The transformation of Kamakshi

The Kamakshi Temple tank

Kanchipuram, which is one of the oldest cities in India, is over 2,000 years old, has been called the city of 1,000 temples. In the third century BCE, Ashoka built a stupa here. It was visited by Chinese travelers in search of Sanskrit texts on Buddhism and was the home of Bodhidharma who took Buddhism to China. The city lies 83 kilometers (52 miles) southwest of Chennai (Madras).

Normally Indian temples face east, but at Kanchipuram, all the temples face towards the temple of Kamakshi, who was the original Village Goddess of Kanchipuram. Kanchi was named after the kanchi tree.

In fact, there are two temples of Kamakshi.  There is the current temple, the main temple where people worship today, and there is another temple called Adi Kamakshi (or the first Kamakshi), where the original deity, the first Kamakshi, stands. She was originally called Adi-peetha-vasini or the “original inhabitant of the seat” (or, the place).

This is because Kamakshi has undergone a couple of complete transformations in her over-two-thousand-year-old history.

In the very beginning, like every village Goddess in India, she was a representation of the universal Mother Goddess, the source of all life in the universe, and, on a local level, the one who protected all those who lived in the village – the kind mother figure, who could solve all problems and to whom one could pray, expecting a response of kindness and love.  This was the Goddess in early Neolithic times.

Then something changed. Along came farming, and at some point the concept of owning individual land.  Life was no longer quite so simple as it had been before. If a person owned land, then he must protect it, and this set the stage for conflicts and eventually wars. Land could also be inherited, meaning that the husband must be able to identify clearly who his true heirs were.

A subtle change began to take place, and the way Kamakshi came to be viewed reflected that change.

The female over time slipped into a subservient role. With the male now at the top of the social structure, it was no longer really convenient to have the Goddess figure revered and worshipped as an entirely good, divine being.  Surely the female must be shown to have a less than divine, or even a frightening side, musn’t she?

With the female taking a secondary role, the local female Goddess also took on a different role – no longer seen as entirely benevolent, but often shown with a ferocious streak.

While the village Goddesses took a turn towards ferocity, the same thing did not happen to the primary Hindu Goddesses, who remained as powerful and beneficent as ever.

After all, Hinduism is the only major world religion which retains the worship of the Goddess as a central element; she is still worshipped, loved, and revered as the giver of all life.

However, the local village Goddesses, in general, did not fare quite so well – they underwent a change in perception – and even now, there are some local Goddesses who are perceived as fierce.

The Kamakshi Temple gopuram or temple gate

The transition can be seen in the stone statue of the original Adi Kamakshi, who is no longer the focus of worship, but who is instead standing in her own temple, apart from the main temple – set aside, out of the way.  This original Adi Kamakshi stands, a stone figure in a niche.  Dr. Nanditha Krishna, a leading authority on Indian iconography, says that she is most likely at least 2,000 years old.

She seems, to me anyway, to have a very sweet face – not sweet in a light, fluffy sense, she seems much too connected to the earth for lightness and fluffiness, but in a real sense, she does seem sweet—genuinely kind and compassionate.  Or perhaps I am only imagining this benevolent aspect.  Looking more closely, one can see that she holds a stone severed head, and there seem to be stone sacrificial victims under her feet.  So maybe the sweetness and kindness are just an illusion or wishful thinking?

Yet, all the same, her face does portray a feeling of sweetness and kindness.  She doesn’t smile, but there is kindness there, nonetheless—and no sense of malevolence.

Could this be the stone image of the Goddess caught right at the moment when the original kind, beneficent mother figure is giving way to the ferocious one, who must be propitiated?  This ferocious form still lives in India today, for example, in the figure of Kali, who is shown wearing a necklace of skulls, who is feared, and regarded as blood-thirsty.

Kamakshi, who was at that time known by another name, did indeed develop a reputation for ferocity.  Who knows how long this phase lasted – maybe 500 years, maybe a thousand, maybe longer.

This is not the end of the story for Kamakshi, however, but only the midpoint.

Thanks to one of the most remarkable figures in all of Indian history, Adi Shankara, who lived (probably) in the seventh century AD, Kamakshi was transformed once again into a beautiful, kind Goddess.  Her name, Kamakshi, means “eyes of love,” and this is the name that Adi Shankara gave her.

Painting of Adi Shankara by Raja Ravi Varma

Traveling on foot all over India, with his loyal followers, Adi Shankara was a healer, a teacher, and a saint, who revived Sanatana Dharma (the Eternal Truth, which is the more correct name for Hinduism). At the young age of 32, he died, having traversed hundreds of miles, having written over one hundred books, and having set up structures called maths, which still exist, which are centers that faithfully continue to carry out his mission of maintaining the unity, harmony, coherence, and the spiritual integrity of the faith of India.

In the main Kamakshi temple, there is a large section devoted to honoring Adi Shankara, and all the succeeding Shankaracharyas; appropriately, since it was he who brought back into view Kamakshi’s true gentle nature.

While in Kanchipuram, Adi Shankar taught the people that the Goddess Kamakshi was in no way ferocious or to be feared. Seeing her as fierce, he stated, had been a mistake.  On the contrary, he affirmed that she was the Goddess with “eyes of love.” She is considered a form of the Goddess Parvati, the consort of Shiva. Also, she may be seen as a form of Durga, who fights and conquers evil. As he traveled throughout India, Adi Shankara restored, in the towns and cities he passed through, the ancient view of the Goddess as kind and compassionate.

He unified a multiplicity of divergent belief systems and philosophies that had cropped up over the centuries. By the mere strength of his presence, he turned people away from the path of divisiveness and corruption.  Almost single-handedly, along with his followers, turning back the trend society had taken towards the alternate paths of Buddhism and Jainism, Adi Shankara led India back to Sanatana Dharma, restoring faith in the age-old Vedic and Upanishadic traditions, and even incorporating some tenets of Buddhism when they helped with this process.  He brought unity, stability, and continuity to that which had become fragmented. Not a political or a military leader, he nonetheless united India in a very real, enduring way.

Today, Kamakshi’s stone statue stands in the main, newer temple (“new” meaning built mostly in the fourteenth century, though some sections are older), her gentle face enveloped in garlands of flowers, surrounded by the bright glow of fires and the fragrance of incense, where, having come full circle, she is worshipped by throngs of those devoted to her, as the Goddess of kindness and love.

Thanks to Dr. Nanditha Krishna, who provided the knowledge and information for much of this article, but who is not responsible for any inaccuracies that may have crept in.

Top photo: Sharon St Joan / the Kamakshi Temple tank  (2010)

Second photo / Sharon St Joan / the Kamakshi Temple gopuram (2010)

Third photo / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain / painting of Adi Shankara by Raja Ravi Varma


Avalokiteśvara, the bodhisattva of compassion. Ajaṇṭā Caves, Mahārāṣtra, India.

According to the Wikipedia article entitled “Bodhidharma,” the saint Bodhidharma  was born in Kanchipuram in the Indian state of Tamil Nadu. Living around the fifth or sixth century, during the time of the Pallava Kings, he is credited with the remarkable feat of carrying Buddhism throughout the far east—to southeast Asia, to China, and then to Japan.

His teachings, drawn originally from a form of yogic meditation called Dyana, became the basis of Chan Buddhism—and in Japan, were called Zen Buddhism.

The Pallava kings, who ruled during the time that he lived, were one of the great dynasties of southern India; among their accomplishments was their amazing architecture, including countless buildings and temples still standing today, among which are the beautiful sculptures of Mahabalipuram on the coast of the Bay of Bengal near Madras.

Legend has it that it was Bodhidharma who introduced martial arts to the monks of the Shaolin Monastary in China, a system of self-defense that later on became Kung Fu, then Karate, which branched out to form a number of other eastern martial art traditions.

According to some accounts, Bodhidharma followed the Silk Road to arrive in China.  Existing for at least three thousand years, the network of routes known as the Silk Road went overland from China to India, and then through Iran and Afghanistan extending on to Venice in Europe.  Marco Polo followed these routes while traveling to the east on his medieval adventures.

Sculptures in the Longmen grottoes

Most modern scholars believe that the Tamil monk, Bodhidharma, arrived in North China in the early fifth century AD, but accounts differ.  He may have arrived during the Liu Song Dynasty (420-479) whose founder, the Emperor Wu, rose from obscurity to consolidate power over much of China.  Other accounts state that Boddidharma did not arrive until the Liang Dynasty (502-557), which left some extraordinary sculptures, notable examples are those of a turtle and a winged lion that can be seen at the tomb of Xiao Hui.

A turtle at the tomb of Xiao Xiu

Boddidharma spent most of his time in northern China in the country of the Northern Wei Dynasty (386-534). This period in Chinese history has left a treasure trove of both Taoist and Buddhist art work, especially among cave sites.  In what are known as the Longman Grottoes, in Henan Province, in the central part of the country, can be found over 100,000 pieces of art work.  Despite the ravages of western trophy hunters during the early twentieth century and the later destruction of Maoist cultural revolutionaries, much of this art work has survived.

Apparently, in some Chinese texts, Bodhidharma is described as having a thick beard, blue eyes, and possibly a rather bad temper.  Since the Chinese have hardly any beards, the “thick beard” part of the description makes sense. Why, as a Tamil from southern India, he would have had blue eyes is not at all clear, and a “bad temper” is a subjective concept. In any case, what is clear is that he must have made a very strong impression wherever he traveled, and as he converted most of Asia to Buddhism; he must have been a determined and visionary individual.

The Buddhism he taught was of the Mahayana path—meaning “Great Vehicle,” the most widespread form of Buddhism today. The other main stream of Buddhism, Theravada Buddhism, has been the major tradition in Sri Lanka and certain other southeast Asian countries.

Emperor Wu worshipping the Buddha, at Mogao Caves near Dunhuang

For most of us, the greater part of our lives have been lived during a time when Chinese culture may have seemed to be both materialistic and somewhat pedestrian.  Certainly, Mao’s Cultural Revolution seemed to have obliterated a lot of culture.

Opening the door to a deeper vision of the China of the past allows a rare glimpse of the spiritual and artistic depths of the lesser known aspects of Chinese civilization—as well as the remarkable journey of a Tamil monk who walked across the continent of Asia, enlightening those with whom he came in contact. There is much more to China that is seen through a narrow lens of just the last few decades.


Top photo: Wikimedia Commons / This image is in the public domain because its copyright has expired. Avalokiteśvara, the bodhisattva of compassion. Ajaṇṭā Caves, Mahārāṣtra, India.


Second photo: Wikimedia Commons / released into the public domain by the copyright holder, Alex Kwok, sculptures in the Longmen grottoes


Third photo: Wikimedia Commons / published by Vmenkov under the terms of the GNU Free Documentation License / a stone turtle at the tomb of Xiao Xiu


Fourth photo: Wikimedia Commons / This image is in the public domain because its copyright has expired. / Emperor Wu worshipping the Buddha, at Mogao Caves near Dunhuang