Kanchipuram: Telling it like it is.

Let me tell you a story – it has no beginning, no end but a lot of middles.

The hero awakes long before daybreak, and itching for a ride, for some photography, sets out on a motorcycle. The hero is at heart a historian. He likes nothing more than holding forth, to those who care to listen, on the magnificence of the Chola and Pallava dynasties. On the antiquity of the Tamil nation, its culture.

Rather predictably therefore, he journeys to arguably one of the most important historical centres in India. Kanchipuram.

In an ancient land that’s seen many kings and dynasties, a new one is born. This clan calls itself the Pallavas. No one is sure where they come from – some say they are of Parthian/Persian descent while some others say they are a lost arm of an earlier Chola dynasty. Shrouded in mystery their past may be, their future is clear – they build one of the strongest empires in the south and in the process some of the most beautiful temples.

Palar (milky river in Tamil) is a young, frisky brother to the older Kaveri. It flows east and south, across the near arid plains of north Tamil Nadu. A tiny trickle at first, it meets with the river Cheyyar, and fortified, feeds the city of Kanchipuram and empties into the Bay of Bengal just to the south of Mamallapuram.

It is to the former city that our hero is headed.

There is not one, but two Kanchipurams. Physically, not figure-of-speech wise, there are two cities. One is called Periya Kanchi – the bigger city. And the other is Chinna Kanchi, the smaller city. These two cities have within them more stories to tell. But we shall follow our hero.

He first heads straight to a 1400 year old temple called Kailasa Nathar koil. Built by the Pallava King Rajasimha Varman, this temple is a classic in Dravidian architecture. Sandstone sculptures and pillars sitting on granite base look like a million chariots rushing to a distant war-field. Each chariot comes with a small room, enough for a monk to sit and meditate. And to assist are sculptures and paintings of different gods and goddesses. Now sadly plastered over in an attempt to preserve.

He goes round this temple that inspired Raja Raja Cholan’s own masterpiece in Tanjavur, in awe and a quiet sense of pride. Which sentiment was soon shattered by a bunch of noisy kids, and later, 8 good looking white women and an equal number of men from Columbia.

In a different era, the Pallavas are building another masterpiece of a temple. Ekambaranathar temple is perhaps the biggest of the temples in Kanchipuram, and houses Shiva in his form as Ek Aam baram – to be clothed with one mango leaf.

Originally a Pallava creation, this temple has subsequently been modified by the Cholas and later Vijayanagaras. And like a bastard child, bears the markings of all its fathers. Chola style pillars and supports rub shoulders, architecturally speaking, with Pallava plinths and Vijayanagara sculptures.

It’s 12:30, and the sun’s beating down. The granite floor of the temple is burning through socked feet and the lust for a cold drink gets out of hand. Luckily in Tamil Nadu, commerce is as commonplace as history. At store right outside the temple, the hero quenches thirst, little knowing that his hunger, for history, will be whet in a moment.

Another visitor, as passionate about history speaks of a place called Pallavar Medu which might be, if one believed local legend, the ruins of the Pallava palace and fort.

The hero promises to dig into the archaeological gem (pun intended) and heads back to the Kailasanathar temple. A helpful and smiling ASI guide points out little pieces of art that are easily missed. The calligraphic writing on the walls of the temple inspired some of China’s own alphabets, Buddhist monks being responsible for its spread. Bodhidharma is name mentioned – a pallava scion, he renounces the world, travelling east and north to China to set up the school of Zen Buddhism – Zen being a corruption of the Chinese word for the Sanskrit Dhyan.

There’s the story of the silk worm. And the story of the weavers of Kanchi. Nobody knows for sure how silk weaving came to Kanchipuram, or how the city came to reperesent (along with Benares) India in the world of silk. But it has. The basic facts, everybody knows. Silk worms grow on mulberry trees. These worms spin a yarn when in their larval stage. This yarn we collect, boil, wash and weave into the sarees our women dazzle weddings with.

And then there are the facts we don’t know completely. For instance, it takes upwards of 10 kilos of silk worm cocoons to yield 1 kilo of raw yarn. The cocoons are boiled first, the threads separated and spun. Which is then twisted to add strength, or double-plied for extra endurance, and boiled once more.

This double-boiled, double-plied yarn is then bleached and dyed to be sent to the weavers. And that’s where the magic happens.

Weaving in Kanchipuram is done the old fashioned way – with people cranking handlooms – a weft and a warp and a weft again – to create intricate patterns and designs with silk. A punch-card fed machine creates the zari – the golden border and is the only thing that is mechanised here. A proper Kanjeevaram saree takes 10 days to weave, longer if the design is complex. At the end of which, the weavers go right back to the drawing board to create the next one. And for their labour, they take home Rs. 5000 a month.

The year is 1053. In the city that boasts over a 100 temples, a new temple is being built. It will, when completed, house Vishnu – one of the Indian trinity – in his role as the giver of boons. Varadaraja Perumal temple or Devaraja Swamy temple is huge. Spread over 23 acres, and very, very capable of repelling even the most violent of sieges. This temple, also called Attiyuran, is one of the 108 Divya desams of the Vaishnavaites.

The year is 1078 and Kulothunga Cholan takes over the Chola empire. Born Rajendra Chalukya, his ascension to the Chola throne is contentious. But he soon puts to rest the doubts, partly aided by the fact that his maternal ancestors were all princesses of the Chola dynasty, and proceeds to consolidate a disintegrating empire. He also rebuilds and expands the Varadaraja Perumal temple in Kanchipuram.

It is here that we next find our hero. From shrine to shrine, stone sculpture to sculpture, there are many things here that pleases his eyes. Including a large temple tank, brimming with water. Though green with moss and fish aplenty, the priests who live and work in the temple bathe, wash their meagre clothing and socialise here. So do visitors in search of Tamil lore.

One such is that the temple is built on a hill – now called Hasta giri – where Vishnu rescued the elephant Gajendra from the jaws of the crocodile. And one more – Brahma worshipping Vishnu according to one source, and Brahma creating Vishnu out of the sacred fire according to another.

Our hero realises then that stories will be plenty, and myths always twined to facts in this city that the Pallava emperor Mahendra Varma describes as the city of cities, equating it to the flower jasmine and the dancer Ramba.

In Chinna Kanchipuram are two temples – one, we’ve just seen, the famous Varadaraja Perumal temple. The other is the less famous but more stunning Vaikunta Perumal temple. Vaikuntaperumal Swamy tirukoil, though a mouthful to pronounce, is what one could call a petite beauty. Shapes and sculptures and little delights of architectural miracles. Sandstone pillars on red brick and granite floors, this temple wows even the most history proof cynic.

Every wall, every surface is littered with bas-relief depictions of different gods and god men and saints and sinners. Jain Thirthankaras coexist with Chinese travellers on panel after panel of sculptures. And to top it all, sunlight filtering in through coconut trees and cobwebs to paint a scene out of Salvador Dali’s brain.

One bas-relief panel depicts the visit of a Chinese visitor – some say Heun Tsang – to the court of the Pallavas. The Chinese visitor is etched in glorious detail – long oval face, thin moustache and carrying a staff.

Prosaic matters – such as lunch – press upon the hero. Big town Tamil Nadu has all that a hungry tourist wants. Vegetarian chain-restaurants that serve with a quiet efficiency bordering on assembly-line indifference and small mom-and-pop stores, more holes in the wall, that take you into the fold and treat you with a deference kings once monopolised.

Dispensed with lunch, the hero hunts for the Pallavar Medu. In the town main around the area alleged to be the Pallava palace, are just bunches of huts and an old crumbling wall caked with cow-dung. Locals call it Pali Modu. It is nothing like the palace one imagines, but the locals tell you that Pali Modu is but a corruption of Pallavar Medu.

A boy playing marbles offers to show other parts of the palace. The two walk over thorn bushes and open drains to reach the palace, or what is left of its third storey. Crawling through garbage and dead rats and human excrement to reach a small hole that used to be a room at some time in the past. Arched entrance buried in dirt but conjuring visions of what this palace once must have been and what it can be if only the layers of dirt and thicker, deeper layers of time are peeled away.

The hero tries to crawl through a tunnel, but realises that the hole is no bigger than his head, which is smaller than the rest of his body. A derelict ruin is no fate for the palace that housed one of the strongest dynasties. But that is the way the cookie, and this particular wall, crumbles.

Originally published (with minor edits) in Windows & Aisles, July 2008

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