Category Archives: 2. The Dravidian Style of Hindu Temple

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.