Words: Sonia Nazareth
Photographs: Vinobha Nathan
GO FROM: Chennai
GO FOR: Appreciation of ancient temples and storied crafts
Even if you’ve only armchair travelled to Kanchipuram, you’re likely to know it well, as much for the ancient temples that adorn its streets, as for the quality of its silk saris. Sited 75km southwest of Chennai, this now-bustling town, which was once the capital of the Pallava dynasty from the 6th to 8th century CE, has lots to offer any visitor.
The 8th-century CE Kailasanatha, Kanchipuram’s oldest temple, is a good place to start. You don’t have to be an architecture enthusiast to be captivated by the detailed carvings on the soft sandstone structures – a giant Nandi statue at the temple entrance, and elsewhere, half-animal deities that were characteristic of early Dravidian architecture. Intricately detailed mythological stories are everywhere. You’ll also want to keep an eye out for the sometimes-elusive 108 dance-poses of Shiva that are sculpted into the walls. That this temple is a living one, where a priest still performs puja and the faithful arrive in droves (especially at Mahashivratri), only makes it more precious.
While you’re on the temple-crawl, be sure to pop into the Vaikunta Perumal Temple. Also a Pallava creation, this Vishnu temple has wall panels barnacled with historic narratives – like the coronation of King Nandivarman Pallava, and Vishnu depicted in various scenes.
Then, at the Varadaraja Perumal Temple, visit the “100-pillared” marriage hall that was added in the 16th century CE to get rapture for your rupee, quite literally. The pillars feature extravagant carvings, but pay attention to the details of the clothing and jewellery on the sculptures, and to the life-like rendering of the faces. Symbolism is rife here. Everything is more than it seems: a lizard, for instance, isn’t just a lizard; it represents a demon.
Just like the extravagant temple architecture, there’s another facet to the town that’s been so long in the making that it cannot go un-highlighted. It was around the 18th century CE that the hand-weaving of Kanchipuram’s silk saris began to flourish. The saris have always been heavily influenced by temple art, and still bear images from an ancient lexicon of symbolism. Peacock feathers, lotus flowers, temple towers and images of gods adorn the fabric, generally along the borders. Before you indulge in retail therapy, it’s worth visiting a weaver’s village for a behind-the-scenes peek at the small-scale industry that is still thriving around this town. You’ll witness the entire process from the dyeing of the thread to the actual weaving while also getting insights into the way of life of the artisans. At these workshops, you’ll learn what determines price: the number of hours spent in creating a sari, the amount of zari work incorporated, and the nature of the design. In changing times, when weaving centres have fielded requests for name-emblazoned saris, members of the weaving community will also assure you that traditional designs still reign supreme.
Sure, the soft mulberry silk saris and majestic ancient temples are Kanchipuram’s cliches. But give them time, and you’ll realise that they’re also a celebration of cultural heritage and small scale industries – one that’s important in our rapidly globalising world.