Kailashnatha temple – Crowning glory of Pallavas: Kanchipuram (Part 1)

The exquisite Kailashnatha temple became the template for temple architecture with magnificent sculptures in south India and beyond.

Kailashnatha temple – Crowning glory of Pallavas: Kanchipuram (Part 1)


Tamil Nadu is still home to ancient temples whose magnificent architecture leaves you breathless. The Pallava rulers originated in the areas of present-day Andhra Pradesh, expanded their kingdom further south and took control of the Northern regions of Tamil Nadu. Kanchipuram was its capital between the 3rd to the 9th Centuries CE. It is home to hundreds of wonderful temples including one of the oldest temples in South India, Kailashnatha Temple.


The Pallava ruler, King Mahendravarman I, who ruled from 600 to 630 CE was a poet, musician and a lover of arts. He commissioned the first rock-cut cave at Mandagapattu, a place near Villupuram towards central Tamil Nadu. This was the first rock-cut art as inscriptions mention that it was unlike earlier constructions which used materials such as wood, bricks and metal. His successor, Narasimhavarman I expanded the port of Mamallapuram and started the rock cut art and rock temple constructions at Mahabalipuram. It was the Pallava rulers who first started the construction of sophisticated temples under their own patronage in South India and the Chola rulers continued with this royal patronage from the 10th century onwards. The Pallava King, Narasimha Varman II commissioned the construction of the most intricate temples during the first quarter of the 8th Century. The Kailashnatha Temple, dedicated to Lord Shiva was built between 685-705 CE. This is an architectural and sculptural marvel, a paradise for the devout and art lovers alike.
King Narasimhavarman II, more popularly known as King Rajasimha made this temple for his own personal worship. The temple is dedicated to Lord Shiva as Gangadhar, the bearer of the Holy River Ganga and got the name of Kailashnatha, as Shiva is the lord of Mount Kailash. An intriguing fact here is that Lord Shiva here is also named as Rajasimha Pallaveshvara or the lord of Rajasimha Pallava in order to deify the king to show that he had some divine connection with Lord Shiva. Thus started the trend of God-King or Devraja type image of the Pallava rulers. The God-King concept and Hindu traditions travelled to South East Asia along with travelers and royal entourages. The traditions of Khmer and Siam rulers can be attributed to the influence and interaction of the Pallavas and other sea-faring coastal regions of India. The early rulers of the area of present-day Cambodia and Siam were so enamoured by this concept that they also got royal temples commissioned with the king being deified. The God-king concept continued even when the religion of these rulers of South East Asian empires became Buddhism.
Shrines at the front of the main temple structure
Kailashnatha Temple is intriguing right from the first glance. Even though stone temple construction was in its early phase, this temple appears to be the epitome of sophistication. The base of this temple complex is made out of granite to take the weight of the construction and the other layers are sandstone. It was during this phase that the Shore Temple at Mahabalipuram was being constructed in Granite. There are eight shrines and an entrance way/small Gopuram as the first row of construction. This Gopuram is towards the left and not at the centre of the layout. All the shrines are pillared with the standing lion depicted on all the pillars. This lion was the royal emblem of the Pallavas.

(The shrines at the entrance to the main temple)
All these shrines are dedicated to Lord Shiva as a family man. The reliefs inside these shrines depict Lord Shiva and Goddess Parvati with baby Skanda or Lord Murugan (Kartikeya) on her lap. Lord Brahma and Lord Vishnu are seen blessing the family. This is called the Somaskanda panel and is a common feature in Pallava Carvings (Somaskanda Panel forms the main depiction even in the Shore temple at Mahabalipuram). Every shrine is a temple in itself and has a granite Shivling as the main deity. Inscriptions found in the temple reveal that two of these shrines were commissioned by Pallava Queens. One was Rangapataka, the wife of King Narasimhavishnu or Kalakala and the other name is no longer legible.

(The Shivling and Somaskanda Panel in one of the small shrines at the entrance)
Once you enter the Gopuram, you are instantly transported to the divine abode of rock carved deities, humans, intriguing animals on walls and pillars. They are with you, looking at you, guiding you, protecting and blessing you as you walk to the inner temple compound. The Dwarpala/gatekeeper is depicted mounted on a fierce mythical representation of a lion. The face of the Dwarpala has a subtle welcoming smile.

(Entrance corridor with a Dwarpala)
Just ahead of the Dwarpala, comes the striking carved image of Goddess Durga in all her battle finery, seated on her mount, a magnificent lion. Goddess Durga is an epitome of Shakti/power and strength with the capacity to annihilate any demon. She is depicted as having seven pair of hands. She is sitting in a calm pose, as if telling the devotees that she will protect them.

Just inside the entrance, there is a small shrine that was a later addition by King Rajasimha’s son, Mahendravarman III. The Gopuram to this shrine has a white lime plaster coating with a barrel-shaped roof that reminds one of the Nakul-Sahadev Ratha at Mahabalipuram. This was the beginning of the stylized Gopurams which kept increasing in size with successive kingdoms, becoming a very prominent feature of later temples.

(The Gopuram of the smaller shrine built by Mahendravarman III)
Layout of the Main Temple
The Kailashnatha Temple is the first temple structure in Kanchipuram to have all the basic elements that make it complete in all respects. It has an entrance gate, a Gopuram, an outer enclosure or compound wall, an inner enclosure, a circumambulatory pathway all around the main shrine, a Mandapa (Main Hall) and the Garbhgriha or sanctum sanctorum with a pyramidal Vimana above it.
What is unique about the temple enclosure is that it is made up of 58 sub-shrines that are dedicated to various forms of Lord Shiva and other deities. The pillars of these shrines have mythical lion mounts as a continuous feature.

(The circumambulatory outer corridor with sub shrines)
Lord Shiva, the main deity in the Garbhgriha is worshiped in the form of a granite Shivling with 16 sides. There is a panel with an image of Devi Parvati behind this Shivling.

After Darshan of the lord, one can pass through the door of death and rebirth (Irappu Vasal and Pirappu Vasal). This is a unique passage with a narrow entry symbolising the passage through life. One must somehow pass through this small opening and climb down seven steps that are symbolic of the path after death. After this, one must walk the narrow passage around the Garbhgriha and receive the blessings of the lord and those in heaven. The exit is a narrow passage on the floor level that is extremely difficult to wriggle out of as it has a 90-degree turn. The exit defines the Gateway to rebirth. Very narrow steps have been constructed next to the original exit for an easier exit. This unique passage reflects the Pallava ruler’s belief in the Hindu concept of rebirth.
(Some advice: while climbing into the entry window, try and slither your hands and body out onto the other side and do not try to fit in your legs along with your torso in the window passage as there is a high chance of getting stuck in the window).
The path of entry is tough and can be compared to life with all its trials and tribulations. Death felt good and liberating while rebirth brought me back to reality. It felt rejuvenating to have completed the circumambulation.

(The circumambulatory passage of death and rebirth around the Sanctum)
The outer sub-shrines have amazing depictions of Lord Shiva in various forms. These shrines are in two layers. The pillared shrines form the outer row and there is an inner level that forms the outer wall of the compound. One must walk slowly to view the carvings in the sub-shrines. No two depictions of Shiva are the same. Some forms of the deity are very human. The mystical lions also have variations. Some have normal lion ears, some have pointed ears along with horns. This inner layer has unique carvings and portrayals of Lord Shiva, Lord Vishnu as Narasimha, Goddess Parvathi, Goddess Durga and other deities. The panels below show an exquisite dance pose by Shiva and another event where Brahma’s fifth head was cut off by Shiva.

(The cosmic dance of Lord Shiva and The Lord Brahma panel)
These shrines have some of the most dramatic scenes and most of them depict some form of action. One shrine is slightly different as there are Dwarpalas at the doorway leading to a small room. The rear wall has a relief depicting Lord Brahma with devotees surrounding him.

(Lord Brahma on the relief panel on the rear wall)
One remarkable panel depicts Goddess Lakshmi in her Gajalakshmi form, holding lotus buds in her hands with two elephants blessing her with holy water. There are remains of the original plaster with bright yellow paint visible on the faces. The ASI has tried to restore some panels and has plastered the stone surface. The restored panel looks smooth and the images are clear but this somehow doesn’t capture the charm of the original work.

(An unrestored panel juxtaposed with a restored panel)
An intriguing panel depicts the scene from the Churning of the Ocean or the Samudra-manthan. As per the tradition, Mount Mandar was used for churning the ocean to release the elixir of life. Vasuki snake was used as a rope to assist in the churning with the Asuras taking the head side and the Devas taking the tail side. It was the conception of the Pallavas and execution by the skilled craftsmen that such an intense scene was created on stone, with Vishnu shown as supporting the mountain. It was from here that the art of relief making on stone travelled to South East Asian kingdoms. A few centuries later the Vishnu Temple at Angkor Wat became home to the longest relief panel depicting the Samudra-Manthan.

(Depiction of the Samudra-Manthan)
Another panel shows the Asura King Ravana trying to lift Kailash Mountain. Lord Shiva and Goddess Parvati are shown sitting on the mountain and Ravana is shown almost getting crushed by the enormous effort.

Another first can be attributed to the Pallavas for the earliest known stone sculpture of Lord Ganesha in the Southern part of India. In one of the niches, we find Lord Ganesha depicted with four hands, sitting on a lotus pedestal.

(Lord Ganesha)
There is not much space between the said 58 sub-shrines that run along the corridor. But these areas are also treasure troves of relief panels. Various deities along with devotees have been depicted. At some places, we even find depictions of royalty.

Erosion with time has withered away most of the original colours from the paintings and sculptures. Bright colours had been used to paint the carvings. Stone carving was followed by a layer of lime plaster and topped with bright shades of red, yellow, blue, green, gold and more. The Somaskanda panel is the most common relief in the inner niches. Shiva as a family man appears to have been idolised by the royalty. There are some remnants of wonderfully vivid fresco paintings on the inner walls.

(Remains of colours on the inner Somaskanda panels)
Goddess Parvati also finds a prominent place in the inner niches. Amidst all of Lord Shiva’s actions attuned to bringing balance to the universe, it is Goddess Parvati, who brings peace and calm to her Lord. Goddess Parvati has been depicted as Goddess Kamakshi, who is depicted with her parrot.

(Goddess Kamakshi amidst flora and fauna)
Lord Kartikeya, son of Lord Shiva finds a very special place in Pallava art. There are granite images of Lord Kartikeya sitting on his mount, the peacock.

(Statue of Lord Kartikeya in one of the outer niches)
The reliefs on the main shrine
The main shrine is square in shape with the pyramidal Vimana with a dome-shaped Kailash on top. The exterior of this shrine has the most exquisite representation of the deities.  Here also we find narrow but high niches that are dedicated to Lord Shiva. These huge reliefs are very impressive. Most of the reliefs depict Shiva vanquishing a demon that is metaphorical for evil or ignorance. All the images are very striking but one really stands out in imagination and execution- Lord Shiva as Gangadhar. Lord Shiva is shown capturing the river Ganges in his matted hair.

(Lord Shiva as a mendicant with wives of sages enamoured by him; as Gangadhar containing the mighty river Ganges by his hair; and as a family man, sitting in a calm posture)
Lord Shiva as Lingodbhava and in full warrior resplendence is an absolute masterpiece and shows how devoted and inspired the sculptors were. He is surrounded by various figures on all sides. The seated figure just above him has a look resembling a Buddhist, reminiscencent of earlier Buddhist presence in Kanchi area.

(Lord Shiva as a warrior)
We find Nandi, Lord Shiva’s bull at various places in the temple. There is a Nandi inside the shrine and some large sized Nandis in front of the sculptures of Shiva and Durga around the shrine. The portrayal of Goddess Durga on the outer wall of the main shrine is an epitome of power, elegance and beauty. Here she is depicted with ten arms and holding numerous weapons of war, her left leg resting on her fierce lion and one arm resting on her hip. Her limbs are slender, as if in movement while she confidently stands in the Tribhanga pose.

(Goddess Durga with devis on both her sides. A Nandi in front of this shrine)
Lord Shiva is depicted in a calm posture as if in meditation. His devotees and Ganas supplicate to him. The huge roaring lions, elephant head, warriors seated on mythical lion-like creatures that are throwing fire from their mouths became common depictions not only in South India but even in Central and East India. The lion with laces of beads flowing from the mouth is seen as a common depiction even in the temples of Bhubaneshwar.

(Beautiful carving of Lord Shiva shown meditating)
On the northern side of the shrine, there is a water outflow arrangement for the offerings on the Shivlinga to flow out and fall into a rock basin. Just above this water exit there is carved depiction of Lord Shiva in the Tripurantaka form – with bow and arrow and Goddess Durga and Bhairavi on his sides. His Ganas are seen below him.

Lord Shiva has been depicted in the cosmic Tandava dance form at various places in the temple complex. The unique aspect is that there are a multiple number of hands which are beyond the current standard depiction of 4 hands. Just above the head of Lord Shiva, his son Ganesha has been shown in a seated pose.

(Forms of cosmic dance of Lord Shiva, Swastika Dance pose on the right)
The corners of the temple have been constructed with elaborate sculptures with multiple lions projecting out from all sides. The motif of six fierce lions projecting from the walls and an elephant below are common to all corners but there are different forms of Lord Shiva in different corners. Here Lord Shiva is depicted in the Ananda Tandava dance pose, which denotes happiness. Goddess Parvati is by his side.

(Lord Shiva in Ananda Tandava pose)
In another corner Lord Shiva is depicted in his famous Rudra Tandava pose, vanquishing the demon that symbolizes vanquishing of ignorance.

(Lord Shiva vanquishing a demon)
Inscriptions on the main shrine
There are inscriptions that run all around the temple. The inscriptions on the sandstone slabs have faded but the granite inscriptions are still legible. These inscriptions are in Pallava Grantha or stylized Tamil script and Sanskrit language. There are granite inscriptions even inside the shrine and its floor that are well preserved. These slabs consist of 12 Sanskrit verses that open with benediction addressed to Ganga and then the divine lineage of the Pallava Kings.

“In the race of these (the Pallavas), there was born the supreme lord Ugradanda, the destroyer of the city of Ranarasika. His son was Rajasimha…. He built the Siva temple,…, and called it after his own name Rajasimha-Pallavesvara.”

The inscriptions equate the birth of King Rajasimha, son of King Parameswara to the birth Lord Kartikeya or Kumara, Son of Lord Shiva indicating the importance given to Lord Kartikeya and the multiple Somaskanda relief panels.
Ganas at the base level of the shrine
Shiva temples are always adorned with Ganas. They are dwarf-like characters normally depicted hovering near their lord. Here we find a row of Ganas all around the base of the Kailashnatha temple. It is believed that the most devoted of followers of Lord Shiva become Ganas, who are privileged to be perpetually near their Lord. Ganas are seen here dancing, singing and enjoying life, transporting the onlookers towards celebrating the joys of life.

(Ganas at the bottom panel)
Inscription on a pillar recording a historical event
Initially, the pillared Mandapa or hall was detached from the main shrine. At some later stage, this Mandapa was attached to the main shrine by the addition of an intermediate hall.
Some of the granite pillars in this hall have Tamil and Grantha inscriptions carved on them. The carvings are dated 1286 Saka era (1208 CE) during the reign of Kumbana-Udaiyar. It specifically states that the Rajasimhavarmeswara temple was closed by the order of Kulotunga-Chola-deva but on the date of the inscription the temple was reopened with the reciting of the Veda, blessings of Rudra, Maheshvara and authorities of the Temple.

(Inscriptions on one of the Mandapa Pillars)
The temple has a majestic effect, surrounded by these magnificently decorated sub-shrines. The construction ideas from this temple spread far and wide resulting in great temples across the Indian and Southeast Asian land mass.

There is a big Nandi statue some distance away from the temple complex. This white stone Nandi is on a raised platform in eternal vigilance facing the main shrine of the temple. It was in later temple construction that the Nandi was installed near the main shrine.


Kanchipuram is known as the city of a thousand temples. Kailashnatha temple is the crown jewel among Kanchi temples. Despite being the earliest example of Pallava stone temple construction, it is an exquisitely beautiful temple. The extensive panels depicting scenes about deities and traditional stories evoke a sense of wonder and awe. It is a great example of Pallava mastery of stonework as they progressed from the first exploration of basic rock-cut caves at Mandagapattu to the great artistic sculptures of Kailashnatha within a century. It seems as if divine energy was assisting these magnificent artists who created this wonder.

About Author: Ruchi Pritam

Ruchi is a History and Law Graduate from Delhi University with an MBA from Madras University. She is a Bank-empaneled lawyer and has taught at several MBA institutions as a visiting faculty. She has always had a fascination for Indian art, temples and culture that has led her to travel and write on the various architectural wonders of India. She believes that making one connect with the ancient roots through an understanding of heritage brings one closer to others. After all, humans are one big family.

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