Category Archives: South Indian

Nagara and Dravida Temples

The nagara and dravida temples are mostly identified with the northern and southern temple styles respectively. The terms nagara, and dravida which are found in the Sastra texts do not function as all-embracing stylistic categories, but indicate a general impulse to classify temples according to their typological features (Michell 88). [for discussions of nagara and dravida terminology for classifying temples see Kramrisch 1991]. Discussing the role that religion plays in the day to day life of a Hindu is imperative to the history of the architectural choices. The rituals and ceremonies that lie at the very core of the religious life of Hinduism, as well as the more elusive ideas and beliefs that accompany divine personages, have fundamentally influenced the forms of temple architecture (Michell 61).

An important aspect of the design of the ground plan is that it is intended to lead from the temporal world to the eternal. A typical Hindu temple consists of the following major elements – an entrance, often with a porch, one or more attached or detached mandapas or halls; the inner sanctum called the garbhagrha, literally “womb chamber”; and the tower build directly above the garbhagrha. “The fundamental preoccupation of Hindu thought is with mans release (moksha) from an illusory world into which he is recurringly born. The architecture of the Hindu temple symbolically represents this quest by setting out to dissolve the boundaries between man and the divine” (Michell 61). [Information can be found on these symbolic ideas and beliefs are found in the Epics and the Puranas, see Michell 1977] For the upper classes this place of contact was usually the temple, in the form of either daily worship or a special occasion or celebration. “To the traditional Hindu the religious and the secular life are never truly distinguished, and the ordinary procedures of everyday life necessitate frequent contacts with the divine” (Michell 49).

There is ancient literature that describes to the reader the merit that is due to the patron of a temple- a motivator for one to build such a place: “Let him who wishes to enter the worlds that are reached by meritorious deeds of piety and charity build a temple to the gods” suggests the Brhatsamhita, while a later text Silpaprakasa –a manuscript specifically on temple buildings “ensures that the patron will always have peace, wealth, grain and sons” (Michell 60). Fame and immortality might have been a motivator to build a grand temple, Michell suggests that such an idea is mentioned in the Silpaprakasa; “everything vanishes with time, only a monument lasts forever” (Michell 60). [For more information on the Silpaprakasa and Brhatsamhita see Dowson 1982].

The distinct temple style which emerges is the nagara style, which is typically characterized by its distinctive sikhara, a superstructure or tower.

A Nagara sikhara (Meister, 1989-99)

The typical Hindu temple of northern India, the Nagara temple consists of a small square-shaped sanctuary called the garbhagrha, housing the main image, preceded by one or more adjoining pillared porches or halls, which are connected to the sanctum by an open or closed vestibule. The entrance doorway of the sanctum is usually richly decorated with figures and geometric ornamentation. Above the main sanctuary rises the superstructure (sikhara), which is usually curvilinear in outline and possessing smaller rectilinear sikharas. The whole may be raised on a terrace (jagati) with attendant shrines at the corners (Meister 1979).

A nagara temple plan(Meister, 1979).

One typical form of the North Indian style is seen in the early temples at Orissa, such as the graceful 8th-century Parasuramesvara Temple at Bhubaneswar, a city that was a great centre of temple-building activity.

South Indian temple architecture, or dravida, style—with its commanding gopuras (gateways)—can be seen in the Rajarajesvara and the Gangaikondacolapuram temples. This style is characterized by its pyramidal, or kutina-type, tower superstructure (Michell 1979­).

Dravida temple outline as well as example of its kutina-type, tower superstructure (Tartakov, 1980)

The South Indian temple consists essentially of a square-chambered sanctuary topped by a superstructure, tower, and an attached pillared porch or hall (mandapa, or mantapam), within a rectangular court. The external walls of the temple are segmented by pilasters and carry niches housing sculpture (Branfoot 2002). The superstructure above the sanctuary consists of an arrangement of gradually receding stories in a pyramidal shape. Each story is defined by a wall of miniature shrines, square at the corners and rectangular with barrel-vault roofs at the centre. The tower is topped by a dome-shaped cupola and a crowning pot and finial. The South Indian style became increasingly elaborate—the complex of temple buildings enclosed by the court became larger, and a number of successive enclosures, each with its own gateway (gopura), were added (Michell 1977). [Information on the dravida style of temples can be found in Tartakov 1977]

Repetition is inevitably one of the factors that explain the stylistic evolutions of Hindu temples. The southern temples created their wall systems by the repetition of projections that framed the recesses working its way up the wall, there were pairs of pilasters marking each change in the wall plane. The dravida style developed a complex system of breaking up the plane of the wall into little straight sections until the temple plan almost approaches a circle (Michell 1977). Fundamental characteristics of these temples is the choice of architectural forms and how many of these details continue to be used in different way other then their original purpose. For example, the northern (naraga) temples used the horseshoe shaped for arched windows, however it can be found on later temples superimposed into the mouldings or onto the superstructure decorations.

The temple as one can see plays an extremely important role in the lives of everyday Hindus. When one takes a deeper look at the various aspects of the temple; style, purpose as well


Branfoot, Crispin. ‘Expanding Form’: The Architectural Sculpture of the South Indian Temple, ca.1500-170. Artibus Asiae, Vol. 62, No. 2. (2002), pp. 189-245.

Dowson, John. (1982) A Classical Dictionary of Hindu Mythology and Religion, Geography, History and Literature. Calcutta: Rupa & Co.

Lahiri ,Nayanjot; Elisabeth A. Bacus. Exploring the Archaeology of Hinduism

World Archaeology, Vol. 36, No. 3, The Archaeology of Hinduism. (Sep., 2004), pp. 313-325.

Meister, Michael. (1988-89) Prasada as Palace: Kutina Origins of the Nagara Temple. Artibus Asiae, Vol. 49, No. 3/4. (1988 – 1989), pp. 254-280.

Meister, Michael. Matala and Practice in Nagara Architecture in North India

Journal of the American Oriental Society, Vol. 99, No. 2. (Apr. – Jun., 1979), pp. 204-219.

Michell, George. (1977). The Hindu Temple: An Introduction to Its Meaning and Forms. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Sharma, Arvind. On Hindu, Hindustin, Hinduism and Hindutva Numen, Vol. 49, No. 1. (2002),pp.1-36.

Sinha ,Ajay J. Architectural Invention in Sacred Structures: The Case of Vesara Temples of Southern India. The Journal of the Society of Architectural Historians, Vol. 55, No. 4.

(Dec., 1996), pp. 382-399.

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

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Written by Maddie Fache (Spring 2008) who is solely responsible for its content.

The Sri Minaksi Sundaresvara Temple

The Sri Minaksi Sundaresvara temple of Madurai is one of the most beautiful examples of Hindu architecture. This temple is dedicated to the god Siva and the goddess Minaksi, and was built to honour their sacred marriage.

Madurai is a city situated on the banks of the Vaigai River in the southern state of Tamil Nadu. Madurai’s skyline is principally characterized by the Sri Minaksi Sundaresvara Temple’s four major gopurams (entry towers), since “Madurai Municipal code forbids construction of any building higher than the four temple towers” (Harman 101).

The Minaksi Temple has twelve gopurams in all, four of which are main entrance points into the temple. The four outer gopurams are placed in the cardinal directions and act as portals into the sacred building. The tower portion of a gopuram is built in pyramid like fashion that stretches nine stories high. Each tower is elaborately decorated with carved stucco images and figures of suras (deities).

At the peak of each gopuram there are four Kirttimukha figures, which are statues carved in the shape of lion-headed demons. The Kirttimukha figure acts as the temple’s spiritual guardian (Kollar 15). The relationship between the Kirttimukha and Siva, and consequently the reason for the Kirttimukha’s instalment as the temple’s guard, is revealed in the following myth as told in L. Peter Kollar’s book, Symbolism in Hindu Architecture. A great titan named Jalandhara had accumulated great power (15). He sent a messenger-demon, Rahu, to challenge Siva to give up his “shining jewel of a bride” to Jalandhara (15). Siva, in his fury, emanated an energetic burst from his spiritual eye, which instantly formed into a demon with the head of a lion (15). In terror, Rahu took refuge in Siva, who told the demon to desist (15). Since the lion-headed demon had an irrepressible hunger, Siva sentenced it to eat its own flesh (15). The demon eventually ate every part of his body except his face (15). Siva “declared [to the creature]: ‘You shall be known, henceforth as Face of Glory (Kirttimukha) and I ordain that you shall abide forever at my door. Whosoever neglects to worship you shall never win my grace’ ” (15).

Hindu temples are constructed with the intention that visitors will circle through the inside in a spiral and eventually make their way to the inner sanctum (garbha-grha). Circulating through the temple prepares one mentally and spiritually for worship (puja) in the garbha-grha. Circulating through the temple towards the garbha-grha represents a journey to the “primordial womb, [and] to the primordial substance, Prakrti” (Kollar 67).

Therefore, in the Minaksi temple, after demonstrating ones respect for the Kirttimukha, and entering from the east gopuram, one encounters the Thousand Pillar Mandapam (a pillared hallway). This hallway has 985 richly chiselled pillars that display the suras that are part of the Saivite family. Some examples of suras found in the Thousand Pillar Mandapam, and the temple’s six other mandapams, are a great statue of Ganesa and Nandi, Siva’s bull mount (vahana).

After circling the inside of the temple, and absorbing the atmosphere and the artistry of the sacred building, one is ready to enter the garbha-grha. The garbha-grha is the essence of the temple, and the abode of the god of the temple’s designation. There are two garbha-grhas in the Sri Minaksi Sundaresvara Temple, one dedicated to Minaksi (the fish eyed goddess), and another dedicated to Siva, who is in the form of Lord Sundaresvara. Each of these sacred rooms is covered by gold roofing in pyramidal form; these golden pyramids symbolize Mount Kailasa, the mythical abode of Siva (Kramrisch 161). The interior of the garbha-grha has four plain walls; the only light that enters these chambers is through the entrance in the front wall (Kramrisch 162). The entrance to both Lord Sundaresvara and Sri Minaksi’s garbha-grhas face east, which indicates orthodoxy. Although it is usually dark, oil lamps are often used during ritual worship (puja). Inside these four plain walls stands a linga-yoni; this statue is the phallic and vulval symbol of Siva and his consort. It represents the erotic half of Siva’s bipolar character, creation, and Prakrti (the primordial substance).

The temple was constructed to honour the sacred marriage of Sri Minaksi and Lord Sundaresvara (Siva). Siva’s appearance, marriage, and exploits in Madurai are “narrated in a document entitled Tiruvilaiyatarpuranam” (The Story of The Sacred Games) (Harman 21). In his book, The Sacred Marriage of a Hindu Goddess, William Harman writes that the Tiruvilaiyatarpuranam describes that Malayadhvaja Pandya, the king of Madurai, has no sons and fathered only a daughter with three breasts (45). The distraught king receives orders from Siva to name his daughter Tatatakai, and to raise her as if she were a son (45). Siva also tells the king that when the woman meets her Lord, her third breast will disappear (45). After her coronation and the death of her father, Tatatakai rules as an unmarried queen, and attempts to conquer as much territory as possible (47). Her army is so impressive that even Indra fled at the sight of it in battle (47). Her army receives no resistance until an attempt to conquer Mount Kailasa goes awry at the appearance of Siva (47). When Tatatakai sees Siva for the first time her third breast disappears and she becomes bashful and passive (47). Her prophecy has come true, and she falls in love with the deity.

Siva orders her to return to Madurai, and await him there to be married; he arrives later with Brahma on his left side, and Visnu on his right. As Tatatakai’s father is dead, Visnu acts as the father of the bride during his absence (48). “Siva, who rules all the worlds, who is supreme among the thousands of deities, takes his place on the throne […] in the town of Madurai” (48).

The marriage changes the city, the Pandya Dynasty, Siva and Tatatakai; yet, “[h]er transformation is the most dramatic” (49). Her third breast disappears and she is deified as Minaksi, the fish eyed goddess (49). Her epithet of the fish eyed goddess is unflattering in western standards yet it is “complimentary in the Indian context: large, unblinking eyes with dark pupils are considered a mark of human beauty” (24).

On a superficial level, it appears that Siva possesses a more important role in Madurai than Minaksi, as his shrine in the Sri Minaksi Sundaresvara temple is larger than Minaksi’s and is located closer to the centre of the temple (23). However, it is important to note, “devotees concentrate their worship on the Goddess” (23). Her shrine is visited before Siva’s; “[i]n a strict sense, the Goddess is closer to the people” (23). “She represents qualities of nurturance, compassion, mercy, affection, and accessibility” (24). She is referred to as Mother, while Siva is addressed in less compassionate terms, as Lord (24). Another example of how Siva is subordinate to Minaksi in Madurai is in the designation of the festivals. There are twelve major parts of the annual Wedding Festival in the city; four of them are exclusively dedicated to Minaksi, while Siva enjoys no such exclusive honour (66).

The Citra Festival is the main annual celebration of Sundaresvara and Minaksi’s marriage. It is titled the Citra Festival because it takes place during Citra, a month which begins in mid-April and ends in mid-May in the Western calendar (64). The three main events of the festival celebrate Minaksi’s coronation, her conquest of the world, and her marriage (67). The celebration of her coronation occurs on the eighth day of the festival; on the ninth day, her conquest of the world is celebrated. The tenth day of the festival marks the commemoration of the wedding (66). This festival is not only the celebration of the sacred wedding; it “brings together deities and mortals, rural and urban, Saiva and Vaisnava in order to celebrate the goddess as royal monarch and the city as a sacred centre” (66).


On Hindu Temples:

Kramrisch, Stella (1946) The Hindu Temple. 2 vols. Calcutta: University of Calcutta.

Michell, George (1997) The Hindu Temple: An Introduction to its Meaning and Forms. New York: Harper & Row.

On The Sri Minaksi Sundaresvara Temple:

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

Kollar, Peter L (2001) Symbolism In Hindu Architecture: As Revealed in the Shri Meenakshi Sundareswar. New Delhi: Aryan Books International.

On the Goddess Minaksi and Hindu Mythology:

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

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The Goddess Minaksi Hindu Temples

Lord Sundaresvara Madurai

Mount Kailasa, the mythical home of Siva Hindu Marriages

Tiruvilaiyatarpuranam The Citra Festival

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Article written by Michael Stevens (April 2006), who is solely responsible for its content.