The Wonder of Kanchi Kailashnathar



The magnificent Kanchi Kailasanathar temple is the oldest temple in Kanchipuram, built in the Dravidian style during 685-705CE by Pallava king Narasimhavarman II (Rajasimha), and completed by his son Mahendravarman III. This temple was first of its kind to be built of stone architecture unlike the rock cut architecture built into hallowed caves or carved into rock outcrops as in Mahabalipuram. It became a trend setter for many later temples in Southern India.

This photo-feature is dedicated to some of the beauty that abounds at this amazing temple. Selected words of Sri Aurobindo on the inner dimension of Indian sculptural art add depth and meaning to this visual tour.


India has had an assured history of more than two millenniums of accomplished sculptural creation. Its survival was made possible because of the survival of the cast of the ancient Indian mind in its deepest philosophy and religion. This, as Sri Aurobindo explains, is a mind that is familiar with eternal things, capable of cosmic vision, has its roots of thought and seeing in the profundities of the soul, in the most intimate and abiding experiences of the human spirit.

It is this Indian mind that has put its unique stamp on the highest Indian sculptural art forms.


“The greatness and continuity of Indian sculpture is due to the close connection between the religious and philosophical and the aesthetic mind of the people.” (Sri Aurobindo, CWSA, Vol. 20, p. 288).


The 58 small shrines built into the niches of the compound wall that encloses the main shrine. Each of these shrines depict reliefs of Shiva and Parvati in many dance forms.


The greatness of Indian sculpture arises from a cast of mind which is founded on a deeper vision and is stable in temperament.

“The art of making in stone or bronze calls for a cast of mind which the ancients had and the moderns have not or have had only in rare individuals, an artistic mind not too rapidly mobile and self-indulgent, not too much mastered by its own personality and emotion and the touches that excite and pass, but founded rather on some great basis of assured thought and vision, stable in temperament, fixed in its imagination on things that are firm and enduring.” (Sri Aurobindo, CWSA, Vol. 20, p. 287).


Lord Shiva, the Cosmic Dancer
The legendary lion mounts on the pillars, insignia of Pallava architecture


The best of Indian sculptural art, like all great Indian art, springs from spiritual realisation. It aspires to express the spirit in form, the soul in body, or some particular living soul power in the divine or the human (or even the animal-human forms like the numerous lion pillars we see at the Kanchi Kailashnathar temple).

Lord Shiva as Tripurantaka

It aims to lead the viewer’s eye, the inner eye, to the impersonal supporting a not too insistent play of personality; to the abiding moments of the eternal. Through the form it intends to express the presence, the idea, the power, the calm or potent delight of the spirit in its actions and creations.

DSC_0444Something of this intention broods and persists and is suggested even where it does not dominate the mind of the Indian sculptor. Appreciation of such art necessitates a different capacity of vision and response, we have to go deeper into ourselves to see.

Dwarapala, the gatekeepers and guards at the service of the Lord

Appreciating Indian Art

In the highest Indian art it is the spirit that carries the form.

The predominant style of Western art appreciation seems to be to dwell scrutinisingly on the technique, form and the obvious story it is expressing, and then pass to some appreciation of beautiful or impressive emotion and idea being expressed.

Indian visual arts have been largely a hieratic aesthetic script of India’s spiritual, contemplative and religious experience. Therefore, an intuitive and spiritual art must be seen with the intuitive and spiritual eye.

Sri Aurobindo emphasises that beyond the ordinary cultivation of the aesthetic instinct necessary to all artistic appreciation a spiritual insight or cultural training are also needed if we are to enter into the whole meaning of Indian artistic creation. Otherwise we get only at the surface external things or at the most at things only just below the surface.


A rasika of Indian art should not see solely with the physical eye informed by the reason and the aesthetic imagination, but make the physical seeing a passage to the opening of the inner spiritual eye and a moved communion in the soul.

“…soul realisation is its method of creation and soul realisation must be the way of our response and understanding.” (Sri Aurobindo, CWSA, Vol. 20, p. 291)


And the cosmic dance continues….


Ancient Indian sculptors created gods which are cosmic beings, embodiments of some great spiritual power, spiritual idea and action, inmost psychic significance. The human form of these Indian gods is simply a vehicle of the divine soul, an outward means of divine’s self-expression.


Everything in the gods created by the Indian sculptor, the face, the hands, the posture of the limbs, the poise and turn of the body, every accessory, has to be made instinct with the inner meaning, help it to emerge, carry out the rhythm of the total suggestion. On the other hand everything is suppressed which would defeat this end, especially all that would mean an insistence on the merely vital or physical, outward or obvious suggestions of the human figure.

Lord Shiva as Dakshinamurty

 “A great oriental work of art does not easily reveal its secret to one who comes to it solely in a mood of aesthetic curiosity or with a considering critical objective mind, still less as the cultivated and interested tourist passing among strange and foreign things; but it has to be seen in loneliness, in the solitude of one’s self, in moments when one is capable of long and deep meditation and as little weighted as possible with the conventions of material life.” (Sri Aurobindo, CWSA, Vol. 20, pp. 271-272).




 For more photo-features on this blog, click HERE.



7 thoughts on “The Wonder of Kanchi Kailashnathar

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  1. As I mentioned earlier too – the words of Sri Aurobindo provide credibility to our existence and our art forms. They also emphasize on the need to continue with our intricate customs and traditions so we can continue to live the way our forefathers did!

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