Kalishanath Temple at Kanchipuram – A Gem of Pallava Architecture

A couple of years back I had visited Kalilashnath Temple at Ellora, a monolithic rock-cut wonder and the northern most historical temple of Dravidian style built by the Rashtrakuta King Krishna in the 8th century CE.

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Kailashnath Temple – Ellora

A UNESCO World Heritage Site, however according to some scholars the temple’s architecture was influenced by Kalishnath Temple at Kanchipuram built a century earlier by the Pallava King Rajasimha. So it was in my wish list for a long time to explore the mightiest and purest Pallava legacy through my own eyes.

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Kailashnath Temple – Kanchipuram

A 50 rupee bus drive from Chennai’s Tamram Bust Station landed me at Kanchipuram after a 2 hour journey, the capital of Pallavas in the remote 7th – 8th centuries CE. The first glance of the city of temples was its vibrant bazaars and lofty temple gopurams. The city was bustling with a range of mercantile activities, silk weaving and flower selling being the dominant ones.


I spent the whole afternoon in the temple located in isolation, a little away from the hustle bustle of the city center.

Kalilasnath Temple was the second earliest structural temple built in the early Dravidian character by Rajasimha, a great builder and a follower of Shiva. The other two structural temples built prior to Kailashnath were Kshetria-Simheshwara Grahan and Raja – Simheshwara, both on the seashore of Mahabalipuram, popularly referred to as Shore Temples. Both were also Rajasimha’s creations.

Shore Temples – Mahabalipuram

Rajasimha was a highly talented king and also a playwright. The temple was a royal shrine and the presiding deity bears his name, Rajasimheshwara.  The temple built by him is a masterpiece of Pallava art and architecture and its plan was never altered unlike other Pallava Temples in Kanchipuram. However, several of his family members, and royal dignitaries contributed to the development of this temple. His own son Mahendravarman III built a shrine at the entrance and named Mahendrasimheshwaram. Rajasmiha’s consort Rangapathaka had also added smaller shrines on either sides of the courtyard.


The temple of Kaliashnath was the earliest effort to construct a shrine as per the description in the Agama Shastra. The vimana over the sanctum with its 4 storied dravida vimana is a very impressive structure with a large number of niches on its body, each having large-sized and magnificent sculptures of different forms of Shiva such as Dakshinamurti, Bhikshatana, Lingodhbava, Nataraja, Urdhva-Tandava, Tripurantaka and Harihara. There are also sculptures of Durga, Shiva dancing in the lalata-tilaka pose to the great amazement of Uma, Brahma and Vishnu, a Pallava masterpiece.


Surrounding the vimana there is an open courtyard for circumbulation, and all along the rectangular periphery of the courtyard is the prakara wall which is lined with a series of 58 small shrines. The external wall of these shrines as well as the recesses between them is studded with relief sculptures of great beauty. Some of the prominent sculptures are of Kiratarjiniyam, Narasimha killing Hiraynaya, Saptamatrikas, Gangadhara, Ravananugrahamurti and Indraanugrahamurti. There are also large sized sculptures of Lakshmi, Sarasvathi, Durga, Jyeshtha, Ekadasha Rudra and many more deities seen in different parts of the temple. The shrines of Vishnu and Brahma are placed on either side of the central shrine of Shiva to form the trinity.


Pallavas were the great patrons of paintings as well. Mahendra Varman I, the first ruler of the dynasty who introduced rock-cut architecture in Tamil Nadu was given the title of Vicitra Chitta or Chitrakarpuli, or a tiger of painters. However, no paintings from Mahendra’s time have been survived.


The Kalishnath Temple contains a few surviving traces of Pallava paintings. The small shrines along the prakara walls contain a few traces of colour and line on some of the walls. One can see upper and lower right arms of Shiva in one of the cells. In another cell there is a beautiful face of Pallava Shiva. The Pallava paintings were the legacy of the great masters of the preceding Vakataka Period in Ajanta. They display the same grace of line and movement. But unlike Ajanta where the eyes are half closed here they are wide, and fully awake and open in accordance with the South Indian ideal which demands wide, beautiful eyes as they are the most striking feature in the face. The faces of Pallava paintings are rounder and fuller, unlike the thin elongated faces of Ajanta. The paintings were executed on a smoothly prepared surface in fresco style. The colours used are black, red, white, yellow, blue and green.

The Kalishnatah Temple of Kanchipuram is truly a gem of early Indian temples. Though it is a living shrine, it is not today religiously significant and therefore less crowded when compared with other temples in the city. A visit to the temple will leave you spellbound if you are serious art lover.


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