Development of Temple Architecture

The early temples must have been simple structures that enshrined a deity, the object of veneration. Many of them had funerary connections. Nadukal (நடுகல்) was a practice in the south for a long period including the historical period. A stone erected, often with inscriptions, was in honour of the dead, and it was venerated.

Worship of trees as abodes of gods was also common. For example, kadamba tree was considered to be an abode of Lord Murugan. A platform raised around the tree served for the rituals. Slowly structures were built to accommodate congregating devotees and also to help conducting increased rituals. First these must have been roofed and pillared halls that grew into complex structures of the later days. In course of time these came to sophisticated arrangements, of a niche for the worshipping deity, garbha-griham in today’s language and a hall or two for the devotees to congregate, ardha-mandapam and maha-mandapam of today. We understand that building materials consisted of perishable materials like timber and brick. We are also told that stones, which could have made the temples last long, were avoided as they had funeral associations. All these temples are lost without traces. We have only references in literature.

The Asokan beginning

Lomas_rishi.jpgThe earliest surviving temples are of stones. These were caused by Asoka and belong to 3rd century BCE. He2_Sanchi.jpg excavated cave temples in Bihar for monks belonging to Ajivaka sect. One such is at in Lomas Rishi, shown on the left. This is the beginning of the glorious chapter of temple architecture of India. Asoka built structural religious places, called stupa-s too. These are relics built over remains of the Buddha or other venerated holy men. An example of such a stupa is the famous one in Sanchi, shown on the right.

This beginning by Asoka, using stones imitating partially or fully the existing shrines, soon spread all over the country. It reached its feverish activity in the west, where from 200 BCE till about 700 CE, chaitya-s (temples) and vihara-s (monastries) were caused in large numbers. Bhaja, Kondane, Ajanta and Ellora, all in Maharashtra, are examples of such initiative.
In the south, in the Andhra region, during the Satavahana-s (230 BCE – 220 CE) and later under their successors Ikshvaku-s (225 – 324 CE) there were considerable temple building activities. It is during the Satavahana period 009-p14-Offering_to_king,_Limestone,_Amaravati,_2nd_c_AD.jpgthe early caves of Ajanta were excavated and their contribution to Amaravati is of significance. It is the art of Amaravati that had a direct influence on that of the Pallava-s. The Ikshvaku-s have caused a number of Buddhist shrines in a number of places including their capital, Nagarjunakonda. A view of its ruins can be seen on the right.

It looks the history of the Hindu temple architecture starts with those of the Gupta-s belonging to the 4th-5th centuries CE. Unfortunately most of the temples of the period are lost. This is because they were built out of perishable materials. Iconoclasm of the6_Tigawa.jpg Muslim was another reason for their disappearance. There are, however a few remnants of the period at Devgarh, Sanchi, Tigawa and they give some idea of the contemporary architecture. Remnants of aa Gupta shrine in Tigawa can be seen on the right.

To locate the art of the Pallava-s and of Mamallapuram, let us have a quick look at the art of temple building in the Tamil country before the Pallava-s and also the art of their contemporaries in the south, namely, the Chalukya-s, the Pandya-s and other minor dynasties.

Temple architecture in the Tamil country before the Pallava-s

7_Mandakappattu.JPGTill the 7th century CE, temples were built out of perishable materials like brick and timber in the Tamil country because of which we have none left today. It was only when stone came to be used as building material that temples lasted. The earliest are the cave temples excavated by the Pallava-s, the Pandya-s and others. The Pallava cave shrine in Mandagappattu caused by Mahendra Pallava is considered to be the earliest and it belongs to the early 7th century. Its facde is shown on the left. This is the beginning of a glorious period.

But there is no doubt that in the Tamil country temples of great sophistication were built even during the Sangam period and later. In the literature of this period exist copious references to planned construction in Poompuhar, Madurai etc. The temple walls were adorned with stucco images, like it is done for the gopuram-s of temples today. For instance, Silappadikaram says that the temple for Kannagi was entrusted to competent people in the field. Details of secular architecture, like the layout of stages for public performance with measurements are given. There was cultural intercourse with traditions of the near north, like Andhra, with that of the farther north, the Kushana-s and with the Romans through trade.

Even these early temples of the 7th century are fairly advanced in both art and technique. This is wholly understandable, for the Tamil country not only had a great tradition of art and technology, but also was a confluence of external foreign traditions.

Now with stones as building material a new chapter in temple architecture was ushered in, this caught on fast. We see the result today, for Tamilnadu is known for its temples and temple arts.

Cave temples in the South

8_Badami.jpgThe beginnings of cave-temples in the south were made by the Chalukya-s in the west, when Mangalesa, the Chalukya regent who was ruling on behalf of the young king, Pulikesi II excavated a cave shrine for Siva in Badami in 578 CE, shown on the left.. The Pallava-s started their campaign with Mahendra having caused in the early years of the 7th century a temple for the Hindu Trinity at Mandagappattu. While the Chalukya-s deliberately chose finely-grained sandstone, the excavators in the Tamil country selected hard rock. Because of this the excavationsTiruchy_Pandya_Temple.jpg in the Tamil country were simpler in design and less ambitious in size. It was only from the Vijayanagara times that working on hard stone extended to all the regions of the south.

This was followed by the Pandya-s, the Muttaraiyar-s and the Adiyaman-s in the Tamil country in the 8th-9th centuries. The Lower Cave temple in the Rockfort Complex in Tiruchirappalli, shown on the right, is a pandya creation.

These cave temples were in imitation to the flat-roofed mandapam type of temples, consisting of a rectangular pillared veranda (ardha-mandapam) and a sanctum (garbha-griham). Sometimes a front hall (maha-mandapam) was also added.

Temple styles of the Pallava-s and of the Pandya-s compared

Later we would be discussing in detail the art of the Pallava-s, but it is appropriate to mention a few salient features on the rock architecture of the Pandya-s. This to some extant would be applicable to the Muttaraiyar-s too.

The Pandyan contribution to the early cave architecture is less known and inadequately documented. This is in spite of the fact that the Pandya-s along with Muttaraiyar-s and others in the deep south have contributed in no small measure. The Pandya-s have not only the distinction of being the longest ruling dynasty in the Tamil country, their cave shrines are more in number than any others and cover a larger area than the Pallava-s. Art history of the Tamil country is incomplete without a study of their layout, iconography and epigraphs.

If the Pallava-s had their artistic legacy from the Satavahana-s and the Ikshvaku-s in the Krishna valley, from their Amaravati and Nagarjunakonda, the Pandya-s, judging from their temples style, drew their resources from another part of the peninsular India. One can see that their art and cult trends show selective absorption of the contemporary Chalukyan idiom. The Pandyan contribution in this field of religious art comes as no surprise, for was not the Pandyan kingdom the home of Tamil literature and culture from the Sangam times?

Unlike the Pallava-s who have given up excavating cave shrines and switched over to the structural temples from the time of Rajasimha, the Pandya-s continued excavating for almost three centuries.

The southern dynasties followed more or less the Mahendra-pattern, in plan and in certain essential details. But they also show certain characteristic features of their own. Interestingly some of these features seem to be influenced by the Chalukya-s, and not by the Pallava-s, as mentioned before. For example, most of these southern Siva shrines have rock-cut lingam in the sanctum and often a nandi in the mandapam in front, while the early Pallava shrines did not contain lingam in the sanctum.

In terms of the relief sculptures on the rear wall of the sanctum there is a wide variation. For you have Uma-sahita-murti (at Piran-malai and Tirumalai), Somaskanda (Tirupparankunram), Ardhanari-Siva (Umaiyandar shrine at Tirupparankunram), Skanda with consort (Anaimalai) etc. In comparison, the Pallava-s depicted mostly Somaskanda either as a relief sculpture or a wooden image stuck to the wall.

There are also cave shrines for multiple gods. The lower cave temple in Tiruchirappalli has seven gods and the larger cave temple at Tirupparankunram accommodates five deities. This arrangement, some consider, to be influenced by the shanmatha doctrine of Adi-sankara.

Unlike the sparse sculptural content in the Mahendra cave temples, one finds Ganesa (in most temples), Sapta-matrika (Tirugokarnam, Malaiyadippatti etc), Jyeshtha, Lakulisa, Subrahmanya, Durga, Narasimha, Anantasayi, Gajalakshmi and Sarasvati in the Pandyan shrines. It looks that the worship of these deities has come from the Chalukyan area. These appear in the Rajasimha structural temples much later.

Some of the Pandya excavations are merely shrine-cells scooped directly into rock face, without a rock-cut mandapam in front. Such cave-temples are very rare in Tondaimandalam.

Though it is taken that the Pandya-s were coeval with the Pallava-s in the excavation of cave temples, they might have been even earlier than the Pallava-s. The cave temple at Pillaiyarpatti is considered to be of the Pandya origin and the Vattezhuttu inscription definitely dated to a date earlier than the Mandagappattu cave temple.

Muttaraiyar-s, who ruled the region on either bank of the Kaveri, have also followed the Pandya tradition and have some excellent cave temples to their credit, like the cave temple at Malai-yadi-p-patti. These resemble the Pandyan shrines.

The Adigaiman-s, who ruled Kongunadu, present western districts of Tamilnadu, excavated cave temples whose sculptures are noted for their sharp delineation and vigorous poses. The shrines in Namakkal are the best representatives of this style.

The cave temples in the northern Kerala, like those at Kottukkal, are the contributions of the Chera kings and most of the southern ones (in Venadu and Nanjilnadu) are of the Pandya origin. Most of the cave temples in Kerala show influence of the Pandya-s, the Pallava-s, the Adigaiman-s etc.

The period 550-850 CE witnessed the best and maximum output in the south. This period also coincided with the period of bhakti movement in the Tamil country. It is curious that hymnists, in general, did not sing in praise of the deities in these shrines. Was this because these were built of non-traditional materials?

Building of structural temples followed immediately by the Pandya-s, the Muttaraiyar-s and the Irukkuvel-s and then by the early Chola-s from early 9th century.