Kanchipuram or ‘Kaccippedu', as it is referred to in inscriptions, is one of the few ancient cities under continuous habitation for more than 2000 years. The city, which originally had a lotus-like compact formation, spread out extensively to emerge as a metropolis whose contours resembled a peacock. Unlike in the case of other temple towns such as Madurai and Srirangam, this expansion was sustained by the growth of not one but by many temple complexes. Hence its poly-nucleated urban pattern.
There have been numerous studies on the individual temples of Kanchipuram and monographs have also been published on them. What distinguishes well-known archaeologist Nagaswamy's work under review is that it has looked at the temples as clusters and made a comparison.
In all, 11 prominent Vishnu temples are presented in this book. Of them, the Vaikuntha Perumal and Varadaraja Perumal temples get the maximum attention and claim more than half the space. Of the rest, the architecture and epigraphy of three — Uraham, Thiru-Vehha and Patakam — have been broadly discussed. The remaining six temples find a brief mention.
Based on his reading of the inscriptions and the location of temples, Nagaswamy suggests that Uraham is the most ancient of Vishnu temples and came into existence when the settlement was still a village. This temple, along with the one dedicated to Kamakshi Amman nearby, he says, constituted the core of the city for a thousand years. This is a new perspective on the urban history of Kanchipuram. But some of the existing views, such as the one expressed by K.V. Raman, run counter to it. The alternative formulation, based on the excavations and analysis of urban geography, holds that the core could have been a royal palace where the Kamakshi temple is situated.
An important feature of the book is the detailed analysis it provides of the epigraphs, some of which were discovered by the author himself. For example, the Uraham temple, the book shows, may lack in architecture and sculptural grandeur, but the 21 inscriptions found in it are valuable sources of information on South Indian polity and temple administration. The records of Kulothunga I found here speak of the ritual procedures associated with royal grants, the agama practices followed in the temples, and the link between Kanchipuram and Uttiramerur — an important Pallava period settlement nearby. Similarly, the inscriptions of Vaikuntha Perumal temple belonging to the Chola period describe how temples were extensively renovated and their Pallavas-linked names were changed to commemorate Chola kings.
The discussion on the historical significance of the sculptures in these temples, particularly those of Vaikuntha Perumal and Varadaraja Perumal, is backed by good illustrations. Nagaswamy points out that the Vaikuntha Perumal temple is not only architecturally unique it is also the only temple in this country to carry the sculptural depiction of an entire dynasty — the Pallavas, in this case. Photographs with detailed captions help the reader appreciate the content of the panels better. However, those who may want to know more and read an elaborate interpretation of these sculptures may have to consult the works of C. Minakshi and Dennis Hudson. While Nagaswamy refers to these texts in the book, there is no mention of them in the bibliography.
Some of Nagasawamy's conclusions are innovative. For example, going by the Ramayana depictions in one of the pillars close to the sanctum, he suggests that the seated figure in the ground floor sanctum of the three-storeyed Vaikuntha Perumal temple was possibly conceived as Rama. This is at variance with what scholars such as Dennis Hudson have to say. Nagaswamy's postulates may need more supportive evidence before they could gain wider acceptability.
A comparison of these temples with other temple-clusters in Kanchipuram would have contributed to a better appreciation of the religious and urban history of the city. For instance, as a 16th century inscription records, there was an overlap of processional routes followed by deities of the Varadaraja Perumal and Ekambaranatha temples. After a mediation effort by Krishnadevaraya, this issue was settled and the routes modified to the satisfaction of both sides. A proper grasp of this later-period intervention is necessary to comprehend the ritual geography of the city in the present. So also, an analysis of architectural and iconographical similarities between various temple clusters would have enhanced the value of the book.