Was the Vaikunta Perumal temple in Kanchipuram, Nandivarman II's architectural route to fame or does it embody a hitherto unrecognised religious symbolism?

History and hagiography can be near twins. Nandivarman II (730-795 CE), one of the longest rulers in Indian history, combined them as perfect as a skilled artist would. The panegyric in the 8{+t}{+h} century Udayinedram copper plates praise him as “the death of enemies and a cupid to women” and go on to describe him as “the refuge of subjects anda Kalpa tree to good men”. For someone whose lineage was in question and ascending the throne was a struggle, such rhetoric was more than necessary.

Coming as he did a century after Mahendravarman, and a few years after Rajasimha, the two Pallava visionary rulers, Nandivarman knew well that an architectural route steeped in royal symbolism would be more enduring in fame. He built a jewel of a temple in sandstone in Kanchipuarm, the capital city of the Pallavas celebrated as Paramesvara Vinnagaram in literature and popularly known as Vaikunta Perumal temple.

Grand conception

This multi-tiered temple with functional shrines in each of the three floors rivalled, in conception and importance, the other Pallava temples that preceded it. The circumambulatory passage was profusely carved and depicted Nandivarman's coronation and the Pallava genealogy. But it is here the late Dennis Hudson, a professor of religion, differs and turns attention to its religious symbolism. To him the key to understand this temple is not so much in the historical details of Nandivarman's rule but in the religious agenda the temple solely served

In the posthumously published and recently released book, The Vaikunta Perumal Temple at Kanchipuram (Prakriti Foundation, 2009), Hudson views the temple, more than anything else, as an assertion of the Bhagavata tradition (a religious movement that emphasised relationship with Bhagavan or god). To him, the temple was built to serve and read as a ‘visual summary' of Bhagavata Purana and the Vaishnavite world view it embodied.

This point is made through a careful study of the temple layout and the various sculptures, particularly the 56 sculptural panels carved on the vimana(tower over sanctum).Within this framework, even the historical sculptures depicting Nandivarman's coronation, extensively studied by C. Minakshi as early as 1941, is interpreted as the assertion of the Vaishnavites over the Saivaites of the Pallava lineage. This is an interesting speculation of Pallava history.

The texts have a role to play in the making of a temple. Studies, mostly limited to examining the role of architectural or liturgical prescriptions, illustrate this relationship. Dennis Hudson's work is a grand exploration of this theme. He draws extensively from the Bhagavata Purana, Alvar hymns and Pancharatra Agamas (one of the two streams of Vaishnava liturgical texts) to show that the temple plan and form are a three dimensional mandala and the sculptures were conceived and positioned with a definite programme in mind. The purpose of this temple, Hudson concludes, was to remind the Vaishnava devotees visiting the temple of the tradition and texts that they were already familiar with.

A different form?

Vaikunta Perumal temple, like the other three-storied temples built in the past, follow Vaikhanasa liturgy (the other Vaishnava stream) leading some to conclude that this temple form is a speciality of this liturgical group. Hudson thinks otherwise. After a careful analysis of the sculptural programme, he concludes that the temple was planned as per Pancharatra and not the Vaikhanasa Agama. This challenges some of the views well established by works such as Meister and Dhaky who compiled the Encyclopaedia of Indian Temples, Gerard Colas who had extensively studied the architectural passages of Vaikhanasa Agama and Nagaswamy and Gros who looked at a similar Pallava temple close by at Uttaramerur. The priests at the Vaikunta temple who still follow the Vaikhansa tradition may also want to disagree with him.

Those who want to follow this discussion in detail may have to reach the elaborate version of this book published a year ago (The Body of God: An Emperor's Palace for Krishna in Eighth-Century Kanchipuram , Oxford University Press, 2008). This work of Hudson must be read for the stories followed by more stories and stories within stories he provides and the manner in which he connects them with the sculptures. The book is conveniently and well laid out for this purpose. Less known facts, interesting details with rich narration makes this a useful guide and helps appreciate the intense sculptural programme of the temple. Some of the interpretation and stories are qualified by the editor's notes and they have to be read along to evaluate them.