Constructed in a pioneering style of architecture – in what later became recognized as the grand and intricate signature Dravidian style – between 685 and 705 AD by the Pallava dynasty, there exists no documentation of a more antique temple in Kanchipuram. Dedicated to the god Shiva, it might be safe to say that the religious traditions of Shaivism primarily dominated the region, expressed in this first structural temple of South India.
The foundations were laid and the construction overseen by Narasimhavarman II, although it was left to his last son Mahendravarman III to complete the façade and the gopuram. Earlier temples used to be built of wood or cut from rock as evidenced in Mahabalipuram. It was the Kailasanathar temple which challenged tradition and created a structure that became a successful blueprint for other temples in South India.
59 independent little shrines depicting the diverse aspects of Shiva and unique (for the time) frescoes describing his legends, adorn the inner walls of the sanctum. The shrines are enclosed within niches of the outer passage, facing devotees as they circumambulate the sanctum – a feature which became typical of latter day temples, either as sculptures of the presiding deity or painted as wall frescoes.. The inclusion of demi gods, or half animal deities, very popular in early Dravidian nature-centred and perhaps, tribal cultures, are a nod to local belief. Interestingly, the temple was also a safe sanctuary for rulers; a secret tunnel – potentially an escape route during invasions – is on view.