Category Archives: South Indian

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.

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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.

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.