One of the country’s oldest continuously inhabited cities, Kanchipuram was called the city of a thousand temples, and it has more than a hundred even today.

Kanchipuram, or simply Kanchi, about 70km from Chennai, is counted among India’s seven holiest cities, collectively called “Sapta-puri”. It is believed that a pilgrimage to all of these takes a person closer to salvation. One of the country’s oldest continuously inhabited cities, Kanchipuram was called the city of a thousand temples, and it has more than a hundred even today. While it will take an eternity to explore all of Kanchi’s temples, here’s a selection of four of them to get you started.

The perfect place to begin is the magnificent Kailasanathar Temple dedicated to Lord Shiva. Kanchipuram was the capital of the Pallava dynasty, who ruled most of present day Tamil Nadu from the 6th to 9th centuries AD. Dravidian temple architecture as we know it today, was developed under their patronage. The style began with simple cave shrines, graduated to monolithic shrines carved out of huge rocks, and finally matured to structural temples built from scratch, stone by stone. The practice of building structural temples began during the rule of the king Narasimhavarman II Rajasimha, and the Kailasanathar Temple is one of the most beautiful examples of this genre.

The exquisite Kailasanathar Temple

The entrance wall of the temple is lined with 8 small Shiva shrines and a doorway into the temple. Inside, a pyramidal vimana, a feature typical of Dravidian temple architecture, looms above the main shrine. Surrounding it are 58 small but exquisite shrines decorated very elaborately with carvings and frescoes. These small shrines as well as the vimana are held up by lion pillars, a standard feature in Pallava architecture. The finesse in this temple is absolutely mesmerizing, and it is very hard to tear your eyes away from its splendor.

Breathtaking intricacy at the Kailasanathar Temple

58 such shrines surround the main vimana of the Kailasanathar Temple

The majestic Vaikunta Perumal Temple dedicated to Lord Vishnu, is believed to have been built by the Pallava king Nandivarman II. What’s unusual about this temple is that there are three sanctums one on top of the other. Lord Vishnu is depicted in seated, reclining and standing postures in the lowest, middle and upper levels respectively. Visitors are allowed into the lowest level on all days, and into the middle level only on the auspicious day of Vaikunta Ekadashi. The upper level is closed to visitors. The central shrine is surrounded by a passage whose walls are covered with incredible relief panels and inscriptions about the Pallava dynasty until the ascent of Nandivarman II to the throne, including the empire’s ongoing conflict with their rivals, the Chalukyas.

The Vaikunta Perumal Temple

Incredible carved panels in the Vaikunta Perumal Temple

The Ekambaranathar Temple (also called the Ekambareshwarar Temple) is the largest temple in Kanchipuram, with a colossal 59m entrance gopuram visible from miles around. It is believed to have been built by the Pallava kings in around 600 AD. Some suggest that it existed even before the Pallavas came to Kanchipuram, and that they rebuilt it. However, extensive renovations, additions and modifications were carried out by the Chola and Vijayanagar kings who ruled later, and most of the present structure dates back to the Vijayanagar period. One of the highlights of the Ekambaranathar temple is its 1000-pillar mandapa running around the main shrine, lined all along with 1008 Shivalingams.

The enormous gopuram of the Ekambaranathar Temple

1000 pillared mandapa, Ekambaranathar Temple

The last temple on our trail is the least conspicuous one - the 8th century Matangeeshwarar Temple, hidden away behind a gaggle of buildings on a busy street. Not much is known about it, but it is a lovely specimen of Pallava architecture, and features beautiful time-worn carvings of Lord Shiva on either side of the sanctum.

The small Matangeshwarar Temple

Time-worn details on the exterior of the Matangeshwarar Temple

Kanchipuram has always had an important place in Indian history, and this trail only scratches the surface of the great city’s rich heritage - it is impossible to do justice to the countless gems in this treasure trove of art and architecture.

Photographs by Madhumita Gopalan

(Madhumita Gopalan is a photographer, blogger and history enthusiast who loves photo-documenting travel, culture and architecture. She blogs at www.madhugopalan.com.)