The South Indian Temple Chronicles.
The Indian temples have never been mere places of worship. They are also known for their architectural brilliance, structural perfection, exquisite carvings and awe inspiring artistry. The shrines that have survived over many pages of history, their beauty untouched, stands testimony to the craftsmanship of the artisans of the bygone eras. The fact that every nook and corner of these shrines were built by hand, affirms the magnitude of their achievement.
Temples in South India started mainly as cave temples. The earliest Sangam period around 300 BCE-400 CE mostly had brick shrines to deities. The subsequent Badami and Western Chalukyas are credited with temples in Karnataka that aided the development of architecture in the Deccan. But it was the Pallava period, during the 6th century, that marked the beginning of rock cut architecture in the shrines. Monolithic rocks were carved to areas of worship. During the later years of Pallava rule, the real structural development of temples started. It was the Pallavas who pioneered in making large temples without using mortar, bricks etc, and they can be credited with evolving the Dravidian style to what we see today. This 8th century Shore Temple in Mahabalipuram, is the earliest free standing structural temple made from stone. The Kailasanath Temple in Kanchipuram was built during the later Pallava period, with a more advanced style than the Shore Temple.
The Dravidian style remained prominent from 7th to 18th century. The best examples can be seen in Tamil Nadu and Karnataka. The style is characterised by its pyramidal towers and is enclosed within a compound wall. The front wall has an entrance gateway in the centre, which is known as Gopuram. It is topped by a Vimana, which is like a tiered pyramid that rise up geometrically. It also has an attached pillared porch or Mandapa which lead to the doors of the inner sanctum. The subsequent Pandyas, Cholas, Vijayanagara, Hoysala rulers brought in their own input to the architectural style of South Indian shrines. The Cholas who were prolific temple builders, expanded the Dravidian style while Vijayanagara architecture evolved from a melange of the Chalukya, Hoysala, Pandya and Chola styles. As the years went by, the gopuram of the temples became taller and the size of the complex became larger. Prominent among these is the Brihadeeswara temple in Thanjavur built in the 11th century, which has one of the tallest vimanas.
The ancient temples of South India is as much about history as it is about architecture and worship. These shrines fill you with fervency of devotion, the awe of architectural wonder and the essence of yesteryears. The sculptures, the inscriptions, the rituals, the legends and the beliefs associated with these shrines take us back to time immemorial. It provides a glimpse into our rich historical pasts, the dynasties who ruled, the way of life and the role temples played in the time of our forefathers. A visit to these shrines is, literally, an insightful walk through the corridors of our history.