Anticipating the customary fog would play havoc with the flight schedules this winter we cleverly booked our travel to Chennai by the Tamil Nadu Express of the fourth of January to discover that we did not fare any better. The train took a beating soon after Delhi – woke up to a chilly morning at Gwalior, six hours late and reached Chennai on the sixth at 1.30 pm.
Seventh of January was Vaikunta Ekadasi, a very auspicious day in the South Indian Vaishnavite calendar – a day that God offers mortals direct entry to heaven. In such a scenario our trip to Kanchipuram did not find favour as there was likelihood of traffic jams and stampedes as millions of fasting devotees would flock Vishnu temples and queue up for hours to get a chance to walk through the swargavasal – the gateway to heaven. So we postponed the trip to the eight – the less crowded Dwadasi day.
Being in Chennai on such an auspicious day we decided to use it to visit the Parthasarathi Perumal Koil, a landmark Vishnu temple. As expected even the approach lanes were clogged for miles with a flood of devotees armed with darshan tickets worth Rs 300 each. In any case, despite our earnest efforts, we could not even sight the tall gopuram built over the inner sanctum and left for tea and samosas instead at the Dastkar Crafts Mela at the Kalakshetra.
Dwadasi dawned with overcast skies and a taxi that promptly arrived at 7 am. Proceeding to the new Anna flyover at Guindy and crossing over to Poonamallee, we were at the Trade Centre which was hosting the Pravasi Bharatiya Annual function before 8 am. There were elaborate security arrangements as the Prime Minister and the President were to visit the venue. But as luck would have it, we scrunched to a halt under the scrutiny of a multitude of khaki personnel – with a puncture discovered. Half an hour later, with the tyre mended and the suspicions of the police patrol abated we were happy to be on our way, past the Ramachandra Medical College Campus, Hyundai, Dell, Nokia and Sipcot factories, Sri Venkateshwara Engineering College, Pharmacy and Dental College Campuses, and the Rajiv Gandhi Memorial at Sriperumbudur. A left turn from NH 4 and 4 km along the approach road past the railway crossing we entered Kanchipuram town.
One of the oldest temples in the city, the gopuram of the Ekambaranathar Temple, visible from a great distance, stands as a massive landmark, spanning a height of 57 metres – one of the tallest in South India. According to legend, this temple is located around a 3500-year old mango tree where Kamakshi Amman undertook a rigorous penance to win over and marry Lord Shiva. In Sanskrit, Eka means one, and Amaram means mango tree – Ekambaram thus literally means one mango tree. At the entrance there are shops selling offerings for Lord Shiva. What was significant however, were small earthen lamps, diyas, instead of the camphor cakes that was traditionally burnt to grant sanctity to the priest’s incantations. The practise of burning camphor was dispensed with in Tamil Nadu, we were informed, owing to pollution it caused – hence lighted diyas were in vogue. The main sanctum houses the sivalingam, a phallic symbol depicting Lord Shiva. A Vishnu temple flanks the sanctum on the right. The path on the left leads to the wondrous Aayiram Kaal Mandapam, or the hallway with a thousand pillars. An array of 1008 sivalingams decorates the inner walls of the temple, which bears testimony to practically every dynasty that ruled Kanchipuram. Central to the entire architecture is of course the sthala-virutcham, a 3500-year old mango tree whose branches evidently yield four different types of mangoes. Currently, a sapling from the original tree has taken its place and was in bloom when we visited. After paying obeisance to the ruling deity we walked across to the prasadam counter distributing delicious chakkarapongal (sweet rice gruel).
From the Ekambaranathar temple we drove through the streets of Kanchipuram to reach the Vaikunda Perumal temple located at the end of a small alley, away from the tourist hubs. Built by the Pallava ruler, Nandivarman II, it is a masonry stone temple in the Rajasimha style (AD 674 to 800) with a vimaanam containing three-storeyed cells enshrining Vishnu in the sitting, reclining and standing postures. Its inner walls are decorated with lion shaped pillars. Being a Vaishnavite temple it is thronged by devotees on the Vaikunda Ekadasi and the Dwadasi days. Predictably the long queues of devotees discouraged entry to the sanctum sanctorum – we sufficed ourselves by circumambulating the temple and grudgingly abstained from visiting the other prominent Vaishnavite temple, Varadaraja Perumal, owing to similar crowds there. This is an extremely large temple with abundant sculptures and is said to house an immense sculpture of Varadaraja Perumal, as well as a small one sculpted from atthi wood which is submerged in the tank. The darshan of the smaller deity is only possible once in 40 years. The sculptures and paintings in this temple are absolutely amazing, significant among which is the Nooru Kaal Mandapam or 100 pillared hall – a masterpiece that has been sculpted out of a single rock. The pillars of this hall depict the various avatars of Lord Vishnu.
Perhaps the most beautiful temple in the entire city lies in its rustic suburb – the Kailasanathar Temple was built by the Pallava ruler Rajasimha Pallava (AD 685 to 705). Unique in its architecture and constructed out of limestone, the walls and vimaanam of this temple are filled with exquisite sculptures, and paintings. The locals believe that this temple served as a shelter for the king during wars. We passed the chariot of the Varadaraja Temple and the row of shops selling silk sarees enroute to my aged aunt’s house. Following a sumptuous lunch there we embarked on the return journey to Chennai.
We boarded the Tamil Nadu Express next night expecting to be at work in Delhi on 12th morning. That was not to be – owing to derailment of a goods train close to Bhopal, 40 odd trains were diverted to the Jabalpur line from Itarsi. So we were treated to an extra day of journey through Madhya Pradesh before reaching Delhi on a blustery January afternoon.