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Temple architecture of Tamilnadu during 7th-18th century


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The temple worship seems to have become a prominent feature from the beginning of the Bhakthi movement. Temples, first rock-cut type and then made of stones, made their appearance from the 8th century. Huge stone temples were built by the Chola Emperors and their successors throughout Tamilnadu. Thus, unlike in other parts of India, the architectural history of the Tamil country starts only with the beginning of the seventh century A.D. Prior to this, probably perishable materials like wood etc. might have been used for construction of temples and hence succumbed to the ravages of time. Early Tamil literature talks of structures like koyil, madam (madom), nagaram, palli, pali. etc., which are apparently references to temples or religious edifices.

The temples were generally rich, having been owners of land and other forms of wealth and became the centres around which many aspects of life of the people got organized.  They were employment providers, since architects and sculptors were needed in the construction activities and pesants to cultivate their lands. Music, dance, and drama were patronized by the Hindu temples, providing employment, to artists and artisans. Most of the big temples in Tamilnadu have many myths of their own.

The architecture of temple generally confines to five basic shapes viz., 

The plan of a temple is dictated by the nature of the deity. For example, the shrine of the reclining Ranganatha, can only be a rectangular one. The basic shapes are reflected in the superstructure of the vimanas. Square and rectangular shrines are the common ones, the other shapes being adopted rarely. However, these forms are represented in the sikhara of the vimana. The apsidal form, a derivative from Buddhist architecture, was popular up to the 10th century in the Tondaimandalam, after which it declined in usage.

There are temples having more than one shrine in the vertical order. This style is found in some Vaishnava temples, at Kanchipuram, Uttiramerur, Madurai, Tirukkostiyur etc. In these, three shrines one above the other, intended for the , standing, seated and reclining forms of Vishnu. The Vedanarayanar koil, popularly known as Mannarkoil near Ambasamudram an ancient temple built during early 1200 (circa A.D. 1209) is a fine example for this type of architecture.

The early style coincide with the Pallava dynasty (c. 650-893) and is represented by the important monuments at Mahabalipuram, a fine group of small rock cut cave temples (early 7th century) - monolithic temples carved out of the rock, the largest being the three-storied Dharmaraja-ratha (c. 650). The word ratha here is not very proper, as the word ratha means a chariot, where as this is a temple, and should have more aptly been  called Dharmaraja temple. Their capital city Kanchipuram also possesses some fine temples, the Kailasanathar (dating a little later than the Shore Temple), a majestic structure with subsidiary shrines attached to the walls. The enclosure wall has a series of small shrines on all sides and a small gopuram. Another splendid temple  is the Vaikuntha Perumal (mid-8th century) at Kanchipuram, which has an interesting arrangement of three sanctums, one above the other, within the body of the superstructure.


The 9th century marked a fresh movement in the South Indian style, as revealed in several small, simple but very elegant, temples set up during the ascendancy of the Chola and other contemporary dynasties. Most important of a large number of unpretentious but beautiful shrines that dot the Tamilnadu countryside are the Vijayalaya Colisvara temple at Narttamalai (mid-9th century) with its circular sanctum, spherical cupola, and massive, plain walls; the twin shrines called Agastyisvara and Colisvara, at Kilaiyur (late 9th century); and the splendid group of two temples (originally three) known as the Muvarkovil, at Kodumbalur (c. 875).

These simple beginnings led rapidly (in about a century) to the mightiest of all temples in the South Indian style, the Brihadeeswara, or Rajarajeswara, temple, built by Rajaraja Chola at the Chola capital of Thanjavur. The main walls are raised in two stories, above which the superstructure rises to a height of 190 feet (60 meters). It has 16 stories, each of which consists of a wall with a parapet of shrines carved in relatively low relief. The great temple at Gangaikondacholapuram, built by the Chola king Rajendra I, is somewhat smaller than the Brihadeeswara; but the constituent elements of its superstructure, whose outline is concave, are carved in bolder relief, giving  a rather emphatic plasticity. The Airavatesvara (1146-73) and Kampaharesvara (1178-1223) temples at Darasuram and Tribhuvanam follow the tradition of the 11th century but are smaller and considerably more ornate. They bring to a close, a great phase of South Indian architecture extending from the 11th to the 13th century.

From the middle of the 12th century, the Gopurams (entrance buildings), to temple enclosures began to be greatly emphasized. They are extremely large and elaborately decorated with sculpture, quite dominating the architectural ensemble. Temples also continued to be built although they never achieved colossal size, they are often of very fine workmanship. The Subramaniya temple of the 17th century, built within the compound of the Brihadeeswara temple at Thanjavur, indicates the vitality of architectural traditions of the later period.

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