KANCHIPURAM is situated on the Vegavathi River 70km southwest of Chennai. Ask any Tamil what Kanchipuram (aka “Kanchi”) is famous for, and they’ll probably say silk saris, shrines and saints – in that order. A dynastic capital throughout the medieval era, it remains one of the country’s seven holiest cities, sacred to both Shaivites and Vaishnavites, and among the few surviving centres of goddess worship in the south. Year round, pilgrims pour through for a quick puja stop on the Tirupati tour circuit and, if they can afford it, a spot of shopping in the sari emporia. For non-Hindu visitors, however, Kanchipuram holds less appeal. Although the temples are undeniably impressive, the town itself is unremittingly hot, with only basic accommodation and amenities. Some people prefer to visit Kanchipuram as a day-trip from Chennai or Mamallapuram, both of which are a two-hour bus ride away.
Established by the Pallava kings in the fourth century AD, Kanchipuram served as their capital for five hundred years, and continued to flourish throughout the Chola, Pandya and Vijayanagar eras. Under the Pallavas, it was an important scholastic forum, and a meeting point for Jain, Buddhist and Hindu cultures. Its temples dramatically reflect this enduring political prominence, spanning the years from the peak of Pallava construction to the seventeenth century, when the ornamentation of the gopuras and pillared halls was at its most elaborate. You might need to be a little firm to resist the attentions of pushy puja-wallahs, who try to con foreigners into overpriced ceremonies. If you’ve come for silk, head for the shops that line Gandhi and Thirukatchininambi roads.