Natalie Savelyeva

Kailasanatha temple of Kanchipuram, the royal shrine of Pallavas

From the 7th to 9th century AD the Pallavas were the most powerful monarchs of South India, and under them the Dravidian style of temple architecture could be said to have been taken final shape.

The transition to the structural temple can be traced starting with the cut-in cave temples of Mahendravarman, through monolithic temples of his son and successor, Narasimhavarman at Mamallapuram. They were the first kings of Tamil country to built structural temples in stone, and the credit for this goes to the great temple-builder of Pallavas - Rajasimha.

Construction of the temple

Entrance to temple with gopuram above

Chain of shrines on the sides of the entrance

Main shrine and vimana, left side

Kailasanatha or Rajasimheswara temple was built by Pallava King Narasimhavarman II (Rajasimha) and completed by his son, Mahendravarman and his queen, Rangapataka. The date of foundation of this temple is attributed to 567 AD.

Kailasanatha temple was built in the town of Tirukarralipuram which belonged to Kaliyur-Kottam of Tondainadu. There are seven inscriptions in this temple belonging to Pallavas, all of which give the birudas of the King Rajasimha and his son, Mahendravarman. The genealogy of the Pallavas starting with their mythical ancestors, their war exploits, etc. are mentioned too.

It is said that, “in the race of Pallavas was born Rajasimha who built this temple and called it after his own name Rajasimha-Palleswara or Rajasimheswara”.

In Pallava times this temple was known also as Tirukarrali (the sacred stone temple).

Tirukarralipuram refer to village or town which was granted to the royal temple as devadana by its builder and means the settlement or village of the temple. It was a new settlement established by Rajasimha with its temple as a nucleus in a suburb of the city of Kanchi (which was the capital of Pallavas). This village was granted in order to maintain services and rituals in the temple and provide remuneration for its functionaries. The temple was endowed with revenue from this village.

Functionaries and administration of the temple

Dancing girls

Dancers were attached to all temples, bhakti or royal. There are references from other temples of Pallava period. The Mukteswara temple of Kanchi mentions as many as 42 dancers.

Drummers and musicians

They have been a part of the retinue of all temples. The sculptures of temple like Vaikuntaperumal of Kanci, show musicians playing on the drums and the lute. They were paid in paddy and were intimately connected with the services in the temples.


They were the priests who did the actual puja in the sanctum. Generally, they were a part of the body of trustees and were given kani known as archanabhoga.


Along with the pujaris, they ensured that the services were conducted in accordance with the agamas, Among the titles of Rajasimha was the title of agamapriyah. The Pallavas were among the earliest monarchs to ensure that temple services were conducted according to the agamas.


There are references from other temples of male servants appointed to clean the temple premises. They were called vilakkum tavasigal. They would have been given a daily share of the food. Mukteswara temple appointed 54 of them, Kailasanatha temple must have much more servants.

Administrative body

The temple administrative body was called talipparivaram. Twelve superintendents in the temple establishment were traditionally appointed since Pallava times.

Brahmanas performed rites in temple and looked after the repairs of the temple. Bappabhattaraka (a yagna bhattar) was made responsible for protecting gifts set apart for the performance of the sacred rites in the temple. This person was closely associated with the king. he was an executive officer and a member of superintending committee of the temple.


They were trustees who administered the temple. In Pallava times Kailasanatha temple was administered directly by the royal government. Later on local dignitaries or headmen acted as trustees.

The treasurers were known as Sivapandigal. The bandaram or the bandari was the treasurer and was in charge of the storehouse. Pon-bandaram was the gold treasury.

Decline of temple services

By early Cola period Kailasanatha temple ceased to enjoy its privileged position as a royal temple, and was sustained primarily through the involvement of the local people. The local chieftains acted as patrons of the temple.

It is known that Chola King Rajaraja Chola I visited this temple. He referred to this temple as “Kachipettu Periya Tirukatrali”, which means “the stone Temple of Kachipettu” (the ancient name of Kanchipuram). It is believed by many archeologists that this Kailasanatha temple must be the inspiration for Rajaraja Chola I to build the Tanjore Brihadeeswarar temple.

The service in the temple was stopped during the reign of Kulottunga I Cola; the temple was closed, and the temple land and compound were sold. For quite some time the temple was closed for worship.

Royal shrine

Kailasanatha temple was the first official royal shrine of the Pallavas. They started the tradition of naming their patron deity as themselves. Rajasimheswara temple was Siva temple named after its builder, Rajasimha. This trend was followed by Colas later on.

For Pallava monarchs, the royal temple was an expression of their religious feelings. It was Pallavas who were among the first to built the temples to their chosen God and name them after themselves.

Pallavas were influenced by Bhakti movement. Starting from Mahendravarman, who gave up Jainism to embrace Saivism under influence of Appar, the great Saiva saint, and Narasimhavarman or Mamalla, who studded his busy port of Mamallapuram with monolithic temples, the Pallava style of temple-building reached its culmination under Rajasimha. His rule was marked with relative peace. It was under him that Dravidian style of temple architecture reached its maturity.

The Pallavas became ardent patrons of temples in a period of intense temple-centered bhakti activity, which eulogized kings devoted to either Siva or Visnu and sang the praises of various temples, which became places of pilgrimage. Pallavas built temples as manifestation of their devotion to their God, according to agamic prescriptions with Gods facing prescribed directions.

Kailasanatha temple had no associations with bhakti saints or with any significant religious event. It was a royal temple built with the prime motive of erecting magnificent monument, the manifestation of the royal ego in the form of the principal deity in the sanctum - the Somascanda.

Siva, Uma and Scanda represented the royal monarch, his queen and the prince. Somascanda was the deity in all Pallava royal temples, including ones in Mamallapuram. At a time the worship of Siva in the form of Lingam was popular and prevalent all over the Tamil country. Somascanda was symbol of introducing a new royal cult. This cult did not achieve popular sanction.

In later temples Somascanda was relegated to sub-shrines, and the Lingam was universally accepted as mula-bhera in all Saiva temples. Even in Pallava temples large monolithic lingams were installed at a later date, pushing Somascanda to background.


After the construction of the Shore temple at Mamallapuram, Kailasanatha temple was the major temple constructed by Rajasimha.

This temple was the first major attempt by Tamil monarch to design and create a temple complex of large proportions, with gopura entrance, side cloisters, tall central vimana and several subsidiary cells to accommodate a vast assemblage of divinities.

There is a series of small shrines across the front and a gate structure with a barrel-vaulted roof that runs parallel to the row of shrines.

Main shrine and vimana, right side

Small shrine erected by Mahendravarma with Somascanda image under parasol (symbol of royal power)

There are numerous sculptures of Nandi (attendant of Siva) inside prakara

Outer side of the wall decorated with sculptures of Yali (lions, symbols of royal dynasty)

The pyramidal tower of the main shrine (vimana) is proportionately broader then that of the Shore temple and the horizontal terracing is less pronounced. Vimana of the temple is 20.27 meters high; it is one of the tallest temple vimanas of the South.

The temple was originally built with a separate flat-roofed mandapa, but later the two buildings were joined. Surrounding the temple complex is a walled rectangular courtyard. The shrine itself is similar to Dharmaraja ratha, but more elaborate.

In front of the central shrine there a small shrine styled now a days as Naradeswara and there are inscriptions therein stating that Mahendra, the son of Rajasimha and grandson of Lokaditya, build this shrine which he called Mahendeswara after his own name.


Predominant image of this temple is Somascanda, as the special protecting deity of Pallava dynasty.

Somascanda, side wall niche

Somascanda in the niche on main shrine wall

Somascanda under parasol, small shrine

The another important set of images comprises Siva as Dakshinamurthi (traditionally facing the south) and Siva as an beautiful ascetic. Latter images are very attractive and vivid. Siva is depicted as handsome young men, with intriguing smile. He holds chin mudra in right hand (symbol of utmost wisdom and ultimate knowledge). His body is half turned, and he looks on us from above the shoulder, as if in gentle mock.

Dakshinamurthi, southern wall of the main shrine

Siva as ascetic, main shrine

Siva as ascetic, niche

Devi is represented as Durga, accompained by her lion as vahana.

Durga on the lion, side wall niche

Durga on the lion, wall of the main shrine

Durga on the lion, wall of mandapa

In this temple Siva is depicted as the god with eight hands, holding different kinds of attributes and weapons. There is also one image of Siva and Parvati as a loving couple.

Siva with eight hands, holding all his weapons

Siva with eight hands, in dancing posture

Siva and Parvati as a loving couple

There are numerous excellent bas-reliefs hidden in side wal niches. The postures and movements of the figures are depicted in stylized but still impressive and natural way. There is also one interesting sculpture on the back wall of the main shrine, called "Alakshmi". It represents absolute antipode of beautiful and benevolent Goddess Lakshmi.

Wrestlers, side wall niche

Fighters with weapons, side wall niche

Alakshmi, wall of main shrine


  1. South Indian Shrines by P. V. Jagadisa Ayyar, Asian Educational Services, New Delhi, 1982
  2. Devaraja Cult in Pallava and Cola times by R. Nagaswamy in God and King, the Devaraja Cult in South Asian Art and Architecture edited by Arputha Rani Sengupta, Regency Publications, New Delhi, 2005
  3. The Royal Temple of Rajaraja: An Instrument of Imperial Cola Power by Geeta Vasudevan, Abhinav Publications, New Delhi, 2003