Revisiting Tamil Nadu – North of Kaveri

A couple of weeks ago, I had a chance to be back in Tamil Nadu and visit places which I couldn’t cover in my earlier trips – part one and part two! I loved this trip as each city I had been to was really old and writing about the trip afterwards became a lesson in history. I started writing this post with a blank slate and have atleast 20 tabs open in the browser already!

Although, you’d consistently be amazed by the history of Tamil Nadu, things are not so exciting for everyone. Apart from Chennai and maybe Coimbatore (haven’t been there) no other city is westernized enough to have an active nightlife. So, a lot of young people tend to give these spots a miss. Yes, I too realized that I sound like a grumpy old man. But the truth is that I saw very few people from north when I was at these places.

Anyhow, back to the post.. So, what’s the significance of the title – North of Kaveri – well, that’s what I covered in this trip! People from north India tend to club the whole south as one region, but like how you’d expect, the reality is much more complex. There wasn’t even a single Tamil nation for most of the history. Kaveri river often was the frontier of kingdoms which either ruled either north or south of the river. Pallava kings ruled from north of Kaveri and in this trip, I visited their erstwhile capital – Kanchipuram and one of their major port cities – Mahabalipuram. Apart from these 2 ancient cities, I spent a almost a week in Chennai as well, but there isn’t much difference between any metro city nowadays, so I’d stick with the grand Pallava cities.

So, continuing with the format of the travel posts I do, before we talk about the Pallava cities and buildings, let’s talk about the Pallava dynasty to get some perspective. The funny thing about Pallavas is that they didn’t have Tamil origins, so they are not really kept at the same pedestal in history books as the Tamil trinity of Cholas, Cheras and Pandyas. Pallavas served as feudatories under Satavahana dynasty (modern day Andhra region) and upon their fall, gained independent control over the region north of Kaveri river. Also during this time, Pandyas were the major kingdom below the Kaveri. The timeline of this change in power is kind of vague but we can go with wikipedia which mentions 3rd century CE. Although Pallavas and Pandyas were fighting against each other for territorial gains, they did come together for a brief period of time in around 6th century CE when they both got kicked out of power by Kalprabhas, who by the way were kind of weird and no one really talks about that time in history. But as soon as they were back in power, they again started fighting each other. So, in a way, politics here wasn’t very different from the rest of the world. So, back in power , Pallavas spent a lot of time fighting kingdoms in other regions especially Chaukyas, modern day Karnataka, though the fight wasn’t over Kaveri river water distribution back then. But ultimately their region was taken over by Cholas, a local power that had been expanding after it had overturned Pandyas in Madurai in about 9th century CE. Nobody ruled without disruptions in south, so Pallavas had got dethroned multiple times in between their 600+ years of rule, but let’s not get into those details!

The map below is really important not just for its political significance but also for the smaller cities it shows. We’ll come back to this map in a while.


I started out on a saturday morning from Chennai with a rough plan to cover Kanchipuram by lunch, and Mahabalipuram by evening and end the day back in Chennai. Although friends from Chennai suggested to cover only 1 city per day, I was able to cover both quite comfortably. If you are a light touch visitor, I’d recommend doing it my way otherwise days would really move slow for you. I traveled in local buses and it would be convenient enough for you to do the same as the frequencies are pretty good and you wouldn’t have to depend a lot on asking locals for directions.

So, as I got down at Kanchipuram, I booked an auto for the day. The auto driver agreed to take me to the 3 main temples I could’ve visited in the time I had before noon. All temples in Kanchipuram get closed by noon and re-open only at 4pm. I had been running late and managed to reach Kanchipuram only at 10am. Thus I agreed to his plan. Our first stop was Kanchi Kamakshi, a sister temple to the grander Madurai Meenakshi temple. You’d find this temple really clean and well-maintained. It also appears to be the most famous temple in the city, it even has a fully functional website!

Madurai Meenakshi’s sister Kanchi Kamakshi 😀

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I wasn’t carrying my camera on this trip, so all my photos were clicked from the OnePlus2 that I have and the best shots are up on Instagram, so I’ve decided to embed those same shots in this post. I’m really happy with Instagram, thus if this works well, I’d start embeding instagram photos here instead of uploading photos for all future posts. I have a good feeling about this transition!

But what continues is Disha sketching for her blog and even though she didn’t join me for this trip, but happily sketched based on my photos! Below is Disha’s rendition of the gopurams of Kanchipuram.

Honestly my main motivation to come to Kanchipuram was to see the Kailashnath temple, but that was the last temple on our list. The next stop was at Ekambareswarar Temple. I didn’t know much about this temple and was expecting a regular visit like the previous one but I was delighted to be here! The temple complex was huge and the south gate had the tallest Gaopuram of the city!

Really liked this temple!

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The best part was the inner halls which were lined with Pillars and the natural light gave really good shots. I was fighting the battery % and had rationed 10-15% for each monument, thus I took limited photos, and was really missing having my camera then.

Best shot from today’s collection! #kanchipuram #tamilnadu #historynerd

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You could see how old the temple was from the wear and tear of the statues in the halls and pillars. But still this place has the old charm that was missing at Kanchi Kamakshi. It felt like I was back in Trichy. Another interesting story about the temple is that a mango tree within the temple compound is said to be 3500 years old and gets 4 different varieties of mangoes in 4 different seasons. Well, I saw the tree but didn’t think it was the best idea to debate the authenticity of the belief within the temple. People seemed really strong believers, so I happily moved on to the next destination, the one I had been planning for months!

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Our last stop was at Kailasanathar temple, which is much older and for me atleast much more famous than the previous temples we had visited. Kailasanathar is arguably the oldest structural temple we can find in whole of India which isn’t in ruins, hasn’t been rebuilt and is still used for its intended purpose. It was built in the last few years of the 7th century. Off the trip, but on a related note, I was just now wondering why there are no 2000 year old buildings intact in India. The only building from that era that I can think of is the Sanchi Stupa, or maybe a rock cut cave temples at Ajanta. Infact on a quick broader search, I couldn’t find really old buildings in whole of Asia. In comparison, Europe and Middle East seem to have done better to preserve their architectural heritage. It doesn’t add up since China and India both were technically and culturally advanced than Europe in ancient times, thus they are more likely to have better durable building material. China and India must’ve also built great structures in the same time period as Parthenon and Colosseum, but they don’t exist anymore.

I don’t have answers to these questions and after spending a good one hour on this, I am still clueless. So, it’s best to get back to where we were – the grand temple which inspired generations!

The grand view of the Kailash Temple!

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It’s not just the main shikhara which would grab your attention, but look closely below, even the side walls are carved intricately and you can easily spend a good hour walking leisurely in the courtyard. The structure contains 58 small shrines which are dedicated to various forms of Shiva. These are built into niches on the inner face of the high compound wall of the circumambulatory passage.

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And now is the time to go back to map we saw earlier. The real reason I was waiting to come to this place was because I had seen this temple previously already! How? This temple exists at not one but three places in India! Confused? Well, I was just amazed to know this and I’m sure you will be as well! Remember how Chalukyas of Karnataka and Pallavas of Tamil Nadu used to be enemies? Well, in one decisive battle, when Chalukyas defeated the Pallavas, they captured Kanchi and established their rule over the city. I can imagine that the Chalukyas got inspired from this Pallava temple and built a replica of it in their temple city Pattadakal. That’s how Virupaksha temple was made. But that’s not it, later the Chalukyas were succeeded by Rashtrakutas and they found inspiration in this Virupaksha temple when they decided to extend the rock cut caves at Ellora. Thus, the Kailashnath temple at Ellora, which is now the most famous of the 3 copies of the Kailasnath temples, was based on a temple built 1000+ yrs away 50+ yrs earlier.

Disha’s sketch from my photo –

While you’re at Kanchipuram, you should also check out the local Kanjivaram saree collection. There are multiple government approved textile stores where you don’t have to worry about the quality of the silk. I ended up buying one as well, still waiting for the final reactions on it, more on that later. It was now time for me to head to Mahabalipuram for the second leg of the trip. If you’re not able to get a direct bus to Mahabalipuram, then instead of waiting for one, I’d suggest you take a bus going Chengalpattu and you’d get a connecting bus from there, atleast that’s what I did.

Mahabalipuram was the ancient port city of Pallavas who ruled from Kanchipuram. In a way, think of the relation between these 2 cities as that between Delhi and Mumbai. Kanchipuram was the traditional landlocked capital city and Mahabalipuram was the cosmopolitan commercial center based on the sea-side.

As soon as I got down from the bus, I was swarmed by Auto-rikshaw drivers for the city tour package, pretty much like at Kanchipuram. I was also tired by now and it was really hot, thus didn’t feel like walking the city. But at the end of the tour, I did realize had the sun been not so harsh, walking around the city could’ve been a good option.

Our first stop was the Panch Rathas, which is a collection of 5 temples hewn out of a single massive rock. More than the religious value of these temples, it seems like an architectural challenge given to the local artists by the king. We then moved over to the next site which seemed like an archeology park next to a lighthouse. The temples here were similar to the Ratha temples and I did spend a good 30 mins walking through the complex. The rocks here were not hewn from outside but instead from inside to make cave temples within them.

These caves reminded me of the Chalukya caves in Badami

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I couldn’t get a lot of photos as I was low on battery and wanted to save for the Shore temple. Thus, I hurried through the rest of the places, walked by the rock reliefs which go by the name of Arjuna’s penance. It is difficult to make out what’s happening in the first go but the I just overheard a couple of guides and it seemed like a good story but I was not patient enough to listen to the whole thing as it could’ve well been made up.

Well, as you would have realized I covered a lot of these monuments in a bit of hurry. I guess if I would’ve come here on a fresh day, then perhaps, I would’ve been more interested. Nonetheless, I moved over to the Shore Temple and that’s a grand site. Only big kings who’ve established strong hold over the regions for a considerable time can afford to build such monuments. Thus this temple is one of the reasons why Mahabalipuram would always be remembered when someone talks about Pallavas. It is even believed that there were six more temples just like the Shore temple in the past and the city was called the city of the seven pagodas. ASI even explored the sea around the coast and they’ve found man-made structures made out of stones upto a few kilometres from the coastline. I am guessing the city must’ve been much bigger in 8th century and the coastline has receded over the years due to rising sea-levels.

What a grand site to build, kind of earlier version of Somnath temple!

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And here is Disha’s version –

Well this one is not exactly framed on my photo. I tried but but couldn’t find a spot to click a photo like this. It’s an advantage for artists to take liberty of removing all the background noise, stones, trees and sketching a surreal shot 😀

It was almost end of the trip by this time and I was little hungry as well since I had skipped lunch. I was initially planning to go over to the famous restaurant in the city – Moonrakers for some local seafood but my driver advised me to take the next available bus to Chennai from the highway as there was a halt in service due to local protests. I didn’t want the otherwise happy day to end dramatically, and hopped onto the bus that brought me back to Chennai by 7.30 PM. I got down next to the Sangeetha’s in Guindy and that was my dinner, couldn’t get any more convenient than this. But when you’re going over to Mahabalipuram, I’d recommend you to checkout moonrakers after exploring the monuments!


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