Construction of the Kāilaśanātha Temple Summary

  • Last updated on November 11, 2022

The monumental Kāilaśanātha Temple at Kanchipuram, built by Pallava king Narasiṃhavarman II Rājasiṃha, is important because it was the first major structural stone temple in southern India. The numerous sculptures formed an iconographical program exalting both the god Śiva and the king who built it.

Summary of Event

Kāilaśa is the Himalayan mountain home of the god Śiva to whom Narasiṃhavarman II Rājasiṃha’ Narasiṃhavarman II Rājasiṃha grand temple complex is dedicated. The Kāilaśanātha Temple, also known as the Rājasiṃheśvara Temple, was the first structural stone temple in southern India; previously temples in the south were constructed in either brick or wood. Although Narasiṃhavarman II’s royal predecessors had cave temples excavated from stone and monolithic temples carved from boulders, it was Narasiṃhavarman II who took the decisive step of ordering his artisans to construct a sacred building entirely of quarried stone. Built on a grand scale, the enormous temple was an attempt to recreate Śiva’s mountain abode. Architecture;India India;architecture [kw]Construction of the Kāilaśanātha Temple (c. 710) [kw]Kāilaśanātha Temple, Construction of the (c. 710) [kw]Temple, Construction of the Kāilaśanātha (c. 710) Kāilaśanātha Temple[Kailasanatha Temple] India;c. 710: Construction of the Kāilaśanātha Temple[0530] Architecture;c. 710: Construction of the Kāilaśanātha Temple[0530] Narasiṃhavarman II Rājasiṃha Mahendravarman III Raṇgapatākā

King Narasiṃhavarman II’ Narasiṃhavarman II reign was relatively peaceful and free from internal and external strife. At the very zenith of its power, the Pallava Pallavas Dynasty was blessed with extremely prosperous times, and the kingdom grew rich from maritime trade along India’s shores with the vassal Śrivijaya kingdom in Southeast Asia and with China. Records indicate that Narasiṃhavarman sent diplomatic missions to China. He was an ardent devotee of Śiva and built several temples to the god, although he also supported construction of a Jaina temple at Tirupathikundram and a Buddhist monastery at Nagappattinam. Like his predecessors Mahendravarman I and Narasiṃhavarman I, Narasiṃhavarman II had an avid interest in all the arts. An accomplished musician, he personally directed the planning of temples and their decoration, including paintings, and provided the temples with musicians and dancers necessary for the entertainment of the deity. Music;Pallava Of the many temples he built, the Kāilaśanātha was the most impressive and important.

The temple complex, built in sandstone and facing east, was a joint venture that included Narasiṃhavarman, his son Mahendravarman III Mahendravarman III , and Queen Raṇgapatākā Raṇgapatākā , who was either Narasiṃhavarman’s consort or his mother. The elaborate compound consisted of the main temple (vimāna), an assembly hall (maṇḍapa), an enclosure wall with fifty-eight attached smaller shrines, a small adjacent temple built by Mahendravarman III, and an entry courtyard fronted by six smaller shrines located in front of the entry gate. Initially, the vimāna and maṇḍapa were separate structures, but the two buildings were joined by an intervening structure built in the seventeenth century.

The vimāna, with its inner sanctum (garbha gṛha), houses the two main icons, a large fluted, faceted sixteen-sided basalt liṇgam (the aniconic symbol of Śiva) in the center of the cella and, carved on the back wall, the seated group called Sōmāskanda, consisting of Śiva, his wife Pārvatī, and their son Skanda seated on a throne; they are flanked by standing images of Brahma and Viṣṇu (Vishnu). The vimāna, a four-storied structure essentially square in plan, rose in a series of tiers (talas) to form a great tower (ś;ikhara) that was crowned by an enormous octagonal stone. Each tier was distinguished by a row of carved miniature shrines.

Artists covered the walls of the vimāna with many Hindu deities, mythological scenes, and fantastic rearing creatures called vyālas. Originally, all the walls of the compound were covered with plaster and paintings. Rare fragments of the early, perhaps original, paintings can be seen in some of the smaller shrines along the south and west enclosure walls. There are more than 120 major icons as well as a host of subordinate images, all of which provide a tangible and permanent record of important religious movements of the early eighth century in southern India. The temple’s many images of Śiva were indicative of the king’s devotion as well as Śiva’s immense popularity in the Tamil region. The vast collection of Shaivite Shaivites iconography, symbols, and legends depicted in bas-reliefs may be the largest and most complete in India. Several of the icons in the complex appear for the first time in southern India as official members of the southern Hindu pantheon. The Dikpālas (guardians of the directions), the Saptamātṛkās (seven mothers), and Jyeṣṭha (goddess of misfortune) are noteworthy examples.

The vimāna walls also bear several fascinating icons of Śiva that appear for the first time in Indian art. The various dance poses of Śiva, the nṛtyamūrtis, created by Pallava artists for this temple are an important achievement. The energetic representations of the dancing lord convey his mighty cosmogonic function as provider of the power that causes the universe’s evolution, maintenance, and dissolution. His dance, wild but full of grace, is meant to affect all nature and its creatures. According to the Āgamas (texts sacred to Śiva), the mighty god has 108 dance forms; only nine, however, are portrayed in the sculptural program of the Kāilaśanātha. One of the most interesting is the icon called Urdhva Taṇḍava that, according to a southern Indian legend, represents a famous dance competition between Śiva and the goddess Kālī. Whatever dance pose Śiva assumed, Kālī repeated it with ease. When Śiva, however, lifted one leg straight up the side of his head, Kālī was forced to concede, because, as a woman, she was not willing to assume a posture so indiscreet that her genitalia would be exposed. A few other stunning iconic representations of Śiva debuted at the Kāilaśanātha Temple, including Śiva as Tripurāntaka, or the Destroyer of Three Cities; Lingodbhavamūrti, or Śiva emerging from a flaming liṇgam; and Śiva as Gajāsura Saṃharamūrti, which shows the forceful god destroying a terrible elephant demon.

The walls of the temple bear many of Narasiṃhavarman II’s inscriptions; they provide the king’s mythological and real genealogies, his many alternate names, his accomplishments, and numerous accolades. According to one inscription, the temple was built for the sake of a queen named Raṇgapatākā, either the king’s consort or mother, who was famous for her beauty and chastity.

Raṇgapatākā seems to have played an active role in the construction of the temple. Some experts believe that what appear to be portraits of Śiva and Pārvatī carved on the back wall of the shrine actually may be portraits of the king and queen. Another of the inscriptions praises Narasiṃhavarman as an āgamaprīya, or one who is versed in the Āgamas. The king clearly adopted some of the conventions stated in the Āgamas for his temple. For example, the layout of the complex with its smaller shrines along the cloister walls is based on a scheme mentioned in the Amṣumadbhedāgama (eighth century). The temple also reflects the development of ritual worship and evolving Hindu iconography.

There is another important dimension to understanding the temple and its royal builder recently recognized among scholars. The temple complex seems to have been a religious center for a cult of a divine king. There are hints that previous Pallava rulers may have regarded themselves as god-kings and that the tradition of a rudimentary form of divine kingship was indigenous in ancient Tamil society. It is apparent from Narasiṃhavarman II’s inscriptions on the Kāilaśanātha Temple that he regarded himself as divine, a role that no doubt facilitated his control over his vast empire. Narasiṃhavarman’s personal inscriptions were particularly informative and instructive on the subject; for example, in one, he called his temple “The Holy Rājasiṃha-Pallesvara.” In a subtle play on words, he named the temple after himself, not as its builder, but as the divine resident.

One of the temple’s names, Rājasiṃheśvara, can be translated two ways: (śiva) the lord of (king) Rājasiṃha; the lord (god/king) Rājasiṃha. The double entendre is intentional. Similarly, Pallava specialists have recognized that the temple’s many icon panels of Sōmāskanda, Śiva, and his family members also were intended to represent the Pallava royal family. Thus, icons of Śiva also represented the king; Pārvatī, the queen; and Skanda, a Pallava prince. Both poetic inscriptions and imagery corroborate the idea of a god being incarnate in human form and specifically the god taking a royal incarnation. The religious doctrine of the time supported the idea of the merging of Śiva and the king, as the god’s supreme devotee, into a single entity. According to Śaiva Siddhānta, the popular religious movement of the seventh and eighth centuries in southern India, the goal of the devotee was to unite with Śiva in a state of absolute oneness. The king, most worthy and accomplished of mortals, naturally assumed the state of divine oneness with Śiva. Thus, while asserting assiduously again and again that he was the devotee of Śiva, Narasiṃhavarman simultaneously embraced and merged with the divine.


The Kāilaśanātha Temple is one of the most important sacred buildings in south India. Its construction was revolutionary in the region, and the temple was monumental and elegantly decorated. Narasiṃhavarman II encouraged experimentation and inventiveness in the temple’s iconography. His visionary approach ensured that the Kāilaśanātha would become a model for later Shaivite temples: the Shore Temple at Mahabalipuram, the Virūpākśa Temple at Pattadakal, and the very famous Kāilaśanātha Temple at Ellora all were directly inspired by Kanchipuram’s famous temple. Narasiṃhavarman laid down such a standard of excellence that later kings vied to surpass his spectacular achievement. In addition, his legacy has provided tangible proof that he was regarded as a divine king and that the Kāilaśanātha Temple was a monument dedicated not only to Śiva but also to Narasiṃhavarman II as an earthly manifestation of that powerful deity.

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Lockwood, Michael. Mamallapuram and the Pallavas. Madras, India: Christian Literature Society, 1982. An excellent work that includes a series of articles on Pallava art and material on Narasiṃhavarman II and his monument at Kanchipuram. Bibliography.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Lockwood, Michael, Gift Siromoney, and P. Dayanandan. Mahabalipuram Studies. Madras, India: Christian Literature Society, 1974. An important work on Pallava art in general, with some interesting materials on the Kāilaśanātha at Kanchipuram. Bibliography.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Longhurst, A. H. Pallava Architecture. New Delhi: Cosmo Press, 1982. A pioneering and detailed study on important Pallava monuments. Bibliography.

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