bull). Quite symbolic of the temple architecture of the times, I guess. Given their contrasting composure, I imagine the lions guarding the God and the bull waiting for the God.

Likewise the well preserved the carvings of Shiva Purana and Shiva’s 64 forms, on the temple walls are extraordinary. Their facial expressions, I get a feel, bring alive the mythical stories. Visible in traces are the fresco murals, a rich practice in this place a millennium and half ago. While i was absorbed in the art work on stone, it was getting dark and rain clouds were gathering. That it did not rain helped me have more of such glimpses.

Kamakshi Amman Temple in Kanchipuram
Kamakshi Amman Temple Complex – The Gopurams, a grand sight at night are equally grand as a reflection on the water.

Precious moments of spiritual connect
It is believed that it was at the Kamakshi Amman temple, where Adi Shankaracharya sought blessings to establish his Holy Peetam. Did he go on to establish his fifth Holy Peetam here? Historical evidences fall short of giving clear answers. This temple at twilight paints a picture of transformation, with the Golden Vimana glowing in the soft white light. Standing beside the temple tank for a few good moments, I sense the vastness of the sprawling complex, and personally experience the soulfulness of the place. The silence I enjoyed at the temple will stay with me.

Kanchipuram Kovil Idli served by Kanaga Vilas Hotel
Kanchipuram Kovil Idli served by Kanaga Vilas Hotel

A nice surprise along the way
Adding spice to my experiences, the Kanchipuram Kovil Idli at the Kanaga Vilas hotel, served a nice surprise. I had a taste of this as a kovil prasad in Ekambareshwar temple a while earlier. A picture of grace, the Idli derives its taste from the batter wrapped in Mandarai leaves, and steam cooked in bamboo baskets. Garnished with jeera, ginger, chilly, pepper, cashews, and curry leaves, the course textured and cassata shaped Kanchipuram Idli, lends a unique taste that’s best described in one phrase – “it’s different”.

Kanchipuram Weaver Devaraj at his work
Kanchipuram Weaver Devaraj at his work

Weaver hopes and lives
Different too are the lives of the weavers, and so I stop by to have a word them. “Weaving’s a lifeline here” divulges Devaraj, one of the weavers I met. “I started weaving at the tender age of 8 and I am doing this for 40 years now” he says. I nudge him for further insights. “Poor living conditions then, prevented my schooling pushing me into handloom weaving trade” he informs. I feel sad at his lost childhood. “Today I plough a lonely furrow in my family in this line of work”, he signs off, indicating he’s among the last of his breed, with a few hundreds of them left.
This story I find, has a common thread across Kanchipuram weavers. There’s none to succeed them in the trade. It’s the debt burden that keeps them going. Weaving one silk saree takes away 15-30 days of a weaver’s time. Their living conditions are far from normal. It appears the handloom weaving in Kanchipuram is a dying art waiting to be rescued. I find that’s the startling truth here in Kanchipuram. Your buying of the Kanchipuram handwoven silk saree supports many families (from rearing to dyeing, to spinning and weaving) that live bordering poverty line, and help them see light the next day.

Handloom weaving of silk saree at Kanchipuram
Handloom weaving of silk saree at Kanchipuram

Genesis of weaving in Kanchipuram
Having got a toe hold of weaver issues, I was curious to know what events contributed to Kanchipuram become a weaving center. I explore to find out the origins through my conversations with weavers. The roots go back to 11th century when Chola empire (under Raja Raja Chola I), gave patronage to help settle silk traders from Saurashtra region. But I understand, the real boost came in the 16th century when Vijayanagar empire (under Krishna Devaraya), gave patronage to help settle silk weavers from Andhra region. The dawn of weaving traditions in Kanchipuram, had well and truly arrived, with these migrations.

A silk paradise waiting to be explored
The click clack sound of the weaving apparatus, keeps me haunting company, while I take a stroll on the streets. I realize this is the biggest thing to happen in Kanchipuram. Inquisitive, I walk into one of the popular stores for seeing the sarees. With a riot of colors strewn in front of me like Tomato Red, Mango Yellow, Parrot Green, Navy Blue, Lotus Pink, and Steel Grey, I’m spoilt for a choice. While I get a feel of the softness of the silk, I deliberate. The one that catches my eye is the saree woven in Korvai pattern.

The Petni technique of knots and interlocking to merge the Thalaippu (Pallu) with the main saree to form the Korvai pattern
The Petni technique of knots and interlocking to merge the Thalaippu (Pallu) with the main saree to form the Korvai pattern
The Petni technique of knots and interlocking to merge the Karai(Border) with the main saree to form the Korvai pattern
The Petni technique of knots and interlocking to merge the Karai(Border) with the main saree to form the Korvai pattern

The creative wonders of Kanchipuram
Unique to Kanchipuram, the Korvai pattern has long distinguished itself well as being traditional. The Body (six yards saree), the Karai (Border), and the Thalaippu (Pallu or Stole), are woven separate and well integrated, by the double warp and weft, knotting and interlocking Petni technique.
What impresses me much is that the three parts of the saree have three different colors. The knotting and interlocking look cool and trendy. The Korvai pattern doesn’t come easy on the purse though. A well designed Korvai saree is anything upwards of Rs.20000.
The grandeur of the Karai and Thalaippu, with its mix of silver and gold, quite literally breathe life to Kanchipuram saree. The Yazhi (Lion), Nandi (Bull), Hamsa (Swan), Rudraksha (Beads), Gopuram (Tower), Haathi (Elephant) and Aam (Mango) are some of the designs woven on a handloom silk saree, giving it a character.
Kanchipuram silk saree is a rage world over and is a matter of Indian pride. Who can forget the contribution of the music icon Usha Uthup for making the magical saree equally iconic.

The archeological wonders in Kanchipuram
Included in the much celebrated list of 108 Divya Desam temples are Varadaraja Perumal Temple (a Vaishnavite temple) and Ekambaranathar Temple (a Shaivite temple). Besides these, Kanchipuram has temples in every nook and corner. No wonder then that this place earned the nomenclature of being a land of 1000 temples, that it richly deserves.

The Varadaraja Perumal Temple

The stone rings at the Varadaraja Perumal Temple

While I take a closer look at the Varadaraja Perumal temple, my attention is drawn towards the ornamental stone rings that hangs on the corners of the hundred pillared hall. They are interlaced, just like the olympic rings. How could they have carved it out? I watched in amazement as the rings swing in gentle breeze.

The Ekambaranathar Temple

The legendary mango tree at Ekambaranathar Temple

There is an interesting legend at the Ekambaranathar temple, that this mango tree produces mangoes with four different tastes (sweet, citric, spicy and bitter) from its four different branches. The belief is that these four different branches represent the four different vedas. I wish I could get to taste it, but well, there are seasons to go.

Final thoughts
Known by different names across different periods, the earliest records suggests that it was called Kachipedu, which then became Kanchi, later famously corrupted by the British as Conjeevaram, and finally current name. Very few places have such a journey by name.
There is so much more to discover in Kanchipuram. The Kanchi Kudil is a museum of the erstwhile lifestyle of the people in this place. Then there is the Kanchi Kamakoti Peetam, for people who visit this place with religious fervour.
Take a walk along the Gandhi Road right through to TK Nambi Road, for an experience. From staying, to shopping, to praying, to eating, this stretch has it all. You also have the share autorickshaw for the hop on hop off ride for just Rs.10 all along this route. Kanchipuram deserves to be in your bucket list, for an all-round one of a kind experience.

34 COMMENTS

  1. Very few people know about Kanchipuram beyond the pattu sarees. Thanks for this perspective, your way of looking at out of the way but very relevant places of interest is very refreshing

  2. Very informative and well written. While I could always relate Kanchipuram to the weavers’ community, it was unknown to me about the richness of the place in the historical architecture. Am also curious to know what could have been the circumstances that would have triggered the weavers to historically zero down on a place like Kanchipuram. Also another interesting fact would be to know what would have been reason for Adi Shankaracharya to set the holy peetham. Keep writing. Best wishes.

  3. Very informative and well written. Your choice of words are excellent. While many of them know Kanchipuram only for the sarees they do not know about its past and specifically the Ek ambar eshwar temple one of the pancha bhi tha temples..five elements dedicated to Lord Shiva. The hand woven saris are the most expensive but sad the weavers do not get their share.

  4. A very different perspective and an eye opener on the plight of our dying art forms. I particularly liked the introduction on Bodhi Dharma for reasons close to heart. Very well written. Keep writing.

    • Yes Praveen, blog posts cover a lot on silk sarees but very little is written about the plight of the weavers. Sadly few people know much about Bodhi Dharma, although the movie “Ezham Arivu” did help promote knowledge about his past. I wanted to bring out the little known things in the blog post. Glad you liked it.

  5. I had a blissful week in Kanchipuram. I can totally relate to what you are saying. I visited 30+ temples and many are still left to be explored. Kanchi is a gem that India tourism is yet to explore.

    • Ya Anuradha, Kanchipuram is a total package in itself. I fully agree with you on this. You had the stamina to visit 30+ temples! My goodness! I was keenly following your twitter posts on Kanchipuram, and was motivated to complete writing mine. I am still learning the ropes and hence it took a long time.

  6. An exquisite presentation of Art, Craft, Mythology and History. Kachipuram, has always remained and still remains as the epitome of hindu Mythology. What sets apart this blog from the rest is the touch of humanity that you have brought into your thoughts. Any blog that touches the human mind needs to be special in terms of character and presentation style. Keep blogging. Good Luck and all the very best. 👏

  7. A treasure trove of information.Amazed about the hidden talent in you.Had visited kancheepuram several time in the past as a lay man, but the next visit will be more meaningful as I am enriched by your information. Best wishes for your future endeavour. Neelu (neltan), chrompet.

  8. Very well written. the description of each and everything was simply superb. I understood that apart from sarees there are many interesting things in Kanchipuram. the saree which you displayed is awesome. I liked the colour combination. keep writing. all the best

    • Thanks Vimala. Every temple there has a story to tell, since it dates back to ancient days. In fact there is a story that Raja Raja Cholan 1 built Thanjavur temple after seeing the model of Kanchipuram Kailasanatha temple. Ofcourse silk saree is the cornerstone for many planning a visit to the city. The city is flooded with silk products, but it is very difficult to make out which is real. You got to trust your instincts.

  9. A travelogue is a difficult piece to pen: too much detailing kills the mystique while culling it makes it too subjective, un-representative of the place. Indeed, a tall order to compress centuries of varied existence into an hour-glass format.

    And when someone makes an earnest attempt to encompass all the above – and much more – as pleasurable and informed reading, it is not only satisfying, it’s gratifying too. Superb, Kumar. You have the ability to take the reader along your journey that makes it interactive and involved. Keep it up – and continue to regale us as you tread along your chosen travel paths.

    All the best.

    Padmanabhan N R

  10. A beautiful compilation of facts and experience. Thank you for this well-written article, truly reminds us of how deep our roots go and what we must preserve!

  11. Great coverage. After reading felt like i had a great trip of kanchipuram. Have covered very minutely.

    Waiting patiently for ur next article.

    • Thanks Swarnalatha. Kanchipuram was an experience i wouldn’t forget in a hurry. I too had gone there with preconceived notions, only to return with a different and enlightened point of view.

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