As an art and heritage lover, I have travelled to many historical sites in the country but Tamil Nadu seemed to have eluded me. With the three great living chola temples on my mind, I sat down with a map and planned a 10 day road trip through Tamil heartland. And was I not surprised and overwhelmed. This state is full of stories and here stones speak eloquently !
Though temples were on my mind, I made sure not to miss seeing the Pichchavaram mangroves that are a mere 20 minutes drive away from the Thillai Nataraja Temple in Chidambaram. Here I recall my journey not in the way I took it but how Dravida style of temple architecture has developed.
Post Sangam Age, Tamilakkam, which was more of a cultural identity than a geographical entity was the crucible of development of a fabulous style of temple architecture known as the Dravida. Dravida style temples were first constructed by the Pallavas.
Pallavas were the great rulers of the northern part of today’s Tamil Nadu, and parts of Karnataka and Andhra until the 9th century. During their long reign, art and architecture of early Dravidian period bloomed and thrived. The rock cut as well as built architecture pioneered by them continued to be the inspiration and base for the architecture of peninsular India whose development continued for many centuries thereon. The journey of rock-cut architecture in Tamil Nadu started with King Mahendravarman I commissioning the construction of Laksitayana cave temple at Mandagapattu. It imitated the interior of a timber building akin to the Buddhist rock cut caves of Maharashtra. The cave and its pillars showed Chalukyan influence and have well defined mukha mandapa, ardha mandapa and three shrines. The Panchapandava caves at Pallavaram and Rudravaliswaram cave at Mamandur were amongst the series of rock cut caves that followed. His successor, Narsimhavarman Mamalla (630-668 CE) built a new port town called Mamallapuram and introduced unique temples that were carved out of a large boulder.
Mamallapuram is what we know today as Mahabalipuram – the place that I found as spectacular as Hampi is. Scattered with magnificent structures and ruins. Surely, Mamalla’s style led to the development of various stylistic attributes such as the Kudu (inspired from the Buddhist sun window), development of Sala and Kuta, a well defined adhisthana (basement), slender columns, crouching Vyalas and introduction of various decorations such as garlands, kalasa (vase), potika (corbels), padmabandha (lotus petals). Koneri Mandapa, Varaha mandapa, Mahishasuramardini caves, at Mamallapuram can be considered the earliest examples of this style.
Narasimhavarman also introduced free-standing monolith rathas. These rathas carved out from hard granite and 9 in number, are important milestones in the development of Dravidian temple architecture as they show the development of multi-storey Vimanas. These storeys known as Tala are stacked onto each other with the upper tala necessarily being smaller than the lower one, making it appear like a stepped pyramid. Mamallapuram was the Pallavas laboratory of experimenting with various construction styles and sculptural details. Here you see rathas from a single storey (Draupadi ratha) to three storeyed (Dhramaraja ratha) structuring and with varying number of Talas. Pallavas also experimented on the roofing style of the rathas. Draupadi ratha, the smallest ratha, looks like a hut with its curved dome like roof, Arjuna and Yudhisthir ratha have pyramidal roofs while the Bhima ratha has wagon vaulted roof and, Nakul-Sahadeva ratha is a horse-shoe shaped building topped by a wagon vault with an apsidal end. The Dharmaraja and Arjun ratha here are the most important ones as they influenced the later form and development of Dravidian temple architecture. Similarly, various theories also suggest the possibility of the wagon vaulted Bhima and Ganesha rathas influencing the design of Gopurams – the most striking feature of south Indian temples.
Successive Pallava kings – Rajasimha and Nandivarman continued the legacy of their predecessors and constructed beautiful structural temples. The famous shore temple at Mamallapuram consists of two Shiva shrines having vimanas, a third shrine dedicated to Seshashayi (reclining) Vishnu having no superstructure, and a prakara wall enclosing the three. Unique feature of this temple is however its vimanas which don’t appear like stepped pyramids but rather tall slender tapering spires.
Kailashnathar temple built in the Pallava capital Kanchipuram has many unique features such as; the main shrine has smaller shrines attached to it on the middle of each side as well as its four corners. The exterior of this temple mainly features the pilasters with rearing Vyala at their base. A gopuram makes an appearance in this temple, while a prakara surrounds the entire temple, with a row of mini shrines running all along its inner face.
After the Pallavas came the mighty Cholas. The long period of wait from the fall of early Cholas till the resurrection of Cholas (hereafter referred to as medieval Cholas) is known as a dark period in Chola history. The great empire which once ruled Tamilakkam became extinct in its own land with the rise of Pallavas and Pandyas. According to Manimekalai, Princess Pilli Valai had a liaison with the Early Chola King Killivalavan. Out of this union was born Prince Tondai Eelam Thiraiyar, a supposed ancestor of Pallava Dynasty. Since no other source except Manimekalai mentions the name of King Vallivalayan, this myth remains a tale whose historic veracity is yet to be confirmed.
The Cholas, under the suzerainty of the Pallavas and Pandyas, had held onto their ancient capital – Urayur near modern day Trichy and continued to have influence over areas around like Thanjavur, Trichy, Mayiladuthurai and Pudukkottai. Taking advantage of the continuous wars between the Pallavas and Pandyas, Chola king Vijayala captured Thanjavur and added large parts to his territory. Finally, in 897 CE, Pallava king Aparajitavarman was defeated by the Chola King Aditya I, ending the Pallava rule. With large parts of northern Tamil Nadu under their belt the Cholas went on to become a mighty power in the South and ruled the region for more than four centuries- a golden period of art and architecture.
Although the Chola architecture is considered to have reached its zenith during the reign of the father- son duo, Rajaraja and Rajendra I who built the Brihadeesvara temples at Thanjavur and Gangaikondacholapuram respectively, this giant leap in the development of temple architecture didn’t take place overnight. Cholas knew that after defeating the Pallavas they had a large gap to fill when it came to ruling over a territory that had seen glorious rule of Pallavas as well as their magnificent rock-cut architecture at Mamallapuram and the brilliant built architecture in and around the Pallava capital of Kanchipuram.
It was natural that the early medieval Chola architecture was greatly influenced by the architectural style of Pallavas. These examples of medieval Chola architecture though small in size and not many in number implies that these structures/ temples were built by local chieftains of the Cholas without any imperial involvement like the Moovar Koil that is built by an Irukku Velir Cheiftain and a Chola general; Boothi Vikrama Kesari. Most of the examples of above mentioned style were entirely built in stone and are found in the Pudukkottai district of Tamilnadu.
Vijayalaya Choleesvaram – a temple in Narthamalai named after the first Chola king Vijayala was constructed in second half of the 9th century. This Shiva temple is famous for its unusual plan where the sanctum is circular (omkara garbhagriha) and its prakara is square. Of the four storeys of the Vimana here, three lower ones are square and the topmost is circular shape which then supports the dome like round kalasha above it. Another very interesting fact to note here is that, some of the ancient south Indian literary works such as Svayambhuvagama, karanagama, Marichi Samhita etc define hybrid ‘Vesara’ temple style as “the buildings which are round, apsidal and elliptical or may be square at the below but round from neck upwards”. This definition of Vesara exactly fits Vijayala Cholesvaram temple’s sanctum which is square at the base but round from Griva (neck) and above.
Moovar Koil- another milestone in the early medieval Chola architecture is located at Kodumbalur near from Pudukkottai and was constructed in the 10th century by a Chola general. Moovar koil meaning ‘temple of three (Gods)’ in Tamil, this temple complex had three temples only two of which survive today. At Moovar koil, one can observe a change in the sculptural form- from non- refined figures to the delicate figures showing Pallava influence. This change in temple form was attributed to the marital relationships of the Cholas with the Muttaraiyars who were the vassals of Pallavas.
Brihadeesvara temples at Thanjavur and Gangaikondacholapuram are considered two of the greatest examples of Dravidian architecture. Both the temples are massive in scale and constructed out of large blocks of granite. Their tall Vimanas seem to be competing with the clouds with the one of Thanjavur Brihadeesvara reaching 66 meters. Both the temples stand on an ornate Adhisthana carved profusely with intricate designs and Tamil inscriptions. Massive monolithic Nandis sit in front of the temples in detached Nandi Mandapas. Their exterior mainly consists of pilasters, niches and decorative pillars called Kumbhapanjaram besides the common features of Salas and Kutas. The Thajavur temple is internally adorned with beautiful frescos and equally amazing sculptures on the exterior make it a heaven for the iconography enthusiasts. The relief sculptures inside the temple have been a great resource for documenting the history of classical dances such as Bharatanatyam as they showcase Nataraja, dancing Lord Shiva in various classical dance poses. Another overwhelming fact about this temple is that, its sixteen storeyed Vimana is topped by a massive octagonal monolithic Shikhara stone weighing 80,000 kilos. It is a mystery to this day how such a heavy stone was carried to such a great height. Some theories suggest it was taken to the top with the help of either a linear or spiral ramp being pushed by several elephants! Another interesting feature is the faces of a European man wearing a hat, a European girl, an Oriental man placed in kudus on the exterior of Vimanas. Although later additions, they confirm that Cholas had diplomatic as well as trade relations with far flung lands even thousand years ago!
Temple at Gangaikondacholapuram although smaller, is more intricate and has higher sculptural quality than the one at Thanjavur. Though the temples flummoxed me, being a marathi, I must admit that I found Thanjavur’s maratha connection quiet thrilling !
Another temple- Airavatesvara temple at Darasuram though much smaller in size than its predecessors surpasses both of them when it comes to an elaborate sculptural and architectural design. It is designed in such a way that it appears like a giant chariot pulled by elephants. Not surprisingly all the above mentioned three temples are a part of UNESCO world heritage sites together known as the ‘Great Living Chola Temples’.
Thus by the time the power of the Cholas started declining the Dravida style reached its maturity with distinct features. Very broadly, these features are:
– Pyramidal Vimana standing on a square base.
– Vimana towers formed by superimposing diminishing storeys on one another.
– Hara (a horizontal row on each storey consisting of miniature shrines) consisting of Salas (intermediate mini shrines) and Kutas (miniature shrines in the corners).
– The main temple structure divided between Garbhagriha (Sanctum), Mahamandapa (closed hall) Mandapa (semi-closed hall), Ardha Mandapa (porch). Depending on the size of the temple, Mahamandapa and Mandapa often replaced each other. Natya Mandapa for dance performances was introduced in a lot of temples for performances of classical dances.
– Gopurams (temple gateway towers)- probably the most striking feature of the Dravidian temples. Just like Vimanas, Gopurams too have their pyramidal tower divided into many diminishing storeys topped by a barrel vault having several small finials placed along the ridge of the vault.
– Enclosure wall known as Prakara that encompassed the entire temple complex within. Depending on the size and importance of the temple, the number of concentric Prakaras varied. Vaikuntha Perumal temple, in Kanchi has a unique plan where the sanctum is encircled by four layers of concentric walls, the fourth being its prakara.
-A water tank near the temple for ritualistic purposes and to provide for the priests living in the temple.
-Huge Nandis with a mandapa of their own
Pandyas came back to the power for a while in the Tamil region after the collapse of Cholas in the 13th century. However, Pandyas were not creative builders like Cholas and rather concentrated on building Gopurams to the existing temples. The main contribution of Pandyas is in the heightened focus on the temple gateways. The gateways of Jambukesvara temple and eastern gopuram of Thillai Nataraja temple are the prime examples of gateways built during this period.
Vijayanagara Empire that came into being in 1336 CE, though concentrated on constructing new temples in and around their capital Hampi, also made significant additions to older existing Pallava and Chola temples by constructing sky soaring gopurams known as Raya Gopurams and Kalyana mandapas. The Kalyana mandapa at Varadaraja Perumal temple in Kanchipuram has 96 pillars carved with either mythological figures or warriors on horses or Yalis except for the two pillars where the Goddess and God of Love in Hindu Mythology Rathi and Kamdev are carved on a parrot and a swan respectively. The entire hall is intricately carved with sculptures of stories from Ramayana and Mahabharata, various dances, daily chores of people, amorous couples, Portuguese soldiers carrying guns, trick sculptures etc. However, fascinating stone rings that can move freely even though the entire chain is made of a single stone remains the most mindboggling feature of this era.
The sky soaring gopuram of Ekambarnathar temple at Kanchi was erected in 1509 CE by King Krishnadeva Raya. Its pyramidal tower has eight diminishing storeys in plaster-covered brickwork and rises to 192 feet. Raya Gopurams at the Chidambaram (139 feet high) as well as the one at Annamalaiyar temple (217 feet high)are some of the other well known examples of the temple gateways built during this period. Another example of Vijayanagara era worth mentioning is the impressive hall of Thousand Pillars in Ranganathaswamy temple at Srirangam constructed during the years 1336–1565 CE. The pillars consist of sculptures of wildly rearing horses bearing riders on their backs and trampling with their hoofs upon the heads of rampant lions/ yalis.
The last phase of Dravidian temple architecture began with the collapse of Vijayanagara Empire and the declaration of independence of various Nayakas under them, such as the Thanjavur Nayakas, Gingee Nayakas and Madurai Nayakas. These Nayaka rulers continued the legacy of their previous masters and added various halls and gopurams to the existing temple complexes. Southern gopuram at the Meenakshi Amman temple in Madurai by far remains the most important contribution of the Nayakas as its here that the development of gopuram reached its zenith. With its slightly inward curvature and unbelievable projecting stucco statues, this is easily the most beautiful gopuram in all of south India.
The gopuram at Srivilliputhur is taller than the one at Madurai and has a larger number of stucco figures all over it. Very intricately carved Subrahmanya temple in Thajavur Brihadeesvara complex perfectly exhibits the ornate temple architecture style of the Nayakas. Features such as Pushpapotikas, Kumbhapanjara, double flexed cornice, mouldings of adisthana and various pillars add to its beauty by manifolds.
It is astonishing how the Dravidian style did not change much as per the region unlike its northern counterpart, Nagara whose regional styles flowered to become distinct sub-styles in their own right. Almost like the people who till today live very traditional lifestyles and retain fierce pride in their culture.
Author – Onkar Tendulkar
All the pictures used in the post belong to the author unless stated otherwise. The illustrations are from the book “A History of Fine Arts in India and the West” by Edith Tomory
He can be reached at Onkaar7@gmail.com