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Visitors at a South Indian Temple

By Renata Nathania

You know you are in South India, especially parts of peninsular India, if you are surrounded by elaborate rock structures and colorful, tall temples. In the south, even the smallest temple that is erected at the corner of a city square is intricately designed. Most of them are made from stone or boulders, perhaps owing to the availability of large rock massed in the Deccan plateau. While this temple architecture is predominant in the southernmost tip of India, most parts of the erstwhile Pandya, Chola, and Vijayanagar kingdoms boast of this heritage.


Temples in the south, are an extravagant affair. There is an outer courtyard, and multiple structures in the center that must be visited in a certain order according to the Vaastu Shastra. Historians have noted that the horizontal outline of a temple in South India usually follows the outline of the human body while it is lying down. The entrance gate represents the feet, the various halls represent the abdomen and chest, and the sanctum represents the head. Long lines outside the temple on special occasions, do not shorten quickly because devotees have to cover a large distance within the temple courtyard on foot, and are required to perform certain rituals at each part of the structure.


Southern temples are a prominent legacy of Southermn Indian Dynasties. The intricate designs and depictions on Gopurams. UnsplashUnsplash


The main feature of the Southern temples that makes them stand out is the tall pyramid structure which bears sculptures from top to bottom. These are called gopurams or vimanas depending on where they are situated. Gopurams are the tallest parts of the temple, usually at the entrance, a large and often colorful structure. There are many levels on a gopuram, and the art on each level depicts a story from myth or the scriptures. Some gopurams reach up to 200 feet. The structure at the Brihadeeshvara temple of Thanjavur, Tamil Nadu, rises up to 216 feet.

The vimana is a structure that is equally elaborate but it is much shorter than the gopuram. It is usually mounted on top of a square structure inside which is the sanctum. The vimana began to get shorter across the period of decline of the Chola dynasty and is said to be a marker of their prestigious heritage. Many Chola structures are names UNESCO heritage sites of the Chola empire, which was considered a glorious period for art and architecture in the South.

Gopuram are usually carved from a large block of soapstone or granite. Each storey is called hara or kalasa, which is also considered a miniature shrine. They are painted with bright colors, or lined with gold. When the Chola kingdom fell, the Pandyas who took over, built gopurams for all the temples. Most temples have four gopurams, which serve as gateways in each of the four directions. Entry through the east gate is considered most sacred as if will free the one who enters from the cycle of rebirth.


Keywords: Temples, Gopurams, South India, Vimanas, Architecture


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