MAHABALIPURAM, KANCHIPURAM AND THEIR GREAT TEMPLES

MAHABALIPURAM

Mahabalipuram (50 kilometers south of Chennai) is a pleasant seaside town. Named after a wrestler, it contains several ancient Pallavas cave temples. In the 7th and 8th centuries the Pallavas sculpted granite into cave temples with elaborate carvings of myths and animals. The five rathas chariots reflect this art at its best and "Arjuna's Penance," is reported to be the largest bas relief in the world (90-x2-9 feet). Also check out the small wind-eroded Shore Temple, Krishna Mandapam, Varaha Mandapam, Mahishasur-mardhini caves and the shore temples.

Being a port town, travelers flock to Mamallapuram for its excellent variety of seafood, ranging from prawns to lobsters grilled fish and shrimps. Make your way to any of the popular cafes and restaurants to try these sumptuous dishes. Lobsters, crabs, prawns can all be cooked in several ways, you can choose char grilled, soup, or classic French grilled with cream and baked cheese, or even eat them as toppings on pizza.

Mahabalipuram was affected by the great tsunami of 2004. According to legend, Mahabalipuram was once home to seven great seaside temples. They were said to be so beautiful that the gods ordered all of them destroyed but one — the Shore Temple. When the ocean receded during the tsunami fishermen insisted they saw the temples, feeding Atlantis-like stories. On the beach of Mahabalipuram, six feet of sand was washed away, revealing boulders carved with a lion, servant girls and gods. Otherwise Mahabalipuram survived mostly unscathed.

Getting There: By Air: The Chennai International Airport is the nearest for going to Mamallapuram. It lies 55 kilometers away from the port town. By Road: Mamallapuram has well-connecting roads with Chennai, Chengalpet, and several nearby cities. By Train: Chengalpet is the nearest railhead to Mamallapuram, approximately 30 kilometers away. It is well-connected to Chennai and other nearby cities.

Traveling Around Mahabalipuram

Edward Wong wrote in the New York Times: “We pulled into Mahabalipuram; I could see the ocean as we cruised into town. There was the smell of salt in the air, and we drove through quiet lanes to the seaside hotel. The beach there is not of the golden-sand-and-swaying-palms kind you find in Goa or Kerala, but it is a pretty stretch to walk along and unwind from sightseeing (think fishing skiffs and seafood restaurants). [Source: Edward Wong, New York Times, September 19, 2008 /*/]

“Perhaps the most beautiful piece of art in Mahabalipuram...lies in the heart of town, an open-air bas relief known as Arjuna’s Penance. Dozens of figures from Hindu mythology are carved from the surface of an enormous granite boulder. The central scenes depict a well-known tale from the Mahabharata — that of the revered warrior Arjuna turning ascetic and going into the forest to seek the aid of Shiva in a coming battle. Tourists were kept far from the rock by a rail, but monkeys clambered all over it, just like the forest creatures in the mythological scene.

“In Mahabalipuram, I stayed at the Hotel Sea Breeze, close by from the beach (Ottawadai Street; 91-44-2744-3035). A double costs 2,025 rupees a night..Mahabalipuram is a great place for seafood. Moonrakers on Othavadai Street (91-4114-242-115; users.telenet.be/oochappan/moonrakers) uses authentic spices in its dishes. A dinner for two there costs no more than 390 rupees. Another great place is Mamalla Bhavan, on Shore Temple Road in the town center. It’s a typical south Indian “eats” canteen, where you can order a set meal of rice and curry, known as a thali, for about 30 rupees. It is very popular with locals and few tourists go there.

Biking Around Mahabalipuram

Edward Wong wrote in the New York Times: “It is the town’s stone architecture, some of the oldest in India, that makes Mahabalipuram a good first stop on the temple crawl. Biking between temples seemed the most relaxed way of taking in the sights, so off we went to a set of mini-temples on the southern edge of town. The place was already crowded with Indian tourists and juice vendors standing next to carts piled high with green coconuts. [Source: Edward Wong, New York Times, September 19, 2008 /*/]

“The ancient site was designed to be a big outdoor showroom that exhibited the skills of the town’s architects. Incredibly, the set of temples, the Five Rathas, was carved from a single large slab of granite: models in the Dravida style. As I pedaled north, I heard the chiseling of stone coming from roadside workshops — a sound I would hear throughout the day — reminding me that Mahabalipuram is still the stone-sculpturing capital of India, just as it was in ancient times. Likenesses of major Hindu gods like Shiva, Vishnu and Ganesh roll out of these workshops and into homes and offices around the country. I stopped in at a few of the workshops, where men sat on the floor chiseling. They were creating statues of Hindu gods and of Buddha in various poses: Buddha reclining, Buddha meditating beneath the bodhi tree, Buddha’s head. At one workshop, I held up a statuette of Ganesh, the elephant-headed god. He was typing on a laptop. “Computer companies like to buy these,” the manager said. This was India: the modern alongside the classically ancient.”

Monuments at Mahabalipuram

Monuments at Mahabalipuram was designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1984. According to UNESCO: “This group of sanctuaries, founded by the Pallava kings, was carved out of rock along the Coromandel coast in the 7th and 8th centuries. It is known especially for its rathas (temples in the form of chariots), mandapas (cave sanctuaries), giant open-air reliefs such as the famous 'Descent of the Ganges', and the temple of Rivage, with thousands of sculptures to the glory of Shiva. [Source: UNESCO World Heritage Site website]

“Mahabalipuram is pre-eminently testimony to the Pallavas civilization of southeast India.The sanctuary, known especially for its rathas (temples in the form of chariots), mandapas (cave sanctuaries), and giant open-air reliefs, is one of the major centers of the cult of Siva. The influence of the sculptures of Mahabalipuram, characterized by the softness and supple mass of their modelling, spread widely (Cambodia, Annam, Java).

“Founded in the 7th century by the Pallavas sovereigns south of Madras, the harbour of Mahabalipuram traded with the distant kingdoms of Southeast Asia: Kambuja (Cambodia) and Shrivijaya (Malaysia, Sumatra, Java) and with the empire of Champa (Annam). But the fame of its role as a harbour has been transferred to its rock sanctuaries and Brahmin temples which were constructed or decorated at Mahabalipuram between 630 and 728.

“Most of the monuments, like the rock-cut rathas, sculptured scenes on open rocks like Arjuna's penance, the caves of Govardhanadhari and Ahishasuramardini, and the Jala-Sayana Perumal temple (the sleeping Mahavishnu or Chakrin at the rear part of the Shore temple complex) are attributed to the period of Narasimhavarman I Mamalla.”

Types of Monuments at Mahabalipuram

According to UNESCO: “The monuments may be subdivided into five categories: 1) Ratha temples are in the form of processional chariots, monolithic constructions cut into the residual blocks of diorite which emerge from the sand. The five ratha of the south, which are the most famous, date to the reign of Naharasimhavarman Mamalla (630-68), the great Pallavas king (the Cholas texts, moreover, call the city Mamallapuram). [Source: UNESCO]

2) Mandapa, or rock sanctuaries, are modelled as rooms covered with bas-reliefs (the mandapa of Varaha, representing the acts of this avatar of Vishnu; the mandapa of the Five Pandavas and, especially, the mandapa of Krishna and the mandapa of Mahishasuramardini).

3) Rock reliefs in the open air illustrate a popular episode in the iconography of Siva, that of the Descent of the Ganges. The wise King Baghirata having begged him to do so, Shiva ordered the Ganges to descend to Earth and to nourish the world. The sculptors used the natural fissure dividing the cliff to suggest this cosmic event to which a swarming crowd of gods, goddesses, mythical beings (Kinnara, Gandherya, Apsara, Gana, Naga and Nagini), wild and domestic animals bear witness.

4) “Temples built from cut stone, like the Temple of Rivage, were constructed under King Rajasimha Narasimavarmn II (695-722), with its high-stepped pyramidal tower and thousands of sculptures dedicated to the glory of Siva.

5) Monolithic rathas, from single- to triple-storeyed, display a variety of architectural forms, while the Dharmaraja, Arjuna and Draupadi rathas are square in plan, the Bhima and Ganesa rathas rectangular, and the Sahadeva ratha apsidal. Structural architecture was introduced on a grand scale by Pallava Rajasimha (700-28), culminating in the erection of the Shore Temple.

Another piece of architectural beauty is the Shore temple, standing against the background of the deep blue waters of the ocean. It belongs to a period when the constructional style of the Pallavas was at its peak in its decorative beauty and intrinsic quality. This building has become eroded by the corrosive action of seawater and air and the sculptures have become indistinct

Sights in Mahabalipuram

Panch Rathas is currently a part of the UNESCO World Heritage Sites under the Mamallapuram Complex. The Panch Rathas (five chariots) are five spectacular rock carvings, based on the characters of the Hindu epic, Mahabharata. The rock carvings stand at the southernmost end of Mamallapuram, a fine testimony to Dravidian architecture. They were built as examples of South Indian temples but since they were never consecrated, they were not used for worship. The five ratha temples belong to the Pandava brothers- Yudishthir, Bheema, Arjun, Nakul and Sahdeva, and their wife Draupadi- the Panchaali (five-husbanded). The Panch Rathas complex was built under Narsimhavarman I of the Pallava dynasty some time between the 7th and 8th centuries. The temples are built in the shape of pagodas and look very similar to Buddhist shrines. The chariots of the Pandavas and Draupadi are accompanied by statues of an elephant, a lion and Nandi bull, vehicles of Lord Indra, Goddess Durga and Lord Shiva, respectively.

Krishna's Butter Ball is an immense boulder, about 16 feet high, that is one of the prominent tourist sites in Mamallapuram. Defying gravity, the boulder is balanced precariously on a narrow base. It is symbolic of Lord Krishna's love for butter. According to legend, the boulder is a representation of the amount of butter that Lord Krishna used to steal and eat. An old wives' tale additionally tells that lots of kings under the Pallava dynasty with their army and elephants tried to move the boulder but it would not budge an inch. The boulder has a breadth that almost matches its height, and though it is rounded at some angles, it is not a perfect sphere. Today, it stands proudly as an attraction for all the visitors in Mamallapuram and leaves people confused with its logic-defying balance.

Tiger Caves (in Saluvankuppam, five kilometers from Mahabalipuram) is not a cave filled with tigers but rather a couple of rock-cut temples. The name is taken from the cave temples that have a crown of carved heads of what looks like a tiger. It is believed that the animal is actually the mythological yali and the spot is called Yali Mandapam. It makes for a great picnic spot and the large rocks and sandy shores make it a haven for birds. Since its architecture looks like an open theater, the place also hosts several cultural events. The cave is believed to be the spot where the Pallava king used to address his people from.

Thiruporur (25 kilometers north of Mahabalipuram) is one of the 33 most important temples of Lord Muruga. Dating back to the period of the Pallava rulers, this ancient temple faces east, sitting in the shadow of the Pranava Mountain. Thiruporur means holy war. Lord Muruga’s triumphs are represented in the positioning of the temple. According to the Puranas, Thiruporur is hailed as the Aghayamarg (skies) where the lord fought and won against demons. The temple houses inscriptions dating back to the 10th century, including some from the 12th century Chola dynasty. One of the inscriptions alludes to the temple being built by the Pallavas. The temple was lost for many years, before it was rediscovered and restored by Chidambara Swamigal, said to be a descendant of one of the poets of the Tamil Sangam of Madurai. Thiruporur celebrates festivals all year round, but it’s more important ones are Vaikasi Visagam, Kanthasashti, and Navaratri.

Arjuna's Penance

Arjuna's Penance (tapas) is a bas-relief that is 43 feet high and 100 feet long. Believed to be the world's largest structure of its kind, it is inscribed on two monolithic boulders and part of the UNESCO World Heritage Site. It has over 100 sculptures of gods, birds, beasts and saints. The relic depicts a scene from the epic Mahabharata, where Arjuna is praying hard and performing penance to Lord Shiva to ask him for his powerful and divine bow.

It is said that Arjuna needed this bow in the battle of Mahabharata to defeat the Kauravas. Another legend gives the site the name of descent of the Ganges, as it is believed to be the spot where king Bhagiratha performed penance and prayed to Lord Shiva, standing on one leg, to let River Ganges descend from heaven so he could gain salvation for his ancestors.

Edward Wong wrote in the New York Times: “Perhaps the most beautiful piece of art in Mahabalipuram...lies in the heart of town, an open-air bas relief known as Arjuna’s Penance. Dozens of figures from Hindu mythology are carved from the surface of an enormous granite boulder. The central scenes depict a well-known tale from the Mahabharata — that of the revered warrior Arjuna turning ascetic and going into the forest to seek the aid of Shiva in a coming battle. Tourists were kept far from the rock by a rail, but monkeys clambered all over it, just like the forest creatures in the mythological scene. [Source: Edward Wong, New York Times, September 19, 2008]

Cave Temples in Mahabalipuram

Mahishasuramardini Cave Temple (at the southern end of Mamallapuram Hill) is noted for its reliefs that have been intricately carved into walls. One of these depicts Lord Vishnu sleeping on top of the coils of the king of serpents, Adisesha, while another relief displays Goddess Durga, atop her lion, fighting with the demon Mahishasura. In addition to these two bas-reliefs, the shrine in the center of the temple holds an idol of Lord Murugan, seated between Lord Shiva and Goddess Parvati. Carved out of rocks, the temple depicts scenes from ancient Hindu epics, Puranas. The cave temple belongs to the 7th century, constructed under the Pallava dynasty (275 to 897). The cave is a testimony to the fine craftsmanship of the Vishwakarma sculptors of that time.

Varaha Cave Temple is known for four exquisite carvings of Lord Vishnu, Goddess Gajalakshmi, Lord Trivikama (the fifth avatar of Lord Vishnu) and Goddess Durga. This hilltop temple has exquisite rock-cut formations that are a fine example of the sculpting work done by Vishwakarmas of that century. The most prominent sculpture is of Lord Vishnu's incarnation as a Varaha (boar), who is lifting Bhudevi (Mother Earth) out of the ocean to rescue her. Several other mythical characters have been etched on the walls of this cave temple, along with ornate images of majestically seated lions. The outward-facing panels are graced by Goddesses Lakshmi and Durga. On the right-hand panel, upon entering the cave, one can see Lord Vishnu on an eight-armed giant form, called Trivikarma, in the act of killing the demon Mahabali. Dating back to the 7th century, this temple is also known as the Adhivaraha Cave Temple.

Trimurti Cave Temple is a triple-celled temple, dedicated to the holy trinity of Hinduism, the three superpowers Lord Brahma, Lord Vishnu and Lord Shiva. Situated at the northern end of the Mamallapuram Hill, slightly away from Krishna's Butter Ball, one can visit this cave temple to witness the splendour of Pallava dynasty's architecture. In addition to the trinity, the backside of the rock cave is adorned with fine carvings of elephants. These caves are among the very few in India that can be categorised as complete excavations. The three shrines of the cave temple have been excavated on the western facade of a hill and there are different staircases to reach all the three shrines. The three shrines are also decorated with a set of intricately carved dvarpalas or gatekeepers.

Krishna Mandapam is the largest mandapam in Mamallapuram. It is dedicated to Lord Krishna. Inside this mandapam, are bas-reliefs and carvings depicting scenes of village life from Govardhan, with special emphasis on pastoral life, including a shepherd milking a cow, a farmer carrying his child on his shoulder, a shepherdess with a rolled mat on her head, a young couple pictured beautifully, etc. The largest carving narrates the story of how Lord Krishna saved the village of Govardhan from Lord Indra's wrath by carrying the entire mountain on his finger for nearly an entire week to protect the people and the cattle, while it rained so severely that everything could have drowned. The Krishna Mandapam is situated right next to Arjuna's Penance and shares the same complex with the Ganesha Ratha and the Krishna Butter Ball.

Panchapandava Mandapam is another jewel in the Mamallapuram UNESCO World Heritage Site complex. One of the largest cave temples in the town, it was built between the 7th and 8th centuries, under king Narasimhavarman I of the Pallava dynasty. A fine example of rock-cut style architecture, this cave temple is a rectangular structure supported by pillars. Its entrance is guarded by two seated lions and upon walking further, one can see lion bases on the columns of the verandah. Behind a few columns on the inside ramp are hidden lions and elephants, and visitors can enjoy the challenge of spotting them out. The frontage of the cave has six lion-based pillars as well, providing it an all-over royal look. There are intricate carvings on all of the walls within the cave, on the pillars, on the columns in the verandah, and the rock-cut chambers, which make for interesting detailing.

Shore Temple

Shore Temple is the oldest, free-standing temple in the vicinity of Mamallapuram. Classified as a UNESCO World Heritage Site and dated to the latter half of the 7th century, it is a perfect exhibit of Dravidian and Pallava architecture, built under the king Narasimhavarman II (695-722), with granite. Under the same king, the temple acted as an extremely busy port for a long duration. Within the temple, are three sanctums with shrines, two of which are dedicated to Lord Shiva and one dedicated to Lord Vishnu.

Standing at the coast of the Bay of Bengal, the Shore Temple is only one of a complex of seven that survived the Tsunami in 2004. Even though many of the carvings in the temple have eroded over time, the quality of the exquisite carvings can still be made out. The Shore Temple, two-towered, stands magnificently in rock-cut elegance and is surrounded by gardens and ruined courts. There are several other smaller shrines in the vicinity complementing this huge building.

Edward Wong wrote in the New York Times: In Mahabalipuram, “by the crashing waves of the Bay of Bengal sits the town’s most important architectural site, the Shore Temple. My Rough Guide said the Shore Temple was built in the early eighth century during the Pallava dynasty and is considered the earliest stone temple in the south. Its two towers were modest compared with some of the gopuras I would later see, but the style — a layered, wedding-cake look whose sharp edges have been eroded by the seaside weather — had enormous influence on the development of later temples both in India and in Southeast Asia. The corncob towers of the beautiful Angkor complex in Cambodia, built by the Hindu Khmer rulers, are one example. [Source: Edward Wong, New York Times, September 19, 2008]

Kanchipuram

Kanchipuram (75 kilometers southwest of Chennai) is a temple town and home of the Ekambareswar Temple, Sri Kamakshi Amman Temple, Sri Vaikhunta Perumal Temple, and Kailasanathar Temple. Kanchipuram (also spelled Kanchepuram) is dotted with ancient temples. Situated on the banks of River Vegavathi, this historical city once had 1,000 temples, of which only 126 (108 Shaiva and 18 Vaishnava) now remain. Its rich legacy has been the endowment of the Pallava dynasty, which made the region its capital between the 6th and 7th centuries, and lavished upon it architectural gems that are a fine example of Dravidian styles. Kanchipuram was also an important center for Buddhism, and home to monks such as Bhikshu Bodhidharma, Sri Sankaracharya and Sirutho. The town is also considered an important center for learning and houses several colleges associated with the University of Madras in Chennai.

Kanchipuram is also famous for Kanchipuram silks, which are made from twisted yarns which make them extremely durable. Kanchipuram became famous for making saris around 400 years ago. The saris are known for their vibrant colors. The colors are normally bright and deep and the silk is among the finest quality found in India. It is woven with contracting colors of silk or with gold threads used as a border or a motif. Premium saris made with superior-quality silk, these are known for their lustre, weight and gold zari work that make the wearer look graceful. Wedding saris made from Kanchipuram silk are often blessed at a local temple after they are made and are still in use a hundred after they are made. Some of the best quality stuff is sent to Madras. The best prices are found in Kanchipuram.

Getting There: By Air: The nearest airport is at Chennai, about 75 kilometers away. By Road: Connected by good roads to all important destinations in southern India. By Train: The railhead at Kanchipuram is connected with the capital of the state, Chennai and other parts of the country.

Temples in Kanchipuram

Sri Kamakshi Temple (northern Kanchipuram) is named after Kamakshi, which refers to Goddess Saraswati (goddess of education) and Goddess Lakshmi (goddess of wealth), where 'ka' means Saraswati, 'ma' means Lakshmi and 'akshi' means eye. The imposing temple is dedicated to Goddess Kamakshi (considered as the ultimate form of Goddess Parvati). The deity of this temple is unique in that instead of the traditional standing position, her idol is in the yogic position of padmasana. She is seen holding a sugarcane bow and five flowers in the two of her lower arms, and a pasha (lasso), and an ankusha (goad) in her two upper arms. The goddess is flanked by the holy trinity (Lord Shiva, Lord Vishnu and Lord Brahma).

Here, an annual festival is held on the ninth lunar day in the months of February and March. During other festivals such as Navratri and Sankara Jayanti, the temple is especially crowded, receiving hundreds of tourists every day. It is also one of the 51 shaktipeethas or devotional shrines where the severed body parts of Goddess Sati fell. The temple, spread over 5 acre, is open until 8:30pm at night, and is lit up like a jewel after sundown, transforming into an alluring visual treat for devotees and photographers alike. Four services are offered every day, starting with pujas in reverence of the elephants that live here.

Sri Vardaraja Perumal Temple (eastern Kanchipuram) was built by the rulers of Vijayanagar and is dedicated to Lord Vishnu. It is one of the divya desam temples, the 108 temples said to have been visited by the 12 poet saints or Alwars. There are a number of other temples in the complex. The main temple has a 100-pillar hall, which has some beautiful exquisitely carved sculptures. The idol of Lord Athi Varadaraja Perumal, 40 feet long and made of athi wood, is seen in a reclining position. This statue is brought out only once every 40 years for darshan (sighting). The raja gopuram (main gateway) is a feast to the eyes, soaring to a height of 96 feet.

Over 350 inscriptions from the Chola, Pandya, Telugu Choda, Kandavaraya, Cheras, Kaaktiya, Sambuvaraya, Hoysala and Vijayanagara dynasties can also be viewed here. Lizards engraved in stone and plated with gold can be seen in the temple complex. Four services are held by priests who are believed to be the descendants of Yagna Valkyar. While festivals are celebrated with great enthusiasm here, the Vaikasi Brahmmotsavam, observed for 10 days, beginning on the Poornima Vishaka day, is the most spectacular. The Purattasi Navaratri festival also goes on for 10 days, and is quite the show at the temple.

Ekambareswarar Temple

Ekambareswarar Temple (northern Kanchipuram) is an architectural marvel, the spread over a vast area of 40 acre. Its most striking feature is the main entrance or the raja gopuram that rises to an imposing height of 172 feet. Entering through this gate feels like stepping into a different era, such is the grandeur of the structure. A pillared hall sits in front of the sanctum, and there are idols of the 63 Nayanmars across the place. As you move further into the temple, you will come across two water tanks known as Shivaganga and Kampa Nadi. The main shrine showcases a Somaskanda panel, which features Lord Shiva, Goddess Parvati and Skanda epic.

Built by the Pallava rulers, Ekambareswarar Temple has 1000 pillared halls and five prakarams or enclosures. With Lord Shiva as the presiding deity, who is worshipped here as prithvi (earth), the temple was later renovated by the Chola and Vijayanagara rulers. During the rule of Krishnadeva Raya, the gopuram (gateway tower) and the outer walls were constructed in 1509. Just behind the sanctum stands a 3,500-year-old mango tree that still bears fruits.

The temple is an important religious site of the Hindu sect of Saivism, as one of the temples of the Panch Bhoota Stalas, or the five elements. Lord Shiva is represented by his most famous symbol, the lingam, and this particular one is known as Prithvi Lingam. The lord’s divine consort Goddess Parvati is also worshipped here in the avatar of Gowridevi Amman. The best time to visit is during the festival of Phalguni that continues for 13 days. During this time, Ekambareswarar Temple is decked to the nines, as it prepares for the wedding of Lord Shiva and Goddess Parvati.

Kailasanathar Temple

Kailasanathar Temple (northern Kanchipuram) is dedicated to Lord Shiva, the lord of Mt Kailash, and is among the most important temples in Kanchipuram. The large temple complex has 60 smaller shrines, but one of the most unique aspects is the main idol of Lord Shiva, which has 16 stripes. The architecture of the temple is in traditional Pallava style of pillared halls, a vestibule and a pyramidal tower.

The construction of the Kailasanathar Temple began during the rule of Pallava king, Rajasimha (695 -722) and was completed in the 8th century by Mahendravarman III, of the Pallava dynasty. There are 240 or so panels engraved into the temple walls that display Nagara and Pallava Grantha scripts; incidentally, some of the earliest works of calligraphy are also found at Kailasanathar Temple. It holds one of the earliest sculptures of Jyeshta Lakshmi (Moodevi) and Vaali as well. Showcasing Dravidian style of architecture, this place is ideal for meditation and reflection.

Visited by tourists from India and abroad, perhaps the most popular attraction of the temple is the inner-most pathway that runs around the idol of Kailasanathar, signifying the entry of a person’s soul into paradise. Lord Shiva’s vehicle, Nandi (bull god), is also worshipped here. The temple compound is made of stone, so the best times to visit are mornings and evenings, because the stone heats up under the harsh afternoon sun, and makes walking barefoot a challenge.

Near Kanchipuram

Sri Vaikunta Perumal Temple (in Uthiramerur, 30 kilometers south of Kanchipuram) was built in the 8th century by Pallava king Nandivarman (731-796), the Sri Vaikunta Perumal Temple is dedicated to Lord Vishnu who is worshipped as Vaikunta Perumal, along with his consort, Goddess Lakshmi, who is revered as Anandavalli. While originally built by the Pallavas, the temple was renovated in part by the Cholas at a later time. This temple is considered as one of the 108 divya desam temples dedicated to Lord Vishnu, and has even been mentioned in the Divya Prabandha, the early medieval Tamil canon of the Azhwar saints, who lived between the 6th and 9th centuries. Inside, the idol of the lord is flanked by Sridevi and Bhudevi, with an assembly hall spread across 2,500 square feet in the center of the temple. There are no pillars here, and the roof is supported solely by walls. The Sri Vaikunta Perumal Temple was constructed in the Dravidian style of architecture and is now an Archaeological Survey of India protected monument.

Mamandur (15 kilometers from Kanchipuram) is a rock-cut cave on the banks of River Palar. Built during the early years of the Pallava rule, the cave temple has been declared by the Archaeological Survey of India as a monument of national importance. The temple’s main attraction is an inscription in the Tamil Brahmi script. Brahmi is the earliest Indian alphabetical script and has several regional variations, one of which is Tamil Brahmi. The inscription is said to have been laid down sometime between 300 B.C. and 300.

The caves of the temple, another point of interest here, were commissioned by Pallava king Mahendravarman I. There are four cave temples cut into the hills in the area, two of which lie in Mamandur, and the others in the neighbouring village of Narasapalaiyam. The first cave temple is reached via a stone staircase, and the façade comprises pillars built in the Mahendravarman style of architecture. The second cave temple has an ardha mandapa and a mukha mandapa, and is dedicated to Lord Brahma, Lord Shiva and Lord Vishnu. The third and the largest temple is only partially complete, with five empty shrines right at the back. The fourth and the smallest cave temple is also incomplete, and has two pillars and two pilasters supporting the roof.

Vellore (70 kilometers from Kanchipuram) is located on the banks of the River Palar. The main attraction is the Vellore Fort that is a spectacular specimen of military architecture in South India. It is believed to have been built during the reign of Chinna Bommi Nayak (1526 - 1595) and still remains a popular heritage site. Tourists can also visit the Jalakandeswarar Temple, inside the fort, which is reminiscent of the Vijayanagar architecture. The Kalyanamantapa to the left of the entrance is another example of the architectural prowess of the creators of old. Another must-visit attraction in this small, interesting town is the clock tower, in the bazaar, built in 1928.

The history of Vellore is dynamic and the town served as one of the strongest fortresses in the Carnatic War in the 17th century. Thus, it was the seat of power of the Pallava, Chola, Nayak and Maratha dynasties, as well as of the Arcot Nawabs and Bijapur Sultan kingdoms. It also bore witness to the massacre of a European army during the mutiny of 1806. In fact, the town’s monuments provide great insight into some of the major strategically significant battles fought in Ambur in 1749, Arcot in 1751 and Vandavasi in 1768 between the French and the English for dominance.

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons

Text Sources: India tourism website ( incredibleindia.org), India’s Ministry of Tourism and other government websites, UNESCO, Wikipedia, Lonely Planet guides, New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, National Geographic, The New Yorker, Bloomberg, Reuters, Associated Press, AFP, Yomiuri Shimbun and various books and other publications.

Updated in August 2020

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