Temples in Tamil Nadu show an amazing continuity in building styles across centuries

 Temples in Tamil Nadu show an amazing continuity in building styles across centuries

Benoy K Behl

Tamil Nadu is on the East coast of Peninsular India. This state has been a great cradle of Indian culture and many ancient traditions of dance, music, architecture and life-style continue and flourish here till today. Temples were made out of hard and lasting granite in Tamil Nadu. There is an amazing continuity seen in the styles of temple building here, from Pallava times in the 7th century, through the rule of the Cholas and the Nayakas up to the Maratha period in the 19th century. This makes this region unique in the country. Here in Tamil Nadu, the South Indian style of structural temples was firmly established by the 8th century, in the temples of Mamallapuram and Kanchipuram. Above the shrine is a storied, pyramidal tower. Pillared mandapas or halls were added later to temples to accommodate worshippers. The positions of wall-niches with deities, their orientation and other details were set out in texts called the Agamas. By the time of the Cholas in Tamil Nadu, the temple walls had become repositories of a pantheon of deities.

The dwarapalas or guardians of the doorways of the early temples of Tamil Nadu often stand displaying the gesture of the Vismaye Mudra. The gesture of wonderment. For indeed it is a sense of wonder, at the beauty of the whole of creation, which fills the world of the early temples. A temple which marks the beautiful quality of early Chola sculpture is the Brahmapurishvara at Pullamangai. The temples of this period were not very large. The purpose was not to inspire awe through size and grandeur. It was to take us to the world of gentleness, which can be found within us. The grace of the figures and their profoundly peaceful expressions, awaken a sense of the sublime. The figures are fully occupied with the miracle of creation and the sense of stillness which comes from this absorption.

Kalagumalai temple, Tamil Nadu

Shiva’s ganas are the persons who were most devoted to the Lord. They have won the right to be perpetually close to him. Ganas are some of the finest expressions of Chola art. In Indian art, the entire range of emotions and human life is given a place… be it joy, sorrow or even mischief. Ganas are seen lost in devotion to the lord. We can relate most easily to them as they play their musical instruments or dance with elation. Mooverkoil is the name of the two remaining Shiva temples, out of three which were made at Kodambalur. These present a perfect balance between a dignified majesty of the spirit and the joy contained in it.

How can anything as material as a piece of carved stone, suggest or evoke something that is beyond the material: something which in fact transcends materiality itself. The genius of Indian sculptors has been to present these very profound spiritual and intellectual ideas, through the grace of the human body. Shiva dances on the demon of forgetfulness. In Indic belief, our ignorance is the forgetting of the truth, which can so easily be found again within us. As with other early Chola temples, this temple strikes a fine balance. Size and grandeur do not overwhelm the intimate feeling of the temple and its sculpture. In the beginning of the 11th century, we see a dramatic change of emphasis and scale in temple building.

In the year 1010, Rajaraja Chola completed the tallest and largest temple which had ever been made in India. The Brihadishvara, dedicated to ‘the Great Lord Shiva’ was made to express his own power and military might as much as the grandeur of the Lord. The temple is five times the size of previous Chola ones and its vimana or tower stands 216 feet tall. Its monolithic stupi or crowning element weighs 80 tonnes. It is believed that an earthen ramp, six kilometers long, was made to take it up to its position.

The grand Brihadisvara temples at Thanjavur and at Gangaikondacholapuram, made in the 11th century, mark the height of the development of temples under the Cholas. Besides the tower and the mandapa, high gopuras or entrance gateways were made. These were to become the models for the impressive temples of South India which were to follow in later centuries.

In this time, the role of the temple was also expanded to make it a major cultural and social institution. Inscriptions at the Thanjavur temple record innumerable grants and gifts which were  made to the temple. Arrangements were made and housing colonies were created to accommodate 400 dancers, musicians and others who were employed for the daily temple rituals. Naturally, the architecture of the temple grew, in keeping with its expanding role in the life of the community.

Further developments of the temple complex occurred under the Vijayanagara  kings, who ruled from their capital at Hampi, in present-day Karnataka. In the 16th century, monumental temples were constructed under them, in a style which became characteristic of Vijayanagara. The Shiva temple at Chidambaram is where the lord is believed to have performed his cosmic dance as Nataraja. It is one of the most revered temples of Tamil Nadu. The earliest parts of the temple belong to Chola times. The Cholas made the Nataraja their family deity and several kings had their coronations here.

Under the Cholas, the roof of the sanctum was gilded. A mural of the beginning of the 11th century, at the Brihadisvara temple at Thanjavur, shows the golden canopy of the Chidambaram temple. Between the 12th and the 16th centuries, the modest-sized temple was extended to cover 40 acres of land. The formless divine enshrined deep inside was now also made visible from far away. The grandeur of temples was further enhanced under the Nayakas by the making of prakaras or enclosed corridors. These connect various parts of the temple and create a most dramatic and impressive effect, as the devotee walks through these on way to worship.

The most famous of these is at the Shiva temple at Rameshvaram. The temple has approximately one kilometre of corridors. Each of the several hundreds of pillars is elaborately curved. One of the greatest achievements of the Nayaka period is the making of the Meenakshi Temple at Madurai. It is one of the largest temples ever made and was created in the reign of Tirumalai Nayaka in the mid 17th century. The complex is built around two shrines. One is dedicated to Shiva as Sundareshvara, the Beautiful Lord. The other is dedicated to his spouse Parvati, as Meenakshi, the Fish-Eyed One. The vast temple has eight impressive gateways, one rising to almost 200 feet. These are each covered with several hundreds of sculptures.

Perhaps the greatest example of the temple as the focus of life in South India, is the Vishnu temple at Srirangam, in the delta of the river Kaveri. There was a temple here in the 7th or 8th century. The twelve Vaishnava saints, the Alvars, sang more in praise of this temple than of any other. The present structures date from its reconstruction in 1371 onwards. The temple reached its final shape in the 17th century, when Srirangam became a capital of the Nayakas. The temple complex measures 878 metres by 755 metres and is the largest in India. it has 21 gopuras, not all of which were completed. Tamil Nadu is a land where ancient practices continue till today in an unbroken tradition. A land where the divine essence of our lives is never forgotten, even in the midst of the daily concerns of life.

Under its series Glimpses Of Culture, India Habitat Centre is presenting a talk by Art Historian, Film-maker & Photographer (and the author of this article) Benoy K Behl on July 15, 6pm. A film Tamil Nadu: Land of Temples (produced by Behl for Doordarshan) will also be screened on the occasion. The event is free. Click here to join the talk online




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