Kanchipuram. The very name evokes pleasant memories for every Tamil in the state. To the wanderers around the globe, it is the city of temples and silks, and the famed Kanjivaram idlis. The capital of Pallava kings, this is indeed a temple town, bustling with about 1,000 big and small temples, most of them more than a few centuries old! This quaint temple town was also the hot bed of religious pluralism, though the remains of such pluralism exist very vaguely all around the town. So, when dear friend and historian Kombai Anwar organised a day trip to the town, I gleefully jumped at the opportunity. The best part of the trip was that we were going to relish the forgotten Buddhist and Jain remnants lying scattered across the town. On an unusually hot October morning, we started on an enticing journey.
The famed Kachabeswarar Temple
Our first halt after a sumptuous breakfast of piping hot idlis and ultra-strong filter kaapi, was the famed Kachabeswarar Temple that lies in the middle of the town’s commercial district. Located in the southern corner of West Raja Street, and about a couple of hundred meters from the famed Kamakshi Amman temple, the sprawling campus is strewn with Pallava lion sculptures. The principal deity of this temple is God Shiva – a ‘Swayambhu’ Linga known as Kachabeswarar, and the Goddess is Soundarambika. The legend has it that Lord Vishnu prayed to Shiva in the form of a tortoise (Kachyapam) here and that is why the name Kachabeswarar. As we approached the seven-tiered main entrance ‘gopuram’, our curator and guide of the day pointed to a couple of tiny Buddhas sculpted on the lower tier of the gopuram. The Buddhas showing dhyana mudras smile at us from above.
He pointed out one more in the inner side’s gopuram and explained that the temple must have been rebuilt during Nayak/Vijayanagar period and the religious pluralism probably of the 16th or 17th centuries. The original temple is older, we find many mention about the temple in the seventh century grammar work Thandiyalangaram. We moved into the temple and found the temple tank – Ishta Siddhi Theertham, one that fulfills our wishes. There are separate shrines for Dharma Siddheswarar, Saraswati, Chaturmukeshwarar, Satyamoli Vinayakar, in the temple.
Ambling along, we came to a pillared inner mandapam, that has unique sculptures. The typical Naga style pillars of Vijayanagar era boast of more Buddhas, all in the common meditating form with dhyana mudra. Sad, most of them within reach are smeared with oil and the ones above it are ‘touched’ with cement. Iconographic details of the statues suggest they might have been much earlier than the Vijayanagar period.
Our next stop was surprisingly, a school! The CM Subbaraya Mudali High School stands in a nondescript bylane near Kachabeswarar Temple, and we were clueless as to what might be there in store for us. As we reached a newly erected caged enclosure on the school grounds, under a tree, a huge surprise awaited us. The four-feet tall Buddha beamed at us, his hands folded on his lap. The probable date of the sculpture might be sixth/seventh century, going by the details. The Buddha was found on the school grounds somewhere around the 1980s, only his face showing outside the soil. Since then, he has braved the sun and rain, until recently a team of volunteers decided to excavate the statue with permission of the school authorities. Little did they know that they would be digging more than five feet underneath to excavate him! They erected a small enclosure right under the tree where he was found, with a tin roof.
So there he sits, peace and quiet in his face, framed by curly locks of hair. The wide eyes, pursed lips and long ears, remain etched in our memory.
The Ekambareswarar Temple and its Buddhist icons
We reached another narrow alley, leading us to the famed Ekambareswarar Temple. As we were running short of time, we were instructed to watch for the Buddhist icons in the temple’s outer compound wall, and leave. To our awe, we found a handful of Buddhas on the inner side of the parapet wall. Almost all of them sit with their hands folded. Though there are no clues about the period when the sculptures might have been made, there is absolutely no doubt that these were dismantled from some other structure (probably a Buddha Vihara that is extinct now), and replaced here as parapet wall blocks. There was apparently a reclining Buddha (Sayana Buddha) in the external side of the same wall, a couple of years ago, which has gone missing now. Feeling sad that only a few such tiny sculptures exist now of the once famed Buddha Kanchi teeming with Viharas, we reached our next point on our tour – the Karukkinil Amarntha Amman Temple.
Situated in Mettu Theru of Pillaiyar Palayam, this temple is said to be at the southern end of town, and the guarding deity of Karukkinil Amarntha Amman Goddess sits here to protect the town. The name “Karukkinil Amarnthaval” might denote the fact that the Goddess is worshipped during ‘Karukku’(sunset) or that the Goddess sat under a ‘Karukku’ (palmyra) tree. The sthala vriksham of this temple is palmyra. Said to have been constructed during the Pallava period, the only remnants to denote the period are the sole inscriptions belonging to Pallavas, and the typical Pallava lion and elephant face sculptures that greet us at the entrance of the temple’s main mandapam. But our eyes were directed to the scattering of statues outside the sanctum. Under the tin roof, sat two Buddhas, belonging to the 6th century, one, a rare “Earth Touching Buddha”, sporting the Sparsha Mudra, his right hand touching the ground, and the other in the common dhyana mudra. This sparsha mudra is very common in Thailand, which signifies the moment of enlightenment for Buddha.
The statue of Manimekalai
It is common belief that Buddha meditated for six long years, and was on the verge of attaining enlightenment. It was then that Mara, the Demon of Illusion tried to dissuade Buddha from his meditation in the final stage. Buddha continued his meditation into the night, and called upon Earth Goddess to witness that he achieved enlightenment, by touching the ground. Earth Goddess, witnessing the scene, is said to have been enraged, and released flood waters that swept away Mara and his temptresses. As our Buddhist guide, Mohan Raj, explained the story, we listened with rapt attention and as he pointed to a small bust submerged nearby in cement and said, “This is Manimekalai, the only statue of her you will ever see in India”, we forgot to even breathe. A moment of silence, and then all hell broke loose as we scrambled to have a closer look at the tiny beauty. The ageless bust has somewhere lost her hands, but has her hair done in an elegant top bun, with arched eyebrows, wide eyes and well-defined lips.
It is common knowledge to the Tamils that the epic Manimekalai written by Seethalai Sathanar is one of the Five Great Epics of Tamil, a sequel written to another of the Five Epics Silappadhikaram. Manimekalai is the daughter of the protagonists Kovalan and his love Madhavi, who becomes a Buddhist Bikkuni. The epic Manimekalai traces her travel and life and is said to have been composed around the 5th or 6th century. The epic compares Buddhism with other religions prevalent in Tamil Nadu at that time and establishes its strength over the others. It also propagates the teachings of Buddha. Manimekalai, born a Hindu, converted to Buddhism inspired by it, and attained the highest stage of attainment, ‘arhant’. This epic is the only extant Tamil Buddhist literary work, the lost ones being Kundalakesi, Virasoliyam, Tiruppadigam, and more. We were indeed excited to see one of Tamil Nadu’s iconic women here, a totally unexpected tiny temple.
In the same set of sculptures was another Goddess – the Thavvai. Called Kotravai or Thavvai, and worshipped as Mother Goddess before the advent of other Gods in Tamil Nadu, the earliest mention of this Goddess is found in the Sangam literary work Tholkappiam, dating to the 5th century. The ancient Mother Goddess is a warrior identified with Goddess Durga, always flanked by her son and daughter, Mandan and Mandhi. Though once considered a sacred female icon and mother of Lord Muruga, now she is shunned in most temples, as people think she is a Demon Goddess, and brings ill luck. There are instances where her sculptures have been thrown out of the sanctum, and land up along roadsides and fields these days.
On the way out, I stumbled upon another interesting ‘Saptha Matrika’ type panel, a rare one dating to the Pallava period (6/7th C.) It has the usual ‘seven women’ and in addition to that, interestingly, Thavvai or Kotravai. So, it is indeed ancient and rare. Marveling at how Buddhist sculptures are being venerated in a Hindu temple with regular ‘abhishekam’ and ‘aradhanas’, with people offering flowers and lighting lamps in front of them, I could not but feel the essence of the country, its unity in diversity, and its very fabric of religious tolerance, in glorious display here!
A true temple to India’s pluralism
Across the Palar river, we drove through lush greenery, paddy fields and palmyra dotted landscape with small streams, and landed up in a small village called Kanikiluppai. The place was so ‘ordinary’, a very tiny hamlet of a couple of streets that we were definitely not prepared for the surprise in store for us at a tiny locked up Pillaiyar (Vinayak) temple. The ‘temple’ was hardly a small house, the hall boasting of a three feet Buddha statue, alongside which was a statue of Jain Tirthankara of white stone, and in the inner sanctums, a Lord Vinayak and Krishna with Bama and Rukmini. A small temple in a nondescript village has Buddhist, Jain and Hindu sculptures, all worshipped with equal fervour by the villagers. Goes on to prove small places have big hearts! The 10th century Buddha was seated on a beautiful pedestal in Artha Padmasana pose, in dhyana mudra, sporting a marvelous ushnisha (3-dimensional oval at the top of head of Buddha). The Tirthankara’s period is unidentifiable though, as it is too damaged to decipher the iconography. The statue was salvaged from a field nearby, a couple of decades ago, and since then has been worshipped here. The bronze idols of Krishna and his wives though relatively very new, are so enthralling! The priest narrated the story of how thieves lifted off the Buddha sometime ago from the temple, couldn’t carry him, and so dropped him into a nearby stream and escaped! We had a hearty laugh commenting on the poor thieves, and walked along the street to reach a panel at the end of it.
The three feet tall sculpted panel has a kalash at the top with a gopuram shaped stupa over it. On either side are chaur or chamara (yak hair fans), hammer and plough. At the bottom is the word “Buddha Sree” sculpted in Granta text. And then there are the Dharma Chakras of Buddha sculpted on them. Scholars date the panel to 14th century and might have connection to a trader/agriculture group that thrived at Kanikiluppai. We moved on to our next halt- the humongous Jain temple of Jaina Kanchi or Tiruparuthikundram. Kanchi was once a melting pot of various faiths- The Saiva Kanchi (Saivite temples), Vishnu Kanchi (Vaishnavite temples), Jina Kanchi (Jain temples) and Buddha Kanchi. Jaina Kanchi refers primarily to the Trilokyanathar Temple at Tiruparuthikundram, a small hamlet near Kanchipuram.
The Trilokyanathar Temple
The Trilokyanathar Temple built in typical Dravidian architectural style is a prime place of worship for the Digambar Jain sect. Said to have been constructed around 800 CE, the temple has the oldest inscription dating to Narasimhavarma Pallava II’s period, 700-728 CE. The temple built by Pallavas has been expanded during Chola rule by Rajendra I and Kulothunga Chola, and then by Vijayanagar rulers. There are three inner shrines with sculptures of Mahaavira, Neminatha and Lokanatha, around seven feet tall. There are exquisite bronze idols belonging to Chola, Vijayanagar and Nayak periods, and we explored the inscriptions all around the sanctum. As we emerged out of the temple, the 24 pillared “Sangeeta Mandapam” allured us, with some of the most beautiful paintings done on the ceilings.
The Sangeeta Mandapam is said to have been built by Irugappa, the minister of Vijayanagar’s famed King Bukka. The name Sangeeta Mandapam arises from the number of musicians carved on its pillars, playing different musical instruments. What caught our attention were the exquisite fresco paintings on the ceilings. Originally painted during the 13th century and restored in the 15/16th century by King Krishnadevaraya. The paintings depict the lives of Tirthankaras – Neminatha, Mahavira, Dharmadevi, Krishna, Agnila and Rishabanatha. All the paintings are captioned in Grantha script, the catchy paintings are of course Krishna Leela, done on a side. The dancing girls and their embellishments, various flowers, horses, elephants, tigers, deer- the frescoes take us to an imaginary world of colours and shapes.
We sat down in the Shanti Mandapam for a traditional Jain lunch on banana leaves, and after a short break, moved to the dilapidated Chandrapraba Temple adjacent to the Trilokyanathar Temple. With overgrown vegetation, the temple stands precariously, the outer wall of the ground floor boasting of Pallava lions. Carefully ascending the staircase, we enter the first floor where we observe Tirthankaras, and move out for some air. With most Tamil Jains moving out of Tiruparuthikundram, the place now remains a shadow of what it once was, a lively town teeming with Jain schools and members of the sect. The house opposite to the temple was once such a school where the last caretaker of the temple lives. Chandrakanti is a frail looking woman who holds the key to the temple, and to a lively past. And she will be the last of seven generations that have held on to the temple, saving it with all they could.
With heavy hearts we moved to a recently constructed Buddha Vihara near Vadhiyar Kuttai. The Vihar had a lively Buddha statue seated under a bodhi tree and also a statue of Pallava Prince Bodhi Dharma, the master who introduced Shaolin Kungfu and transmitter of Chan Buddhism to China. After a calming Vipasana session guided by audio for about 10 minutes, we set off on our journey back to Chennai.
India has always been a country of religious plurality and has maintained the plurality down the ages. A trip such as this makes on realise a simple saying by Einstein – “ All religions, arts and sciences are branches of the same tree”.