Kanchipuram is a fascinating town, best known for its magnificent temples and beautiful Silk Saris. When I visited, that is all I knew about it. However, it is a town full of stories, stories written in stone, in silk. And in the batter of the Idlis that get their name from the city. I had a long list of places to visit in Kanchipuram.
However, I started by visiting the 5 most important temples of Kanchipuram the must-visit places in the town. Each of them is a gem to explore. Both from historical as well as architectural perspective. Then, I started exploring the many other big and small temples in Shiva Kanchi, Vishnu Kanchi, and Jain Kanchi.
Silk Saris are everywhere in the city to lure you. I wrote a detailed piece on Where to buy Kanchipuram Saris?.
A brief history of Kanchipuram
It is an ancient city mentioned in many Indian scriptures. It is one of the 7 cities that are together called Saptapuris. Other 6 being Ayodhya, Mathura, Maya or Haridwar, Kashi or Varanasi, Avantika or Ujjain, and Dwaravati or Dwarka. Vamana Puran also mentions it as the best city among the cities of India when it says – Nagreshu Kanchi.
The city is divided into Shiva Kanchi and Vishnu Kanchi. Both of them surround the Kamakshi Amman Temple. Although, you would find enough Shiva temples in Vishnu Kanchi and vice-versa.
It has been the capital of Pallava dynasty from 4-10th CE. After which it came under Cholas, Pandyas and Vijayanagara empires. Presence of Jain and Buddhist images tells us that the three sects co-existed in the city. Just like they do in any cosmopolitan city around the world.
It was a great center of learning. Royal students would come here to pursue their higher education. Schools known as Ghatikas used to teach students. Unfortunately, today there is no trace of these ancient Ghatikas. Although new-age universities are coming up.
So, let me take you through the lesser-known aspects of the place.
Temples are the places to visit in Kanchipuram
5 Big temples
The 5 Big temples in the town that everyone visits are:
- Sri Kanchi Kamakshi Temple – The reigning goddess of Kanchipuram & the temples around her complex.
- Sri Ekambareshwarar Temple – The biggest Shiva temple in the town.
- The oldest Shiva temple in this town Sri Kailasanathar Temple
- Sri Varadharaja Perumal Temple – the biggest of Vishnu temples and the epicenter of Vishnu Kanchi.
- Sri Vaikuntha Perumal Temple – the loveliest of Vishnu temple located in Shiva Kanchi.
I spent almost 6 days in the town visiting these 5 most important temples and more places to visit in Kanchipuram. Do read about them in detail before you plan your visit to the place.
Other temples of Shiva Kanchi
Kumara Kottam Temple
Kumara Kottam temple is located between the temples of Kanchi Kamakshi and Ekamabareshwara. In a way, if you could take the ariel view of the city, the three temples would form a Somaskanda formation. You can access it while going from either of the temples to the other.
Though it is smaller than the two big temples around it, it is still a fairly large temple with two prakaras. The sanctum has an image of Murugan in a seated pose called Brahma Chattam. His consorts Valli and Devyani are present in their Utsav Murtis.
It is believed that Kand Purana was written in this temple.
Sri Ulagananda Perumal Temple
Located not too far from Kanchi Kamakshi Temple, Ulagananada temple is dedicated to Vamana Avatar of Vishnu. A 35 X 25 feet image in black stone, you see him with one leg raised and his hand gesture has two fingers raised indicating the two steps already taken. The size of the image in its dark color can overwhelm you.
His consort here is worshipped as Amruthavalli Thayar.
Sri Kacchapeswarar Temple
Located close to Kumar Kotta, Sri Kacchapeswara temple is a very large temple with a big temple tank right next to the main city road. It is believed that in this temple Vishnu worshipped Shiva in his Koorma (also called Kacchap in Sanskrit) or Tortoise avatar. Hence the temple came to be known as Kacchapeswarar. They say even Brahma and Saraswati prayed at this temple.
Another version says it is KachiKanchi Ishwara or the lord of the city of Kanchi.
Tank here is called Ishtasiddhi Teertham.
After the 5 big temples, this is the most visited temple in Kanchi.
Sri Chitragupta Swamy Temple
Chitragupta is the assistant of Yama, the lord of death. He is supposed to keep accounts of our good and bad karma. Basically, it is his accounting that dictates our birth and death cycles. It is rare to see a temple dedicated to him. I hear there is a temple in Delhi but I am yet to visit it.
The temple is small with a lovely Vigrah in the sanctum.
Sri Pandavdutha Perumal Temple
Located close to Ekambreshwarar temple, this is a small and beautiful temple dedicated to Sri Krishna. This temple celebrates the moment when Sri Krishna had visited Hastinapur as the messenger or doot of Pandavas. That is how this temple gets its name – Pandavadootha temple.
This is one of the many temples across India that celebrate a moment of Puranic stories like Kopeshwar Temple in Khidrapur celebrates the moment of the immolation of Sati.
Located close to Pandava Doota Temple, this is a small but beautiful temple in an apsidal shape. Also called Gajaprishtha or like elephant back. It is dedicated to Shiva as Jvara Hareshwara – the one who takes away your fever.
Located close to Vaikuntha Perumal Temple, this is a small temple and you can see the signs of erosion on the lion-faced Pallava pillars.
Sri Kaushikehwarar Temple
Located close to Kanchi Kamakshi Temple, this is one of her Sannidhi temples. Dedicated to the six sects established by Adi Shankara. It is also supposed to be the oldest stone temple in Kanchipuram. It is a tiny temple that is so complete in itself.
Iravathaneswara & Piravathaneswara Temples
These are the two smallest possible stone temples almost standing in front of each other. Though now the main road passes between them. When I visited, both the temples were closed. From what it looked like they always remain closed. Then, a bit of inquiry told me that they are opened only for performing birth and death rituals.
This is actually a small Shiva temple close to M M Hotel. The name it seems has got distorted over time and people call it Yama temple. These small temples tell you the story of small communities that would have existed in the temple town.
It is a small temple located close to Kachhapeshwar temple. As the name suggests this temple is believed to be built by Indra.
Arulmigu Sri Vilakoli Perumal Temple
A fairly large temple dedicated to Vishnu with an intriguingly shaped temple tank.
Sri Muktheeswarar Temple
On Gandhi Road – This is a mid-sized Shiva temple where you see the image of the devotee Thonda Nayanar bending on the Shivalinga here. There are many big and small shrines in this complex.
Sarv Teertham Kulam
This is a huge square tank with steps painted in alternate white and red stripes. All around it, there are smaller temples like Seeteswarar, Mallikarujeswarar, Kashi Vishwanath Temple and Hanumanteswarar Temple. The tank looks beautiful from a distance. But, unfortunately, it is badly maintained and has a lot of filth all around.
I wish the authorities clean up the place. This could be such a beautiful place for the locals as well as pilgrims to visit.
Other Temples in Vishnu Kanchi
Punyakoteeswara Koil – A small Shiva temple with a narrow moat around the sanctum, closer to Varadharaja Perumal temple in Vishnu Kanchi.
Vyaseswarar & Vasishteswarar Temple – In the lanes of Vishnu Kanchi, these two temples located close to each other with large temple tanks lying dry commemorate the two Rishis – Vyasa and Vasishtha.
Ashtbhuja Perumal Temple – This is the second most popular temple in Vishnu Kanchi, located on the main road. The presiding deity Perumal or Vishnu has 8 arms earning it the name Ashtbhuja Perumal temple.
Yathortkari Perumal Temple – Located not too far from Ashtabhuja Perumal temple, it is an old temple that was undergoing renovation when I visited it.
See this complete list of ASI Temples in the town.
Kanchi Kamkoti Mutt
Kanchi is a seat of Shankaracharya. The Kanchi Kamakoti Mutt is located in the heart of the city. It is believed that Adi Shankaracharya spent his last days in Kanchi. It is the fifth Mutt established by him after Badri, Puri, Dwarka, and Sringeri. His samadhi can be seen in the Kamakshi temple complex.
On the walls of Kanchi Mutt, you can read all about Adi Shankaracharya and the lineage of Kanchi Mutt Shankaracharyas. All the charitable work they are doing across India.
Kanchi Mutt is the center for spiritual life in Kanchipuram. People come here to meet the current present Shankaracharya Ji. They wait for hours to get a glimpse of him or to watch him perform the Arti. Some of them get to talk to him. I was one of those blessed ones.
I came back with the blessings of Shankaracharya Ji along with many books to read on the city from Kanchi Mutt.
Your visit to the town is incomplete without a visit to Kanchi Mutt. Temples belong to different eras but Kanchi Mutt is the living soul of the city. I am also told that they hold regular Kacheris or musical concerts, that you can sit and enjoy. Among the must-visit places in Kanchipuram.
Sri Chandrasekharendra Saraswathi Viswa Mahavidyalaya
This is a university located a bit away from the city. I visited it to see its international library that has a great collection of Indian scriptures. And also to meet one of the professors who helped me understand the sacred geography of Kanchipuram. I was pleasantly surprised to see its library building built in the shape of Sri Chakra.
After ages I had lunch in the student canteen, chatting with the students there. It was fun.
There are two main Jain temples located close to each other here at Thirupparuthikundram. These are Trilokyanath Temple and Chandraprabha Temple.
Trilokyanatha Temple is an ASI temple, but the keys are with an old lady. The temple is opened or closed at her whims and fancies. When I visited, thankfully it was open and I could spend some time there. My repeated requests could not convince the lady to open the second time though.
This early 9th CE temple built during the Pallava period has typical Dravidian architecture. The mandapa was added in 14th CE and the paintings were done in the 17th CE. The chief deity is Mahavir or the 24th Tirthankar. Other Tirthankaras can be seen in the rest of the temple.
It has the most beautiful Jain paintings that you can see. Thankfully they are well maintained. You can see the various mandalas representing the universe on the ceiling of the mandapa supported by colorful pillars. I wish someone could explain these finer nuances of Jain philosophy to the visitors. The geometric designs are intriguing. But then, I know the sculptures and paintings in temples of India are for the one who knows them. Not really meant for a casual visitor.
Do read – Jain Kashi in Moodbidri in Karnataka
I am not sure how many people visit this temple. For me, the paintings in the temple are definitely worth a visit.
Although Huan Tsang has mentioned Kanchipuram with many Buddhist monasteries, there is not much that you find in the city today. Except, a lovely Buddha image that was discovered a few years back. It is now housed on the premises of a school near Kanchi Kamakshi temple.
I spent a good hour or so combing the streets of the town to locate this image.
Other Temples – Places to visit near Kanchipuram
Sanjeevi Raya Anjaneya Temple in Iyengarkulam
This is a large Anjaneya temple on the banks of what must have been a huge lake. With a large mandapam, this temple is a delight to visit. The story goes that when Hanuman was taking the Sanjeevani Booti from the Himalayas to Sri Lanka, a part of the mountain fell through his fingers here. Hence the name – Sanjeevi Raya.
It was one of the most peaceful temples I visited in the town. There were not many people visiting the temple, yet it was a very alive temple. There is a lovely amphitheater-like setting near the temple tank. I wonder if it was once a place for festivals and celebrations.
Once a year, on Chaitra Purnima, Varadaraja Perumal comes to this temple. And takes bath in the Nata Bhavi Stepwell. There is a platform where his visiting Utsav Murti is kept.
One more must-see places to visit in Kanchipuram.
Nata Bhavi Stepwell
A little away from Sanjeevi Raya Temple is a lovely stepwell in stone. An arch with Gajalakshmi on its top welcomes you to the stepwell.
This long and narrow stepwell in grey stone looks like a cousin of step wells we see across Gujarat and Rajasthan. There are pavilions on the lower floors. They may have been used to beat the summer heat once upon a time. As of now the access to lower floors is closed.
Located close to Kailasanathar temple, this is an old Kanchi home now converted into a museum. You can see the Kanchi culture here with the kolams on red oxide floors. Golu dolls for Navaratri on display. Old utensils, wooden furniture including a lovely swing, etc.
I loved the different Kolam designs on the floor, almost like an archive there.
With prior appointment, you can even treat yourself to a local meal here.
It is a small museum, still stuck in the time it may have been built. There are some artifacts like wooden sculptures that you can see. But mostly it is a generic museum. You will not miss much if you skip it.
What to eat?
You get all possible Tamil cuisine in the town. There are a couple of Saravana Bhavan outlets, where you can blindly go and eat. Shakti Ganapathy and Sri Ram Café are other popular outlets in the town.
I recommend eating a meal at the Kanchi Mutt – it is a blessing.
Apart from this, two things you must try there are:
Kanchipuram Idli – it is a slightly drier and harder form of Idli with many lentils in it. It may take you a while to get used to the taste of it. But you cannot ignore trying Kanchi Idli in the town.
Sevai Idli – you get this Idli with noodle-like Sevai in it. You can get it in small shops in the evenings.
How to reach?
The place is well connected by rail and road. It is about 75 km from Chennai city, which is also the closest airport. I took an Ola Cab from Chennai to reach the town.
GRT Regency is the best hotel to stay in the town. I hope more hotels come up in the city for people to stay.
Most people do a day trip from Chennai to this place. I suggest spending 2-3 stays to explore it properly.
Autos are easily available to move around in the city.
From Google Maps, it seems easy to walk place. But in practice, it is not. The place is very hot and humid. There are no footpaths to walk.
Do share your experience of the places to visit in Kanchipuram.