Category Archives: South Indian

Pattadakal Temples

In the Indian state of Karnataka lies the sacred village of Pattadakal, or Kisuvolal as it used to be called, and its 10 temples, constructed from the 6th to the 9th century. Pattadakal was once the place of anointment for the early Chalukya kings of Badami, and it served as their secondary capital. The Malaprabha river flows north near the old city (Annigeri 2). The people of India believe that rivers that flow north are sacred due to the fact that they are rare as most rivers in India flow to the east or the west. The surrounding mountains provided an abundant amount of sandstone to build the temples, and there are several lingas around the village that give a sense that it used to be a large place for Siva worship. Pattadakal is a marvellous masterpiece where the architectural styles of North and South India are blended (Annigeri 6). The influence between the mixing of the northern and southern styles resulted in a different adaptation of ideas. Unfortunately, tracing the development of the northern style is quite difficult as a large quantity of Nagara style temples were destroyed during periods of warfare. They are still distinguished by the tall, convex shape of the tower above the hall of the temples (Dallapiccola 1) . Architects such as Gunda and Revadi Ovajja graced Pattadakal with the construction of temples and sculptors such as Chengamma, Pullappan and Deva-arya decorated the temples with their magnificent sculptures (Annigeri 6).

The biggest of the temples at Pattadakal is the Virupaksha Temple (formerly known as Lokesvara). It was constructed between 733 and 745 CE by queen Lokamahadevi to celebrate the three victories of her husband and early Chalukya ruler, Vikramaditya II, over his rival, the Pallavas of Kanchipuram (Kadambi 266). Along with commemorating his victories, the temple also shows a sense of rajadharma (duties and obligations of a king) and moksadharma (liberation of the soul). The Virupaksha temple was modelled after the Kailasanatha temple (formerly known as the Rajasimhesvara temple) at Kanchi, the town that the king had just conquered. The Virupaksha temple was built by the architect Gunda along with others, such as Sarvasiddhi Achari and Baladeva in a Dravidian (South) style of architecture. The Virupaksha Temple has a nandi mantapa (open pavilion with roof) which Cummings argues is a shrine to the queen (as stated in Kadambi 267). Inside this pavilion resides a sculpture of Nandi (bull) in black stone (Annigeri 14). Her assumptions are proven by the two royal portraits on the temple. One of Lokamahadevi, which shows her standing on a lion throne while holding an elephant-staff in her left hand. The other picture is of the other wife of the king, Trailokyamahadevi. Coincidentally, these two queens were also sisters (Kadambi 267). The pillars of the great hall are covered in episodes from the Ramayana, Mahabharata and Bhagavata (Annigeri 15). On the outer wall to the south, there are sculptures of Ravana killing Jatayu and Siva seated in Kailasa. On the north porch, there is an eight-armed Siva who is dancing on the demon Apasmarapurusha (Annigeri 20). Covering the rest of the outer walls are sculptures of Siva, Lakulisa, Nataraja, Lingodbhavamurti, Visnu with a conch and fruit, and more (Annigeri 20). On the ceiling of the eastern porch you can see the god Surya standing in a horse-drawn chariot, with seven horses and a lotus flower in each hand (Annigeri 15). In the shrine is the linga of Virupaksha that was worshipped (Annigeri 18).

Almost simultaneously, the Mallikarjuna temple (formerly known as Trailokesvara) was built in around 740 CE by his younger queen Trailokyamahadevi, who was also the sister of the main queen (Annigeri 25).  It was built to celebrate the victories against Kanchi, just like her sister’s temple. The two temples are very close in architecture and some of the sculptures are in identical locations on the temple (Annigeri 25). There are two Saiva Dvaraplas at the entrance to the hall and  an image of Visnu riding Garuda is on the door frame. Even with the depiction of Visnu, it can still be concluded that the temple is dedicated to Siva (Annigeri 26). The stories that are told along the walls are that of the domestic life, clothing and religious practices of the early Chalukyan era. The great victories of Krsna are depicted along the pillars of the great hall. These include Krsna holding up a mountain, killing the demons Kesi, who was in the form of a horse, and killing Kharasura who was in the disguise as a donkey (Annigeri 28). In the shrine lies a linga with a large lotus flower carved in the wall over the linga, and sculptures of Siva and Parvati all over the ceiling of the shrine (Annigeri 30).

The temple of Sangamesvara (originally known as Vijayesvara) was built by King Vijayaditya to praise the god Vijayesvara (Siva) (Annigeri 34).  There is no date on the inscription but since the King Vijayaditya reigned from 696-733 CE, we can assume it was built during that time period (Bolar 38). On the pillars in the hall are several inscriptions relating to the building of the temple. The first one speaks of how “peggade-Poleyachchi of Mahadevigeri gave 51 gadyanas for the making of this pillar” (Bolar 38). The second one explains that the pillar was donated by an individual named “Vidyasiva” (Bolar 38). The third pillar  tells how “a courtesan of this temple named Chalabbe, donated 3 pillars to the temple” (Bolar 38). The fourth pillar says that Motibodamma donated two pillars sculpted by the sculptor Paka (Bolar 38). There is an inscribed slab standing in the hall belonging to King Kirtivarma II of the Calukyas of Badami dated 754 CE which states that Jnanasivacarya granted land as a provision “for the studies of those who attend the rites of the god” (Bolar 101). The architecture of the temple is quite plain and does not have any of the great sculptures on its walls. There are big sculptures of Visnu, Varaha, Siva with Nandi and Gajasurantaka on the outside of the walls that were never finished due to some unforeseen reason (Annigeri 34). What the temple lacks in design, it makes up for in size as it has three shrines, a walkway around the main shrine and the great hall. What was once worshiped in the shrine is now a broken linga (Annigeri 34).

The Kasivisvesvara Temple was built in the Nagara (northern) style of architecture using sand-stone blocks in the 8th century CE (Annigeri 31). Interestingly enough, there happens to be miniature temples sculpted into the outer wall in a Dravidian or South Indian style of architecture in an attempt to combine the two types of work (Annigeri 32). The temple is divided into two different parts, the hall or mantapa, and the shrine and the ante-chamber or sukanasi. In the shrine there is a black stone linga in the centre (Annigeri 32). On the ceiling of the mantapa is depicted Siva, Parvati with a child in her arms, Nandi, four hybrid creatures, swans and dwarfish garland carriers (Annigeri 33). On the pillars, many stories from the Bhagavata and Sivapuranas are told. One of these such stories is the wedding scene of Siva and Parvati, where other gods have attended (Annigeri 33).

To the left and a few yards away, lies the Galaganatha Temple with its very tall structure. Having been built in the North Indian style (Nagara) in the 8th century CE, it is quite different from the Virupaksha, Mallikarjuna and Sangamesvara which are all built in the South Indian style (Dravidian) (Annigeri 37). In the shrine is a linga in black stone and a sculpture of Nataraja on the door. With age, the wall to the south has been destroyed, but it was possible to conclude their method of constructing walls, which was to lay them on each other without any cementing agent (Annigeri 38). Perhaps the most beautiful thing about this temple is the sculpture of Siva as Andhakasura. The sculpture has eight hands, one with a sword, one with a trident in the body of a demon, one with a shield, and another with a trident, and the rest placed in different poses (Annigeri 39).

The Jambulinga Temple is very small now and has no ceiling. There was once a bigger hall, but it is now in ruins. There once was sculpture of Siva and Visnu, but time has worn them down. It seems to have been built around the same time as the Galaganatha Temple (Annigeri 39).

The Chandrasekhara Temple is quite plain and has been dated to around 750 CE (Annigeri 37). It has a preserved Dvarapalas on the side of the door with a visible trident-like decoration behind his head.

The Kadasiddhesvara Temple has seen better days. It is almost impossible to determine to which god or goddess the temple was dedicated. The only evidence we have is Harihara with four hands carrying an axe, a conch and cloth on the outer wall and, an image of Siva with a serpent and a trident and Parvati and Nandi on the door frame (Annigeri 40). Again, the hall has no roof and there is a Dvarapala who stands on both sides of the door. The other gods depicted around the temple are Brahma, Visnu, Ganga, Yamuna and Ardhanarisvara (Annigeri 40).

The temple of Papanatha is situated only a few yards from the river Malaprabha. It is accepted that it was constructed at around 680 CE (Annigeri 41). This temple does not reflect the advanced architecture of the Virupaksha temple and has very weird proportions. The temple is 90ft. in length but has a very short vertical structure. The improper spacing in the temple has convinced scholars that the temple was built in the early stages of the art of temple building. Contrary to that, the inscription states that the same sculptors that worked on the Virupaksha temple worked on Papanatha, so we are led to believe that the temple could not have been built more than 30-40 years before Virupaksha (Annigeri 41). The temple was not originally dedicated to Siva this time, but dedicated to Visnu or Surya. Scholars have come to his conclusion because there is a image of Surya on the west outer wall, and the image of Nandi was placed in the hall at a later date, after the temple was constructed. But there are some scholars who say that the temple was still dedicated to Siva from the start (Annigeri 42). Even though the temple is one of the oldest, it is still decorated with images of couples and gods and stories of the ages.

The Old Jain Temple, built in the 9th century CE, consists of a second shrine on top of the main shrine that houses two Jaina sculptures. The temple is very simple with a few exceptions like the makaratorana on the doorframe of the shrine door (Annigeri 47). There is a single inscription on a pillar that tells the story of how Jnanasivacharya came from his home in the north of India to live in the Sangamesvara temple. This illustrates the religious ties between North India and Karnataka during the period of the Calukyas of Badami (Annigeri 48).

The temples at Pattadakal, depict a wide assortment of deities in the Hindu pantheon. The site at Pattadakal shows a great amount of history in its walls and tells a great story that has been solidified with the hard work of the architects and sculptors that made the temples possible. The combination of the Dravidian and the Nagara style of architecture is distinctive. Present generations can view the style advancements in temple building as they developed from the oldest temple to the newest. In 1987, Pattadakal was included in the list of World Heritage Sites. Today, for a small entrance fee, an individual can enter the grounds of the temples to look around or to give worship to the deities. The temples have become a very popular tourist destination.



Annigeri, A. (1961) A Guide to the Pattadakal Temples. Dharwad: Kannada Research Institute.

Bolar, Varija (2010) Temples of Karnataka: An Epigraphical Study (from the earliest to 1050 A.D.). New Delhi: Roadworthy Publications (P) Ltd.

Dallapiccola, Anna (2002) Dictionary of Hindu Lore and Legend. London: Thames & Hudson.

Kadambi, Hemanth (2015) “Cathleen Cummings, “Decoding a Hindu Temple: Royalty and Religion in the Iconographic Program of the Virupaksha Temple”, Pattadakal”. South Asian Studies, Vol. 31, No.2: 266-268.


Related Topics for Further Investigation

The caves of Badami

Temples of Aihole

The Calukyas of Badami

Temples at Mahakuta


Websites Related to the Temples of Pattadakal


Article written by: Rebecca Scott (February 2016) who is solely responsible for its content.

Cidambaram Temple

Cidambaram Temple, also known as the Thillai Natarajah Temple is a sixteen hectare temple complex (Smith 4) located in the center of the city of Cidambaram in Tamil Nadu in south-eastern India, and was built and expanded between the 10th and 14th centuries. The official name of the temple is Sabhanayaka (Lord of the Hall) temple (Cush, Robinson, and York 143). This temple venerates Siva as Nataraja (Lord of Dance) in Sanskrit or Thillai Koothan in Tamil (Spencer).

The temple is famous for the veneration a 3 foot tall bronze statue of Siva (Srinivasan 433) in a dancing position and the local myth that inspired the depiction and the worship of Siva in that form in Cidambaram. The statue is meant to be used as an utsava murti (processional image) in festivals (Cush, Robinson, and York 366), but is usually located in an inner gold-roofed sanctum called the Cit-Sabha or Hall of Consciousness (Srinivasan 433, Smith 5). Siva is also represented in the form of a traditional lingam, and in the form of an empty alcove representing akasa (ether, space, or sky) and transcendence (Srinivasan 433). It is said that the Cit-Sabha embodies Siva as well (Ferro-Luzzi 516). Other deities worshipped at the temple include Sivakamasundari, Ganesa, and Visnu among other deities connected with Siva. The depictions of each deity can be found in alcoves and ambulatories around the edges of the temple.

This temple is one of five temples in south India dedicated to Siva which each represent elements and the supposed geographic locations where Siva has appeared and performed miracles. These temples collectively are called the Panca Bhuta Sthalam, (Spencer 233, Isaac 16, Dey 49) and Cidambaram temple represents the element of akasa.


Temple History

The Nataraja temple at Cidambaram was built in the 10th century during the reign of Cola ruler Vira Cola Raja and is among some of the oldest temples in south India (Sullivan 58). Cidambaram temple has been the center for the worship of Siva in a dancing form since the seventh century (Smith 1), however the depiction of Siva as Nataraja was popularized by the Saiva Siddhanta school of orthodox bhakti Saivites sometime later (Cush, Robinson, and York 799).

Cola rulers through the 10th to the 13th centuries considered Siva, especially as Nataraja, to be their family deity and sponsored massive expansions of the Cidambaram temple complex and other Saivite temple complexes in south India. Along with the level of temple construction and renovation, they also made efforts to increase the scale and organization of worship at these temples (Davis 16). Vikrama and his military minister Naralokaviran are credited with renovating and adorning the Cidambaram temple, as well as sponsoring and developing services and facilities to encourage patronage and worship such as grand festivals, lit processional walkways, ocean pavilions, etc. with the goal to secure the Cidambaram Nataraja temple as the capital of Saivite worship in south India (Davis 19).

Cidambaram temple is sometimes simply referred to as “the temple”, and the entire city is sometimes referred to as a temple in literature (Spencer 240). Historically in the Saivite temple culture throughout south India, the main keepers and collectors of information were travelling saint-poets called nayanmars (Spencer 234), who were advocates of bhakti (devotionalism), and whose Tamil (Sullivan 195) devotional hymns are still sung today (Sullivan 211). However, there were multiple schools of thought in place in the area in medieval times who each would have a variation on thought and their own canon. For example, the accepted canon for Saiva Siddhanta philosophy was the Agamas (Srinivasan 432). Numerous nayanmars are remembered and venerated at the temple, and their poems have been passed down orally through generations. Recently, the process has begun of writing the poems and stories down for posterity. The veneration of priests, saints, and poets at Cidambaram is hierarchical with more well-known figures such as Umapati Sivacarya who wrote the poem Kuncitanghristava or “The Hymn of Praise to Nataraja’s Curved Foot” (Ferro-Luzzi 515) being remembered and praised more often than lesser saints which included women and Dalits (Spencer 235). The lineages of Saivite saints, priests, and teachers is hard to decipher because of a patchy record and an initiatory re-naming tradition (Davis 9).


Temple Mythology

Cidambaram is considered the center of the universe (Smith 2), as well as the place where Siva first performed the anandatandava, or dance of bliss (Srinivasan 432, Smith 1), in the presence of his consort Sivakamasundari, and three sages who were awaiting his arrival in Cidambaram while worshipping a lingam (Cush, Robinson, and York 143). Cidambaram is said to be the sky temple in the series of five temples in south India which represent elemental forms of Siva, the Panca Bhuta Sthalam (Dey 49). Each temple in this collection of temples is said to have a connected story of Siva appearing at that location in the presence of devotees to perform a miracle in a new form. At Cidambaram the miracle was the anandatandava and the form that Siva assumed was that of Nataraja or Lord of Dance (Smith 1). The traditional lingam which would usually stand in the inner sanctum of the temple, the Cit-Sabha, is replaced in this temple by a bronze statue of Siva performing the dance (Cush, Robinson, and York 143). The representation of the figure of Siva performing the anandatandava is steeped in symbolism.

The speed of the dance is said to determine whether it will be creative or destructive, with a slower pace being creative and a faster pace being destructive (Cush, Robinson, and York 143). Siva as Nataraja is depicted with 4 hands, each having a specific meaning. The hand raised up in the abhaya-mudra (Cush, Robinson, and York 799) represents refuge, while the downward-pointing hand represents escape from samsara shown by the surrounding ring of fire (Cush, Robinson, and York 160). The other two hands hold a drum used for keeping time while dancing and a ball of fire, which each represent creation and destruction; fire can be creative in a Vedic sense by creating favor from the gods and the drum can be interpreted as destructive by marking the passage of time (Smith 1, Cush, Robinson, and York 160, Sullivan 148). In the 14th century in Cidambaram, the priest Umapati Sivacarya devoted a poem to the depiction of Siva in anandatandava entitled Kuncitanghristava, “The Hymn of Praise to Nataraja’s Curved Foot” (Ferro-Luzzi 515), the foot on the statue of Siva as Nataraja is said to grant anugraha (blessing) and salvation (Ferro-Luzzi 516). Siva’s other foot steps on a smaller person or demon named Apasmarapurusa in Sanskrit or Muyalaka in Tamil (Nayagam 120) which represents ignorance (Smith 1).


Temple Structure

The style of southern Indian temples is distinct from northern Indian temples. In the southern style, the gopuram (main towers) are raised high above the gates of the temple and set into the walls that encircle the inner sanctuaries, the walls are usually highly decorated and ornate (Sullivan 227). Cidambaram temple is one of the largest in south India, with the gopurams measured at 49 meters high (Sullivan 58).

The walls of the Cidambaram temple have been decorated with depictions of 108 Bharata Natyam (traditional Indian dance) poses (Cush, Robinson, and York 160). This style of classical dance is said to have originated in the surrounding area of Tamil Nadu and especially within Saivite temple culture (Tiruvalluvar 1201), and the temple also boasts a large performing arts hall shaped like a chariot called the Nrtta Sabha (Sullivan 58).

The Cidambaram temple is also set apart by the golden roof of the Cit-Sabha, extensive processional routes, and lamped walkways all added on by Cola rulers (Davis 19). Cit-Sabha, the innermost hall or sanctum of the temple contains three alcoves, the main alcove contains the three foot tall bronze statue of Siva Nataraja, with the other two alcoves containing the stone lingam usually representative of Siva and an empty space representative of Siva as the element akasa (Srinivasan 433). Several shrines to other deities are featured in the temple, most of whom have some connection to Siva in Hindu literature (Sullivan 58). All of the elemental Saivite temples are built in the same southern style but differ in their decorations and size.



The main festival at temples dedicated to Siva is Mahasivaratri (Great Night of Siva) or simply Sivaratri (Sullivan 211). This festival is held yearly on the thirteenth night and fourteenth day in the dark half of Phalguna, the month that takes place in February to March in the Gregorian calendar (Sullivan 130). The festival is widely popular and devotees of many different deities attend. The festival consists of a night vigil at the temple which involves devotional hymns, darsana (auspicious viewing) of images of Siva either in statue or lingam form and highly decorated (Sullivan 130), and puja offerings which include sandalwood paste, flower petals, bilva and bel leaves, milk, curd, ghee, honey, rose water, and vermillion paste (Dwivedi 30, Sullivan 130). A drink made of cannabis, milk, and almonds is also said to be consumed at this festival (Dwivedi 30). The second day of the festival is a celebratory day reserved for feasting rather than solemn worship (Sullivan 130). The Mahasivaratri has many origin stories including Parvati venerating a lingam in Siva’s absence, a hunter accidentally venerating a lingam when out in the wilderness, and the gods Brahma and Visnu finding a pillar of fire which is revealed to be Siva in a different form (Dwivedi 72).

Other festivals include occasional processional temple festivals called mahotsava or brahmotsava in Sanskrit and tiruvila in Tamil. These festivals can last up to two weeks and involve the use of utsava murti (processional images) of deities used in festivals and temple rites (Cush, Robinson, and York 366). The icons are dressed in finery like silk, flowers, and gold ornaments and led down the streets either on the shoulders of followers, or pulled in chariots by devotees holding hemp ropes. There are also animals and musicians involved in these parades, which stop occasionally along the procession to allow people to view the gods and make offerings to them which is seen as very auspicious (Davis 15). Bronze figures and accompanying inscriptions show that this form of festival worship has been taking place in south India since at least the 9th century (Davis 16).

This festival takes place in Cidambaram as well with the obvious addition of the Nataraja statue. Other differences in the Cidambaram mahotsavas are the length and scale of the festival which is always very long, around fifteen days, and features two parades each day with the deities riding on different vahanas (vehicles). This culminates in the ratha-yatra where the deities are paraded on chariots which are much like individual moving shrines (Davis 15). At the beginning of any festival period devoted primarily to Siva, the temple flag is raised with the image of a bull on it which represents Siva’s vahana Nandi (Davis 30). Another practice which sets Cidambaram apart is the practice of applying a black balm to the statues, priests, servants, and lay people in hierarchical order if the festival is venerating Nataraja (Davis 51).


Staff and Important Persons

Important persons connected to the temple include the Saiva Siddhanta school of orthodox bhakti Saivites who popularized the veneration of Siva as Nataraja, as well as the other numerous lesser-known philosophical schools which helped inform the literature in medieval south India (Cush, Robinson, and York 799). Also of great importance were the travelling saint-poets called nayanmars (Spencer 234), whose Tamil devotional Saivite hymns recorded the mythology and chronology of the area and whose stories were passed down orally and are still told and sung today creating a rich illustration of the history of the area (Sullivan 211). Some of these poets became priests or teachers or gained fame from their writing which creates a useful image of the social landscape of the time.

The temple staff at Cidambaram are called diksitars because they undergo the initiatory process of diksa. This process involves numerous rites to be performed at different prescribed times before the initiate is accepted. The nitya-karman are the daily rites and show Saivite piety if they are done on one’s own behalf (atmartha), this category includes the nityapuja (veneration of a lingam), nityahoma (a small fire sacrifice), and suryapuja (sun worship). Daily rituals need to be completed before other rituals, they are the prerequisites. Naimittikarman, or occasional rites include pavitrosava and damanotsava and they are the prerequisites for the last set of rituals. The last set of rituals, on completion, marks the initiation of a diksitar as part of the Saivite community and released of earthly bondage. These rituals are therefore held in high regard as transformative. The initiate is consecrated as either a sadhakadiksa (mantra-adept), or as an acaryadiksa (priest) through a series of upanayana-like rituals including a mock cremation on the receiving of a special mantra (Davis 7).



Aghorasiva (1157) A Priest’s Guide to the Great Festival. Translation and notes by Richard H. Davis (2010) New York: Oxford University Press.

Cush, Denise, and Catherine Robinson, and Michael York (2008) Encyclopedia of Hinduism. New York: Routledge.

Dey, Nando L. (1979) The Geographical Dictionary of Ancient and Medieval India. New Delhi: Cosmo Publications.

Dwivedi, Anil K. (2007) Encyclopedia of Indian Customs & Rituals. New Delhi: Anmol Publications.

Ferro-Luzzi, Gabriella E. (1996) “Reviewed Work: The Dance of Siva. Religion, Art and Poetry in South India by David Smith” East and West 46:515–17. Accessed February 5, 2016.

Isaac, Eric (1960) “Religion, Landscape, and Space” Landscape 9:14-18.

Nayagam, X.S. Thani (1970). Tamil Culture and Civilization. London: Asia Publishing House.

Smith, David (1996) The Dance of Siva: Religion, Art and Poetry in South India. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Spencer, George W. (1970) “The Sacred Geography of the Tamil Shaivite Hymns.” Numen 17:232–44. Accessed February 5, 2016. doi:10.2307/3269705.

Srinivasan, Sharada (2004) “Shiva as ‘cosmic dancer’: On Pallava origins for the Nataraja bronze.” World Archaeology 36:432-450. Accessed February 5, 2016. doi:10.1080/1468936042000282726821.

Sullivan, Bruce M. (1997) Historical Dictionary of Hinduism. Lanham: Scarecrow Press.

Tiruvalluvar (2000). The Handbook of Tamil Culture and Heritage. Chicago: International Tamil Language Foundation.


Related Topics

  • Bhakti
  • Diksa
  • Bharata Natyam
  • Saivitism
  • Viasnavism
  • Cola Dynasy
  • Tamil Poetry
  • Poet-saints
  • South Indian Architecture
  • Processional Festivals


Related Websites

Article written by: Katherine Christianson (March 2016) who is solely responsible for its content.




The Dravidian Style of Hindu Temple

Among the massive amount of Hindu temples in India there are two main types of temple styles, a specific temple style seen in the north and one in the south. Temples in India have had a distinct difference in style since the very first temples were built in the fifth and sixth centuries CE. Geographically, the northern temples can be found from the Himalayas to the Deccan, from Gujarat to Orissa and Bengal in the east. However, the southern temples are found almost exclusively in the southern part of the subcontinent.  The main purpose of the Hindu temple was to create a link between persons and gods, and gave a site for gods to be seen by human beings; both southern and northern temples do this. However, the structural make up of these temples is what sets them apart from one another (Michell 61-86).

Southern style temples tend to be constructed with individual cells/layers that are typically identical and are stacked in a pyramid form (Trivedi 256). Northern temples, in contrast, have walls with a curved incline, unlike the pyramidal southern style temples. Additionally, southern temples rise in a much steeper fashion than north temples. Southern temples tend to have a distinctive moulded base, different from the northern style (Hardy 2009:46). Additionally, southern temples frequently have an octagonal overall shape to them, something not seen in northern temples. Also, the Dravidian style temples usually have a small top concave dome whereas the top of the northern style temple tends to be more complex and elaborate (Michell 89-93).

The start of Dravidian temples was created by the Pallavas dynasty. This dynasty ruled from about 550CE to about 890CE in the Tamil region or southern region of India. Historical remains of more than sixty Dravidian style temples can be traced back to this dynasty. Early in this rule, King Mahendra produced many rock cut temples in the south of India. Rock cut temples were found throughout the early builds of Hindu temples. Additionally at this time many depictions of Gods, semi-divine, and royal figures were seen in the architecture of the temples, which became an integral part of the Hindu temple. Towards the end of this era, temple building moved from rock cut temples to temples being their own physical structure, not relying on rock faces to build the temples. Some of the most extensive temples produced in this era were the rathas, which translates into chariots. These rathas temples are considered monolithic (carved from one rock structure), or rock-cut, and began to solidify the unique southern style. These rathas are considered the first known structures to fit the entire mold of the southern style. A well known rathas is the shore temple in Mahabalipuram, which shows key Dravidian style characteristics in steep rising superstructures and repetitions in the wall scheme, along with images of the god Visnu (Michell 131-132).

The Dravidian temple style of the Pallavas ended up bleeding into the Chalukya society due to the conflict between these two powers in the seventh and eighth centuries (Michell 136). Early Chalukya temples were mainly rock cut temples.  However, later in the Chalukya’s rule, they produced some of the oldest known stone Hindu temples.  At this time, a distinctive split in the two types of southern styles Karnatak and Tamil is seen (Tartakov 39-41). Due to this bleeding there is some overlap between the temple styles in some northern sites. One unique aspect of temples built in this era is the use of two gateways and two separate hallways in the temples. However, both the Chalukya and the Pavalla temples shared many of the same key characteristics of the southern style temples, even with their small physical differences and geographical differences (Michell 136).

After the Pallavas and Chalukyas’ eras of southern temples, the Rashtrakutas started to further develop the southern style from the eighth to tenth century. The use of rock cut temples grew in popularity again in this era, whereas the Pallavas began to step away from this type of architecture during the end of their reign. One of the most impressive temples built in this era is the Kailasa, which stands 30 meters high. This temple and others like it built in this era have the  defining southern features “of moulded base, plastered wall, overhanging eave and parapet, which when combined in diminishing superimposition, create the superstructure” (Michell 143).

During the tenth to eleventh century the Dravidian style temple shifted again under the south’s new rule.  During this time of turmoil and war in the south, the Cholas became the ruling power. However, during this time there was not a lot of architectural growth, as seen in the previous eras. Many of the new temples built in this era followed the old Pallava southern temple style, notably using the Pallava octagonal towers. However, the Cholas did have a couple of their own unique characteristics for temple buildings. These included an increase in the amount of sculpture used on the side of temples, along with “multifaceted column projecting square capitals” (Michell 145).

Throughout these different time periods of temple development, the Hindus used sacred texts as a way to orchestrate these magnificent temples. The main genre of text used to build these temples are the Vastusastras, and were thought to be composed by Brahmins over the years. In the vast Vastusasras there are some parts which refer to the northern temple style and some to the southern form. One sub text of the Vastusastras, the Samaranganasutradhara, deals with both northern and southern temples. The chapters of the text devoted to the designs of the temples are very specific, and outline a sophisticated measurement system. One specific Dravidian temple that was prescribed by this text was the Bhojpur temple, which still remains unfinished to this day. Even within the Samaranganasutradhara, there is some overlap between the two temple styles, showing the interconnection between the two styles. The uses of texts like the Samaranganasutrahara show how complex the building of these temples was and how specific these temples were actually made (Hardy 2009:41-46).

Even within the division of southern temple style there are two different types of styles. These two different sub type temples can be classified into Karnatak (Vesara) and Tamil. Tamil southern style reflects the southernmost temple designs, often referred to as the “True Dravidian” temples. The Karnatak mainly developed from the Dravidian style, but has some north style characteristics; some scholars address the Karnatak as its own hybrid temple style. The Karnatak developed in the early Chalukya dynasty; at this point the subtle differences in the two southern temple styles can be seen. Some of the major differences between the two southern sub temples are the height of the temples, differences in moulded bases, and the small amount of northern characteristics seen in the Karnatak style. Almost never are Karnatak temples above four stories, whereas Tamil style temples are known to be over four stories. Also, Tamil temples have a structurally distinctive moulded base, which is not found in Karnatak temples.  One of the northern temple elements found in the Karnatak temple style is in some cases curved northern spires were used, which were not used in Tamil temple styles. Ultimately, the north and south styles both have influence on the build of the Karnatak to varying degrees (Hardy 2001:181-191).

The southern temples are extraordinary architectural feats, but they were built to serve as the spiritual link between the gods and humans. Inside the Hindu temples people had the ability to draw closer to the gods through the use of rituals and ceremonies. Religious symbols are found throughout the Hindu temples architecture, which reinforce the spiritual link. Many ideas from the epics and the Puranas, along with symbolically representing the religion’s ultimate goal of moksa, are seen in the temples. Additionally the Hindu temple was seen as the house of the gods where one would have the ability to see the gods, through rituals and being pure. Specifically, temples were dedicated to certain gods and goddesses and each temple had a womb chamber which was a small shrine to honor the specific god the temple was devoted to (Michell 61-62).

The temple is the site of many religious rituals, where the movement of devotees and priests in the temple is of the utmost importance.  Rituals practiced in temples can be placed into two distinct groups: Pujas, which are daily rituals and urvalams which are festivals practiced at different times of the year (Treada 120). Certain parts of the temples are seen as the specific sites where deities can be met. An example of structural meaning is the doors of the temple that signify the movement from the temporal to the spiritual. Another example of the symbolic structural meaning in the temples is the womb of the temple, which was the place where energy radiates from. The womb of the temple is such a sacred place that only priests are able to enter, even when devotees are bringing sacrifices to the room, they are not allowed in (Michell 66).

The soaring gopuram (gateway) and bathing tank, which is characteristic of Dravida temples (Cidambaram, Tamil Nadu, India)
The soaring gopuram (gateway) and bathing tank, which is characteristic of Dravida temples (Cidambaram, Tamil Nadu, India)

Temples are seen as cultural centres. At these temples people experienced music and dance throughout their history. The daily rituals and yearly festivals which took place in temples often had music as a key component.  Music and dance varied based on the geographical regions, even among yearly practiced festivals. Even sculptors in temples often depicted music and dance. The Periya Melam was in charge of music in the temples and performed the music in rituals. The job of musician was passed down through hereditary lines. These musicians often lived within walking distance of the temples and performed almost every day.  However, music in temples today seems to be disappearing, something lamented upon by many (Treada 128-139).

Another interesting element of the Hindu religion seen in their temples is they believe the gods are attracted to mountains and caves. For this reason a lot of temples were built on the side of mountains, or using caves, as seen in the early southern Pallava’s temple design and other eras. The temples that were not built on rock faces were made to reflect the visual nature of mountains because of the believed attraction of the gods to caves and mountains. Both the curved temple towers of the northern temple style and the pyramid style of the south style are different attempts to create a mountain like structure, ultimately trying to end at the same goal (Michell 69).

Besides the cave like temple designs, Hindu temples also were designed in regard to the cosmic man (Michell 72). The cosmic man is developed in a square form which helps to also symbolically design the temple, with the creator god being represented at the centre of the temple and the edges of the square being dedicated to guardian gods and goddesses. The notion of a temple being designed with the cosmos in mind can be traced back to in text writing as far back as 3000 years, and in actual temple building to more than 1000 years ago. Throughout the Vastusastras the temple designs keep the square in mind, as it symbolically represents the manifestation of the world (Trivedi 245-258). This cosmic man is mainly based on deities but also is designed in part with astrology in mind (Michell 72).

These amazing architectural feats and spiritual houses are seen throughout India and the eventual British rule created legislation to preserve them. Under the colonial rule of the British the Hindu temples became protected under the Ancient monuments act of 1904. Prior to the act British rule controlled around 150 temples in India, however after the act they controlled over 700 Hindu temples. Under this act, the British government greatly limited the use of the temples for Hindus and created problems between the practicing Hindus and the ruling power. The British viewed temples as antique but to orthodox Hindus the temples are still to this day very much a part of their religion. Some accounts of British rule have them taking down parts of temples and moving the inside contents of the temples to artificial buildings for the Hindus to practice rituals in. British rule, did however, rebuild and restore damaged temples during the Act (Sutton 135-137).

Today Dravidian temples (along with Northern Temples) are still used for religious festivals and also act as tourist destinations. Some of the biggest southern temples seen in India today are: the Sri Ranganathaswamy Temple, Thillai Nataraja Temple, Golden Temple of Sripuram, to name a few. Also, in the now culturally diverse world, the spread of religion in general is a more common thing. As a result, many Hindu temples are being built around the world outside of India, some of which have Dravidian characteristics (King 151).


References And Further Recommended Readings

Baumann, Martin “Hindu temples.” Internationales Asien Forum, Vol. 6, No. 3/4: p.231.

Hardy, Adam (2009) “Dravida Temples in the Samaranganasutradhara.” South Asian Studies, Vol. 25, No. 1: p.41-62.

Hardy, Adam (2001) “Tradition and Transformation: Continuity and Ingenuity in the Temples of Karnatak.” Journal of the Society of Architectural Historians, Vol. 60, No. 2: p.180-199.

Michell, George (1977) The Hindu temple: an introduction to its meaning and forms. New York, NY: Harper & Row Publishers.

King, Anna (2007) “Diaspora of the Gods: Modern Hindu Temples in an Urban Middle-class World Waghorne, Joanne Punzo” Material religion, Vol. 3, No. 1: p.150-152.

Kramrisch, Stella (1976) The Hindu Temple II. Delhi, India: Shri Jainendra Press.

Sutton, Deborah (2013) “Devotion, Antiquity, and Colonial Custody of the Hindu Temple in British Indian.” Modern Asian Studies, Vol. 47, No. 1: p.135-166.

Tartakov, Gary Michael (1980) “The Beginning of Dravidian Temple Architecture in Stone.” Artibus Asiae ,Vol. 42, No. 1: p.39-99.

Treada, Yoshitaka (2008) “Temple Music Traditions in Hindu South India: Periya Melam and Its Performance Practice” Asian Music, Vol. 39, No. 2: p. 108-151.

Trivedi, Kirti (1989) “Hindu temples: models of a fractal universe.” The Visual Computer, Vol. 5, No. 4: p.243-258.

Related Topics For Further Investigation



Tamil Nadu









Sri Raganasthaswamy Temple

Thillai Nataraja Temple

Golden Temple of Sripuram

Ancient monuments act of 1904

Cosmic Man

King Mahendra

Bhojpur temple

womb chamber



Noteworthy Websites Related to Topic


Article written by: Josh Toth (March 2015) who is solely responsible for its content.

The Aihole Temples

The Aihole Temples



The Aihole temples are a complex of ancient structures located in the Bagalkot district of Karnataka. Aihole was initially the center of the early Chalukyan culture until the great Pulakesi I moved the capital east to Badami. However, it was in Aihole where the Chalukyans began to create their own style of temple and over 100 of these sites can still be found there today. The building of temples took place over two phases with the first beginning in the early 6th century and the second phase not happening until the 12th century. The architecture of these temples was unique in the fact that it combined northern styles (nagara) with the techniques used in southern India (dravida). When used together this style was labeled vesara and was prominent in the temples built throughout the areas surrounding Aihole (Hardy 2001:181).


Of the temples located at Aihole the most famous is generally considered the Durga temple, a very photogenic structure that is dated to the middle of the 8th century A.D. (Bolar 164). The current name of the temple comes from one of two possibilities, either an image of Mahisasuramardini (the goddess Durga) or from a nearby fort (durga) (Bolar 164). It is likely that the name is more associated with the nearby fortress and this is the common consensus among modern scholars today. The agreement comes from the fact that this temple was likely dedicated to Visnu as opposed to the other temples that are focused on the worship of Siva (Hardy 1995:67). Architecturally, the temple is mainly of Dravidian design with a few exceptions, such as the superstructure that sits atop the temple. This feature, known as a sikhara, is situated directly on the flat nave roof above the sanctum of the temple. It would appear that this was added much later after the original construction of the building and would be a reasonable theory as there was an influence of northern styled design well after the Chalukyan culture (Lippe 14). Other notable features of this temple that make it stand out at Aihole are the intricate carvings along the railings of the balconies as well as the images found on the niches of the unique wall structures. “The pillars of the inner porch are, in addition, decorated with full and three-quarter roundels, containing small mithunas, with lotus-petal bands with guana-fiezes and with pearl-chains hanging from lion-masks, in low relief” (Lippe 14). The Durga temple has square pilasters that frame enclosed niches, and these niches have gallery panels that were apparently added after the original construction (Lippe 15). “Some of the niches are surmounted by elaborate sukanasa gabels or by miniature shrines; others (above the yalis) by inverted makara-torana” (Lippe 15). These important features of the Durga temple give it a unique appearance and photogenic qualities that allow it to be such a central site at the Aihole complex of temples.


The next most famous of temples at Aihole is often considered to be Lad Khan, the oldest structure at the complex with construction being dated to the middle of the 5th century A.D. (Lippe 11). Originally this temple was built for the worship of Visnu but it was later dedicated to the sun god Suryanarayana. The design of this temple can be considered a square ground plan with two square groupings of pillars within the main square (Lippe 11). However there is what is suspected to be a later addition of a porch that does not match up sufficiently with the original scheme (Lippe 11). “The porch of the Lad Khan temple is unusually wide as it had to be accommodated to the square temple; it is three pillars deep and four pillars wide, corresponding to the four hall pillars. The porch pillars are heavy and square with simple brackets (as are those of the roof shrine)” (Lippe 13). The porch itself was probably added relatively shortly after the temple was constructed with dates being considered around 550 A.D. (Lippe 13). “The railing of the porch which forms the back rests of the benches inside, is decorated with a motif of vases with foliage framed by pillars and knotted bands; we also notice rampant lions leaning against pilasters; a feature recalling Pallava pillars of the Rajashima period (695-722)” (Lippe 13). These features are a defining element of many temples at Aihole and can be considered a foundational shift in the architecture that was created by the early Chalukya culture.


Another notable temple that is found at the Aihole complex is the Huccimalli-Gudi. The name can be literally translated as “Mad-Malli’s temple”. “The temple can be dated to the seventh century, possibly even before the Pallava occupation” (Lippe 18). An important aspect about the Huccimalli-Gudi is that it is a homogeneous structure but it still displays features found in other temples such as the porch railings and pillars of the Lad Khan (Lippe 18).  The sculptured gargoyle-like pranala, as well as the apparent vestibule, are examples of how Huccimalli-Gudi undertook many additions and changes throughout its existence (Lippe 18). “The medallion with a Natesa on the Dwarf, on a shallow and rudimentary gable-projection, is loosely fitted to the “northern” superstructure which rises from the invisible sanctum” (Lippe 18). The medallion is likely a later addition because the Huccimalli temple is believed to have been originally designed for Vaishnava worship (Lippe 18). The Huccimalli-Gudi can therefore be considered a good example of how the architecture in Aihole was going through a shift in conventional design.


These three temples are all model cases of how the Chalukyan dynasty created their own style of architecture by combining different techniques used in both northern and southern India. These styles are reflected throughout the area at Aihole and are indicative what was going on at the time of their construction. When studied further, researchers can gather information about how the tradition and culture itself shifted. Whether it was purely how a temple was being dedicated and presented, or what people were occupying the territory, the temples at Aihole provide an illustrious history religious tradition in that area.



 Bolar, Varija R. (2010) Temples of Karnataka: An Epigraphical Study (From the Earliest to 1050 A.D.) “Surya (Sun) Temples and Images”. New Delhi: Readworthy Publications Ltd.

Hardy, Adam (1995) Indian Temple Architecture: Form and Transformation. “Early Chalukya Temples”. New Delhi: Abhinav Publications, Indira Gandhi National Center for the Arts.

Hardy, Adam (2001) Tradition and Transformation: Continuity and Ingenuity in the Temples of Karnataka. Berkeley: University of California Press on Behalf of the Society of Architectural Historians.

Lippe, Aschwin (1969/1970) Archives of Asian Art. “Additions and Replacements in Early Chalukya Temples”. Honolulu: University Of Hawai’i Press for the Asia Society.

Related Topics for Further Investigation




Meguti Jain temple



Noteworthy Websites Related to the Topic

Article written by Grady Allison (Spring 2013), who is solely responsible for its content.




Minaksi (Goddess and Temple)

Minaksi Goddess and Temple

There is a myth that tells of Minaksi’s origins. According to it King Malayadhvaji Pandya and his wife needed to produce a male heir so that he could be the next successor of the city of Madurai (Harman 44).  Malayadhvaji Pandya and his wife’s religious devotion and good works did not seem to be enough to change their childless state, so they decided to conduct a series of asvamedha or horse sacrifices. Through these horse sacrifices Malayadhvaji Pandya and his wife hoped that they would please the deities and be given a son. Unfortunately, the horse sacrifice is not always successful in the birth of a son, and after ninety-nine unsuccessful horse-sacrifices the god Indra intervened. Indra informed Malayadhvaji Pandya that if he wanted a son that he should perform “the sacrifice which brings forth a son” (Harman 45). The king took Indra’s advice, but the result of the sacrifice was unexpected. Instead of the sacrifice producing a son, it gave Malayadhvaji Pandya and his wife a three year old daughter. This upset the King for the sole reason that this daughter was not normal; she was considered to be a freak, because she had three breasts. Malayadhvaji Pandya complained to God and the king’s complaint did not go unheard. A heavenly voice of Siva responded:

[Oh King! Treat your daughter as though she were a son:

Perform for her all the rites as specified in the Vedas.

Giver her the name, “Tatatakai.” Crown her queen.

And when this woman, whose form is golden, meets her Lord, one of her breasts

will disappear.

Therefore, out your mind at ease.

In this way, Siva graciously appeared in the form of words spoken from the sky (Harman 45).]

King Malayadhvaji Pandya took the advice and trained his daughter as though she was the male heir to the throne.  She was crowned queen, but shortly after the king dies. After the king passes away, his widow Kancanamalai enters the temple to worship “The Mother” (Annai) who is interpreted as “Minaksi” (The Fish Eyed Goddess) (Harman 45). It is in the temple that Kancanamalai, the queen’s mother, is informed that Siva’s consort Parvati was born in the form of Tatatakai/ Minaksi.

Minaksi is a goddess who is regarded as pure energy. In her benevolent form, as Siva’s bride she is Parvati, and in her terrifying form, as a bloodthirsty killer she is Kali (Brockman 326).  Minaksi rules Pandya as an unmarried queen for quite some time, which is not proper for an Indian monarch. Minaksi’s mother complains about her unmarried state, but Minaksi assures her mother that there are better things to do than get married. She wants to conquer the world, and once she has successfully conquered the world she will marry.

Minaksi met Lord Siva when he was a great yogi meditating on Mount Kailas and she was on a pilgrimage (Brockman 326-327):

[The moment She saw him Her [third] breast disappeared.

She became bashful, passive, and fearful.

She leaned unsteadily, like the flowering branch of a tree under the weight of its


Her heavy dark hair fell on Her neck.

She looked downward, toward Her feet, with collyriumed eyes that were like

kentia fish.

And there She stood, shining like lightning, scratching in the earth with Her toes (Harman 47).]

As Minaksi stood in front of Lord Siva, her minister Sumati pointed out that the ancient prophecy that was made at her birth has been fulfilled. Siva tells Minaksi to return to Madurai where he will marry her (Harman 47). When Minaksi arrives in Madurai she finds that the city is beautifully decorated, and that everyone is ecstatic about the wedding. The wedding preparations include the assembly of the bride’s garments, preparing the food, and sending out wedding invitations to an extensive guest list.

At the ceremony, Visnu gives the bride to Siva. [Siva blesses and partakes of the sweet drinking mixture. Brahma feeds the sacrificial fire with clarified butter. Siva ties the wedding necklace on his bride, pours parched grain into the fire, places the bride’s foot on the grinding stone, and points out to her the pole star, which symbolizes steadfastness (Harman 47).]

The marriage of Minaksi to Lord Siva represents many changes. The first significant change was the disappearance of her third breast. This disappearance meant that for the first time she was going to be treated as a woman. This was an important change because growing up her father always treated her as a male heir and she acted as a male heir. She conquered the world and ruled powerfully over Madurai.

The Minaksi temple is located in Madurai’s city center and it was built to honor the sacred marriage of the goddess Minaksi and the god Siva (Brockman 326). The Minaksi temple was built from 1623 to 1655, but its roots are over 2000 years old (Brockman 326). The original temple was built by Kulasekara Pandya, however most of what is seen on the temple today was built by the Nayaks in the sixteenth to eighteenth centuries.  It is one of the largest temples in India with its measurements being approximately 850 feet long by 720 feet wide. The outer wall is about 20 feet high to protect the temple and the royal god Siva and goddess Minaksi who reside within it (Fuller 2). The temple contains twelve gopurams, four of which are the main entrances to the temple [Stevens]. Surrounding the temple is a series of expanding, ‘concentric’ squares (Fuller 2).

All South Indian temples representing Siva have two temples in one; the Minaksi temple is no different. There are separate temples for Minaksi and Siva who is locally known as Sudaresvara (The Beautiful Lord) (Hudson 33). Minaksi’s temple is southwest of Sudaresvara’s, which means both temples face east and positions the goddess to the god’s right. Minaksi being situated on Siva’s right is the usual positioning of their images during temple festivals (Fuller 3).

Inside the temple there are more than 30, 000 statutes (Brockman 326). The two major ones are Siva’s mount (a bull named Nandi), and his lingam. Both of which are located at the center of the courtyard (Brockman 326).  Every evening before the temple closes, a palliyarai pujai (‘bedchamber worship’) takes place. The priest removes Minaksi’s nose-jewel from her main image, which symbolizes the transfer of power to the smaller image of Minaksi that is always kept in the bedchamber (Fuller 11). The palliyarai pujai is a procession led by drummers and a brass ensemble carries an image of Siva to Minaksi/Parvati’s bedroom to consummate their union (Brockman 327). It is at this time that the divine couple is offered food and lamps are waved in front of them. Two rituals are also performed at this time (Fuller 11). It is only at night that the god and goddess are united and seen as lovers.

In the morning, the priest’s first task is to worship at Siddhi Vinayaka’s shrine, which is located near the entrance of the Minaksi’s temple. Next, he goes to the bedchamber where the god and goddess are located and woken by song. The chamber is opened and the god and goddess are offered food and lamps are waved before the images. It is at this time that the priest goes to Minaksi sanctum and replaces her nose-jewel. The replacing of her nose jewel transfers her powers back to her main image. Minaksi is worshiped and any devotees present have their first sight of the goddess, a most auspicious vision to begin a new day (Fuller 12).  The priest then returns Siva back to his temple, where the image is placed in its chamber and worship is then performed before the main linga. There is no specific ritual at this time, however, the gods powers are believed to return. It is at this time that the priest takes a sip of milk that had been offered to the deities, and then the rest is distributed to the attending devotees (Fuller 12).

The Minaksi temple indicates the importance of Devi worship, and the transformation of Minaksi from a powerful warrior queen who conquered the world, to a shy and modest woman when she met Siva for the first time (Rodrigues 284).

There are six major annual festivals that are held at the Minaksi temple. These six festivals last between ten and twelve days. For each festival a flag is raised on the main flagstaff in Siva’s temple for the entire duration of the festival. The only exception is when Ati Mulaikkottu is celebrated. Ati Mulaikkottu is a festival celebrated only for Minaksi, which means that the flag is raised in the goddess’s temple (Fuller 17).

Minaksi and Siva’s marriage is celebrated each year in the month of Citra (April-May) (Hudson 33). The god and goddess wedding is a symbol of the joint power that they hold over the city of Madurai. Minaksi and Siva are mounted on a golden bull, and carried though the city on a carved temple chariot (Brockman 327). Shortly after the festival of Siva and Minaksi’s wedding there is a festival for the journey of Visnu. Even though these are two different celebrations, in the minds of many devotees these two festivals are not separate and distinct; instead they form a single festival cittirai peruvila (Husdon 35).


Brockman, Norbert C. (2011) Encyclopedia of Sacred Places. ABC-CLIO.

Dowson, John (1979) A Classical Dictionary of Hindu Mythology. London: Routledge& Kegan Paul.

Fuller, C.J (1984) Servants of the Goddess. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Harman, William P. (1989) The Sacred Marriage of a Hindu Goddess. Bloomington, Indiana: Indiana University Press.

Hudson, Dennis D. (2010) Krishna’s Mandala: Bhagavata Religion and Beyond. Oxford University Press.

Hillary Rodrigues, Hinduism – the eBook (2007). Published by Journal of Buddhist Ethics Online Books.

Stevens, Michael (2006) The Sri Minaksi Sundaresvara Temple.

Related Research Topics for Further Investigation



City of Madurai

Lord Sundaresvara Madurai

Mount Kailasa

The Cittirai Peruvila Festival

Siddhi Vinayaka’s Shrine

Palliyarai Pujai Worship

Ati Mulaikkottu Festival

Noteworthy Websites Related to the Topic

Article written by Lauryn Dzioba (Spring 2012), who is solely responsible for its content.

Sri Ranganathaswamy Temple (Srirangam Temple)

Sri Ranganathaswamy Temple, Srirangam

The largest temple in India is located on the island of Srirangam located on the Kaveri River.  The island resides in the southern part of the larger Indian continent near the city of Trichy, which is located in Tamil Nadu.  According to the temple’s website, Srirangam Temple is “the foremost of the eight self-manifested shrines (Swayam Vyakta Kshetras) of Lord Visnu. It is also considered the first, foremost and the most important of the 108 main Visnu temples (Divyadesams)” (Srirangam Temple History).  The temple goes by several names including Srirangam temple and Sri Ranganathaswamy Temple, the latter a result of the temple being dedicated to the Hindu deity, Raganatha, a reclining version of the god Visnu.  It is considered to be in the Dravidia style of temple architecture (Urwick 58).  In its history, it has had important political implications on the region, and has withstood Muslim military occupation in the early fourteenth century (Spencer 21).  In modern day India the temple is regarded as the largest active Hindu temple in the world and is home to several festivals, the most important of which is Vaikunta Ekadasi, which attracts thousands of visitors annually (The Hindu).

As are many things in the Hindu tradition, the origins of the Srirangam temple are rooted in the Hindu epic, the Ramayana.  It is said that in Rama’s quest to save his beloved Sita he employs the help of Vibhisana.  Vibhisana is the brother of Rama’s adversary, the demon god Ravana, and agrees to assist Rama only when he determines that Rama’s cause is the nobler of the two (Bastin 47).  The legend continues that after Ravana is defeated, Vibhisana accompanies Rama and Sita back to India for their wedding where he receives the gift of a special Visnu shrine and sets out on his return journey to Lanka.  On this return home Vibhisana decides to stop by the banks of the Kaveri River to rest.  The form of Visnu (Ranganathaswamy) in the shrine seemingly decides that he likes the spot and refuses to be moved from it. Vibhisana is crestfallen at the god’s decision, so Visnu offers to face south in the direction of Lanka, and thus the south-facing Srirangam temple is established (Hari Rao 17-21).  While such claims to ancient origins are not generally employed by religious studies scholars, author Rohan Bastin offers the story in his examination of a conflict in the late 1990’s between the Sinhalese and the Tamils (Bastin 48).

One of the most comprehensive outlines of the temple physically is provided by the author William Urwick.  The temple itself looks as if it were a walled off town instead of a religious temple and according to the temple’s website covers one hundred and fifty six acres.  Urwick asserts that the temple’s lands comprised “seven miles in circumference, and includes many bazaars and streets of Brahmans’ houses” (Urwick 58).  There are twenty one gate towers or gopuras and each is flanked by massive granite pillars, above which rests “pyramids of elaborate stone carving towering up to the height of two hundred feet” (Urwick 58).  Inside these massive structures one finds a pillared hall with a flat stone roof supported by one thousand columns of granite, each with a figure carved into it.  These figures range from men and horses to men mounted upon rearing horses spearing tigers.  Beyond that is the central shrine which is surmounted by a golden dome. Near to this four sacred elephants are stabled, and a staircase leads up to the flat stoned roof (Urwick 58).  While almost all of the structures endured throughout the centuries unharmed, there was some damage done when the Muslims raided the temple’s lands in the fourteenth century.

Early political relationships of the temple with Delhi Sultans are both crude and easy to comprehend.  During the three decades that the Khilji sultans occupied the throne (from 1290 C.E.-1320 C.E.) of the northern Delhi kingdoms a policy of aggressive expansion and raiding into the southern peninsula of the Indian continent was popular foreign policy.  The all important Hindu dynasty Vijayanagar had not yet been founded and the only legitimate political entity in the region was severely weakened by internal conflicts (Spencer 20).  This meant that when the raiding armies of the Muslims came to Srirangam there was really no organized resistance to attempt to stop them from taking what they wanted.  The Muslims were focused on raiding the temple for immediate economic boon.  Plunder such as elephants, jewels and gold were largely preferred (Spencer 19).

The Muslim raids that struck the temple in 1311 and 1323 C.E. had a “highly disruptive effect” upon its administration and services (Spencer 20-21). Although the temple was not destroyed in its entirety, the Muslims did cause extensive damage during their respective visits.  Fire damage to gopurams was common.  Many images of gods and saints were destroyed, including Visnu’s gold staff.  One scholar notes that, perhaps during the lengthy second stay of the Muslims, certain wooden structures were simply left to deteriorate (Spencer 21).  Before the Muslims’ arrived for the second raid the entrance to the inner sanctum was blocked with large stones. This protected the reclining form of the idol Raganatha albeit at the expense of interrupting services (Spencer 21).  The southward expansion of the Islamic frontier into peninsular India, of which these raids constituted only one rather dramatic manifestation, set in motion certain wider changes in the political structure of southern India, transformations which drastically altered the temple’s relationships with the outside world.  The temple also would finally begin to see the upswing in the coming Vijayanagar period.

­­ By 1371 C.E. Vijayanagar generals had restored the sacred images to Srirangam that the Muslims had destroyed, but temple administration was in shambles and it had lost most of its lands as well as other endowments during the last half-century. The kings of this period began making a habit of granting generous gifts of land and other valuables back to the temple, many of which had been obtained militarily (Spencer 25).  This was done in large part because large generous gifts could be rewarded with ceremonious honours from the temple.  These titles conferred honor and legitimacy upon hero-kings and were used to establish political and ideological ties to a region, resulting in the potential for vast empires. (Spencer 25).  The success of the Vijayanagar kings in this aspect helped to consolidate their regime.  This also gave a momentum to the growing strength of the Tengalai school of Srivaisnavism.  This patronage would eventually lead to this Southern school of Hinduism being the predominant at Srirangam.

The most important function of the modern day Srirangam temple is its hosting of many Hinduism festivals.  One such festival was created during the aforementioned Vijayangara dynasty and is named after the famous king Virupanna udayer (Younger 626).  According to the temple’s website Lord Ranganatha was brought to the sanctum sanctorum in 1371, shortly after the temple had been liberated from the Muslims.  The sanctum was in poor condition and so in 1377 Virupanna donated seventeen thousand gold coins to cover the cost of renovations.  After renovations were completed in 1383, and during the Chithrai festival, Virupanna donated fifty two villages to the temple.  The festival occurs during the Tamil month of Panguni (roughly March-April) and is synonymous in the modern day with the Chithrai festival.

The most important festival for the temple is the Vaikunta Ekadashi.  As one educational poster notes:

“To those with a pure heart, the gates of Vishnu’s spiritual world are always open. But on a precious few days, it is said, that passage is open to all, allowing devotees to more easily reach Vaikunta, the abode of Lord Vishnu, Supreme God to hundreds of millions of Hindus.  This is the essence of Vaikunta Ekadashi, a festival marked by fasting, devotion and pilgrimage to famous temples, when devotees draw closer to God in a most personal way” (Hinduism Today)

The festival takes place during the Tamil month Margazhi (December-January). Vaikuntha Ekadashi celebrations last twenty one days and are divided into two, ten day parts known as pagal pathu (morning part) and Ira pathu (night part).  Lord Vishnu as Lord Ranganatha is adorned in an armor of diamonds (rathnaangi) and is brought to the Thousand-Pillared Hall from the sanctum sanctorum through the northern gate known as Paramapada Vasal, the gate to Vaikunta. This gate is opened once in a year, only on the Vaikuntha Ekadashi day.

The temple’s website describes this occasion as the peak point of all festivals conducted in the temple.  “On this day of days; Sri Ranganatha becomes a virtual king and is known as Sri Rangaraja… Devotees, engaged in non-stop bhajans, fast throughout the day and keep endless vigil during the whole night, singing and dancing to the beat of cymbals” (Srirangam Festivals).

The Hindu Blog explains that the significance of Vaikunta Ekadasi can be traced back to the Padma Purana. It is said that the Purana indicates Lord Visnu took the form of ‘Ekadasi’ – female energy – to kill the demon Muran. This happened during the month of Margazhi. Impressed by ‘Ekadasi,’ Lord Visnu told her that whoever worships him on this day will reach ‘Vaikunta’ (heaven).   Like all Ekadasi days, devotees fast on this day and observe a vigil the whole night. Some people indulge in meditation, Japa and singing of Hari Kirtan. Rice is avoided during Ekadashi days as it is believed that the demon Mura finds a dwelling in the rice eaten on Ekadasi day.

Although the Sri Ranganathaswamy Temple is the largest active temple in the Hindu religion, it has undergone changes in its role over time.  The Muslim occupations in the fourteenth century left the temple a shell of its former self and it was not until the Vijayanagar Hindu dynasty restored much of the temple’s wealth and lands that it really got back to being a key component of the region.  Nowadays the temple serves mostly as just a place of worship and it plays hosts to several important festivals, the biggest of which is the twenty one day Vaikunta Ekadasi.

References and Future Recommended Reading

Bastin, Rohan (2005) “Hindu Temples in the Sri Lankan Ethnic Conflict – Capture and Excess.” Social Analysis, pp. 45-66.

Hari Rao, V. N. (1976) History of the Srirangam Temple. Tirupati, Sri Venkateswara University Press.

Hari Rao, V.N. Koil Olugu; The chronicle of the Srirangam Temple With Historical Notes Madras: Rochouse and Sons.

Parker, Samuel K (1992) “Contemporary Temple Construction in South India: The Srirangam Rajagopuram.” RES: Anthropology and Aesthetics, pp. 110-123.

Smith, Bardwell L (1978) Religion and the legitimation of power in South Asia. Leiden, Netherlands: E.J. Brill.

Spencer, George (1978) “Crisis of Authority in a Hindu Temple under the Impact of Islam.” In Religion and the legitimation of power in South Asia. Bardwell Smith ed. Leiden: Brill. pp. 14-27.

Urwick, William (1891) Indian pictures, drawn with pen and pencil. London: The Religious Tract Society.

Willis, Michael (2009) The Archaeology of Hindu Ritual: Temples and the Establishment of the Gods. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Younger, Paul (1982) “Ten Days of Wandering and Romance with Lord Rankanatan: The Pankuni Festival in Srirankam Temple, South India.” Modern Asian Studies, pp. 623-656.

Related Topics for Further Investigation

Delhi Kingdom



Tamil Nadu




Vaikunta Ekadasi


Vijayanagar dynasty


Noteworthy Websites Related to the Topic

Article written by: Kyle Cantelon (March 2012) who is solely responsible for its content.

The Sabarimalai Temple and Pilgrimage

Sabarimalai is a temple located in the mountains of South India, in the state of Kerala. It is dedicated to the deity Ayyappan, who is venerated widely throughout the South. Ayyappan is not mentioned in any of the puranic texts, and appears mostly in the myths and legends of Kerala. The first Sanskrit text to mention Ayyappan is the Bhutanathopakhyanam, which was written in the nineteenth century, and is the primary text of the cult (Sekar 15).

There are several differing stories of Sabarimalai’s origins, nearly all tied to Ayyappan. One such Ayyappan myth, of which there are many, it involves Ayyappan, although he is not yet revealed to be the deity, undertaking the impossible task of acquiring the milk of a tiger to save the life of the queen (Younger 18). When he succeeds, the king recognizes Ayyappan’s divinity and promises to build him a temple. Ayyappan shoots an arrow to indicate where the temple should be built, and it lands in the forest where Sabarimalai now stands. A separate story tells of how Parasurama, an avatara of Visnu, founded five shrines to Ayyappan (Sekar 19). The five shrines contain images of Ayyappan in several stages of life, the fourth of which is at Sabarimalai which depicts the deity in the forest dweller (vanaprastha) stage of life. The fifth shrine has not been found, but it is believed by devotees to be on the summit of a nearby mountain, depicting Ayyappan as a sannyasin.

As alluded to above, it is possible that the myths involving Ayyappan are of South Indian origin, and it may be the case that Vedic references are built on a standing definition. Some scholars argue that versions of the story which portray Ayyappan as the son of Siva and Mohini may be a more recent creation, reflecting the southward movement of the The Vedas (Younger 22 and Thomas 20).

Sabarimalai is open to pilgrims only during the festival season, which runs for fifty one days though December and part of January (Younger 17). The pilgrimage is noteworthy for its popularity, drawing approximately ten million pilgrims each year (Younger 23). This popularity is a relatively recent phenomenon, and while scholars are uncertain what caused the rise in pilgrims, having increased in the last fifty years (Younger 22-23).

The pilgrimage is important to the cultural identity of many South Indians, and the austere life lead by pilgrims is seen as similar to ancient forms of religious expression (Younger 18). Between forty five and sixty days prior to departing on the pilgrimage, pilgrims undertake numerous vows of austerity (Daniel 246-247). The list of injunctions is extensive and includes vows to refrain from intoxicating beverages, sexual activity, meat, eggs, and anger.

While Sabarimalai is important to the South Indian identity, it is by no means exclusive to those people. One of the most noteworthy aspects of the pilgrimage is its inclusiveness; the pilgrimage is open to all castes and faiths (Vaidyanathan 50). The tradition has loosely tied itself with both Islam and Buddhism. There is a mosque at Erumeli [the official starting place of the pilgrimage] dedicated to a figure named Vaver, who appears to provide assistance to Ayyappan in some stories (Thomas 14). Pilgrims are expected to circumambulate the mosque three times before visiting the temple to Ayyappan located in the same town. Some scholars have speculated at a possible link to Buddhism because Ayyappan is called simply ‘teacher’ by most pilgrims, which is one of the names of the Buddha (Younger 21). This universality of Sabarimalai is brought into question by its stance towards women.

No women of menstrual age are permitted on the pilgrimage (Younger 20). The reason typically given for this exclusion is that the pilgrimage is at essence a male initiation rite, testing the ability of a man to cope with the challenges of forest life. The exclusion of women is justified in the myth surrounding Ayyappan, who promises to wed the goddess Malikappurattamma the year that no pilgrims arrive to worship at Sabarimalai (Younger 20).. Malikappurattamma has a shrine on a nearby mountain, and during the festival her image is symbolically brought near Ayyappan’s shrine to witness the throngs of pilgrims standing between themIt is common for Hindu rituals and worship to be closed to menstruating women, but Sabarimalai’s exclusion of the entire age group is unusual and worthy of mention.

Despite the casteless nature of the pilgrimage, Ayyappan has historically been much more popular amongst the lower classes; Ayyappan is not worshipped as the chief deity in any Brahmin temples (Thomas 19). Some scholars credited the rise in the ritual’s popularity as stemming from anti-Brahmin sentiment; since the tradition is seen as natively South Indian, and the Brahmins are viewed as Northern migrants. This pilgrimage is seen by some as a way of asserting their independence from the caste system (Younger 23). Despite this undertone, the number of upper-caste pilgrims has increased steadily in recent years (Younger 24).

A shrine depicting the 18 holy steps marking the final ascent to the temple of Lord Ayyapan, the destination of the Sabaraimala pilgrimage in Kerala, India
A shrine depicting the 18 holy steps marking the final ascent to the temple of Lord Ayyapan, the destination of the Sabaraimala pilgrimage in Kerala, India

The pilgrimage begins with the vows of austerity mentioned above, which are taken in advance of the pilgrims departure. First time pilgrims are expected to find the participant in his region who has completed the pilgrimage the greatest number of times, and place himself under their care for the duration (Thomas 24-25). This senior pilgrim is to serve as a spiritual guide for the new devotee. This hierarchy is linguistically reinforced through the different modes of address used for pilgrims who have completed the pilgrimage more often. First and second time pilgrims are called kanni, those participating for a third time are called muthalperu, fourth are bharippu, and those on their fifth pilgrimage or more are addressed as ‘pazhama’ (Thomas 24).

When departing from their hometown, after an appropriate period of austerities, modern pilgrims have two options. The traditional method is to travel by foot to the town of Erumeli, stopping to worship at as many temples as possible along the way, and to begin the pilgrimage proper from there (Younger 19). For pilgrims looking for a less arduous journey, a road now extends to the town of Pampa at the foot of the mountain. Pilgrims are able to park their vehicles in Pampa and undertake a shorter eight kilometre trek up the mountain (Sekar 58). For pilgrims without their own means of transportation, the Kerala State Transport Corporation also runs a bus service to Pampa.

Along the route to the temple from Erumeli, pilgrims stop to hurl stones into a ravine, this is explained in a number of different ways. Some pilgrims understand it as symbolically throwing away a person’s sins, others as a reenactment of Ayyappan’s victory over the buffalo demoness Mahisi. Some scholars have also remarked on the similarity of this ritual to Muslim pilgrims stoning pillars in Mecca (Sekar 60). Pilgrims undertaking the last leg of the journey from Pampa first bathe in the river which the town is named for (Sekar 64). This bathing, as in one possible understanding of the ravine ritual, is intended to rid a person of their sins before proceeding to the temple.

After arriving at the temple, pilgrims smash ghee filled coconuts against the steps, before climbing those steps and entering into the temple itself (Younger 20). In the temple they witness priests pour ghee filled coconuts over the image of Ayyappan. Once the final act of the pilgrimage is complete, the pilgrims turn homewards, lingering only briefly once reaching the goal of their last several weeks (Younger 20).


Daniel, E. Valentine (1984) Fluid Signs: Being a Person the Tamil Way. Los Angeles: University of California Press.

Osella, Filippo and Osella, Caroline (2003) ‘Ayyappan saranam’: masculinity and the Sabarimala pilgrimage in Kerala. Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute. Vol. 9, 4. 729-756.

Sekar, Radhika (1992) The Sabarimala Pilgrimage & Ayyappan Cultus. Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass.

Srikant, C. V. Manoj (1998) Sabarimala: Its Timeless Message. Payyanur: Integral Books.

Thomas, P. T. (1973) Sabarimalai and Its Sastha. Madras: Diocesan Press.

Vaidyanathan, K. R. (1978) Pilgrimage to Sabari. Bombay: Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan.

Younger, Paul (2002) Playing Host to Deity: Festival Religion in the South Indian Tradition. New York: Oxford University Press.















Article written by: Brian Paulson (March 2010) who is solely responsible for its content.

The Konarak Sun Temple


Konarak Sun Temple


The Konarak Sun Temple is located in Konarak in the state of Orissa and is dedicated to the sun god Surya. It is considered one of the

Black Pagoda or Sun Temple at Konark (Ruins of the great chariot temple to Surya at Konark, also known as the Black Pagoda in Odisha, India)
Black Pagoda or Sun Temple at Konark (Ruins of the great chariot temple to Surya at Konark, also known as the Black Pagoda in Odisha, India)

great temples of India and was constructed by Raja Narasimha of the Ganga Dynasty in the mid thirteenth century C.E. (Misro 56-57). Although over time it has decayed, the Indian government has worked to restore it as it is a UNESCO world heritage site and it is now popularly considered one of the seven wonders of India.

Located in the relatively small town of Konarak, the Konarak Sun Temple lies on the coast bordering the Bay of Bengal in the Indian state of Orissa. The region today is quite arid and sparsely populated; questions remain as to why a great temple was built (Sanjaya 45). The historic reasons for its location are not well known; however, it is near the ocean and used to be quite close to the now dry holy river Chandrabhagam. This area was historically quite populated, with many towns and trade centres along the river and coast. Some historians believe that if this was not so, the great temple could not have been built. Furthermore when the temple was constructed it was within the territory of the Ganga Dynasty, which was an area that contained many Sun Temples. The temples position at Konarak may have been deemed a secure location as the Dynasty’s western border was under constant threat of Muslim invasion; at the time of construction Konarak was in a relatively safe area. It was also customary for Ganga rulers to place temples far away from their capitals. This is because the temples may have promoted ceremonies that were uncommon among the general populace, such as tantricism. The practice of tantracism was popular among the sun cult who were very influential in the Sun Temples construction (Misro 59-61).

Dedicated to the sun god Surya, the temple is meant to represent the horses and the colossal chariot which belong to the sun god. Many aspects of the temple are meant to display various measures of time such as months, days and praharas (the eight time periods of a day). The main complex contains the twenty four great wheels of the chariot which are meant to signify either the twenty four hours of the day or the twenty four fortnights in a year. Each of the wheels is 2.971m in diameter and each contains eight spokes which represent the eight praharas in a day. At both the sides of the main gate there is a team of seven horses pulling the chariot. According to some traditions these horses represent the seven days of the week. Other sources state that the horses represent the seven colours of a sun ray and that sun rays must pass through seven layers (represents by the horses) before it can reach the earth (Misro 62). There are also three standing images of Surya which depict the rising, mid day and setting sun (Misro 57). The temple grounds contain many more buildings such as an audience, dancing and dining hall. Almost every inch of the temple is covered in intricate carvings of deities, mythology and even depictions of courtly life. The temple is also known for containing erotic sculptures and images throughout, which may be likened to the Sun Cults involvement in its construction (Misro 62-63).

Built in the thirteenth century C.E., under the rule of Narasimha Deval, the Konarak Sun Temple is now believed to not only have religious significance but military significance as well. Under Narasimha’s rule several Muslim attempts at invading Orissa were defeated and Narasimha eventually went on to launch a successful offensive against Tughan Khan. After this string of victories the prestige and power of Orissa increased significantly and a campaign was underwent to create the greatest temple in India and a memorial. This is reflected in the temples construction as numerous war scenes are depicted, which is unusual for Indian temples. Tradition says that the temples construction took twelve years and 1200 laborers working day and night (Misro 58-59). The temple was built almost entirely out of dark stone (chlorite, laterite and khondalite) with little iron, lime plaster or cement. This was due to the fact that stone is seen as everlasting and deteriorates very slowly and the architect’s intention was to create an everlasting temple (Misro 62).

Unfortunately, the temple was not to remain in good condition forever; in 1565 Muslim armies raided Orissa and attempted to raze the temple. They were not successful but the temple was damaged and looted and Orissa was in a state of ruin. The Copper finial was removed as well as parts of some of the walls leaving the temple structurally unstable and vulnerable to collapse. A couple centuries of neglect left the temple to further degrade with weathering and vegetation taking a further toll on the structure. The local populace even took stones to build other less significant temples as is seen in the case of the Jagganath Temple at Puri. It still contains a pillar which is believed to be from the Konarak Sun Temple. However restoration began in 1901 with many buried parts of the temple being excavated. Decayed parts of the temple were then rebuilt including the natmandir (the main hall) (Sanjaya 47-49).

The Konarak Sun Temple today is a large tourist attraction and considered by critics to be one of the finest specimens of Indian architecture to date. It is recognized as a UNESCO world heritage site.






Misro, R.C. (2001) Construction of the Sun Temple at Konark: An Historic Perspective. Bangalore: Quarterly Journal of the Mythic Society.

Sanjaya, Sanjaya (1976) Sun Temple at Konarak. Madras: Indian Review.

Related Topics




The Ganga Dynasty




Tughan Khan

Jagganatha Temple

Sun Cult

Noteworthy Websites

Article written by: Chris Banmann (April 2010) who is solely responsible for its content.

The Brhadisvara Temple

The Brhadisvara Temple was built, in its entirety, during the reign of King Rajaraja (985 – 1014 CE) of the Cola Dynasty. At the onset of his political reign, the Cola kingdom was constricted to the Tamil country. Rajaraja implemented a rigorous twenty year military campaign which resulted in putting most of Southern India and some of North India under the rule of the Cola monarchy (Vasudevan 16).

The Brhadisvara Temple is considered a royal temple. A royal temple differs from a bhakti temple (or a non-royal temple) in that a royal temple is built by a monarch to their chosen gods and “were grand in design and execution,” while a bhakti temple usually originates as a small shrine built from brick (Vasudevan 152).

In 1003 CE, his nineteenth year of reign and near the end of his military campaign, Rajaraja commenced the construction on a grand temple located in the town of Thanjavur (in southern India). Upon completion, the temple was the most “massive temple in India” (Davis 4). It is said that King Rajaraja’s greatest achievement was this monumental temple, which he named Rajarajesvaram –known today as the Brhadisvara Temple or sometimes just referred to as the Big or Great Temple (Vasudevan 43).

Building a temple was a highly visible political act as well as a devotional one. It was said that “only the king of kings could be considered qualified to construct a preeminent temple” (Davis 6). One of several purposes for the construction of the temple is that it was a highly visible proclamation of Rajaraja’s political achievement.

Another, and more devotionally directed, purpose was to provide a home for a divinity that Rajaraja believed was the unsurpassed ruler of the cosmos. This temple was constructed in order to allow god to receive homage and offerings of devotion presented by kings, the kings’ family and the kingdom. Only a supreme god could be worth such great devotion. Rajaraja built the most magnificent temple to Siva, which was believed to elevate Siva to the position of Supreme Diety. As Siva usually resides upon Mount Kailasa, or Northern World-Mountain, Rajaraja believed that by building this imperial temple he was giving Siva a home in the south, equal to his northern abode (Davis 6).

However, the main purpose that the temple was devoted to Siva was that the Colas believed in Bhakti Saivism. During the Colas’ rule many shrines were built or remodelled to unmistakably show their devotion to Siva. “Through the adoption and patronage of the cult of linga, the Colas universalized a new aspect into the worship of Siva” (Vasudevan 101).

The temple was erected with two sets of outer walls – the most outer wall serving a defensive purpose. The Big Temple is the first temple in southern India that was built with any defensive apparatus (Vasudevan 44). The temple is made mostly of granite – a stone which was not indigenous to Thanjavur – had to be obtained from outside the kingdom making acquiring the building materials a difficult task. The temple sits on the side of a river that was specifically re-routed as to allow a moat to form around the temple. The temple tower is composed of 16 stories and stands an unprecedented 63 meters high and is was claimed to be among the tallest in the world (Vasudevan 153). The tower is topped off with a single spherical block of granite, which is known in Southern India as a vimana (Vasudevan 44). Pillars, piers, and pilasters are placed all around the sikhara. Inside, entire wall spaces and ceilings were covered in exquisite paintings. Unfortunately, most of the original artwork has been obstructed since the time of original conception.

The primary icon in the temple is the gigantic Siva-linga, said to be the “the largest such linga in existence” (Davis 5). The Siva-linga is the principal icon because in its highest form Siva is said to inhabit it. The linga is the geographical centre of the shrine and is considered to be the generative source of the entire temple complex (Davis 7). By installing the massive linga in the royal temple, Rajaraja wanted to identify the linga with himself. The considerably large “linga, enshrined in the most majestic temple, built by the mightiest emperor of the south, bore a direct comparison to the glory and might of the Cola monarch” (Vasudevan 159).When Rajaraja’s subjects bowed to the linga in the temple they were indirectly showing their commitment and obedience to Rajaraja. By implementing the indirect action of showing dual allegiance and submission to Siva and Rajaraja, he was able to use the spiritual aspect of the royal temple to unite Cola control over his large empire.

To serve Siva and the other gods of the temple, Rajaraja and his royal entourage made extensive donations. Among Rajaraja’s personal donations were: gold artefacts, silver objects, Myriad jewels, and land. Dancers were also supplied from other temples throughout the empire to entertain Siva.

Even in a time where Hindu kings were trying to surpass each other in the lavishness and size of their temples (between 700 and 1200 CE), no temple comes close to the Brhadisvara Temple’s opulence (Vasudevan 44). Vasudevan states that, “compared to [the Brhasdisvara], other temples were like little churches before a cathedral” (43).

Rajaraja’s son and successor, Rajendra I (reined in 1012-1044 originally with his father) extended the Cola Empire when he took power. He instigated a successful military mission that reached the Ganges. Rajendra I built a new capital city, Gangaikondacolapuram (“the city of the Cola king who took the Ganges”), and, replicating his father, he created another imperial scale Siva temple with a linga that is the largest monolithic linga in the Tamil country (Davis 6) (Vasudevan 46,106).

The Great Temple was not solely used for the purpose of worship and devotion. Personal and communal activities, the performing arts and the literary arts all took place there. The temple also functioned as an employer, a landlord, and a money lender. By these acts the Brhadisvara Temple turned into a major economic institution for Southern India.

Another difference between royal and non-royal temples is the way the administration staff was appointed/ hired. The administrative staff of the royal temple of Tanjavur worked within well-defined powers and responsibilities and were appointed directly by the government from anywhere in their territory. However, in bhakti temples the administrative workers were vested with local bodies. There were more than 800 personnel on the pay-roll of the temple (Vasudevan 93). Rajaraja was able to incorporate everything and everyone into the temple. He made the temple the centre of his empire. He brought in people from every corner of his kingdom. An example of this is that Rajaraja did not bring in resources that were close to the capital. He had material brought in from remote areas of his empire with the underlying idea that this would bring the kingdom closer together. By bringing in resources from all over the kingdom, and not just from the capital, allows different parts of his empire to come into closer interaction with each other.

A large portion of the Temple’s administrative work was done to administer grants and monitor services within the temple (Vasudevan 155). Since the administration employees were chosen by the government it was easy to obtain support of other government agencies, therefore allowing the administration of grants to occur flawlessly.

The Brhadisvara Temple had a large amount of wealth attached to it. No other temple had property, gold, and cash as much as a royal temple did. This is because King Rajaraja lavishly applied his wealth to the temple. Rajaraja used the Temple to unite the existing territories under Cola rule to the acquired territories. He combined his power by granting villages from these newly acquired regions as devadanas (gifts to the gods) to the temple. Religion had a powerful appeal to the people and Rajaraja translated this appeal into an organization that influenced and controlled various regions (Vasudevan 157). Rajaraja wanted to link every part of his realm to his temple. He made the royal temple a great organization that was worthy to be associated with his subjects. It is because of the temple’s ‘worthiness’ that his temple is a symbol of his grand empire (Vasudevan 158).


Davis, Richard H. (1991) Worshipping Siva in Medieval India. New Jersey: Princeton University Press.

Vasudevan, Geeta (2003) The Royal Temple of Rajaraja: an Instrument of Imperial Cola Power. Delhi: Shakti Malik.

Related Topics for Further Investigation








Noteworthy Websites Related to the Topic

Article written by: Kimberly Oliverio (March 2009) who is solely responsible for its content.


The four aspects of Vijayanagara that this paper will discuss are: its geographic context, its historical significance, its religious history, and its archaeological history. The city of Vijayanagara, more commonly known as Hampi, was the capital city of the Vijayanagara kingdom. It became the capital because it was built in a strategic area and it was powerful because of its positioning (Verghese 2004:421). It was constructed on a rocky area that opened up into wide valleys that further opened into fertile flat lands (see Verghese 2000:8-9). There is evidence that rulers were concerned with agriculture, and improving it. The available fertile lands of the region suggest why agriculture would have been such an important part of the ruler’s concerns (Sinopoli and Morrison 92). Another major physical feature was the Tungabhadra River because it provided water for the people and for agriculture. The placement of the city near the waterway and the fertile land allowed it to grow into an important and powerful.

Temple Courtyard with Hanuman relief, Vijayanagar

Historically the kingdom of Vijayanagara along with the capital city had been greatly influential. In 1328 CE South India was controlled by one common force but eventually independent states started to appear as a result of the successful revolts that were taking place (Verghese 2000:1). These independent states included the Vijayanagara kingdom and the Bahmani Sultanate (Verghese 2000:1). With the Vijayanagara kingdom emerging as a powerful kingdom the dominant and strategically placed city Vijayanagara, was named as the capital. Three dynasties ruled the Vijayanagara kingdom. They were the Sangama, Saluva, and Tuluva dynasties (Verghese 2000:1). The Sangama dynasty expanded the kingdom southward through a number of conquests and it was the first king, Harihara I, who built and expanded the kingdom from coast to coast (Verghese 2000:1). At the same time the Bahmani kingdom was emerging on the other side of the Krishna River. The emergence of this kingdom created an epoch of constant warfare between the two (Verghese 2000:1). When Harihara II took the throne he continued with the success of Harihara I and expanded the Vijayanagara kingdom over all of Southern India (Verghese2000:1-2). Throughout the kingdom’s existence it was ruled by many different kings, but of them all Krsnadevaraya was the greatest. He was a very good monarch and his armies were successful in every feat they took on (Verghese 2000:2). He and his brother Achuytadeveraya expanded and strengthened the kingdom (Sinopoli and Morrison 85). The great kings that headed the Vijayanagara kingdom were the reason the kingdom was so successful. One of the last kings to rule, King Ramaraya made alliances with the Deccan Sultanate which allowed the kingdom to expand even further. The kingdom’s increasing power made the Deccan Sultanate uneasy and a battle soon broke out (Verghese 2000:3). The Vijayanagara army was defeated in January 1565 at the battle of Talikota, which resulted in the sacking of the capital city (Verghese 2004:417). This defeat led to the desertion of Vijayanagara along with the loss of the northern territories eventually causing the collapse of the kingdom because it was not able to recover (Verghese 2000:3).

The capital city was established in the fourteenth century and was similar to the kingdom because it became a very large and wealthy city relatively quickly. It is known as the “city of victory” which was named after the fabulous city that was built by Bukkha I (Sharma 1255 and Verghese 2000:42). The city eventually reached an area of three hundred and fifty square kilometers, which included everything from city houses to farm land. The city served as a major population center, a marketplace, a sacred place, and a military center (Sinopoli and Morrison 92). There were many temples found within the city; in fact most monuments were religious, civil, or military. There was also evidence of some Islamic influences found on these buildings and monuments (see Sharma 1255). The temples, upper class houses, and fortifications were subsidized by the king or other upper class individuals (Sinopoli and Morrison 86). After the defeat at Talikota, Vijayanagara was looted and occupied by the enemies. The city was then sifted through by vandals and finally natural forces took over, leaving the city in a state of ruin, as it is today (Sharma 1255).

Temple Ruins at Vijayanagar

Religiously the city has numerous connections. The city contains numerous Hindu temples but also contains three Jaina temples (Sharma 1255). The most important Hindu temples are the Vaishnava Ramachandra and the Shaiva Virupkaksha (Sharma 1255). The towers, pavilions, and stables contain the evidence of Islamic influence. Evidence also shows that for over one thousand years there was a lot of religious activity (Verghese 2004:416). [For more on religion within the kingdom see Verghese (2000)]. It is evident that public rituals were practiced in the city because processional routes and platforms were found (Sinopoli and Morrison 87). Concerning the history of the city, local beliefs tend to deviate from scholars’ beliefs. This is seen in the belief that Vijayanagara is Kishkindha, kingdom of the monkey kings, from the great Hindu epic the Ramayana (see Verghese 2004:421).Locals believe this story and although there is a strong tie to Rama within the city there is no actual evidence that proves Vijayanagara is tied to the epic in any way.Along with a strong tie to Rama, Vijayanagara also has closely related sacred ties to Siva (Sinopoli and Morrison 85).There are a great number of opinions on the religious aspect of Vijayanagara but not all of them are proven.

Archaeologically the site is magnificent because it is rare for archaeologists to be able to study an entire city; usually they only get to study bits and pieces. The earliest archaeological documentation is from 1800 and by the 1970s there were some systematic research and documentation projects initiated (Sinopoli and Morrison 87). It was not until the 1980s that major excavations started to occur. These excavations included surface mapping and documentation by the Karnataka Directorate of Archaeology and Museums and the Archaeology Survey of India (Sinopoli and Morrison 87). Archaeologists used two techniques: excavation and surface archaeology (Sharma 1255). In 1987 the Vijayanagara Metropolitan Survey studied unrecorded items and tried to look at the broader environment by looking at roads, irrigation networks, shrines, and temples (Sinopoli and Morrison 87). They provided a wealth of new information that could not be found in texts. Archaeological evidence proves that the city dates back to Neolithic times, based on the neoliths and handmade pottery found (Verghese 2000:9). Archaeologists also found that a number of the remains were burnt or heat cracked proving that the city or at least parts of it were burnt (Verghese 2004:417). Processional paths along with platforms were also discovered proving that there were ritual procedures occurring within Vijayanagara (Sinopoli and Morrison 87). Although the site was not really excavated until around 1975, it is fairly well preserved. The good preservation is a result of the capital’s abandonment because there were no people left to change, modify or destroy buildings. Therefore, it is mostly natural forces that have affected the site. The city was robbed of all its treasures but the buildings are still in good shape and an archaeologist can find a lot of information from the remaining structures, soil, and debris. The city was important in antiquity and that importance carried on to the present as it is currently seen as a World Heritage Site.

References and Further Recommended Reading

Anila, Verghese. (2000) Archaeology, art, and religion : new perspectives on Vijayanagara. New Delhi; New York: Oxford University Press.

Anila, Verghese. (2004) Deities, Cults and Kings at Vijayanagara. Oxfordshire: Taylor and Francis, Ltd.

Michell, George. (2008) Vijayanagara: splendor in ruins. New Delhi: Alkazi Collection of Photography.

Morrison, Kathleen D. (1995) Fields of victory: Vijayanagara and the course of intensification. University of California, Berkley. Archaeological Research Facility.

Sharma, Jagdish P. (1986) Where Kings and Gods Meet : The Royal Centre at Vijayanagara, India. Tucson: University of Arizona Pr.

Sinopoli, C. M., and K. D. Morrison. (1995) Dimensions of Imperial Control the Vijayanagara Capital. Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishing.

Stein, Burton. (1989) Vijayanagara. New York: Cambridge University Press.

Venkata, Ramanayya N. (1990) Vijayanagara: origin of the city and the empire. New Delhi: Asian Educational Services.

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Written by Lindy Holthe (Spring 2009), who is solely responsible for its content.