Kanchi, popularly known as Kanchipuram, and styled as Kacchi in Tamil classical literature, is a city of celebrity according to Bharavi, the poet ‘Nagareshu Kanchi’. This city has been listed as one among the seven sacred cities of liberation (mokshapuris).
Kanchi is the only mokshapuri in peninsular India, the other six-Ayodha(Uttar Pradesh), Mathura(Uttar Pradesh), Maya or Hardwar(Uttar Pradesh), Kasi or Varanasi(Uttar Pradesh), Avantika or Ujjain (Madhya Pradesh) and Dwaraka (Gujarat) being situated north of the Vindhyas.
Puranas, Kavyas, inscriptions and historical works point out the importance of the city from different angles. The Bhagavata Purana refers to Kanchi as ‘Kamakoti-Puri Kanchi’ (in the southern recensions of the Purana). Vallabha- charya, in his ‘Subodhini’ commentary on the Purana, styles the city as ‘Kamakotipuri’.
In the northern texts of the Bhagavata, the city is given the name, Kamakoshnipuri Kanchi’. The Naishada Kavya of Sri Harsha speaks of a prince of Kanchi as present at the Svayamvara of Damayanthi and incidentally refers to the existence of the Yogesvara Linga at Kanchi.
Kanchi is regarded as one of the foremost Sakti Peethas of Bharat in Tantric works, one of which notes the Kamarajakhya Peetha at Kanchi as one of the three greatest Sakti seats. The word Kanchi literally means the gold ornament worn around the waist by women (girdle or odyanam).
The name Kanchi given to the city signifies that the city is in the central part of the Universe. The Meru Tantra speaks of Kanchi as the naval spot(Nabhisthana).
Some of the edicts of Ashoka refer to the existence of the kingdom of ‘Satyaputta'(Satyaputra), besides those of the Chera, Chola and Pandya of the south. Apparently, the reference is to Thondai mandalam, with its capital at Kanchi.
There is a place called ‘Satyavedu’ on the northern outskirts of Thondaimadalam. Pugalendi, a great Tamil poet, speaks of the people of Thondaimandalam as those who will never speak untruth.
One of the several names borne by Kanchi city is ‘Satyavaratakshetra’. From all these it will be easy to identify the kingdom of Satyaputra of the Asokan edicts as the territory around the Satyavratakshetra or Kanchi.
Kanchi, the Kacchi of Tamil classics, is spotlighted as and ancient city in classics. The Perumpanatru padai refers to Kanchi as Moodur i.e., and ancient city (11.408-411). The encyclopedia work ‘Visvakosa’ acknowledges Kanchi as a great seat (Mahapeethasthan).
Kanchipuri is sacred to all Hindus – Saivite, Vaishnavite and Sakta alike. There are a number of temples, dedicated to Siva, Vishnu, Ganapati, etc., in the city, big and small and of architectural excellence.
The shrines of Ekambranatha, Varadaraja and Kamakshi are the most celebrated among these. The Kamakshi temple seems to be one of the most ancient temples of our land since the verse is found in one of the old Tamil verses cited by Adiyarkunallar in his commentary on Silappadikaram (one of the five great Tamil classics) while dealing with Karikala’s expedition up to the Himalayas.
The city has been described as the capital of various dynasties of rulers in historical accounts and inscriptions. Kanchi has been the capital of the imperial Pallavas, of Rajendra Chola I, of the later Telugu Chola rulers etc.
That the city abounds in temples of different styles of architecture and sculpture is standing proof of its having been the seat of kings of different periods of South Indian history.
One important point that strikes the shrewd observing pilgrim to Kanchi, is that the gopuras (towers) of almost all the important temples of the city, standing far and near, face the shrine of Sri Kamakshi. The processions (annual or periodical) of the Yatrotsavamurtis (icons are taken in procession during festival days) of all the temples in this city are conducted only along the four principal streets (called Rajaveethis) around the temple of Sri Kamakshi.
It is of particular significance to find that there is no sanctum sanctorum (Garbhagruha) for the Devi in any of the Siva shrines-small or large-within the limits of Kanchi city. But once one gets outside the bounds of the city, one can find stone icons (Mulavigrahas) of Devi in all Siva temples, situated near to, or far away, from Kanchi.
The Kamakshivilasa-a Puranic treatise gives the reason for the above fact. It states that Sri Kamakshi Devi, while blessing Manmatha(the God of Love) after having been pleased with his penance, drew up to her ‘Bilakasa – svarupa’ (ethereal form in a cave) all the ‘saktis’ (divine powers of Devi) enshrined in all Devi shrines of the land.
Later, on the prayer of Brahma, the Creator, she vouchsafed that all Siva temples of the country, except those in Kanchi, which came to be known as ‘Sivajitkshetra’, may have Devi shrines. That part of Kanchi in which the shrine of Kamakshi is situated is called ‘Kamakoshtam’, in Sanskrit, and as ‘Kamakottam’ in Tamil.
A study of inscriptions in may a South Indian temple reveals that all Devi shrines inside Siva temples in south India have been called only as ‘Kamakottams after the ‘ Kamakoshtam’ of Kanchi.
Three of the 63 Saivite saints called Nayanmars – Tirunavukkarasar, Tirugnana-sambandar and Sundarar – have referred to the Kamakottam in their devotional songs. Of them, Sambandar has even spoken of ‘Kanchi Kamakoti’ – the ‘Kamakoshatam’ or the locality of the Kamakshi temple.
From all the information given in the foregoing paragraphs, it is abundantly clear that only the Sakti in Kamakoshtam has permeated throughout the land, and the Sri Kamakshi is the central nucleus of Sakti.
Inside the Kamakshi shrine at Kanchi, there is the icon of Adivaraha, commonly known as ‘Kalvar’, identified as the Vishnu Devatamurti of one of the 108 sacred Vishnu Kshetras, (extolled by the Alwars) of the land.
The Bilakasa (mentioned earlier) is considered as having been spread under the entire Gayatri Mantap, in which stands the sanctum sanctorum of Sri Kamakshi. The Kanchi mahatmya speaks of the whole city as being permeated with the air of the Bilakasa.
According to ancient Sanskrit works like the Sivarahasya, the Markandeya Samhita, as per biographical accounts about Adi Sankara such as those of Anandagiri and Vuasachala, and the Keraliya, the Chidvilasiya and Madhaviya Sankara – Vokayas, and according to some other works such as Sankarabhyudaya and Patanjalicarita, it is clear that Sankara Bhagavatpada had an undeniable, intimate connection with Kanchi. Almost all of the aforesaid works refer to the consecration of the Sricakra before Devi Kamakshi by Sankaracharya.
Sivarahasya points to Kanchi as the place where Sankaracharya spent his last days and attained emancipation from mortal coils.
This idea is seen corroborated in more reliable chronological and historical information contained in the lists of successive gurus (pontifical preceptors) or Guruparampara stotra of Bharati Sannyasins (of the Tungabhadra region), published by Dr. Hultzch and from the information contained in the Guruparampara list of the Kudali Sringeri Math in far off Karnataka.
Sculptural evidence, by way of sculptures of Adi Sankaracharya in diverse poses in temples of Kanchi (both Vaishnavite and Saivite) and also in temples situated around Kanchi city, further confirms the theory mooted out in the verse quoted from Sivarahasya. It is rather curious to note that such Sankara sculptures are rare in other regions connected with the life-story of Sankara sculptures are rare in other regions connected with the life-story of Sankara and his activities.
That Sri Adi Sankaracharya established holy pontifical seats or Maths in different parts of Bharatadesa, to carry unto posterity the message of Advaita philosophy, the torch the was lit by him – is a well-known fact.