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City of One Thousand Temples


A Network of Hearsay in South India

Although the South Indian city of Kanchipuram is popularly known as the City of One Thousand Temples, there is no existing prescribed circuit, and no comprehensive temple listing or map to guide visitors.* Rather, the thousands of pilgrims who flood the city daily usually only know about the five most famous temples. Scattered street signs throughout the busy city point the way to these sprawling monuments, which are always crowded and especially thronged at festival times (Figure 1). However, other pilgrims arrive seeking particular temples, such as those extolled in hymns found in premodern texts, or temples that enshrine a deity to which a pilgrim’s family has a particular allegiance. For these and hundreds of other temples—some of which are vast, multi-building complexes and others single shrines—there is no sign to guide the way. Upon arrival, as they pass from Kanchi’s rural surrounds into the densely compacted urban core, visitors must ask directions from street vendors, auto-rickshaw drivers, local guides, and priests, in order to determine a logical order for their visit. Pilgrims choose which temples to visit based on the particular fame of each, a fame that reached them through a long history of hearsay. For this reason, many of Kanchi’s temples today remain unknown even to locals. While a particular temple might be the site of one person’s daily morning prayer, another resident may never have even heard of it...

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