As I’m writing this, myself and fellow Malaysians are forced to stay at home from 17th until 14th April 2020 – our government implemented Movement Control Order (MCO) as a preventive measure to contain the coronavirus pandemic from spreading further in the country.
It doesn’t affect me that much as I run my business ventures from home anyway, but ever since the MCO was implemented, my clients have been distracted by such changes, thus work has slowed down considerably. Rather than spending too much time watching Netflix, I thought, this is a perfect time for me to resume writing about my travels 🙂
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Back in 2017, I was travelling in Tamil Nadu of South India. By that time, I was already on the last leg of my 23-day sojourn across the country. I started my journey in Bhopal in Madhya Pradesh of Central India; then up north to Delhi to visit friends and further on to Srinagar in Kashmir; later to the west in Mumbai to visit more friends; and finally, to the south in Chennai and Pondicherry of Tamil Nadu. After spending a few days exploring Chennai, a fellow blogger and Chennai resident, Madhu Shetty of The Urge to Wander, and I decided to make a day trip to Kanchipuram.
Located just under two hours’ drive from Chennai, Kanchipuram (or Kanchi) is a small town but is one of the seven holiest cities in India and an important spiritual centre of Hinduism. Formerly a dynastic capital of the Pallava kingdom from the 4th to the 10th century, Kanchipuram was renowned as a centre of religious education of South India.
The town has countless medieval temples – 108 – majority of which are dedicated to Lord Shiva. Many devotees, pilgrims and tourists come to Kanchipuram for the major temples, namely, Kamakshi Amman Temple, Ekambareswarar Temple, Kailasanathar Temple, and a few others.
Since Tamil Nadu is the homeland of rich and strong Dravidian heritage with more than 4,000 years of continuous cultural history, you will be suitably impressed by the architectural styles of their temples, which were further advocated by their former kings who loved and patronised the arts. The dominance of Dravidian heritage is very much evident in Kanchipuram temples as well.
Kamakshi Amman Temple
The first temple that we visited was the Kamakshi Amman Temple. Dedicated to Kamakshi, one of the incarnations of goddess Parvati, the Kamakshi Temple is one of India’s holiest shrines to shakti. Shakti is the female form of Shiva’s cosmic energy, and is usually depicted in the form of his consort, Parvati.
Built during the Pallava rule and later revamped during the 14th and 15th centuries, the Kamakshi Amman temple is said to be the second most beautiful Amman temple next to the city of Madurai’s Meenakshi Amman Temple. Both temples are important centres of goddess worship in Tamil Nadu.
Kamakshi comes from the combination of three words – Ka, Ma and Aksh. Ka means Saraswati, Ma means Lakshmi and Aksh means eyes, therefore “she is whose eyes are Saraswati and Lakshmi”.
*Saraswati, Lakshmi and Parvati are part of the female trinity (Tridevi), and all three forms join the male trinity (Trimurti) of Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva to create, maintain and regenerate the Universe respectively.
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The second temple which we visited was the Ekambareswarar Temple – a vast temple to Shiva and is known for its huge tower (gopuram) which can be seen from every angle of Kanchipuram.
It doesn’t look like a towering structure from my photo, but the gateway temple – the Raja Gopuram – is among the tallest in South India at 59 metres (194 ft), beautifully carved with elegant art forms and sculptures. Much of this huge temple complex is closed to visitors, but the central part of the area is impressive, featuring massive carved stonework.
As Parvati is the consort of Shiva, every Parvati or Shiva temple would typically have a separate shrine dedicated to either of them, but interestingly, there is none for Parvati in this Shiva-dedicated temple. According to a Hindu mythology story, Parvati was worshipping Shiva in the form of a lingam which was improvised out of sand, under a mango tree. But the Vegavati River nearby overflowed, and to protect the lingam from being destroyed by strong water currents, Parvati hugged it with all her might. Shiva was so touched by this gesture that he materialised in person and married her. That mango tree which is believed to be 3,500 years old, still exists in the temple, under which lies a special, combined Shiva-Parvati shrine.
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The last temple we visited was Kailasanathar Temple, situated in a quiet neighbourhood of several low-roofed houses, about one kilometer from the town centre. An archaeological monument, Kailasanathar Temple is the oldest Hindu temple in Kanchipuram.
The temple showcases the finest example of Pallava architecture with smaller shrines and rows of pillars of bas reliefs and sculptures. The inner sanctum of the temple contains a 16-sided shivalingam carved out of black granite. If I recall correctly, non-Hindus are not allowed to enter the inner sanctum, as such I don’t remember seeing the shivalingam.
Apart from temples, we were given a brief tour of the kind of life that agricultural folks of Kanchipuram lived back in the day. We were brought to Kanchi Kudil, a 90-year old ancestral home which is now turned into a heritage museum. It’s a small house, so the tour was pretty quick.
The verandah, open courtyards, puja room, bedrooms and kitchen are some of the features inside the heritage museum. Some of the relics on display are wooden swings, rocking chairs, old cooking utensils, paintings and photographs.
Kanchipuram Silk Sarees
While Kanchipuram is known for its temples, the town is very famous for its beautiful and elegant silk sarees. Kanchipuram silk sarees are of high-quality and handwoven from pure mulberry silk thread. Their fabrics are thick and of deep colours mixed with hints of gold, as such, they are preferred for festive occasions and celebrations like weddings, birthdays and other important events.
Because Kanchipuram silk sarees dominate the world of South Indian sarees, majority of the town’s workforce is involved in the business of silk weaving. About 5,000 families weave the silk on hand looms in town and nearby villages.
Visitors can buy these handwoven silks at saree shops along Gandhi Road, and at wholesale prices in some places. We visited a silk weaver in a nearby village to see him weave the silk on the loom. We didn’t buy any Kanchipuram silk sarees as I don’t wear sarees while Madhu have quite a few in her own wardrobe 🙂
After seeing these weavers in action, we headed back to the car and returned to Chennai.
Related Post: Ruins and Sarees of Chanderi, Madhya Pradesh
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