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Kailasnatha Temple, Kanchipuram, 8th c

Temples in the Tamil Zone

The early phase of temple building in this region coincided with the political supremacy of the Pallava dynasty. Their architecture is best represented by the important monuments at Mahabalipuram. Besides a fine group of cave temples (early 7th century), among the earliest examples of their type in southern India, there are several monolithic temples carved out of the rock, the largest of which is the massive three-storied Dharmaraja-ratha (mid-7th c). The finest temple at this site and of this period is an elegant complex of three shrines called the Shore Temple (c. 700), not cut out of rock but built of stone. The Talapurisvara temple at Panamalai is another excellent example. The capital city of Kanchipuram also possesses some fine temples for example, the Kailasanatha (dating a little later than the Shore Temple), which has a monumental superstructure and that is surrounded by a series of subsidiary shrines attached to the compound walls. Another splendid temple at Kanchipuram is the Vaikuntha Perumal (mid-8th century).

The 9th century marked a new direction in the South Indian style, revealed in several small, simple but most elegant temples set up during the ascendancy of the Chola and other contemporary dynasties. A large number of such unpretentious and beautiful shrines dot the Tamil countryside but the most important are the Vijayalya Cholisvara temple at Narttamalai (mid-9th century), with its circular sanctum, spherical cupola, and massive, plain walls; the twin shrines called Agastayisvara and Cholisvara, at Kilayur (late 9th century), and the splendid group of two temples (originally three) known as the Muvarkovil at Kodumbalur (late 9th century).

Brihadisvara, Tanjore, 10th c, © S Palaniappan

From these simple beginnings, the Chola patrons and architects rapidly (in about a century) gained the confidence to embark on a monumental project, the mightiest of all temples in the South Indian style, the Brihadisvara, or Rajarajesvara, temple built at the Chola capital of Thanjavur. A royal dedication of Rajaraja I, the temple was started in the beginning of the 11th century and completed about seven years later. The main walls are raised in two stories, above which the superstructure rises to a height of 60 metres. It has 16 stories, each of which consists of a wall with a parapet of shrines carved in relatively low relief. The tradition was continued in great temple at Gangaikondacholapuram, built (1030 - 40) by the Chola king Rajendra I. This temple is somewhat smaller than the Brihadisvara; but the constituent elements of its superstructure, whose outline is concave, are carved in bolder relief, giving the whole a rather emphatic plasticity.

This grandiose style gave way to a more intimate yet sculpturally more sophisticated temple style during the late Chola period. The Airavatesvara and Kampaharesvara temples at Darasuram and Tribhuvanam (both late 12th century) follow the basic layout and structure of the 11th century temples 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.

Margabandhu Temple, Vrinchipuram, 15th c

From the middle of the 12th century onward, the gopuras, or entrance buildings, to temple enclosures began to be greatly emphasized. Their construction was similar to that of the main temple except that they were rectangular in plan and capped by a barrel vault rather than a cupola. Only the base is in stone, the superstructure being made of brick and plaster. Among the finest examples are the Sundara Pandya gopura (13th century) of the Jambukesvara temple at Tiruchchirappalli and the gopuras of a great Siva temple at Chidambaram, built largely in the 12th - 13th century. Even larger gopuras, if not of such fine quality, continued to be built upto the 17th century under the Vijayanagara and Nayaka rulers.

Such great emphasis was placed on the construction of gopuras that enclosure walls, which were not really necessary, were especially built just to justify their erection. A particularly interesting example is the Ranganatha Temple at Srirangam, which has seven enclosure walls and numerous gopuras, halls, and temples constructed in the course of several centuries. In addition to the gopuras, temples also continued to be built. Although they never achieved colossal size, they are often examples of very fine workmanship. The Subrahmanya temple of the 17th century, built in the compound of the Brihadisvara temple at Thanjavur, indicates the vitality of architectural traditions even at this late date.

Bangalore, 2006

Photos and Text © Amit Guha