Traversing the Myriad Mysteries of the Kailasanatha Temple with Padma Kaimal and Anirudha Kanisetti
A monument that is impressive in terms of its development as well as artistic genius from iconographical and architectural standpoints - the Kailasanatha temple complex, built by ruler Rajasimha in the 8th century CE at the Pallava capital of Kanchipuram, has many secrets intertwined in an elaborate web of mesmerising detail.
As part of the virtual programme at the Jaipur Literature Festival 2022, author and professor Padma Kaimal was in conversation with author-historian Anirudha Kanisetti in an engrossing discussion about her latest book, Opening Kailasanatha: The Temple in Kanchipuram Revealed in Time and Space. Not only is it a profound study of the influences that led to the making of the monument, but also an exploration of the minutiae pertaining to the material form of the temple complex.
On being asked why she chose this particular shrine, Kaimal had a very instinctive response. Having studied art history, I could relate to her experience of being “in shock” when she saw the monument for the first time. What was supposed to be a quick visit turned out to be a day-long exploration, and even today, she marvels at “how the temple...pulled me in with so much richness, so many beautiful sculptures on so many surfaces…” Another reason was that her friend Professor Dennis Hudson was exploring the Vaikuntha Perumal temple, also in Kanchipuram, and discovered that it was in some ways ‘talking’ to the Kailasanatha - but they didn’t know what the Kailasanatha might be saying to the Vaikuntha Perumal. These were two of many reasons that made her return to the monument repeatedly, and each time she discovered something new - almost as if the monument was revealing itself to her bit by bit.
As the conversation progressed to the magnificent imagery at the site, Kaimal shared how the sculptures being covered in a visibly thick layer of plaster was actually due to a lack of discernment among archaeologists in the centuries that followed, as they were not aware of the beautiful paint that initially adorned them. Kanisetti calls the plaster “a metaphor for the ignorance [of people], or perhaps the changing of minds and ideas over many centuries that obscures our understanding of what these sculptures actually mean.”
“I have an intense love-hate relationship with the plaster,” Kaimal admitted. The original artisans intended for the sculptures to have a thin skim of plaster to protect the sandstone from being exposed as it deteriorates faster when it comes in contact with air. But what’s unfortunate is that the initial layer had vibrant coloured paint, lost almost in its entirety due to the “on again off again” process of removing and restoring the plaster by conservationists. On some level, she feels that the archaeological frame of mind is partially responsible for the decision to remove the paint and ‘reveal’ the true beauty of the underlying sculptures. But as a consequence, we ended up losing an essential aspect of the visual impact they were meant to create. There is a profusion of figures found in every inch of the temple complex, which Kanisetti imagines would have been a sight to behold, offering ‘an overwhelming sensory experience’, had the painted plaster survived.
Discussing the complementarity between sculptures and inscriptions - Kaimal spoke of how Shiva and Shiva’s family are integral to the general iconography of the Kailasanatha temple complex. But surprisingly, she found that the inscriptions compared the king to all kinds of deities but never Shiva! Referencing the work of historian Daud Ali, and his exhaustive intertextual survey across different writings from medieval India, Kaimal shared how she arrived at the consistent belief that “kings understood themselves to be continuing the acts that the gods had performed in the Puranic times”. So while the gods were no longer present, the kings were perpetuating their actions by channelling a direct connection to them - and this had to be pursued over an extremely long period of time. So, there is a form of parallel storytelling at play between the sculptures above and the text below them at the temple complex. One of the learnings we can gauge is that the Pallava kings interpreted their connection to the divine as a responsibility to keep the cosmos going the way the gods had intended it, as opposed to the commonly held stereotype of kings losing control in their attempt to imitate gods.
Furthermore, there is a subordination of other deities, such as the Buddha into Shiva, at the Kailasanatha temple. Shiva is shown in various forms featuring iconographical markers identifiable with other gods - suggesting the presence of a “religious cosmopolitanism” in the city. Kaimal explained how a plethora of archaeological evidence supports the fact that Buddhism, and even Jainism, were still flourishing while the Kailasanatha temple was being built, and people’s perception of the different religions could have possibly merged with their ideas around the gods that we now call Hindu.
Considering the 8th century as a time when Shaivism and Shaivite practices were not widespread, Kanisetti posed a question germane to the discussion - why did they choose Shiva in the first place and go through so much effort translating him into other religious sects? Kaimal conjectured that part of the reason could be that one of the predecessors in the Pallava clan was a Vaishnava, and Rajasimha was possibly giving physical form to his initiation into Shaiva Siddhanta - a religious and philosophical system where Shiva is worshipped as the supreme deity. As found by the famous Sanskritist from Oxford, Alexis Sanderson, an inscription around the central tower at the Kailasanatha temple states just that. Therefore, the monument itself can be seen as a symbol of, and one of the earliest references to, Shaiva Siddhanta.
Additionally, the attempt to encourage people to take up Shaiva Siddhanta is evident in how the monument insists that you walk counter-clockwise around it to read the inscriptions. “These texts are written in a single line, and since Sanskrit reads from left to right, you have to walk counter-clockwise,” shared Kaimal, and remarked how it was a deliberate choice to “wrap the monument with words”. Since Shaivism in the 8th century was very different from what it emerged as by the 11th - 12th-century, one can imagine it as being in flux within the broader context of other religious and political developments ensuing at the time.
To conclude the discussion, Kaimal spoke about the frequent representation of Shiva as a family man through Somaskanda images - i.e. Shiva with his consort Uma and his son Skanda - which is essentially the central theme of the monument. Contrary to popular belief, she finds that the kings did not imagine themselves as Shiva, but actually as Skanda - and instead compared their fathers to Shiva. There is inscriptional evidence at the temple complex to support this sense of “eternally shifting roles, and continuities and successions - as Skandas become Shivas and Shivas give birth to Skandas, who become Shivas, and this goes on.”