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Elephanta, Rashtrakuta, 6th c, © geocities.com

Medieval Hindu Temples

The architectural and sculptural style first introduced during the Gupta rule was adopted by patrons, architects, and artisans throughout the subcontinent. They gradually modified this basic style to suit their needs and tastes - and a wide variety of regional styles emerged over the next few centuries. Some of these styles produced the masterpieces of Indian Architecture, especially in the 9th to 11th centuries.

In South India (modern Tamil Nadu and southern Karnataka and Andhra Pradesh) are to be found many hundreds of examples of a variation known as the Dravida style. A typical Dravida temple consists of a square sanctum with a superstructure that is pyramidal in form and composed of miniature shrines. The parapet around this pyramid also has miniature shrines in a series: square ones (kutas) at the corners and rectangular ones (salas) in the centre. On top of the pyramid is a solid dome, which in turn is crowned by a pot and finial. The outer sanctum walls are divided by pilasters into niches and projections, which sometimes contain sculpted images of dieties.

An interesting tradition in southern India is for powerful patrons to add to existing popular religious sites rather than build new ones. This trend started in the 12th century and especially flourished during the Vijayanagara and Nayaka rule in the Tamil and Andhra zones. Their architectural commissions included adding enclosure walls around the central shrines within which they built subsidiary shrines or pillared halls (mandapas). The most striking additions however were massive gopuras or gateways in these enclosure walls. By the 17th century, the size and grandeur of the gopuras far exceeded that of the original shrine as seen at temples at Madurai and Srirangam.


Badami, Chalukya, 6th c, © Mike Gunther

The earliest temples in this region however, are rock-cut cave temples. Although these were probably built by artisans experienced in Buddhist rock-cut chaityas and viharas, the temples show their ability to adapt to a new religion. The elaborate and richly sculptured groups of rock-cut temples at Badami and Aihole were built from the 6th to the early 8th century during the Chalukya rule. The Pallava dynasty in the Tamil zone also sponsored several rock-cut temples in their domain. The most important examples are in Mahabalipuram, but other smaller examples to be found throughout the north-Tamil countryside at sites such as Mandagapattu.

The traditions of rock-cut architecture were stronger in Maharashtra than in any other part of India. There, great shrines were cut out of rock right up to the 9th century and even later. Of those belonging to the early phase, the most remarkable is a temple at Elephanta (early 6th century). Equally impressive are numerous temples at Ellora (6th - 9th centuries) of which the most magnificent is the Kailasa temple at Ellora, erected in the reign of the Rashtrakuta Krishna I (8th century). The entire temple is carved out of rock and is over 30 metres high. It is placed in a courtyard, the three sides of which are carved with cells filled with images. The tall base, or plinth, is decorated with groups of large elephants and griffins, and the superstructure rises in four stories.

North Indian temples consist of a sanctum for the main image, usually square in plan and one or more attached halls. The sanctum may or may not have an ambulatory around it but always has just one opening leading from the hall. The doorway surrounds are richly decorated with bands of figural, floral, and geometric ornament and with river-goddesses or guardians at the base. The sanctum and the mandapas generally have sikharas with those on the sanctum always being the tallest. The ceilings of the halls, supported by carved pillars, are often of extremely rich design. Once, three, and sometimes more projections extend all the way from the base of the sanctum up the walls to the top of the sikhara. On the walls the central projection generally carries an image in a niche, subsidiary projections are also often decorated. The entire temple complex, including sanctum, halls, and subsidiary shrines, may be raised on a terrace, which is sometimes of considerable height and size. In some instances, the temple complex is surrounded by a wall with an entrance.

Bangalore, 2006


Photos and Text © Amit Guha