South India is a treasure trove of temple architecture. The Dravida Style is famed far and wide for the sheer grandeur of plan and workmanship. The first major works of that style were initiated by the Pallavas in the 8th. century.
Hindu Temples , originally were simple shrines of wood and compacted earth, while it was the Jainas and Buddhists who thought of cutting into rock faces to make their Viharas. During the Hindu Rennaissance period, many of these Viharas were converted into Brahminical temples. Inspired by these durable structures, free standing Rock Cut temples were experimented first by the Pallavas , Mamallapuram being a showpiece of their skill. Transition from rock-cut to regular, Structured Temples ( ie, made of assembled stone parts) was natural and organic progression, especially when north of Kanchi, (in Kalinga in particular), the Nagara style of temple building was blossoming in full strength.
Pallava Narasimha Varman II ( aka Rajasimhan) , had a magnificent structured temple built in his capital Kanchi, in the early 8th. Century, a " First" which became a prototype for other ambitious projects, most notably The Brihadeeshwara in Thanjavur and The Virupaksha in Pattadakal. This is the KAILASANATHAR kovil . Its old Tamil name, Kacchipettu Periya ThiruKattrali meaning, "The Big Stone Shrine of Kanchi " points to the fact that it was an architectural novelty. It is believed that Dravida style temple building activity took off in a big way in the South, only after this Pallava edifice rose up. Design ideas like its broad pyramidal Gopuram, pilastered walls, conical Shikaras are considered the fore runners of the massive multitiered pagodas and prakaras fashioned by the later Pandyas , Chozhas and Nayakas. The perimeter wall enclosing the complex is also a "first".
Kanchipuram , a small city, is fairly bursting at its seams with temples and religious activities divided among its Vishnu Kanchi , Shiva Kanchi and Jaina Kanchi quarters . But far away from the maddening and boisterous pilgrim throngs, on the quiet outskirts lies the oldest and most magnificent of all kanchi-temples : The Kailasanathar. Only art lovers and curious tourists come to marvel at this treasure house of ancient art ; no worshippers in this ASI ProtectedMonument (except, perhaps on Shivaratri day). No entry after 6pm.
Though not immense , its fortress like layout with tightly packed corridors and sculpted niches just overwhelms. Constructed from fragile sandstone and limestone blocks, it has withstood the elements fairly well. Some age- worn parts have been sanded , cemented over and white washed by the ASI , which in my opinion, could have done with more feeling for the original design and some traditional artistry.
But , never mind, at least it is being taken care of.
The only thing that could not be saved was the fresco work. Done in vegetable dyes, the paintings which must have once been jewel like, can now be imagined only from the small shreds and scraps that remain in some sheltered niches.
The sculptures are awesome. Not only the multitude of life sized Yaalis, but also the varied mythological forms of Shiva ( around 64) are perfect in form and symmetry. The Garbagriha , housing a huge granite lingam cut with longitudinal facets , is open only during the short simple puja conducted once a day by the lone priest.
A languid Nandi is placed quite a distance away from the entrance of the temple, placidly watching this jewel of ancient art, across a nicely trimmed grass meadow.
No one , with even with a rudimentary interest in Indian art and iconography, can come away unmoved by the magnificence of The Kailasanathar Kovil.
( Photos by Son)