Temples of South India

by newuser09876 29. August 2010 23:38


Nandi, Celestial Bull, Lepakshi, Andhra Pradesh 

Temples of South India


Hinduism is preserved in its pristine glory in southern India. No other region has managed to preserve its cultural identity as zealously as the South Indians, who consider themselves the guardians of Dravidian culture. This fixation with religion is very visible throughout the region. You rarely find a street without a way-side shrine or a temple. Shrines dedicated to Ganesha – the pot-bellied destroyer of obstacles, are a favourite. Multi-coloured images of gods and soaring temple superstructures are the most visible signs of this tryst with Hinduism that has endured for over two millennia.  A journey across south India is basically a voyage of discovery through some of these centres of devotion where faith takes form and both divine and pious find a resting place.


Influenced by the whims of the many dynasties that ruled here, the architecture of the north was reduced to a curious mixture of Aryan and Indo-Saracenic styles. On the other hand, relatively isolated and un-influenced by external pressures, the Hindu kingdoms of the south flourished and Tamil Nadu emerged as the axis mundi of Hindu culture. Consequently, the purest examples of Hindu architecture in the Indian subcontinent can be found here. There were a number of Hindu kingdoms in the south; the Pallavas (A.D. 600-900) with their capital at Kanchipuram were the earliest and are thought to be the pioneers of temple building in south India. The 1st century cave temples at Mamallapuram, Mandagappattu, and Tiruchirapalli are examples of early Pallava architecture. The Cholas of Thanjavur (A.D. 900-1150) and the Nayaks of Madurai (A.D 1550-1750) continued this glorious tradition of temple building.  Today in the state of Tamil Nadu, there are around ten thousand temples, of which around two thousand are in the Thanjavur District alone.


It is not possible to discuss temple architecture without understanding the reciprocities and relationships between ritual and temporal life and their detailed embodiment in architectural settings. In perspective, temple architecture structures the conditions of simultaneity for the more articulate dimensions of representation.


In the Hindu religion, outside the ‘Bhakti’ sect the only way of establishing a relationship with God was through a mediator – the Brahmin. It is certain that in the late Vedic Period the right to perform rites and rituals had been concentrated in the hands of the Brahmins. With questions pertaining to the kind of relationship that should be established with this supernatural power and the most appropriate venue for its enactment, began a series of events that finally led to the construction of what we recognize today as temples. The art of temple building made its transition from temporary structures in wood and mortar, to more enduring edifices that have survived the ravages of time. The temples were constructed with strict observance of the rules stipulated in the Agama and Shilpa Shastras. Even the iconography was executed in accordance with the Chitralaksana of Nagnajit, which is one of the earliest surviving texts on art and aesthetics in India.  


Over the centuries, many schools of temple building evolved in south India. The Dravidian school, which was the earliest, was followed by the Chalukya, Chola, Pallava, Pandya, Hoysala and Vijayanagar styles of architecture.


In the Dravidian temples of Tamil Nadu, the main shrine is in the centre of the complex and the accessory buildings stand inside a long rectangular enclosure divided into two courts by high walls.  The entrance court (usually facing east) is entered through a lofty ‘gopura’ or tower. The portions between the plinth up to the lintel and cornice (over the high entrance gateway) are of stone and are decorated with pilasters and niches. An ornamental base runs around the cornice surmounting the lower storey. The massive wooden gates studded with large nails are placed about a third of the depth of the passage from the front. The superstructure consists of several storeys, each of them tapering into a smaller section. The stone superstructures that are seen in early examples gradually made way for brick constructions later.


The entrances leading to the inner courts are considerably lower than the principal entrance. The tower or ‘vimana’ of the main shrine is decorated with multicoloured plaster figures of gods. The base or plinth of the central shrine is raised and has sculpted rows of dancers, elephants and horses. The principal shrine invariably stands near the central court. Its plan consists of a small square or rectangular sanctum sanctorum ‘garba griha’ with a circumambulatory passage ‘pradakdshina patha’ for devotees to go around. The doors of the sanctum are always guarded by stone ‘Dwarpalas’ celestial guardians.  In front of the sanctum on a raised platform, Shiva’s mount ‘Nandi’ or Vishnu’s mount ‘Garuda’ always occupies a position of prominence. Sacred tanks (tirthas) form an essential part of every south Indian temple. A dip in these tanks is supposed to wash away the accumulated sins of the pious. 


Temples in Andhra Pradesh share a stylistic consistency with Tamil-Dravida architecture. However, in north-eastern Andhra, Orissan influences are clearly visible as these parts were ruled by the Gangas of Orissa. The design is simplistic. Square in plan, the structure is divided into just two parts – a garba griha and an antarala (porch). The pyramidal roof usually culminates in a ‘Kalasha’ – the vase of plenty.


While the temples in Tamil Nadu and Andhra Pradesh continued to be built on grand proportions, the Hoysalas (A.D. 1100-1350) of Karnataka introduced a new style of temple architecture. The proportions were modest but the refinement of sculptural depictions surpassed all earlier styles. Seen mainly at Belur, Halebidu, and Sringeri, Hoysala temples have complicated star-shaped floor plans with numerous angled projections. Carved surfaces are executed with remarkable precision, usually in soapstone. Unfortunately, Muslim raids interrupted these architectural traditions at the end of the 13th century. Monumental temple building resumed later under the Vijayanagar Empire and the most flamboyant temples in the south were built during their reign. The shrines, corridors, and pillared halls multiplied and the gopuras grew taller. The sculptures were executed with a kind of finesse that had never been seen before and such architectural splendour was never to be seen again. Highly decorative ceilings and lathe-turned pillars were the characteristic trademarks of this style. Vijayanagar itself had an extraordinary history. Driven by resurgent Hinduism, it was born out of Muslim incursions into the Deccan and the south. The Vijayanagar Empire reached its zenith under the reign of its most successful king Krishnadevaraya. The most distinctive feature of the Vijayanagar ‘mandapa’ (pillared hall) other than its lathe-turned pillars and decorative piers is the gargantuan reverse-curve ‘kapota’ at the cornice borrowed from the Deccan. Hampi, the long deserted capital of the Vijayanagaras is the only pre-modern city, of which extensive ruins still exist.


Royal pageantry and civic pride have led to the emergence of monumental religious architecture in every region and Kerala is no different. Most temples here are modestly built and merge exquisitely with the landscape.  The proportion of the building covered by the sloped roofs is more than four times the height of the visible perpendicular wall of the temple. This relatively high ratio between the roof and wall is scarcely found anywhere else in India, but creates no visual imbalance. The floor plans are generally square or rectangular but there are also many examples of circular plans. Conical roofs are the most logical solution for an enclosure based on a circular layout. The Kerala temple is humble in proportions but intimate in appeal. The Vadakkunathan temple at Trissur dates back to the 12th century. Later temples are found at Chengannur, Kaviyum, and Vaikom.


Many temples in the south also owe allegiance to the comparatively recent Bhakti Movement, an alternative form of worship that was established as a revolt against the over-institutionalisation of temples. With the advent of Adi Sankara, Ramanuja, Madhwacharya, the Nayamars and Alwars the Bhakti cult got its much-needed boost. Thiruvalur, a popular Bhakti shrine in Tamil Nadu resonates with the chants of devotional songs sung by hundreds of devotees. In forms both strange and familiar, pilgrimage retains a secure place in Hinduism and today we are heirs to a sacred legacy of thousands of temples. It is for us to decide whether we can fulfil this guardianship of responsibility to protect these ancient monuments for posterity.


Sunil Vaidyanathan & Shayoni Mitra

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