Constructing Kanchi: City of Infinite Temples

Tilman Frasch

Despite Kanchipuram’s – or Kanchi, as the city is referred to throughout – crucial importance in South Indian history, art, and politics, which included being the capital of the Pallava dynasty in the 7th and 8th centuries, no comprehensive study of the city has been published so far. Nor have scholars of Indian art or history attempted to trace the changes that affected the city and its temples from its ‘imperial’ heyday to its rediscovery in the 19th century, including the changes in religious practice. This book by the art historian Emma Stein is a major step forward in these efforts.

Chapter 1 sets the scene with a reconstruction of the capital under the Pallavas. Two developments stand out here. The first one is the change from brick to sandstone as the main building material of the temples. This began with the sponsoring of the rock-cut monuments in the outskirts of the city and continued, in the 8th century, with quarrying stone for the construction of temples inside the city. The efforts culminated in the Kailashanath temple, Kanchi’s largest Pallava temple and one of the largest monuments built in India at the time (p. 68).

The second development that stands out occurred in the 9th century, when new masters of the city, the Cholas, came to power. Construction in Kanchi came to an almost complete standstill at that time, and when it recommenced, it was aimed at creating a new city farther to the east of the previous Pallava capital. It centred on a new palace site with two main roads running from there to the north and to the south (Map 38, p. 121). Along with this came a host of new temples built along the southern road, but also new rituals, processions, and other religious practices. Another new feature that arrived with Chola rule was the installation and sometimes procession of bronze statues of gods.

The third chapter extends the network of Kanchi’s temples into its hinterland and especially along the Palar River to the seacoast. It presents temples and other religious monuments, pieces of art, and religious practices that made use of these. There are also two briefer sections on (1) Mamallapuram, which also discuss the possibility of this city being the port for Kanchi; and on (2) the Buddhist art of the region, mainly by focussing on the Buddha images found in and around Kanchi. Buddhism may have had a much longer history in Tamil Nadu, as recent research has revealed. It lasted until the 13th century (and possibly even longer), as borne out by a variety of Buddha images found in Kanchi over the past 100 years. Kanchi’s Kamakshi Amman temple may have been one of the sites that had Buddhist and Jain origins.

The final chapter shifts the perspective to the colonial period, when a Kanchi in decline was portrayed through its ruins and relics of the past. Whilst travellers and other visitors produced the view of a city of ‘infinite temples,’ scholars like Mackenzie were collecting manuscripts, and James Fergusson and others were studying the monuments in a systematic and chronologically sound manner. They all used the term “decline” for the city with great frequency, while at the same time their work demonstrated that Kanchi showed a stubborn will to persist and develop. It all turned the city into the place of religious innovation and persistence that still marks it today.

There is little to criticize about the book. It is clearly structured, proceeding from a narrow and focused art historical study of the Pallava capital, through a discussion of a provincial headquarters from the 9th century, and finally to 19th-century perceptions of the new colonial masters. The analysis of the temples and their art are precise, detailed, and evidence-based. Even if scholars do not accept some of Stein’s stylistic findings or datings, the book will be an important reference for future research. Ample illustrations – some (though unfortunately very few) in colour – underscore the text and illustrate the findings. And the writing is extremely easy: I read the book in less than two days without getting tired or confused.

One could mention the maps, which are hard to decipher or recognize in their varying shades of grey. At the very least, they should have been printed on full pages instead of the half-page format chosen. Another point of criticism could be that Stein sets her research in the context of urbanism around the Bay of Bengal, but then restricts her thoughts on this matter to less than two pages at the end of Chapter 3. Those quibbles apart, it has to be repeated that this is a well-organized, clearly argued, and easy-to-read study of Kanchi that enriches our knowledge of the city and will make its way onto the reading lists of South Indian art, history, and anthropology seminars.