From hand-woven silk to hands-on spirituality, Kanchipuram stands for many things. This town of yore, described by Kalidasa as ‘nagaresu kanchi’, meaning ‘greatest of cities’, is a microcosm of Bharat’s vast heritage and glory; its geography may be small but in that capsule is captured an eternal and enormous cornucopia of history, culture, religion, politics, art, industry, archaeology etc. It is also a chronologist’s delight with the ancient, medieval and modern merging seamlessly to present a vivid viewing glass into time: when you stalk its streets or walk into the portals of its many temples, you also in a way clock into the centuries past.
My affinity to that hoary town can be summed up in two words: Lord Varadaraja. Not that the other deities, temples, mutts, shops and sundry other attractions mean less to me. But this particular temple and its Resident have always held me in thrall. And ‘always’ happens to be just about six years. Before that Kanchi, which is only 70 kms from Chennai, was as distant to me as Kathmandu. But once I started going, I have not stopped. Obviously, you can never have enough of Kanchi in one or even many visits. 15 of the 108 Vaishnavite divya desams are contained in Kanchi. The sprawling Ekambareshwarar Temple itself needs a lifetime to crisscross, not to speak of the scores of Shiva abodes that dot the landscape. Kamakshi Ammam has carved Her own domain too, in the heart of the town and devotees as well, and along with the historic Sankara mutt, Kanchi can whet the appetite of even the most insatiable seeker. Small wonder from time immemorial, it is considered one of the seven sacred cities of Bharath.
Festivities and fervour are the default settings in Kanchi. You can’t drive through the town without turning into an involuntary participant in one temple procession or another. Chariots and elephants vie with Toyotas and Hondas for parking space. But the residents and visitors do not mind the civic chaos which they deem a small price for the abundant grace they hope to reap in Gods’ own chosen land! And grace it was in full flow this week. I had gone scouting for my quota and the occasion was the Garuda Seva which is the highlight of the ongoing annual Brahmotsavam at the Varadaraja Swami Temple. Let me not dwell on my personal dealings with my pet Perumal. The full moon had cast its full glow on the lawn and converted the midnight into an effervescent dawn. But adding to the surreal scenario was the throng that spilled well beyond the temple walls to the streets, nay, entire city itself. Not a soul would have slept or done anything else in Kanchi during those early hours, as the Lord made His way from His home, toured the town and returned long after day-break. And this is a round the calendar phenomena, with only the deities being different.
Kanchi is a confluence of contradictions too. But it has always managed those conflicts well. In the heyday of Buddhism and Jainism in the early ADs, Kanchi stood its ground as a Hindu citadel, despite minor erosions. Kanchi and the ascent of Mahendra Pallava are credited for the revival of Hinduism around AD 10th century. And later when Vaishnavism and Shaivism were at loggerheads, Kanchi accommodated both. The division of the town into Vishnu Kanchi and Shiva Kanchi in tune with the locus of the respective deities, is a legacy from that era. But the divide is only symbolic because in Kanchi devotees move freely across sects and shrines. A telling evidence of Shiva-Vishnu bhai bhai is the presence of a Vaishnavite divya desam apiece inside the Ekambareshwarar and Kamakshi temples.
But modern Kanchi has adroitly managed a greater conflict than warding off the threats to Hinduism from Buddhism or Jainism or the intra-Hindu sparrings. This town so suffused with spirituality is also the seat of rationalism! Anna’s address is a stone throw from the agraharams of V. Perumal temple. The prima donna of Dravidian politics was born and bred here and somehow remained insulated from the infectious spiritual influence of the town. And then challenged it from within and without. This Dravidian icon in his lifetime did give stiff competition to the divine icons by drawing as much crowds, not to speak of rallies, processions and his own version of the ther, the open car. Anna went way beyond Kanchi, to Delhi as MP and then Madras as CM, but on death in harness in 1969 he was promptly ‘deified’, in true Kanchi style, though it defied rational logic! Today, his house is a pilgrimage centre, but when it comes to crowds, his neighbour Lord VP is a bigger draw. So much for mortal glory!
Kanchi perhaps exemplifies TN’s intrinsic bi-polar character that cannot be missed. This is a land littered with temples, the home of great savants and saints, a storehouse of profound, prolific and profuse religious literature of all hues and perhaps has the most devout population in India. Yet this is also the first and only State where declared atheists and self-styled rationalists can break idols and denounce the Gods and still be sure of the votes of the voters who are also believers! It is also a fact that, despite all the rational campaigns, spirituality seems to have not only survived but thrived. Just as Kaavi veshtis voted for Dravidian parties without batting an eyelid, there were quite a number of Karai veshtis looking up to Garuda’s divine passenger in absolute reverence that night!
So who won the day? Should the Gods be faulted for failing to halt their detractors or be hailed for succeeding in salvaging faith despite the odds? Have the rationalists won power but lost all their arguments? It looks, in TN as in Kanchi, religion is perfectly rational and even rationalism is a kind religion.
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