In his book, ‘Visnu Temples of Kancipuram,' Dr. R. Nagaswamy unfolds the aesthetics and history of an ancient city.
Kanchi, “the City Beautiful.” The site of more than 108 temples and the famed capital of great dynasties, Kanchipuram lures all those who love the spiritual and the historical. Dr. R. Nagaswamy, former Director of Archaeology, Government of Tamil Nadu, in one scholarly sweep takes in the Vishnu temples of this ancient city in his just published book. In 'Visnu Temples of Kancipuram', he covers five well known temples in depth and six briefly.
"The accent in the book is on the factual history rather than religious life," says Nagaswamy. “I have always been interested in the study of the growth of villages and townships — how a village flowers from earliest to colonial times,” he replies to the question why he focussed on Kanchi.
“I'm now engaged in the study of Kumbakonam.” Tamil Nadu is rich in written records, he adds. One can trace the evolution of every aspect of society — economic, architectural, social and the arts - clearly from them.
“Kanchi was laid out, as was Madurai in the form of a lotus,” says the author reiterating what he has set down in his book. “Uraham — Ulagalanda Perumal temple — was at the heart of the lotus; the town grew from here.”
Nagaswamy has a huge store of photographs which he has taken over the years — nearly 15,000 in all. But the splendid photographs “especially for the book” were taken by him over the past four years. His camera captures the sculptures, paintings, inscriptions and archaeological features with the caring, perceptive eye of the expert.
“Kanchi was the northern capital for 2,000 years — from the pre-Christian era to 1700 A.D. — before the capital shifted to Madras,” says the scholar. “The inscriptions found here, especially at the Uraham temple, are unique and show how the merchant community played a remarkable role in the development of the township, and the temples.”
Out of the 108 divya desas, about a dozen are located in Kanchi and four of them in the Uraham temple itself. There was a great deal of continuity in the development of the city — from the 8th century when the Pallavas ruled, to the Chola rule till the 13th century. Then a change came, he says, when the adjoining settlement of Atthiyur, integrated with the Managaram of Kanchi, known as Kaccippedu in ancient records.
But is not it held, generally, that the Kamakshiamman temple was the centre from which Kanchi grew? “There are three reasons for my conclusion about Uraham being the centre,” says the author. “According to Vastu Sastra, the temple of Vishnu should be located in the centre because He is the Protector and the king is the representative of Him on earth. Trivikrama conquered the three worlds and the belief was if the king installed Him at the centre, he would conquer the whole world. Secondly, the meaning of Uraham in Tamil is ‘heart of the village.' And thirdly, the ancient Pallava village of Uttaramerur is an ideal centre for studying ancient layout; the central point here is dedicated to Lord Vishnu. Nothing I have put down is speculative. Documentation and inscriptions are the basis of my conclusions. Three years of concentrated research have gone into the book,” he adds.
The beautiful sculptures in the Vaikuntha Perumal temple are photographed in detail by Nagaswamy and described in the book. The history of the Pallavas through sculptures on the walls of the temple is also dwelt on. “C. Minakshi, who was a brilliant archaeologist, first discovered the latter here,” says Nagaswamy.
“I came to the conclusion that the image in the ground floor of the three-tiered Vaikuntha Perumal temple was that of Sri Rama as the Vali-Sugriva fight is depicted on the left side pillar in front of the entrance of the Garba Griha; the other pillars have floral designs.
The portrayal of the Ramayana on this particular pillar has a definite meaning. As Stella Kramrisch, an outstanding Sanskrit scholar and authority on Indian art, has pointed out, nothing that is portrayed in a temple is arbitrary or superfluous.”
The scholar's next work is on the Saivite temples of Kanchi.
“The Pallava, Chola and the Nayak kings worshipped Siva as well as Vishnu,” he points out.
Shift in focus
In the Ulagalantha Perumal temple, inscriptions are available up to only a point in time, says Nagaswamy.
Then the focus shifts to the Varadaraja Perumal temple which rose to prominence as the Cholas started contributing to it greatly.
“There is nothing to substantiate that the Chola king, Kulottunga I persecuted Sri Ramanuja,” he avers. “Kulottunga I contributed a great deal to every Vishnu temple in Kanchi. He appointed officers who were directly accountable for their work regarding temple expenses and administration. Details were clearly inscribed on stone.”
It is amazing, he says, how each Divya Desa is portrayed so meticulously in the paintings on the walls of the Vardaraja Perumal temple. “ But today, electric cables, wires, whitewash and repainting pose danger to the precious paintings that mostly belong to the Vijayanagar period.”
Till the Vijayanagar period there was a continuum in administration and the way of life, says Nagaswamy. Invasions and foreign rule have led to disruption. “Also, in the past 40 years, the administration and maintenance of temples have declined in Tamil Nadu; there is neglect as well.”
“This not a commercial enterprise for me,” says the scholar, referring to his book. “I don't take copyright money.”
Is the price Rs. 4,800 not steep? “Nobody in Tamil Nadu is interested in publishing such books; it has been published in Delhi. These books have limited takers and the publisher has to get his money back. But I will be happy if 30 to 40 years from now this is read as true history,” he gives his gentle smile.