A friend of mine travelled all the way from the US to visit me in Chennai. While planning what she wanted to do during her visit, she mentioned that she would love to visit some temples. My mom suggested that we make a trip to Kanchipuram to visit a weaver’s colony to see how Kanchipuram silk sarees were made. I was aware that there were some old temples there that were worth visiting but while doing more research it became evident that Kanchipuram is the city of a thousand temples. The Pallavas that built the shore temples in Mahabalipuram had also built the exquisite Kailasanathar temple with 54 shrines along the exterior of the temple and several Nandis (Shiva’s bull) placed in the periphery of the temple.
The day we decided to visit Kanchipuram happened to be an auspicious day for Lord Subramaniam and so droves of women dressed in their finest silks and with flowers adorning their hair were out on the streets with their families. The Kamakshi temple was crowded and the lines meandered all the way around the temple. My friend didn’t think it was worth waiting hours to see the Goddess in the sanctum sanctorum. So we strolled the temple grounds and marvelled at the pristine temple tank with fountains and benches along the wall facing the tank. Sweet plumeria flowers hung from the trees along the outer wall.
Legend has it that Goddess Parvati came down to earth and performed severe penance under a mango tree on the banks of the river Kampa. Every day, the goddess fashioned a Shiva linga out of sand and performed pooja. To test her devotion, Shiva made the waters of the river rise. Afraid that the water would wash away her precious Shiva linga, the goddess embraced the sand linga and waited for the waters to recede. Shiva was so pleased with her that he appeared before her and married her.
There’s a mango tree that stands inside the Ekambareshwar temple but one of the shopkeepers outside the temple told me that the actual tree died a few decades ago and the tree standing there today is only 20 or 30 years old. However, this tree grew from a seed from the original tree that the goddess sat under. Childless couples pray to Goddess Kamakshi and also pay a lot of money to get their hands on mangoes from this tree which are supposed to help women conceive. The river in the legend not longer exists and seems to have gone underground.
The goddess did not disappoint. After not being able to see her in her main temple we saw a smaller shrine dedicated to her in the Ekambareshwar temple. As we stood outside and prayed, the priest beckoned us to come inside the sanctum sanctorum. He then went on to chant some mantras and gave us some flowers and kumkum that were placed before the goddess. Since it was past noon and time for the temple to close, the lines to see Lord Ekambareshwar were dwindling and we decided to stay and pray to the main deity. We also spent some time around the famous mango tree touted to be over 3,500 years old.
Our last stop was the Kailasanathar temple made of sandstone and granite slabs to hold the statues and figurines. This temple built by the Pallavas in what was their capital city, is far more beautiful than the shore temples in Mahabalipuram. The doors were closed but two ladies opened it up for us and we had the whole place to ourselves for most of the afternoon. Parrots flew over the temple towers and even posed perfectly for us. Some of the Nandis were decapitated and some were missing torsos but most of them were well preserved. Unlike the temples in Mahabalipuram, this temple was still functional and priests performed poojas for the main diety twice every day. Words don’t do justice to the intricate architecture of this temple. Some larger than life statues are awe-inspiring and the level of detail is a testimonial to the artistic prowess of the Pallava stone sculptors.
Our last stop was a silk store with a weaving loom and a gracious man who walked us through the whole process of how a Kanchipuram silk saree comes into existence from raw silk to finished product. Water from the Palar river is used to dye the silk in bright colors. The process is repeated thrice to get the soft texture and rich hues Kanchipuram silks are known for. Our guide then proceeded to tempt us with silk scarves, cushions, bed sheets, and table covers, each more breathtakingly beautiful than the other. My friend ended up buying gifts for most of her friends and family from here.
We then made our way back to Chennai, our hearts and souls full after soaking in the divine energy of this sacred city.