The famous and most ancient temple in Kanchipuram is Sri Kailasanathar temple. It is situated about 75 KM from Chennai. This temple’s architecture was a model not only for many of the temples in Southern India, but also for even temples in Cambodia including the most popular Angkorwat. This temple may have been the first temple built in stone. Ancient Temples were built earlier with a wooden structure (which were not expected to last for over or about 2000 years) or engravings on rocks, as in cave temples. (The cover image courtesy: Wikipedia.org)
The Kailasanathar Temple is dedicated to Shivji, and was built from 685-705 AD by the Pallava dynasty ruler Rajasimha (Narasimhavarman II). The temple is built on a granite base, with sandstone. The outer side of the whole internal compound contains 58 smaller shrines with adjacent cubicles. The Façade also features 8 cubicles. The walls are graved with sculpture dedicated to different forms of Shiva (Sukhasanmurthi, Umamaheshwara and somaskanda) along with a Shiva Linga. This fenced, miniature chapel wall is called Devakulikas.
The Tiru Parameswara Vinnagaram, also known as the Vaikunta Perumal Temple and the Kailsahanathar Temple, are among the two unique specimens of temple architecture of the period in 640 -730 AD. Both temples are in a straight line and face each other with about 3.5 KM’s separated.
It is the first structural temple built in South India by Narasimhavarman II (Rajasimha), and who is also known as Rajasimha Pallaveswaram. His son, Mahendravarman III, completed the front façade and the gopuram (tower). Prior temples were either built of wood or hewn into rock faces in caves or on boulders, as seen in Mahabalipuram. The Kailasanathar temple became the trend setter for other similar temples in South India. According to local belief, the temple was a safe sanctuary for the rulers of the kingdom during wars. A secret tunnel, built by the kings, was used as an escape route and is still visible. It is believed that Raja Raja Chola I (985–1014 CE) visited the temple and drew inspiration from this temple to build the Brihadeeswara Temple (Wikipedia).
Kanchi Kailasanathar Temple is presently maintained by Archaeological Survey of India.
Before the compound, there are 8 small shrines at the front. Two to the left & six to the right. Because of their later addition to the temple, a small square was left out of the main compound on the left which makes it an abnormal non-square compound.
A Nandi in a mandapa stands opposite the temple at a short distance away. And a pond of the temple on its right. The bull was the emblem of the Pallavas, however many idols and images of the Bulls, Lions and Elephants can be seen.
Previous temples, as seen in Mahabalipuram, were either built of wood, or hewn into rock faces in caves or on rocks. This temple resembles a miniature of Tanjore’s Brihadeeshwara temple.
The tall gopuram (tower) which was completed first is in the centre, but due to subsequent additions the temple complex has shifted to the right. The super structure is all made of sandstone including carvings. Initially, there was only one main sanctuary with pyramidal Vimana and a detached Mandapa (main hall). The mandapa pillars have the repetitive features of the pallava’s mythic lion mounts.
The structure has a simple layout at the center of the complex, with a tower or Vimana. The temple vimana, above the main sanctuary (sanctum sanctorum), is square in plan and rises in a pyramidal form. At the top of this tower is a small dome-shaped roof.
The gopuram walls are plastered at the front entrance. Its entrance wall is composed of eight small shrines and a Gopura. At some later stage, an intermediate hall named the ardhamantapa joined the mandapa and the sanctuary. The temple is enveloped in a rectangular shape within walls.
The main shrine has a 16-sided Shivalinga deified in the sanctum sanctorum, in black granite stone. There are many carvings of Shiva in different shapes on each face of the main shrine’s outer walls.
In order to facilitate the circumambulation of Lord Shiva, there is a narrow entry passage which devotees must crawl through, inside the sanctum. The narrow passage is indicative of the journey of life. After the circumambulation the exit is symbolic of death through another narrow passage. The entrance point for this passage is called Death Gate, Crawling and coming out of the passage indicates coming out of the womb of the mother. Hindu’s belief of rebirth. Hence, exit is called Gate of Birth. There is another belief that by completing this circumambulatory passage the possibility of rebirth is not there and you shall attain Liberation (Moksha). Such passage is UNIQUE, which explains the life cycle including the process of aging, death and rebirth.
Sri Ramana Maharshi, the great sage of Arunachala, has said – “To go to Kailasa and return is just a new birth. For there the body idea drops off.”
Similar to that in the Kanchi Kailasanatha temple parikrama, the death-birth is symbolically experienced twice over in Kailasa Mountain as well. It is first symbolically encountered in the Yamadvar on the south-west of Kailasa, and then again later on the Dolma La pass on other side of Kailasa.