Notes on the Geography of Peninsular India: Kanchipuram: Vaikuntha Perumal Temple
Vaikunt is Vishnu's heaven, and the form of the god most popular in Tamil Nadu is Perumal, or The Great One. The temple's name, in short, means the great one of Vishnu's heaven, which is of course to say Vishnu himself. The temple dates from the mid-eighth century, which makes it a bit later than Kailasanatha, a mile and a half to the west, and much earlier than Ekambareswarar, a mile to the northwest.
Vaikuntha Perumal is set in the midst of residential Kanchipuram: through the recent entrance gate you leave homes and shops and come to this porch and pole, both built half a millennium later than the temple proper, whose tower rises in the background.
Step to the side and you see the temple's original wall, which encloses an unusually high vimana, literally a "palace" but figuratively a shrine and its enclosure. The style of the wall is characteristically Pallavan, with a moulding at the base, pilasters on the wall, and a parapet shaped like a curved or thatched roof. The vimana within has the same triple arrangement repeated at successively smaller sizes, so that the exterior wall appears as the base of the pyramidal set. This Dravidian style, to give it its name, appears first at Aihole and Badami, but it was adopted by Rajasimha at Mamallapuram and carried over by Nandivarman II, the builder of Vaikuntha Perumal. The building is his "magnum opus," according to K.R. Srinivasan in The Encyclopedia of Indian Temple Architecture: South India, Lower Dravidadesa, 1983, p. 69.
Behind that brass pole there is the late porch and hall, built by the rulers of Vijayanagar, who had conquered the formerly Pallavan territory. The men here are not waiting for the temple to open. (You can see the jail-style locked gates in the gloom.) Instead, they have found a quiet and dry place where they can study for upcoming government-service entrance exams.
The priest has come back from lunch and opened the steel gates. At the other end of the hall there is another door opening into the brightly lit enclosure between the vimana and the exterior wall. That space is the prakara, a path to circumambulate the still-locked shrine.
We've stepped through those wooden doors and are looking at the inside face of the temple wall. Over 500 sculpted panels, most is very poor condition, illustrate the history of the Pallava Dynasty. Those in the distance here tell the history of Nandivarma II, but most of the panels, which were carved in place, have never in modern times been explicated. The first and last person in the last hundred years to take a stab at it was Cadambi Minakshi in the 1930s; see her Historical Sculptures of the Vaikuntha Perumal Temple, Kanchi, 1941.
Here is one of those sculptures, from the lower register on the south wall.
Another. Minakshi (p. 30) identifies this as Paramesvaravarman I's war with the Chalukyas.
And a third, presumably a battle scene.
We've begun walking around the prakara and here look back toward the entrance; if we had gone straight ahead we would have crossed the bridge over the moat and come up a few steps toward the shrine.
The colonnade is lined with lion-based columns. They are not merely decorative, at least according to Dennis Hudson, the author of two books on this temple. He writes that they "may be understood to have embodied Durga's brilliant conquering power to preserve the purity of this three dimensional mandala built to be God's residence." (The Vaikunta Perumal Temple at Kanchipuram, 2009, p. 15. The same sentence occurs on p. 64 of Hudson's longer book The Body of God, 2008. The shorter book is presented as a guide for visitors, but if so it ranks as the world's most recondite guidebook).
Here's a view of part of the north side of the prakara, which deviates from a square to allow a porch whose corner is on the right. Hudson sees the entire project as a recreation in stone of a mandala of five concentric enclosures. The shrine within the vimana is the innermost of these; the moat is the third; the exterior of the wall is the outermost or fifth.
It's hard to get a picture of the vimana from within the prakara, but here's a brave attempt. The unusual feature of this temple is that the shrine on the lowest level is not the only one. There is another image of Vishnu on the level above, and originally there was a third on the next level, though it is long gone. There is a fourth level as well, but the sanctum there has always been a void signifying... well, it's up for grabs. Sad to say, only the ground level is open. The second level, reached by stairs, is open to Hindus on a few annual ceremonies. The third level can be reached only by ladders and then only by temple priests. As for the meaning of the three levels, there the plot thickens. The lower one shows the god sitting; the one above shows him reclining; the missing one on the third level showed him standing. Is there a progression here, some kind of implied lesson? The stones aren't talking. They're sandstone, by the way. .
The walls of the vimana are elaborately sculpted with two dozen figures, two at each corner and four on the sides between. The figures are in poor shape and haven't been helped by repairs done in plaster. There's also the small matter of what the images mean and how they cohere as a set, which presumably they were once understood to be, at least by knowledgable visitors. Hudson helps here. He writes that at this northwest corner the sun god Surya flies at dawn over Plaksha, an outer continent surrounding the ocean that bounds the world we know. Plaksha is the home of Bhagavan, the Supreme Being, but it has other residents, including the lower figures. They are Idhmajihva and his seven sons. Idhmajihva is the nephew of Dhruva, the pole star and Brahma's great grandson. (If you think the names are hard to remember, fasten your seatbelt.)
(This panel is W5 in Hudson's scheme, meaning the fifth or next to the last image on the west side. That's counting from the perspective of someone walking around the temple in a clockwise direction.)
We've just turned the corner. On the right is the bridge that passes over the moat and leads to the shrine. Here Hayagriva, the horse-headed avatar of Vishnu, is worshipped by the Bhadrashravas, who reside in Bhadrashvas. The cosmos here is taken to be centered on a continent called Jambu, at whose center is Mt. Meru. Bhadrashvas lies to the east of Meru, while the earth we know lies to the south. (W6)
The central figure is Garuda, whose bent legs (like Surya's a couple of images back) indicate flight. He is carrying Hari, whose name indicates a "tawny" color and who represents one form of Bhagavan. Hari is coming to Brahma's son Kardama to announce the birth of the rishi (the prophet or seer) Kapila, who is part of Bhagavan. At the base are the kumaras, Brahma's sons. They represent the cardinal directions. (N3)
The two central figures represent the rishi Narayana, who knows everything, and his pupil Nara, who forgets everything. (Sound familiar? You must be a teacher.) Below, the rishi Markandeya, on the slopes of the Himalaya, teaches Kraushtuki, his own pupil, about the two. Will Kraushtuki remember? (N5)
Rasa, or the dark waters under the earth, is ruled by the naga Vasuki, whose daughter here asks Ananta the Infinite for a husband. Ananta, who is also the snake upon which Vishnu reclines in countless sculptures, signifies self-delusion, and here he sordidly stimulates the eroticism of the young naga. The figure at the lower left is Sanatkumara, who has come to learn about the vyuhas or forms of Bhagavan. (N6)
The east side, with a bridge leading to a blocked entrance.
The carved wall and colonnade on the east side. Nice fluorescent tubes.
The south side.
We're at the southeast corner. The panel shows Pushkara, the outermost continent, beyond which is Lokaloka, the place beyond space. Here Bhagavan as Brahma is being worshipped as he stands on the Blue Lotus that gives Pushkara its name. The four kumaras, his sons, are below. (E1)
Bhagavan honors Dhruva, the pole star, by giving him a realm of his own, also called Dhruva. Bhagavan ties a cloth around Dhruva's head, signifying the gift of a mantra. Below, Maitreya tells this story to Vidura at Hardwar. (E2)
At the inauspicious southwest corner, Mohini serves amrita, the nectar of immortality, to the devas. On the left, envious asuras or anti-devas watch, beguiled by Vishnu in this seductive but delusional form. The asura king, Bali, is at the top, crowned. Mohini figures in the important story of the Churning of the Ocean of Milk. (S6)
Around the corner Bhagavan sits in Lokaloka, with Shuka below explaining this location to Parikshit. He explains that space is divided into directional space (loka) and non-directional space (aloka). Bhagwan with four faces sits in Lokaloka and gazes in all four directions. At the upper left, Kalki rides his white horse Devadatta. Kalki is the avatar who appears at the end of the Kali Yuga to defeat the asura Kali, who has been ruling the world since the end of Bharata's reign. Kalki has been told by Bhagavan to re-establish proper dharma. (W2)
The priest unlocks the door to the shrine.
Inside, there is an image, not to be photographed, of the lord of Vaikunt in his human form, Krishna. (Alexander Rea in 1909 published a sketch of the statue, which is black. A photograph appears in M.S. Ramesh, 108 Vaishnavite Divya Desams, 1993.)
The image within is one of the many forms or vyuhas of the god. Three others are illustrated in reliefs that are carved on the wall of an interior corridor on this level.
A side glimpse of the shrine, again with lion-base columns.
Here, in the north corridor, the Plower or Samkarshana vyuha gazes north through a window in the vimana wall toward Bharata, the world of human life. These forms are those assumed by Vishnu while reclining in a trance on the floor above.
Here is the first of those transformations, Samkarshana, the Plower, with five cobra heads behind his crown. Like the other three vyuhas, this one is no longer used in worship.
Pradyumna the Pre-eminently Mighty, the second formation, faces east to heaven.
Aniruddha, the Unobstructed, faces south toward Lanka, the abode of demons.
Wondering how to get to the next level? There are stairs, but they rise from an inner corridor between the one seen in the last few pictures and the shrine.
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