On January 26th 1982 I was in Kanchipuram in Tamil Nadu, the holiest city in South India.
The day before I had taken the bus from Madras across the flat plain. We drove past a pretty temple town and then I could see the big gopuram rising up in the glow of the setting sun fifteen miles before Kanchipuram. I stayed in a simple but clean Hindu hotel on the first floor with a street view and ate in the place next door that served pilgrims. The area near where I stayed was the old part of town, full of white-dressed pilgrims, old temples, sandy streets, Sri Sankara houses, medical places, a small market but no main street.
This day was Republic Day and a national, non-sectarian holiday, so many places were closed, including temples for at least part of the day. I found my way out to the Kailasanatha temple, an early 8th Century Shiva temple, a monument nowadays, on the outskirts of the town. Kanchipuram had been the capital of the Pallavas when this temple had been built. I wrote this in my notebook:
I linger here on the outskirts of this most ancient of temples, because I like the feel, because it's the nearest to rural India I've been able to linger, for it's really a little village just outside the limits of the town. Many of the houses around are of the tiny low-roofed thatched variety, with white-washed mud walls and brown geometric designs, miniature windows, cooking utensils outside; some boys build up a little shrine with leaves and flags of India for Republic Day.
I had an immediate good feeling for the temple as a hoopoe crossed my first sight of it. A Shiva temple, but the statues made of soft sandstone have not weathered well, one or two give clues that they may have been fine; however much has been covered with plaster ("100 years ago" said someone), giving crude lines to the smiles of Shiva and Parvati and the fierce faces of the lions. Its shape is interesting, small and slightly cramped in comparison with the magnificent later Dravidian styles, big niches on the inside courtyard walls with statues and some remnants of paintings on the difficult to reach inside.
House by the Temple: My pictureAt the edge of the barbed-wire compound is a plaster covered Nani. A small tank has been excluded from the compound and given to some villagers who have built their small typical houses under the shade of ancient mango-trees. Boys play cricket against the outside of the back temple wall. One or two sightseers, rickshaws and bullock-carts, a big yellow Fargo parked and now started up. In the distance the big gopurams of later, finer, more grandiose temples, and inevitably the sounds of a loud-speaker swirling in the windy humid air.
One of the boys from the village got talking to me, 7 years old, a Christian. I also got invited into a handloom lungi factory in a field (Kanchi is a famous weaving centre), impressive looms, women gently spinning and twisting, but the men were working with great, possibly involuntary, intensity, naked except for loin-cloths. So much work on a national holiday seemed like exploitation and I hurried away.
I went to the huge gopuram I had seen across the plain, a big closed Shiva temple; I climbed onto a pillared hall and looked out over huge grassy expanses in the courtyard but saw only rubble; outside by a small market I sat eating tangerines sitting under a stone shelter and heard the sound of Hindi from pilgrims from Madhya Pradesh; there were fine statues in this open space, unusual subjects including a man with a beard, some much venerated.
Towards evening I found the Vaikuntha Perumal Vishnu temple almost as old as the Shiva temple I'd seen earlier. After a few minutes in the inner courtyard, very intimate, the electric lights came on and I could see some fine sculptures, only a few with the recent plaster overlay; more day to day motifs. And then I had a glimpse into the sanctum; the black Vishnu image made me shudder but the power of this made me feel good and calm. Then I went to the Kamakshi Temple, the Shakti temple. I sat for half an hour undisturbed in a columned pavilion to the right of the main shrine, partly looking at the sculpture, including some mildly erotic ones, partly watching the to and fro of the pilgrims and the night sky above, with a new moon. This was my favourite place in Kanchi.
The next day with time running out I hired a bicycle to visit the main Vishnu temple, in its own suburb across the river, the Vardhamana temple. I found it full of Vaishnavite brahmins with characteristic hairstyles, long and sometimes braided at the back and short or shaven in the front. The temple I could see little of, except for a fine 100 pillared hall and a nice tank; the hall had good sculptures, fierce men on horses and Krishnas playing the flute. The river was almost empty and home for untouchables.
|By the Kailasanatha: My picture|
|Kailasanatha: My picture|