(At the end of every strenuous year picnics are arranged by the Department of Physical Education for the different groups. They are meant to be recreative as well as instructive.)
At a first glance it would seem very odd that we should select for our picnic a place like Kanchipuram, about 90 miles from Pondicherry!
After much deliberation our eldest group came to this decision, a medley group consisting of members ranging from 40 years of age to septuagenarians. They certainly showed some wisdom, for though the picnic was the main occasion, a visit to the holy city was no less attractive. Thus it combined sensuous and suprasensuous enjoyment at the same time; as is said in Bengali, “we shall sell bananas and see the Ratha-yatra festival too.” So when the group captain invited me and Maharaj Champaklal to the trip, we at once grasped the extended hand of pleasure.
We were to start at 4 a.m. ‘before the Gods awake’. Doing our pranams to our sleeping God, we forged ahead. The bus was waiting, and after a short concentration we were on the move. We were supposed to reach the golden city of temples by 9 a.m. Pranab, Director of Physical Education, was with us to guide us through the long dark distance, since the way had become very familiar to him by many visits. It was a real blessing for he, being also a historian, knew all about the history of the temple-city, as we shall see later on.
It was dark, and a cold wind was blowing. The bus rushed through the ‘unlit temple’ of the Night towards the temple city of Light. Many small booths on the wayside dimly lighted against the vast black inert mass and the denizens moving about gave us the impression of an infra-physical world through which lay our track.
The Gods soon woke up. Usha, the Dawn, built her aura of golden hues, and the lovely landscape of green paddy fields, tall trees, bare hills and rippling waters gladdened our view. Breaking our journey by the side of a lake, we had our readymade breakfast. It was about 8 a.m. In one hour’s time we had to reach the place so that we might have 3 hours to see the temples. “All of them will close their doors at 12 noon,” declared Pranab our guide. “Even with our start,” he added, “we can see only a few major ones.”
We arrived at the scheduled time. Pranab gave an introductory talk on the historical background before we visited the temples. I reproduce the talk to enlighten our modern readers on the glory that was India in ancient times. He said:
“Kanchipuram is a very old city of ancient India. It was a city of culture and learning and the seat of various religions. It has seen many kings, many dynasties, many wars and political upheavals. Many names of famous people are also associated with this city.
“Kanchipuram, earlier known as Kanchanapuram, is one of the seven sacred cities of the Hindus in India. The other six cities are (1) Ayodhya (2) Mathura (3) Maya (4) Kashi (5) Avantika and (6) Puri.
“The first historical record that mentions it is the Allahabad Pillar inscription of Sumudra Gupta (A.D. c. 335-80), which records the submission of its King Vishnu-gopa to the Gupta Emperor.
“Kanchi, now called Conjeeveram, was the capital of the Pallavas. It was visited by Hiuen-Tsang, the Chinese traveller in about 640 A.D. when the Pallava power reached its zenith during the rule of Nara Singhavaraman. He found Kanchi a large city, 5 or 6 miles in circumference in which Hindu, Buddhist and Jaina temples abounded.
“After the Pallavas, Kanchipuram was occupied successively by the Cholas, the Vijayanagar Kings, the Mohammedans and the Maratthas. During the Anglo-French wars Kanchipuram went into the hands of the Moghuls from the earlier Mohammedans.
“Kanchi was the birth-place of the famous Buddhist metaphysician Dharmapala; Kautilya or Chanakya, author of Arthasastra, was also born here. Ramanuja received his education and lived at this place for many years. It was the seat of the Kamakoti Peetham established by Shankara. Dandi and Bharavi, the poets who adorned the court of the Pallavas, lived here. Shyama Shastri, the famous composer and one of the Trinity of Karnatic music, was born in this city. Poet Kamban lived in it. Robert Clive presented a jewel to a deity here.
“Kanchi suffered a great deal on account of the perennial conflict between the Pallavas and Chalukyas. Both, however, beautified it with many temples of which the most distinguished is the temple of Kailasnath.
“Conjeeveram has been famous for its hand-loom industry. Silk-weaving has been a traditional skill handed down from generation to generation. The Kanchipuram sari has been a magnificent obsession with every housewife and has fascinated even foreigners. The Kanchipuram lungi is also celebrated and is being exported to other countries.
“Kanchipuram is divided into Shiva Kanchi and Vishnu Kanchi. We are told that there are not less than 1008 Shiva shrines and 108 Vishnu shrines in Kanchipuram. Shiva transcends the five elements — Kshiti, Ap, Tej, Marut, Vyom. His representation within them at specific places may be noted:
- Kshitilingam at Kanchipuram as Ekambaranath
- Aplingam at Trichinapalli as Jambukeshwar
- Tejlingam at Tiruvannamalai as Arunachala
- Marutlingam at Kalahasti
As I have said, since in our limited time we could not see more than five or six major temples, we began in this order, Pranab giving us a short talk on each one of them.
(1) Vaikuntha Perumal Temple (Vishnu Temple)
It is an important Pallava temple having a pyramidal tower and columns carved with a network of figures called Yali columns. The temple is replete with sculptures depicting the life and history of the Pallavas. It was built by Nandivarman II in the beginning of the 8th Century.
(2) Ulagalanda Perumal Temple (Vishnu Temple — Dwarf Avatar).
It is dedicated to Lord Vishnu in his manifestation of Trivikrama. The Deity in the Sanctum Sanctorum is in a majestic relief rising to a height of nearly 25 feet, supposed to be a рге-Pallava image.
We had to enter into this narrow dark chamber in small groups. The guardian-priest was a young man. He lighted the tip of a long torch and lifting it high up moved it in front of the face of the Deity so that we might have a glimpse of it. We had to pay for this moment’s darshan and we could see a second time only on a further payment. Even so, the face was remarkably impressive. The right foot resting on the floor seemed to be huge compared to the face.
(3) Kamakshi Amman Temple.
The deity is supposed to be made of gold, but, placed as it is in a dark cave-like room, a good view was not possible.
Shankara established Kamakshi Peetham here and it contains his shrine.
Against the wall in a panel are depicted in stone the famous incidents of his life.
The golden image was taken to Tanjore for safety during the Moghul invasion.
(4) Ekambaranath Temple (Shiva Temple).
1) A 192-foot tower built by Krishnadevaraya, the connoisseur king of Vijayanagar. This is one of the 4 tallest towers of South India.
2) This temple is Prithwisthalam (Kshitilingam). The lingam is supposed to be made of sand. The legend goes that Goddess Parvati, Shiva’s spouse, closing Shiva’s eyes in a playful mood, incurs the wrath of Shiva. For the act resulted in a total darkness enveloping the world. Parvati comes to Ranchi and performs penance on the banks of the Kamba river to appease Shiva. She makes a lingam out of sand and performs puja. Shiva sends floods to test her bhakti. Parvati embraces the lingam and the rushing river stops at a safe distance. Thereupon Shiva takes her back. The goddess in the temple is called Elarvarkuzali.
3) A mango tree supposed to be 3500 years old. It has four branches symbolising the four Vedas. The four branches give fruits of four different tastes.
It was a strange tree, indeed. There was no doubt that it was very old. The huge trunk almost like hard fossil stone, with the dark grey bark like the skin of an old man with cracks and wrinkles but very hard, was protected by a concrete ring around it. The branches also had their peculiarity. They were neither very big nor very high, and the leaves were smaller than the usual ones. The tree certainly gave the impression of its antiquity and was on its way to slow and gradual decay.
4) Kailasnath Temple (Shiva Temple).
It was built by the Pallava king Narasinghavarman II in the 7th Century. It was the first-ever stone temple built out of sand-stone in South India. There are innumerable carvings in the courtyard depicting Shiva, Vishnu and Durga in various forms.
This temple was in an open space isolated from the rest of the town and had a fine front view with the carvings shining in the sunlight. But as we entered inside, we saw the image of Shiva confined in a very small dark chamber where hardly two persons could stand shoulder to shoulder. Around the image a narrow space was kept to enable Pradakshina (going round). We heard an amusing story from Pranab about the Pradakshina. He said, “The way goes from left to right. Near the end there are two ways — one goes from below, a difficult one; the other goes from above, the easier one. One has to crawl on the difficult road and it is said that if one goes out through this path, he will not be reborn.” So the choice was left to us. But the path was dark, the floor stony; one had to crawl and, as if that were not enough, one had to pay a few coins to obtain this great chance. Pranab dissuaded us from trying the crawling way of getting Mukti, even if we craved for it. But our Maharaj Champaklal was insistent. He made Pranab pay the price and went both the ways through, posing to Shiva the problem of deciding the re-birth or its cessation. We had a good laugh.
As we came out of the chamber, another sweet story awaited us. Near-about was a small room kept under lock and key. Pranab said that it contained the image of Shiva and Parvati. The story was that once Shiva and Parvati held a dancing competition between them. After a keen exciting contest, Parvati was defeated, the reason being that in one dancing pose Shiva raised one of his legs so very high that Parvati cast her eyes down; quite abashed she acknowledged her defeat.
We could see the images only on paying a small sum. Pranab was liberal and encouraged us to see them and to observe specially how the face of Parvati expressed her modesty and shyness. We were filled with a great curiosity and entered one by one into the dark cell. In the candle-light we saw Shiva in front reared up and a small Parvati in the corner by his left side. It was amazing to note how the artist had given life to the small figure and had made her eyes, nose, lips express womanly shyness. We were given just a twinkling of a moment and yet I bear the memory even now.
The last temple that remained to be visited was the Varadaraja Temple (a Vishnu Temple), a little far and inside the town. This temple, according to Pranab, was an illustration of Vijayanagar art. He drew our attention to the thick granite chains carved out of a single stone adorning the four corners of the hundred-pillared hall with beautiful carvings. It had been for some time under the management of the East India Company and used as a garrison during the Anglo-French wars. Lord Clive had presented valuable jewels to Lord Varadaraja. A flight of 24 steps leads to Athirgiri, the abode of the Deity. The Deity is a majestic figure in a standing posture. There is a golden lizard in a side-temple whose touch gives good luck!
Pranab gave us a choice between the hundred-pillared hall and the lizard, as we had no time to see both.
Out of all these temples, the one that impressed me most was this Varadaraja Temple. As soon as we stepped into it, I felt as if I had entered into another world. All around was quiet. Its large area, vast open compound with a green lawn and the lofty Gopurams in front and on the sides aspiring high up towards the clear blue Heaven, breathed a grand majesty. From the inconscient darkness in which the former deities dwelt we had emerged into the super-conscient Daylight comparable to our present yogic condition. As we proceeded onwards, more and more came into view as if an inner country of the soul were being revealed: courtyards, temples, halls, arches, carvings, a large tank — all under the open sunlight — there was no time even to take a complete round. One felt like an American tourist making the best of his short trip. The hundred-pillared hall took up almost all our time. Its exquisite carvings on each monolithic stone-pillar kept us spell-bound; the carvings depicting the worlds of the gods, demons, men and subhuman species, brought into an instant focus the cosmic vision of the Indian sculptors.
As one stands before this vision, a mood of reverie fails upon the mind and, waking into a dream-world, the pilgrim-soul sees and hears the chantings of the priests, the many other souls bringing their heart-offerings and laying them at the feet of the Lord. One breathes an atmosphere suffused with the presence of the Gods and is cradled in the calm bliss of Eternity. But, alas, time presses and the ‘integrity of fancy’ is broken. Seated in the bus, we journey back home. For a while, it becomes hard to believe which is the real world.
As the mind regains its normal poise, it marvels at the architectural and sculptural beauty in all these temples, and wonders how in those early centuries such stupendous works had been accomplished, with fabulous wealth and gigantic labour lavished through a long chain of years! Since I am not an artist I forbear dwelling upon the artistic excellence of the monuments. I simply gaze, dumbfounded like a child by such inarticulate grandeur! But I may quote some lines from Sri Aurobindo who, among other things, had been a mighty spokesman of our Indian culture:
“These sacred buildings are the signs, the architectural self-expression of an ancient spiritual and religious culture… An Indian temple, to whatever godhead it may be built, is in its inmost reality an altar raised to the divine Self, a house of the Cosmic Spirit, an appeal and aspiration to the Infinite… Indian sacred architecture constantly represents the greatest oneness of the self, the cosmic, the infinite in the immensity of its world design, the multitude of its features of self-expression, laksana….
“The wealth of ornament, detail, circumstance in Indian temples, represents the infinite variety and repetition of the worlds, — not our world only, but all the planes, — suggests the infinite multiplicity in the infinite oneness. It is a matter of our own experience and fulness of vision how much we leave out or bring in, whether we express so much or so little, or attempt as in the Dravidian style to give the impression of a teeming inexhaustible plenitude.”
“Overpassing lines that please the outward eyes
But hide the sight of that which lives within
Sculpture and painting concentrated sense
Upon an inner vision’s motionless verge,
Revealed a figure of the invisible.
Unveiled all Nature’s meaning in a form
Or caught into a body the Divine.
The architecture of the Infinite
Discovered here its inward-musing shapes
Captured into wide breadths of soaring stone.
These verses catch in a sublime manner what I have tried to do in a child’s babble — the spirit of Indian art. I cannot help feeling that we have forgotten our luminous heritage and it would be worthwhile for our children, particularly the children of our Centre of Education, to visit these holy shrines and come in living contact with the foundation of Indian culture. The decadence that has set in our entire life has to be arrested. It has eroded even these timeless carvings: so many statues disfigured and discoloured that one cries in pain to see them. Let us hope that it is the lower curve of the spiral in the ascending evolution and there will be a resurgence of the Indian spirit in a fuller and richer abundance.
The meditation came to an end as the reality of hunger stirred the comrades to action. It was past 2 p.m. A suitable place for our lunching, had to be found. As very often one is pestered by the urchins of the village and their half-famished animals, a secluded shelter with water nearby for vessels to be washed had to be carefully chosen. Luckily we did find such a place. It was a shady vale on the bank of a very wide river which had become almost dry except for two thin streams flowing along the sides. The sandy bed was sparkling in the noonday sun. Growing pine trees across the street swaying gently in the breeze framed the river with a lovely patch of green. Our intuition hailed it as the ideal spot. We got down from the bus, all our ‘flesh-pots’ were arranged in order under the spreading tamarind tree. The spicy aroma set a keener edge to the appetite. While some of us stretched ourselves in cool repose, Maharaj and myself felt a childlike attraction towards the shining stream. As we dipped our feet, what a sweet and cool sensation climbed up the spine and reached the Sahasradal (thousand-petalled) centre on the head! We plunged into the water, which though only knee-deep was fresh, clear and delicious. We tried to swim like fishes but our fins touched the sand-bottom at every stroke. Maharaj was in his element, kicking, splashing and floating like a strange merman with hair, beard and soft flesh-form. Lunch had been served, call-bells were ringing; he waved his hand from the water to say that his bath was more delectable. Finally we had to come up. A bath in fresh and pure river-water in almost half a century! Wonderful! It seemed no less a wonder than the wonder of the temples; only, the one is sensuous, the other spiritual — both a memorable acquisition.
After a sumptuous meal and a luxurious siesta in the primitive setting, we resumed our long homeward journey. At about 5 p.m. we reached a place called Bandivasi (Wandewash) where, in the historical battle between the English and the French, the French had got beaten. It was flanked by a high hill and on its top stood a tiny white temple, known as Dhavalgiri — a beauty spot with the gaunt hill above, green paddy fields below and a stream of water flowing down a concrete drain from the hill. We decided to have our tea there. The young enthusiasts could not resist the pull of the high-seated temple. A stone-paved zigzag path ending in a steep ascent led them to the summit. Champaklal was not to be left behind though his knees had not the adequate strength to cope with the hazards of the uphill climb. I followed his footsteps with my athletic knees and pilgrim staff. But it was not his knees that gave way. The upper part of his body, being completely bare (that is his habit, be it cold or hot), was fully exposed to the piercing arrows of the Western sun. The body was flushed with a crimson glow. Though he looked beautiful like a Rose of God, his human lungs failed to rise to the occasion. I saw the danger and cried, “Maharaj, you have to stop now.” For once he became sensible and sat down under a shade smiling sadly, “Yes, the heat and not the knees.” Thus the final assault had to be abandoned. After some rest we climbed down, Maharaj almost hopping like a rabbit.
At the foot of the hill, we had our dear cup of tea,
“The cup that cheers but not inebriates”,
and started “homeward to habitual self’.
One of the loveliest picnics came to an end with a charming unbroken sleep at night in the sanctum of the Lord.
(Mother India, March 1980)