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Kanchi chronicles - Deccan Herald
Kanchi chronicles
Hema Vijay,
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It’s the city of a thousand temples, many over a millennia old now; a wedge of land that has stayed a centre of spirituality and aesthetics of architectural, sculptural and pigment art for a millenia, forget the exquisite Kanchi silk for the moment.

From the massive to the minuscule, ornate to the austere… the temple architecture of Kanchipuram was begging to be documented till Chennai-based former press photographer D Krishnan turned his lens on her in August 2015. Eighteen months later, the result has been a mind-boggling lakh and more frames that capture the art, culture, history and mythology on every significant pillar, platform, mandapam, gopuram, vimanam, arch, ceiling and wall panel of these temples; and the colour, energy of the festivals and fairs that dot the year in this holy city; and life in the villages around this city that lies on the banks of the Vegavathy river. A photographic magnum opus, and the images are to be brought out in a two-volume coffee-table book.

D Krishnan was musing on how he could keep himself busy post retirement when this idea was sparked off. "India is poor in documentation. Today, we have to refer British or German libraries to know more about our own temples. With the exception of books that focus on a few individual temples (that too sparingly photographed), we haven’t done much photo-documentation of our astounding temples,” he says.

Somewhere, someone had to start. And Krishnan thought of Kanchipuram, some 72 kilometres from Chennai. A city that has seen the reign of the Pallavas, the Medieval Cholas, the Later Cholas, the Later Pandyas and the Vijayanagara Empire.

Not that Krishnan is a stranger to photo-documentation. His 1,000-image photo-documentation of Chennai city captures not just the city’s architecture, geography, layouts, culture and festivals, but also the unique professionals who may one day no longer be around, such as the mobile knife sharpener, the coconut tree climber, the jasmine vendor, etc. His passion for the city and for the concept of photo-documentation also led to his buying the entire collection of Henry Miller’s film negatives of vintage Chennai.

Discovering history

With funding by Sundaram Finance and Turbo Energy, the necessary permits from agencies, and a list of 150 temples which he compiled from various sources, he started off. By the time he was done with the city, he had photo-documented 392 temples. "We would be walking out of the temple and strolling through a lane when a localite would tell us about a temple beyond the hills, or inside a grove - temples that had gone unlisted by known sources. Kanchi was once a city of 1,000 temples, some over 1,500 years old, though only around 400 of them are now left standing, some in dilapidated states,” Krishnan points out.

Among the interesting discoveries he made are the ancient Salavakkam temples, located some 40 kilometres from Kanchi city. "In Salavakkam, I encountered some 50 ancient temples within an area of 20 square kilometres!” he chuckles.

Technology-wise, Krishnan opted for simple equipment that was easy to be carried around. So, it was a Nikon 36/24 mm and a Hasselblad medium format 60/60. In terms of technique, he opted for straightforward shots. No frills, no special effects. It is photo-documentation, after all.

While he has extensively documented the famous seven: Varadharaja Temple, the Ekambareswarar, the Kailasanathar, the Kamakshi Amman, the Karchapeswarar, the Ulagalantha Perumal and the Pandavathootha Perumal temples, he has paid the same critical attention to the lesser-known ones like the Kambar Mandapam in Thanki, (in architectural terms, the 'mandapam’ is a highway shelter for travellers that was established by the kings of yesteryears) where the medieval Tamil poet Kambar (1180-1250) was believed to be sheltered, the memorial at Bhramadesam (where Rajendra Chozhan’s wife committed sati), temples like the Varadarajaperumal Kovil, where he found intriguing sculptures ranging from entire sequences in the story of Lord Rama and Lord Vishnu to history to erotica, and even depictions of how childbirth happened in ancient Tamil Nadu - a sculpture there shows a woman giving birth standing up, and curious pieces of architecture like the pillar with a stone that could be moved, but not removed from the pillar!

With some local help

He came across some inspiring people too. "There was one old priest called Jayaraman Shastrigal at Kailasanathar Temple, Sathancheri, that is some 35 kilometres from Kanchipuram, who refused to take money from devotees. Instead, he asked them to buy oil for lamps or some such puja item. I came across many such examples in the interiors of temples that received no funds from the agencies supposed to be managing them. Instead, the locals themselves pooled the money for the temple’s upkeep. But what I don’t understand is why so many new temples are coming up when so many old ones are in need of attention.”

It was a systematic documentation. The view of the entire temple from the lane, the 'maada veedhi’, as they are called, the panoramic bird eye views from its towers, moving on to the mandapams, the ceilings and arches, and eventually narrowing the frame to every single pillar, relief and sculpture. For instance, to document the Varadharaja Perumal Temple alone, he made over 20 visits and shot some 6,000 frames! It took anything from 20 minutes to 30 hours to document each of these temples. He also discovered that some of these sculptures on the pillar have to be viewed not frontally, but from its edges in a way that the two faces of the pillar come into view, such as the pillar with the sculpture of the Vaali-Sugreeva duel at the Vaikundanathar Temple.

This photo essay couldn’t have happened without Sundaravadivelu, a local photographer, Krishnan confides. "He knew every nook and corner in the city and the district; he knew the locals and the managers of the temples, the routes… Wow!” and adds, "I also took some of my VISCOM students with me and they helped me shoot the pictures.” Conversations with the priests of the respective temples also gave him the 'sthala purana’ or the history of the specific temple, how it came to be built, etc.

The Kanchi saga over, D Krishnan is itching to get started on a similar exercise on Kumbakonam. Well, one hopes that Krishnan’s Kanchi photo chronicles will be a trendsetter and throw the spotlight on so many architectural legacies of the country and entice some much-needed photo-documentation of ancient Indian architecture.