The Majestic Vaikunth Perumal temple: Kanchipuram (Part 3)

The magnificent ancient Vishnu temple from the rich Pallava heritage is a sight to behold.

The Majestic Vaikunth Perumal temple: Kanchipuram (Part 3)

Vaikunth is the celestial abode of Lord Vishnu (Perumal). According to Hindu tradition, it is situated at the highest realm in the cosmic arrangement, beyond which there is no other place. Nandivarman II, also known as Pallavamalla, reigned as the ruler of the Pallava Empire with its capital at Kanchipuram from 731-796 CE. He was a devout worshipper of Lord Vishnu and the Vaikunth Perumal Temple was built as a royal temple under his patronage. It is built in the Dravidian style but its uniqueness is in the bas reliefs on the corridor walls that trace the Pallava history and the Vimana built with three levels of sanctum sanctorum displaying Lord Vishnu in three different forms. This is also one of the 108 Divya Desams or abodes of Vishnu spread across the Indian subcontinent.
The original name of this temple is “Parameccuravinnagaram”, which translates to Parameshwara’s (Supreme God’s) Home. Nandivarman II’s original name before his coronation was Parameswara. The poems of the famous saint-poet Thirumangai Alwar, who was a contemporary of Nandivarman II, uses this name for this temple and so do other Alwars (prolific song writers) of the 8-9th Century CE. In a way, Nandivarman II had named this Vishnu temple after himself.

The devotees come to this temple in huge numbers on Vaikunth Ekadashi day, therefore the name Vaikunth Perumal has become more popular in recent times.
A remarkable feature of the Pallava dynasty was their sense of history. Pallava inscriptions on the pillars and the walls of the constructs along with copper plate inscriptions have helped understand and corroborate the history of Pallava rule in South India. Six sets of copper plate inscriptions are housed in the Chennai Museum. Two sets of copper plates can be dated to the beginning of the 4th Century CE that have records of grants given by Pallava King Sivaskandavarman to Brahmanas for the upkeep of temples. The language is Prakrit and the script is old Pallava. The language is important as it goes to show that Prakrit was the court language even in this southern region. The plates from the 5th and 6th centuries have inscriptions in sanskrit language and script is Pallava. A few of the plates dated to the 7th Century of the time of Parameshwaravarman are part Sanskrit and part Tamil language. The sixth set of copper plates reveals the grants made by Nandivarman III, who ruled during the mid-9th century CE. All these sets of plates are ringed with a seal. These seals are intriguing and reveal the royal insignias for the grants. The common motif is that of a bull. One seal has the bull with a moon and other worn-out emblems; one has a bull with lamp stands on both sides along with Goddess Lakshmi and the swastika.

This temple is a west facing temple with a temple tank to the right of the temple entrance. It is a reminder of the importance given to water and the requirement of a ritual bath before the darshan of the Lord. The entrance gopuram seems to be a later structure with the upper portion missing.

(The temple water tank. To its left we can see part of the temple Gopuram)
There is a mandapam just before the temple. This mandapam is a later addition made by the Vijayanagara rulers. A small shrine also exists that is dedicated to the famous saint-poet, Thirumangai Alwar. He wrote at least five poems praising the Lord who resides in the temple and the king who built it.
The outer boundary wall of the temple has the ferocious lions sculpted on it. This is a typical Pallava motif that we also find in The Kailashnatha temple and the stone carvings in Mahabalipuram. The lion depicts the brilliant conquering power of Goddess Durga’s mount.
Sandstone blocks have been used to build this temple with granite at the base to take the load of the Vimana. It is when one enters into the main temple area and views the Vimana surrounded by a moat and the circumambulatory pillared corridor, that one is left mesmerised by the beauty of this temple. The temple’s Vimana is larger than that of the Kailashnatha temple, Kanchipuram that was built half a century earlier. The enclosure wall has on its inner side a pillared corridor that runs all around the temple.

(The Eastern side portico and entrance with stairs leading to the moat area).

The Bas relief gallery

The pillared corridor that runs around the moat and central Vimana is supported by the corner walls from floor to roof and the majestic lion sculpted pillars, typical of Pallava art. There are altogether six dark coloured pillars amidst the sandstone lion pillars. These granite pillars are repair work done later by the Chola rulers, who gained supremacy in this area from the 10th century onwards. This shows the respect and care taken by subsequent rulers towards the existing temples.
This gallery has sculptured reliefs in two rows depicting the history and glory of the Pallavas. This chronological depiction of Bas relief is the first such historical account in Indian art. These upper and lower bas relief portrayals are separated by a few inches of floral or inscribed bands between them. Each relief portrayal has a boundary to distinguish one event from another. The reliefs are not uniform in size and the relative size depends on the scene portrayed.

(Northern gallery Bas Reliefs – dark coloured granite pillar introduced by the Cholas)
These relief panels depict the lineage of the Pallavas and their history till the reign of Nandivarman II, the constructor of this temple. The inscriptions on the borders of the panels have faded with time and it appears that at some places the inscriptions were never inscribed.
The history of the Pallavas, more specifically what these panels depict, have been understood by deciphering the inscriptions on the temple walls, the poetic works of Alwars, specially Thirumangai Alwar and the copper plate inscriptions of the Pallava era.
The ingenuity of the Pallavas can be ascertained from the way they have traced their ancestry. The God-King concept was very strong amongst the Pallava rulers and this has been seen even in the sculptural depictions and inscriptions on the Kailashnatha temple. The sequence of bas relief sculptures start from the first panel to the left of the entrance. The row of upper panels start with Lord Vishnu followed by Lord Brahma.
The first lower panel depicts a typical coronation function. This may depict the coronation of the first Pallava King but it is difficult to authenticate as the available historical records are not clear on this issue. There are multiple coronation panels and many Pallava kings have been identified with the help of inscriptions on these walls and various copper plate inscriptions. The last such depiction is of King Nandi Varman II who constructed this temple.

(Top panel-Lord Vishnu and Lord Brahma. Lower level-coronation of a Pallava King)
The upper panels on this wall trace the history of Pallava dynasty. Lord Brahma panel is followed by that of his ‘Manas Putra’ Angira, who was one of the Saptarishis, followed by Angira’s’ son, Brihaspati, Preceptor of the Devtas (gods). The next panels show Brihaspati’s son, Samyu, also called the modest god, followed by Sage Bhardwaj, who was master of three Vedas and founder of the Gotra of the Pallavas. From Sage Bhardwaj descended Drona, the guru of Kaurava and Pandava princes. Dronacharya and his son Ashwathama are then portrayed in the next panel.

(Drona panel identified by the pot at his feet. Ashwathama in the next panel)
An extraordinary depiction is that of Ashwathama doing penance by standing on one leg with hands raised above his head. This reminds one of the bas-reliefs on the Arjuna’s Penance at Mahabalipuram. To the left of Ashwathama, we see a child on a bed of sprouting plants. These sprouts or ‘Pallava’ in Sanskrit is symbolic of the Pallava dynasty as they sprout from the lineage of Ashwathama, who in turn is shown descending from Lord Vishnu himself. Thus came the name ‘Pallavas’. Nandivarman II was a devout Vishnu follower and he traced the tradition of the Pallavas to Lord Vishnu himself.

(Ashwathama on one leg doing penance. To his left a child above a bed of sprouting plants, ‘Pallavas’).
It is to be noted that the early Pallava kings right from the reign of King Simhavarman (towards the latter half of the 6th Century CE) till the reign of Narasimhavarman I (668 CE) were Vaishnavites. Thereafter the next five emperors from the reign of King Mahendravarman II till the reign of Parameshwaravarman II (731 CE) were Shaivites.
It was from the reign of King Nandivarman II (731CE) onwards till the first half of the 10th Century CE that Pallavas were followers of Lord Vishnu. What is noteworthy is that even though the individual Pallava kings had more devotion for either Lord Shiva or Lord Vishnu, the magnificent temples that they commissioned shows devotion towards the Holy Trinity of ‘Brahma Vishnu and Shiva’.
Just after the divine origin panels, there is a one depicting a king sitting with his wife, holding a child in her lap. This is very similar to the Somaskanda panels of the Shore Temple at Mahabalipuram and the Kailashnatha Temple at Kanchipuram. Since the Pallava kings at Kanchipuram before Nandivarman II were Shaivites, so the Somaskanda tradition has been depicted.

(Somaskanda depiction)
The descent of Pallava dynasty was linked with the Brahmins through Bhardwaj and Dronacharya and there has been an effort to display the hunting prowess of its early kings in a panel. This can be taken as a confirmation of their martial prowess to display the qualities needed to be a powerful king.

(A hunting scene)
There is a panel with scenes of warfare followed by a largely empty panel, with a solitary forlorn figure in a corner. This display is meant to show an event of an early Pallava king Vishnugopa being defeated by the great warrior king of the Gupta dynasty, Samudragupta during early 4th century CE. This victory over Kanchi during the successful military campaign is mentioned in the Kausambi Ashoka Pillar, where additional inscriptions were added in Samudragupta’s time.
The subsequent panel shows the coronation of Vishnugopa at a later date when he regained the throne.

(The empty panel that portrays defeat of Pallava king)
Another interesting panel shows the king seated along with his wife in half of the display. The other half shows the king near a shrine and a person trying to subdue a horse. It seems that it is depicting the event of Ashvamedha yagna, as there are mentions of this Yagna being performed during Pallava times. It shows the cultural continuity of this practise across the whole landmass of ancient India.

(The horse on the lower right corner)
A historical event of the coronation of a prince (as opposed to the coronation of a king) is beautifully displayed in another panel. King and queen are shown in full size, being attended by the courtiers and the coronation event is shown on a smaller scale in a corner.

There are quite a few panels that depict a temple/chaitya in these panels. We know that it was the Pallava King Mahendravarman I (600-630 CE) who commissioned the first rock-cut cave, so the temples built before his reign could have been brick and wood structures that have perished with time.
There was a Pallava king who was a follower of Buddhism and he took the name of Buddhavarman to display his faith. He was most probably a regent ruler during the time of Vishnu Gopa’s childhood. In this panel, he is shown surrounded by his court. There is a shrine which is like a Buddhist Chaitya in one corner of the panel.

(Buddhavarman and a depiction of a Buddhist Chaitya)
A very interesting panel on the northern wall shows an event from Nandivarman I’s reign. As per copper plate inscriptions, he fought a Nnaga king called Phanindra after praying to Lord Shiva for a boon. The worship of Shiva by Nandivarman is depicted in the panel followed by the fight between him and the Naga king. Pallavas have identified themselves with the traditions of Mahabharata which is evident from the fact that they traced their descent from Dronacharya and Ashwathama. It is interesting to note that they followed the tradition of worshipping Lord Shiva at the eve of an important battle, just as Arjuna had done in the Mahabharata.

(Naga king with a hooded snake above his head – on the extreme right)
On the last panel of the left side longer wall (north side), the coronation of another king is shown along with a really remarkable clear cut image of a Chinese traveller. It is pertinent to note that Hiuen Tsang visited Kanchi around 642 CE and this visit has been commemorated in stone for posterity by the Pallava sculptures. Hiuen Tsang has written about the magnificence of the city and bravery and piety of its citizens.

(Chinese traveller depicted in the centre of the lower panel)
Another important panel shows the mighty king Simhavishnu III who was a great ruler, wielding a sword. He was a great builder of temples and a temple is shown in this panel to underscore this fact.

(Mighty King Simhavishnu brandishing his sword)
Another series of panels that have been identified with a specific event show the reign of King Narasimhavarman I between 630-665 CE and his fights with the Chalukyas. He defeated the Chalukya king at Vatapi. This panel shows the celebrations.

The war between Pallavas and Chalukyas continued across generations and there are many panels commemorating the various battles. Chalukya king Vikramaditya I again captured Kanchi during the reign of Parameshwaravarman I (670-691 CE) and the Pallava king was in deep trouble. He built up his army with the help of the local chiefs and recaptured Kanchi and marched up to the Chalukya capital Vatapi. In the panel below Parameshwaravarman I is shown camping near the Chalukya palace.  A temple is also depicted here. It is important to note that the Chalukya rulers of the Deccan region (Aihole & Badami region of North Karnataka) had also built stone temple structures.  The Pallavas had earlier occupied Badami for a decade between 654-664 CE. The skirmishes between the Chalukyas and the Pallavas led to the transmission of the Dravidian style of temple architecture beyond the South to the Deccan areas.

(Parameshwaravarman I camping outside the Chalukya palace. A Chalukya temple on the right side)
The next king whose coronation is shown after this event is the great Narasimhavarman II who reigned between 691-728 CE. He is also known as Rajasimha and he has cemented his place in history as a great builder by constructing the famous Kailashnatha temple, the first Pallava stone temple complete with all the components of a temple. Many of the constructions at Mahabalipuram are also attributed to him. After his death, his son Parameshwaravarman II reigned for only 3 years, dying in 731 CE without a heir. This resulted in a certain period with no king in the Pallava kingdom. This effect has been created in the gallery by leaving a few blank panels, depicting the vacant throne.

(Blank panels depicting confusion as no heir for the Pallava throne)
The important people of the Pallava kingdom such as the educational heads, priests and commanders decided to bring an heir from a collateral branch of the Pallava family who was ruling in a distant land. A few generations earlier around 600 CE during the reign of Simhavishnu, his younger brother, Bhimavarman had gone away to a distant land far from Kanchipuram to establish his own kingdom. The Pallava delegates travelled to this kingdom in 731 CE and met the contemporary king Hiranyavarman. There is no certainty to the exact location of this kingdom, but the description claims that the delegation ‘crossed forests, mountains and waterbodies’. It will not be amiss to conjecture at this point that they may have travelled to South-East Asian locations to meet king Hiranyavarman. These parts of the Indian landmass were controlled by many other powerful kingdoms at this time and there is no record of any separate branch of the Pallava kingdom in Indian the subcontinent area at this point. The sculptors have skilfully carved these events in a series of panels and it is evident that the face of Hiranyavarman is different and his headgear is also not the standard Pallava headgear.

(King Hiranyavarman with his sons depicted on the top area and The Pallava delegation in the lower half)
Hiranyavarman had four sons and he asked all of them whether they will like to go to Kanchipuram. Only his youngest son Parameshwaravarman, aged 12 years old, agreed to the proposal and the prince left with the delegation. The next few panels show this journey with a drum beater leading the young prince riding on the horse. People welcomed Parameswara in Pallava country and this event is beautifully captured in an elaborate panel showing elephants welcoming the prince.

(Parameswara being welcomed in Kanchipuram)
He was coronated as the King Nandivarman II and a panel depicts this joyous event. This is the last such scene of coronation as he was the king who built this temple. Although at this point Pallava aristocracy were Shaivites, Parameshwaravarman was a follower of Vishnu as his ancestors, starting from Bhimavarman, had been followers of Vishnu.

(Coronation of Parameswara as King Nandivarman II – Pallavamalla)
Nandivarman did not have a peaceful tenure as in the early part of his reign, a Chalukya king attacked and defeated him. A panel shows this event where he is surrendering to the Chalukyas.

There are numerous panels showing the almost constant state of warfare and Nandivarman finally recaptured his capital. One of the panels depicts the Pallava warfare technique of fighters hiding on treetops and attacking the enemy as they pass below.

(Innovative treetop warfare)
Nandivarman II also had to contend with Chitramaya, who claimed descent from the King Parameshwaravarman II and thus claimed the Pallava throne as his birthright. He sought refuge with the King of Ceylon (in present-day Sri Lanka). Nandivarman’s general, Udayachandran is shown fighting this claimant and he finally kills the pretender assuring the throne for his king. Udayachandran was a very efficient commander, who consolidated Nandivarman II’s hold over the Pallava kingdom.

(Commander Udayachandran fighting Chitramaya)
There are clearly identified series of panels showing the battle with the Ganga kings in the north and victory of Nandivarman II. Riders are shown returning after the battle with a famous necklace in hand. The Pallavas also captured the famous elephant Pattavardhana, considered to be a great prize. All the panels beyond this image make it a point to show this elephant and a man holding a trophy above his head.

(The prized elephant and the man with the Trophy)
The fighting continued even after this victory. Nandivarman gets the information about the attacks by Rashtrakutas on his capital, Kanchi. He rushes back with his army and this march by the excited soldiers has been captured beautifully by the sculptors.

(March of the Pallava army)
Nandivarman II defeated the Rashtrakutas and he is shown in full glory seated on his throne. The ubiquitous elephant and the trophy holder is present in every such panel.

There is a beautiful image of Lord Vishnu carved in a lower panel. The most important part of this image is that it is an exact replica of the standing deity established on the top level of the 3 tiered sanctum sanctorum. Due to the chances of damage, the access to the top level of the Vimana is strictly prohibited and the deity is not open to the public. Another important panel shows the miniature version of this temple itself carved on the lower rows towards the end of the panels. The ever- present elephant and trophy holder keeps its proud position beside the temple. There is also a separate image of a shrine showing the famous Vaishnavite saint Thirumangai Alwar, who has been associated with this temple.

One of the most interesting panels towards the end shows people being punished and the king watching the event. This panel seems inevitable given the almost constant state of warfare faced by Nandivarman II after his ascent to the Pallava throne.

The Vimana

The Vimana is three-storeyed and houses Lord Vishnu in his three iconic postures- sitting, standing and lying down on his Sheshanag. This Vimana is surrounded by a moat that is meant to catch water falling down from over Lord Vishnu’s house and thus functions as a drain. The water in the moat represents the primordial cosmic ocean surrounding Vaikunth, the abode of Lord Vishnu. The steps on the east and west side leading down to the water in the moat may have been used by the royal household for purification before entering the place of worship. These days devotees use this moat area to walk around the temple and admire the carvings on its outer walls.

On entering the Vimana through the western porch one can view the Garbhgriha or sanctum sanctorum. Here Lord Vishnu is seen in a seated position in black granite. He holds the chakra and shankh with one pair of hands and the other pair forms the ‘Abhayamudra’ or gesture of protection. It is a humbling experience to be in front of the lord and be blessed by his protective aura.

There are pillars in front of the Garbhgriha that stand tall and take the weight of the upper Vimana. There are carvings on these pillars, the common one being that of the iconic Pallava lion. One interesting pillar has carvings of scenes from the Ramayana. Ram and Lakshman stand and watch as the fight takes place between Bali and Sugriva.

(Scene from Ramayana)
All the four faces of the Vimana contain elaborate and exquisite sandstone carvings. The upper layer has worn out but even then an observant eye can identify the various forms of Lord Vishnu and other scenes from ancient Indic traditions.
The western entrance is flanked by huge carvings of Lord Vishnu and small icons of Kalki. Kalki is said to be the last avatar of Lord Vishnu, who will come to save Earth at the end of the present Yuga (Kaliyug). There are identical depictions of Kalki on both sides, riding his horse carved above the Dwarpalas. The right side western corner has Lord Brahma and the left side face has Surya, who is flying over the sky while his devotees feel blessed in his presence.

(The Sun god on the left and Lord Brahma on the right. Kalki above the Dwarpalas)
As one does a clockwise circumambulation around the Vimana, there are many interesting depictions related to various representations of Lord Vishnu. One such sculpture shows Hayagriva, the horse-headed form of Lord Vishnu. He is worshipped as the God of knowledge and wisdom. Devotees are seeking his blessings in this panel. Another impressive depiction shows him in the form of Varaha (Boar) Avatar. It is interesting to see the presence of Kartikeya, the son of Lord Shiva (recognised easily because of the presence of his mount, the peacock) in the house of Lord Vishnu.

The sculptures on the northern wall are slightly better preserved and many of them can be associated with various aspects of Lord Vishnu. Starting from the top left corner and following the images in the clockwise direction, we can see the twin Rishis: Nara and Narayan with Rishi Markandeya in the Lord’s presence, Vishnu teaching Lord Brahma, Vishnu listening to Narada and Vishnu riding Garuda.

An interesting set of panels show Lord Vishnu seated on a huge lotus with the devotees represented at the bottom. The central panel can be interpreted as him giving a boon to his devotee Dhruv, who did Tapasya (Austerities) in his childhood and was blessed by him.
This temple was strengthened by the Cholas as it was facing serious damage. To provide strength at the temple base, the Chola kings introduced slabs of granite at the lower end of sculptures (around 4 to 5 feet above the ground level). These slabs are slightly different in colour than the original sandstone construction. These slabs have inscriptions written by the Cholas and it is all around the Vimana.

Another sculpture shows the famous devotee Prahlad, son of Hiranyakashyapu, worshipping the form of Lord Narasimha.

The First floor

The sanctum of the first floor of this Vimana is home to Lord Vishnu where he is shown in his Anantashayana Mudra, reclining on Sheshnag. The lord is depicted in black granite along with Sridevi and Bhudevi. Devotees can come to this level only on Ekadashi. The walls have been covered in a layer of lime paste to prevent it from further damage.
The first flight of stairs leads to a wall in front that has a huge relief of Lord Vishnu in the seated position which matches the form of the deity in the ground floor sanctum sanctorum (Garbhgriha). The stairs then split to a left and right flight of stairs that takes one to the first floor.
The left side stairs have a wall depiction of Lord Vishnu in the same seated position. This relief has not been repaired and the damage along with traces of its original beauty is evident.

(Contrast between a restored and an original version)
The right side flight of stairs also has a sculpted relief of Lord Vishnu that covers the entire wall. He is sitting on a throne with a five hooded Naga behind his elongated Crown.  This relief has a rather animated effect due to the fluid depiction of the Naga heads.

(The image of Lord Vishnu that faces the South)
The first-floor portico is not open to the public due to the erosion of the upper layer of the plaster that covers the sculptures. ASI is trying its best to preserve the temple and defend the walls from further erosion but repairing a stone sculpture which has been eroded through millennia is no easy task. The peak of the Vimana is a beautiful site. Just below the Shikhara, there are sculptures of Garuda, the mount of Lord Vishnu, on all four sides (as if guarding the cardinal directions). This imagery reminds one of the ubiquitous presence of Garuda in South-East Asian countries.
There are massive wall reliefs all around this level. The balcony that runs around the Vimana is very narrow, making it very difficult to capture the demarcated scenes from the reliefs in one photo frame. There are sets of Dwarpalas on both sides to the front of the portico. These Dwarpalas also wear a tall crown and hold certain objects in their hands. In between the two Dwarpalas, there is a maiden in a recessed niche. She is beautiful and stands in a relaxed pose with a lotus in her hand.

(View of the top area of Vimana from the first-floor portico)
As we move in the clockwise direction, the standard parikrama route, we come across amazing sculptures that tell a lot of stories. The divine and human figures are all in action. It is mesmerising to just stand in front of them and watch them talk, move, fly, fight, etc.
Lord Vishnu is depicted in the ashtabhuja form (with eight hands), seated on a throne while his mount, Garuda stands next to his right. The seven Rishis have been depicted gazing at their Lord in admiration.

There is an extraordinary depiction of Lord Krishna slaying a demon named Keshi, who is in the shape of a horse. The young Krishna thrusts his arm down the horse’s throat and expands his arms to choke the horse demon to death. To listen to a story from tradition is one thing, but to see it carved in stone is beyond belief.

(Krishna slaying a demon)
The churning of the cosmic ocean by the Devas and Asuras to retrieve Amrit from the ocean’s depth has been depicted in a panel that has three parts. In the top-right part, we see the Devas holding Vasuki (the snake) while an Asura is flying away with the pot of Amrit. The right lower area depicts an Asura holding the five heads of Vasuki that was used to churn the ocean.

(Churning of the cosmic ocean)
There is a vivid portrayal of how Lord Narasimha must have vanquished the wrongdoer to save his devotee Prahlad. The eight-armed Narasimha, the lion avtaar of Lord Vishnu is seen attacking Hiranyakashyapu. He splits open Hiranyakashyapu at his navel in the next panel.

Another fascinating panel depicts the Rajasuya Yagna from an episode in the Mahabharata. Draupadi stands on the left side with folded hands. Yudhisthir has been depicted with a mustache and stands second from right. All four figures have their hands folded as if receiving blessing from Lord Krishna, who would have been standing in front of them. The Rajasuya horse is on the top right corner.

Lord Vishnu is depicted in his reclining pose matching with his form in the sanctum sanctorum at this level.

An animated depiction shows Garuda in flight with Lord Vishnu on his shoulder. Lord Vishnu is vanquishing a demon.

Lord Vishnu has also been shown in the Trivikram pose attributed to him during the Vaman Avatar. As per the tradition, he took this form and measured the earth and sky in two steps to subdue king Bali. There is a temple in Kanchipuram called Ulagalandar (one who measured the world) temple, with Lord Vishnu in this form as the main presiding deity.

(A perspective of the size of the sculptures. Lord Vishnu in his Trivikram form)
The history and tradition of Pallavas have always been associated with Nagas. There were extensive trade and political links between the eastern seaboard kingdoms in India and various kingdoms across south-east Asia. The Nagas have an overwhelming presence in these civilisations. Therefore it is no surprise that in one corner of this temple there is a place for Naga worship below a peepal tree.

A precursor to Southeast Asia

The gallery with extensive bas-relief wall panels of the Vaikuntha Perumal Temple appears to have inspired the bas-relief sculptures of the Angkor Wat and Bayon (at Angkor Thom) temples at Siem Reap, Cambodia that were built 4-5 centuries later. The relief work on the walls of these Khmer temples are not as deeply cut as the work in Vaikunth Perumal temple, but the sheer scale and size of the Angkor bas-relief panels are much more massive. A single Samudra Manthan depiction on one wall of Angkor Wat temple (the main deity of which used to be the Ashthbhuja Perumal) is more than 100 metres long and the total length of the gallery is more than 2.4 Km. The Pallavas have had an immense impact on the culture and religion of South-East Asia, especially the Khmer area (Angkor civilisation) that is visible till this day.


This is a compact temple, like an atom that holds intense energy. I have visited many marvels of Indic art and architecture and this temple along with the Kailashnatha temple of Pallava fame happen to be some of my favourite temples. This temple clearly proves the fact that unity in diversity is not just an empty slogan but it was a fact even in ancient India. There can be no better example of cultural unity and continuity than this temple, which clearly displays that Pallavas adopted the pan Indian concept of kings having descended from gods and proudly displayed the common Indic motifs in the form of these magnificent sculptures created almost 1400 years ago. This temple is not the most renowned landmark even within Kanchipuram (perhaps an unfortunate aftereffect of general ignorance of our magnificent heritage) and thus it is possible that the so-called Doyens of Indian history, who propagated the claim of India being created as a country by the British, never even knew about the existence of such a detailed history on stone.

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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