Adi Shankaracharya

Kanchi the Southern Mokshapuri

An oft quoted and popular verse enumerates the moksapuris (cities of liberation from the bondage of births and deaths) as seven in number:


(Ayodhya; Mathura, Maya or Hardwar, Kasi, Kanci, Avantika or Ujjaikn and Dvaraka are the seven cities bestowing moksa i.e. deliverance.)

Of these seven, Hardvar, Kasi and Ujjain are sacred to devotees of Lord Siva, while, Ayodhya, Mathura and Dvaraka are holy to devotees of Vishnu, Kanci, the southern Moksapuri is sacred to devotees of Siva, Visnu and Sakti alike.  Kanci, popularly known as Kancipuram, is a city of celebrity according to a widely common saying, (Nagaresu Kanci).  The Perumpanarrupadai, an ancient work of the Tamil Sangam age, points to Kanci as an old city of the world:-


Malartalai Ulagathullum palar tozha
Vizhavu mempatta pazaviran moodur

The two lines (in Tamil) found above indicates that Kanci is an ancient city of the world, the fame of which is highlighted by festivals celebrated by devotees of all faiths.

Kanci is pointed out as the navel of the Earth in the Kancimahatmyam:-


The Kamaksivilasam also speaks of Kanci as the navel of the Earth in Chapters 11 and 13:-             (Chapter 11-6-13-73)


Geographically speaking Kanci may be taken as situated roughly at the Centre of the Eastern Hemisphere.  The Latitude of the city is approximately 12.5 north.  It may be noted that the navel of a human body is a little above the centre of the human frame.  The Merutantra also speaks of Kanci as the ‘Navel of the Earth’.  The Azimuthal map of the World will show that Kanci is almost the navel spot’ of the Earth.

                Cidambaram is famous as the akasaksetra (the sacred place of Ether) of Siva.  Even so Kanci is the akasa pitha of Devi.  The Kamaksivilasa says:-


The meaning of this verse is that the subtle cave inside the sanctum sanctorum of the temple of Sri Kamaksi, at Kanci), which is the place of penance of Devi is deemed as the supreme atmosphere or akasa.  The Tantric text ‘Saubhagya – Cintamani too points to Kanci as the place of the Akasa Pitha of Sakti.

                The Kancipurana of Sivajnana Munivar refers to Kanci as the navel spot of Mother Earth and as the all-pervading atmosphere inside the biola, in one of the verses as follows:-

Anaiyal parappu nun bilamaki arutpara veliyaitikazhum
Anaikadal Udukkai nilamakatkundi sthanamam

(Kancipuram – Veerattahasappatalam – 31)

                Kanci is described as a sacred centre of pilgrimage in Puranas.  In the Umasamhita about eleven verses speak of the tirthayatra (pilgrimage) of Vyasa, the great seer, to sacred places such as the seven moksapuris.  One of these verses reads:-


 In the above verse it is stated that Vyasa visited the delta of the Godavari.  The confluences of the seven sacred branches of the Godavari with the sea go by the name ‘Saptagodavaritata’.  An anecdote about Vyasa’s visit to the Saptagodavari area and to Kanci will be interesting in the context.

                While Vyasa was residing at Varanasi, some sages approached him and asked him, “which God needs be worshipped for attaining moksha?” Vyasa raised both his hands above the head and said “Why? It is Narayana the greatest of all Gods.  “Nandikesvara, who was nearby, got wild and cursed Vyasa, saying,  ‘Let thy raised hands remain as such for ever.”Unable to get his hands down.  Vyasa prayed to Vishnu for relief.  Vishnu manifested Himself before Vyasa and said “Siva is Para.  You should not have forgotten it.  Pray to Lord Siva and adore him, spending some time on pilgrimage. “Accordingly, Vyasa made a long pilgrimage from Varanasi down south.  In course of time he reached the delta of the Godavari.  Vyasa bathed at the sacred spot called ‘Brahmasamvedyam’, where one of the seven branches of the Godavari enters the sea.  There he is said to have got the clue for deliverance from Nandikesvara’s curse from the effects of which he had been still suffering.

                Vyasa reached Kanci in course of time with his hands still unable to be brought down.  It is strongly believed that on singing the praise of Lord Siva, at Kanci, Vyasa got freed from Nandikesvara’s curse.  Stucco images of Vyasa reliefs seen in the base of the Vimana of this temple, one is in the pose of both the hands of the sage lifted up above head and the palms closed one upon the other.  Immediately adjacent to this (on the left side) can be seen an image of Vyasa with the hands in the natural form after the sage’s deliverance from Nandikesvara’s curse, cited above.

                While giving a list of places where sages have taken abode for performing penance, the Markandeya Purana refers to those seers residing at Kanci.


Dakshinah kaurusa ye ca Rskastapasasramah:
Rsabhah simhalascaiva tatha kanceenivasinah

A verse in the Teerthayatraprakarana of the Bhagavata Purana links the Kamakotipuri – Kanchi, the Southern Moksapuri, with Kaveri, the southern sacred stream (of the seven holy rivers of India) and Srirangam, the most sacred of Vishnu shrines.  The verse runs thus in the Telugu and other southern recensions:-


Kamaktipurim Kancim Kaverim ca saridvaram:
Srirangakhyuam mahapunyam Yatra Sannihito Harih

In Agama texts such as the Suksma Agama and the Karana Agama the word ‘Kamakosta’ is used to denote the abode of Devi in Siva temples.  In the Silpasastra text, called Manasara (Patala 65 – verse1) it is seen that the words, are used with regard  the plan of construction of Devi shrines.  The name Kamakostam’ signifies the central area of Kanci city where Kamaksi, the presiding deity of Kanci is enshrined and so it can be easily understood that ‘Kamakotipuri’ is only Kancipuri.

                Sakti Tantras spot out Kanci as one of the most important Sakt ithas of Bharat.  Mahalaksmi – tantra speaks of three as the foremost of the 108 pithas of Devi.  They are the Kamaraja Pitha at Kanci, the Pitha at Kamarupa and the one at Jalandhara.  The Bengali Visvakosa, an encyclopaedia, marks Kanci as an ancient and greatly sacred place and as the place of a great Pitha:-


There are many temples in Kanci sacred to devotees of Siva, Vishnu, Ganesa etc. Some are very large and some are small.  Some of the temples are of exceptional architectural beauty.  Of the temples dedicated to Siva, the temple of Sri Ekamranatha is the most important.  The temples of Sri Kailasanatha, Sri Kachapasvara and the small temple at Sivasthanam, near Vishnu Kanchi, are notable ones.  The temples of Sri Varadaraja, Sri Vaikuntha Perumal and Ulakalanda Perumal are important among Vishnu temples.  The niche, in which the murti of Adi Varaha is enshrined, on the right side of the sanctum of Kamakshi, is one of the 108 sacred Vishnu shrines in India.

The temple of Sri Kamaksi, standing almost in the middle of the numerous temples in Kanchi is one of the most ancient ones of our country.  An  old Tamil song cited by Adiyarkunallar, of olden times, in his famous commentary on Silappadikaram, one of the five great Tamil classics, refers to this temple, particularly to the deity of Sasta, the guardian angel of the Kamakottam of Sri Kamaksi.  In this verse the Devi is described as wearing bangles on her hands.  The verse also refers to the victories of Karikala Cola as having been due to the grace of the Sasta of Kamakottam  The verse reads as follows:-


Further, in the Lalitastottara – Satanamavali, in the Lalitatrisati and in the Lalita – sahasranama we find the epithets ‘Kamakoti – mahapeetha - madyastha, “Kamakoti – nilaya’ and ‘Kamakotika’ respectively.

                As such, Kanci city is ‘Kamakotipuri’.  One significant feature that is apt to strike the shrewd observing pilgrim is that the main gopuras (towers) of all the important temples in Kanci, far and near, are facing the temple of Kamaksi.  Moreover, the processions of yattrotsava – murtis of all temples in the city are routed only along the four principal streets (Rajaveethis) around the temple of Sri Kamaksi.

                Above all, it is rather peculiar to note that in none of the Siva temples within the limits of Kanci city, there is either a separate sanctum sanctorum for Devi or a stone icon as mulavigraha of Devi, except in the temple of Kamaksi.  But, when one passes just beyond the limits of the city, mulavigrahas of Devi in separately allotted sanctums are seen in all Siva-temples, near or far away from Kanci.  The reason for this phenomenon is explained in some verses in the ‘Kamaksi – vilasa’.

                The relevant verses are:-


The substance of the above verses is that Kamaksi having been pleased with the penance of Kama (Cupid), and after having blessed him, drew into her bila of ether, the powers of Devis enshrined in all Siva temples of the land, including Kailasa.  Thereafter (according to Kamaksi – Vilasa) Brahma prayed to Devi, whereupon Kamaksi vouchsafed that all Siva temples, save those within Kanci City, would have shrines of Devi.  Henceforth, Kanci came to be known as ‘Sivajitksetra’.

                In Sanskrit classical literatre, the earliest references to Kanci is found in Patanjali’s Mahabhasya.  Historians are inclined to assign the second century B.C., as the period when Patanjali produced this work.  Sriharsha of much later times mentions the presence of a ruling prince of Kanci at Damayanti’s svayaamvara and of a ‘Yogesvara Murti’ in Kanci, is his ‘Naisadhacarita, one of the Panca – Mahakavyas (five great classics).

                Abundant references to Kanci are found in Tamil classical literature of the Sangam age and of medieval age.  The Sangam classic, ‘Perumpanarrupadai’, notes Kanci as a celebrated ancient city of boundless educational advancement (Vide lines 408-41).

                Manimekalai’, one of the five great Tamil classical poems, of the post – Sangam period, speaks of the destroyal of Puhar, capital of ancient Cola rulers, caused buy erosion of the sea and the consequent migration of a large number of survivors from the ruined city to Kanci.(Vide canto 20).

                Saiva Nayanmars and Vaisnava Alwars, who have sung in praise of the deities in the temples of Kanchi, refer to the greatness of Sri Kamaksi thus:-


Even when singing the praise of Tiruvadikai Virattanam (near Pannurutti, in the South Arcot Dt. Of Tamilnadu), Appear refers to ‘Kamakoti’ (i.e. Kamaksi, of the Kamakottam in Kanci).

                Tirujnana Sambandar, a contemporary of Appar, (7th century A.D.), adoring the Lord of Irumbulai (Alangudy in the Thanjavur Dt. Of Tamilnadu), describes the Isvara of the temple at Alangudi, as ‘resident at Irumbulai along with the Kamakoti shining at Kanci.  The second line of this verse reads (Kaccippoli Kamakkodiyudan Kudi) – II Tirumurai – Irumbulai – 4) In another of his Tevaram verses Sambandar speaks of Kanci as highly prosperous and rising high upto the sky in the following lines:-


In the seventh Tirumurai, a Tevaram verse  by Sundrarar in praise of Onakantanrali, refers to ‘Kamakottam in the ancient city of Kanci’


Naccinarkiniyara, Cekkishar and many other great Tamil Scholars have praised the city of kanci and its importance, in their works.  Cekkizhar says:-


Tirumangai Alavar, in one of his hymns in praise of Kanci, refers to the ‘stone ramparts of the city’.  The Tamil words used in the verse are:- (Kallal madil swzh kacchinagar).

                Vedanta Desika of the recent past speaks of his adject ‘surrender unto Sri Varadaraja shining at Kanci, important among the seven Moksapuris’

                Appaya Diksita, has to his credit a beautiful devotional lyric, ‘Varadaraja –stavam’, extolling Sri Vardaraja at Kanci.

                From the historical point of view too, Kanci City is an important one.  Some of the Edicts of Asoka refers to the kingdom of Satyaputra, among the independent Kingdoms south of the Mauryan Empire.  On a careful examination, it can be concluded that this Satyaputra Kingdom of old is only the Tondaimandalam or neck region of the Tamil country.  It may be noted that there is a name ‘Satyavrataksetra’ for Kanci.  A verse of the celebrated Tamil poet, Pukazendi, states that ‘the people of Tondaimandalam will never speak untruth even if they were to gain the world as recompense for uttering a lie’


History tells of the Gupta Emperor, Samudragupta, having reached Kanci at the end of his southern expedition.  Kanci has been the capital of successive dynasties of Kings such as the Pallavas, the Colas and also of the Governors of Vijayanagar Kingdom.

Kanci has been a centre of literary eminence with its Ghatikas or centres of education which have flourished in the early centuries of the Christian Era. The Talgaunta copper plates refer to the Kadamba King Mayuravarman of the 4th century A.D.), as having come over to the Ghatika at Kanci for advanced studies, along with his teacher Veerasanman.  That the study of four Vedas was in vogue at Kanci is clear from one of the Kasakudi plates of Nandivarman Pallava, (826 – 849 A.D.) which states, among other things:-

                That Skanda Sisya, ruler of Kanci (early 4th century A.D.) captured the ghatika (educational centre) from a king called Satyasena.  (South Indian Inscriptions – Vol II, Part- III – Page 349).

                An inscription on a pillar in the Mahamandapa of Sri Kailasanatha Temple at Kanci, of Vikramaditya Satyasraya (533 -545 A.D.), refers to a Ghatika educational centre)at Kanci.(Epigraphica Indica – Vol III, page – 360).  Another inscription at Velurpalayam, near Arakonam (North Arcot Dt.) points to the revival of the Ghatika and the construction of the Kailasanatha temple at Kanci by Narasimha Varma Pallava (S.Ind. Inscriptions, VolI part-V).  The Ghatika at Kanci is noted to have been famous all over the country.

                Great scholars, like Bharavi, flourished at Kanci.  The Pallava King, Simhavisnu, was instrumental in bringing Bharavi to his court at Kanci.  Mahendravarman Pallava, a scholar King, who ruled from kanci, was the author of a fine Sanskrit frace named ‘Mattavilaa-Prahasana’.  Dandin, the rhetorician author of the famous ‘Kavyadarsa’, adorned the court of Raja Simha Pallava, who ruled at Kanci from 685 A.D., to 705 A.D. Mayura Kavi, the author of the century of verses on Surya, known as ‘Mayurasataka’ is said to have spent many years at Kanci.

                Thus, Kanci, the Satyavrata Ksetra’, the city of temples and Mathas, a great and renowned centre of education and literary pursuits, a city of historical importance, the capital of rulers of different dynasties, associated with the names of great saints and scholars believed to be the navel of the Earth, praised by Nayanmars, Alwars and great scholars, stands as the important Southern Moksapuri with Kamakostam at the centre, with the Parasakti Kamaksi’s generous grace.

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