Ancient and marvellous

Print edition : October 07, 2005

The Shore Temple at Mamallapuram. - K. PICHUMANI

LIKE most ancient cities Kancheepuram is also located on the banks of a river, the Vegavati. The city, which was the capital of the Pallavas between the sixth and eight centuries B.C., is surrounded by places of historic and religious importance such as Mamallapuram, Tiruvannamalai, Vellore, Sholingur, Tiruttani and Tirupati.

A Tourism Department pamphlet traces the history of Kancheepuram to several centuries before the advent of the Christian era. The city finds a mention in Patanjali's Mahabhashya written in the second century B.C. Manimekalai, the Tamil epic, and Perumpaanaatru Padai, a great Tamil poetic work, describe the grandeur of the town at the beginning of the Christian era. According to Paththupaattu, one of the Sangam literatures, king Thondaiman Ilandirayan ruled this town about 2,500 years ago.

According to the Tourism Department's Web site, the Pallavas ruled over a territory extending from the Cauvery in the south to the Krishna in the north. They fortified Kancheepuram with ramparts, moats, wide and well-laid-out roads and fine temples. A major maritime power, they had established contacts with China, Siam (Thailand) and Fiji, with ships sailing regularly from their main port, Mamallapuram. The shore temples and the sculptures in Mamallapuram constitute the most famous show-case of Pallava architecture.

The later Cholas ruled this town from 10th to13th century, followed by the Vijayanagara kings from 14th to 17th century. The tower of the Ekamabareswara temple and 100-pillar mandapa of the Varadaraja Perumal temple are the best examples of Vijayanagara dynasty's architectural techniques. Kancheepuram was a major seat of Tamil learning as well as an important place of pilgrimage for Buddhists, Jains and Hindus.

Popularly known as the city of thousand temples, Kancheepuram is one of the seven most sacred pilgrimage centres of Hindus (Ayodya, Madura, Maya, Kasi, Avanthi and Dwaraka are the others). The city has 108 temples dedicated to Siva and 18 to Visnu apart from countless other temples, besides mosques and churches.

Kancheepuram's most famous Siva temple is the Ekambareswara temple. It is spread over 20 acres and its tall south gopuram is 58.5 m high. The main Visnu temple is the Varadarajaswamy temple, atop the Hastigiri, or Elephant, Hill. Built by the Vijayanagara kings, the temple extends over 23 acres. It is known for its beautifully sculptured pillars and the ornamental rings in the form of a chain carved out of a single stone at the four corners of the mandapam.

Kancheepuram is important for Jains too. Many Pallava kings had converted to Jainism, and built temples for the Tirthankaras in the 9th century A.D. The temples have several fresco paintings and a grand image of Bhagvan Mahaveer.

Among the other tourist attractions in Kancheepuram district is the Vedanthangal bird sanctuary, 48 km from Kancheepuram town. It is one of the major fresh water bird sanctuaries in India. Storks, egrets, cormorants, darters, pelicans, moor hens, herons, sandpipers, white ibis, spoonbills, swans and grey wagtails are some of the birds that arrive here from all over the world between October and March.

Mammalapuram, which was a flourishing port town during the time of the Pallavas, is among the most famous tourist spots. The monuments of Mamallapuram are exquisite. They stand testimony to excellent Dravidian temple architecture and the diverse Pallava art. Mythological episodes, epic battles, images of demons, gods and animals are vividly depicted on the walls.

The shore temple at Mamallapuram is, according to the Tamil Nadu Tourism Department, most photographed after the Taj Mahal. These twin structures on the shore of the Bay of Bengal is one of the oldest in South India and first line temple of Dravidian architecture. Since being declared a world heritage monument, a huge wall has been built on one side of the temple to prevent it from further erosion.

There are nine rock-cut cave temples at Mamallapuram. These caves are famous for their real-life depiction of incidents from the Indian mythology. There are bas-reliefs in the various caves. Eight mandapas are located at various sites - the Dharmaraja, Kotikal, Mahishasura, Krishna, Pandava, Varaha, Ramanuja and Siva. In these rock-cut mandapas, there are sculptural motifs depicting various stories from the epics and mythology.

Arjuna's Penance, the pride of Mamallapuram, is an extensive panel (27 metres long and 9 metres high) with life-size images. This carving on the rock wall is the largest bas-relief in the world.

The five rathas are mini-shrines, carved out of one single boulder constructed in the form of chariots. The chariots mark the evolution of Dravidian style of temple architecture.

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