Kalidasa, affectionately called by some passionate admirer as the Shakespeare of India – himself passionately lauded the South Indian city Kanchipuram (which I find amusingly surprising) when he said:
“Pushpeshu Jati. Purusheshu Vishnu. Nareeshu Rambha. Nagareshu Kanchi”
which means that Jati, Vishnu, Rambha, and Kanchi are the greatest flower, man, woman, and city respectively. What we find here is Kalidasa demonstrating the greatness of Kanchi while at that time doing the same to his own rhetoric. In this what I find ‘surprising’ is the fact that we have nearly no traces of Kalidasa having been to the city of Kanchipuram (kalidasa was a poet at the Gupta court in Pataliputra/Patna).
Reasons for his saying that are not hard to conjecture. Kanchipuram in his days must have been a fabulous city and a fabled city. It must have been what the Great Khan’s Beijing would have been to the Middle-Age Europeans after Marco Polo. Another piece of information can make it even more convincing. Kanchi finds itself in the list of seven Mokshapuris (therefore, also called Saptapuris). It is said that a devotee’s soul gets liberated directly when he visits a Mokshapuri. Now we know what Kalidasa was looking at when he adulated the city.
Beyond doubt, Kanchipuram was more-or-less the city of dreams, hence all the praise from unexpected corners of the Indian map. Well, there are chronicles of Kanchi from even appalling parts of the map, like…. outside it!
Only a traveler like Hiuen Tsang would have the endurance to withstand the haphazard landscapes and the often-hazardous climates of India; the inquisitiveness to explore and observe the unknown; and the devotion towards treasure, goal, and duty; in order to get to Kanchipuram (Kin-chi-pu-lo, as he calls it) from East China. In his Si-yu-ki, like so many places, Kanchi also gets documented. Kanchi is described as a fertile land inhabited by honest, self-esteemed, and particularly courageous people. However what attracts Hiuen Tsang is not the abundance of food or the remarkable characteristics of the community there (the climate is described unfavourably but reasonably fairly – that it is hot) but the fact that this was a major Buddhist site and an educational hub.
Tripitaka, as Hiuen Tsang is widely known, mentions that this was home to a Bodhisattva even. Archaeological evidence shows that Buddhism was if not the most popular, one of the most prominent religions in the region. Why, even Bodhidharma who is said to have founded Zen Buddhism in China was from Kanchipuram. Well, what do we have here?
Kanchi is one of the holiest cities for Hindus in India while simultaneously sitting in Hiuen Tsang’s itinerary. If that were syncretic, archaeologists have traced Jain shrines too in and around Kanchi. Pancha Kanchi is the term used today to describe the quarters of the ancient city that were home to five religious practices (Buddhism, Jainism, Vaishnavism, Shaivism, and Shaktism).
Unfortunately, Buddhism has almost completely been replaced by Brahminism in this area. Excavations reveal that Buddhist civil structures were seized by Hindu groups to be used as shrines for their respective deities. Jainism is scattered and small but some sites have survived. The three Hindu strands are extremely active, also thanks to the temples built by the Pallavas (whose capital this was) and expanded by Vijayanagara kings (I hope I get to talk about these two dynasties sometime in my blog). Varadaraja and Ekambareswara temples are one of the most important for South Indian Vaishnavites and Shaivites respectively. Nevertheless Kamakshi shrine is the most noted attraction here – so much so that Shankara, the great Vedantic theologian established his Peetham (a religious order) here (and this continues today – with undiminished authority).
If Hiuen Tsang is one foreigner (Kalidasa is one too in his own way) who set his gaze upon Nagareshu Kanchi, the temples that have hitherto been described become the cause for the other. At an age when imperialism was pride, but also awe; was snobbery but also passion; was xenophobia, but also exploration and discovery; young James Fergusson was also drawing sketches of Indian structures like fellow ‘orientalists’. Fergusson with the help of his sketches managed to illustrate a broad picture of world architecture and classify styles.
Looking at the temples of Kanchi and Mahabalipuram, Fergusson noticed for the first time that South Indian temples had a distinct style – which he called Dravidian. In describing the temples of Kanchipuram aka Conjeevaram in his book, ‘History of Indian and Eastern Architecture’ published in 1876, he says:
“..the two towns, Great and Little Conjeevaram, possess groups of temples as picturesque and nearly as vast as any to be found elsewhere.”