Kanchipuram, Tamil Nadu
The city of Kanchipuram is one of Hinduism’s seven sacred cities. It bears this distinction for several reasons. One of these is because of the presence of the Kanchi Kailasanatha Temple. This temple, where multiple deities are revered, is believed to be the oldest intact temple in India, making it one of the nation’s most important historical and archaeological treasures. Strangely, it is also one of this holy city’s quieter temples, making it a a great place for visitors to explore.
Kanchipuram is one of the oldest cities in South India, and one of the cities in which some Dravidian culture was preserved. Earliest records of Kanchipuram go back over two thousand years, to a time when pre- and proto-Hindu religious beliefs were observed. A 4th century poem describes it as the greatest city in the south of India.
The city’s architecture and design reflects its Dravidian influence as well as any other city in Tamil Nadu. This is particularly true in the Kanchi Kailasanatha Temple. Construction on this temple began as early as the late 7th century, and it was one of the earliest places in Southern India where Hinduism was practiced.
The temple was strongly built and doubled as a fortress of sorts during some of India’s more turbulent periods. Over time it sheltered many people during times of war, including harboring more than one ruler who used the temple’s now famous escape tunnel to make a hasty and unseen exit.
The temple’s sturdy construction helped it to weather the centuries. Well over a thousand years old, there are few other fully intact temples in Asia of such antiquity. Although it is surpassed in religious importance by the Ekambarathabar Temple and even the Kamakshi Amman Temple, the Kanchi Kailasanatha temple makes it one of the most important historical sites on the Indian Subcontinent.
The Kanchi Kailasanatha Temple is the one of the oldest intact buildings in all of India. It was completed in 705 AD and has been little changed since. A major temple at the time of its construction, it is relatively small compared to the edifices constructed in later centuries. The main part of the temple is crowned with a pyramidal roof, exquisitely carved with figures from Indian mythology. Many of these figures are human with animal heads, displaying the local Dravidian influence.
The temple interior is both an artistic treasure and a colonial tragedy. During the era of British rule, much of the interior was badly damaged. However, many of the shrines survived somewhat intact, with a wealth of preserved statuary and carvings. Among the temple’s more interesting features is a small tunnel through which penitent worshippers must pass. There is also the remains of the old semi-secret tunnel out of the complex.
The Kanchi Kailasanatha Temple is located on the northwest outskirts of Kanchipuram, approximately fifty miles southwest of Chennai. It is open daily from 8:30am-6:00pm (closed noon-4:00pm). There is no cost of admission. Web: www.tamilnadutourism.org (official tourism website of Tamil Nadu province).
Kanchipuram’s other major religious shrine is the Ekambarathabar Temple honoring Shiva and Parvati. Other temples to Vishnu include the Vaikunta Perumal Temple and the Varadharaja Perumal Temple. Other major temples in the city include the Kamakshi Amman Temple honoring the goddess Kamakshi, and the Kumarakottam Temple dedicated to Murugan.