Dravidian architecture, characterized as the evolution in the Southern India Temple architecture, can be broken into four distinct phases; Pallavan Period from 600 AD-900AD which featured rock-cut cave-like temples; Chola Style (900-1150 AD), which was the peak in Dravidian Style Temple architecture, Pandya Style (1100-1350AD), Vijayanagara Style (1350-1565 AD), and the Nayak/ Madura Style (1600 AD onwards)

Origin | Dravidian Style Temple

Dravidian temple architecture was pioneered in the Southern Indian states of Karnataka, Northern Tamil Nadu, and Andhra Pradesh by the Pallavas. These temples were initially called Mandap that later became Rathas. This particular style of architecture reached its pinnacle between the 8th and 12th centuries when the Dravidian Temple became the administrative centre for vast tracts of land. During the Chola Empire, magnificent temples like the Temple of Shiva at Thanjavur (Tanjore) were constructed. These temples functioned as religious and educational centres on land donated by local leaders.

An earlier example of a Dravidian-style temple is Kanchipuram Temple; its large granite rock foundations support the superstructure with sandstone carvings. Initially, the temple only featured a pyramidal Vimana and detached Mandapa. Later it became a complete complex when the mandapa was incorporated into the main shrine by interposing it as a smaller hall. Its repetitive columns featured mythical carvings of lions with the tower or Shikara at the centre of the complex. This central shikhara placed atop the sanctum santorum had a square plan and a pyramidal rise.

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Features of the temple

The different types of Dravidian temples are square, called Kuta, rectangle or shala, and elliptical style called Gaja –Prishta (Elephant backed). These shapes are often combined in different combinations to create a wholly unique style for specific periods. Entrances also take inspiration from other architectural traditions, like the Buddhist stupas that inspired the apsidal shrines with the chaitya arch as a decorative motif.

There are also two sub-styles within the Dravidian Temple architecture, namely Nayaka and Vijayanagar, that developed during the rule of the Vijayanagar Kings. 12th century onwards, the temple was fortified with three square concentric walls and gates on both sides. The entrance gate of the temple was called Gopuram and had a tower like Vimana that was smaller than the one observed over the main shrine. 

The crowning element of the temple was the octagonal Shikhara, referred to as Vimana. It is like a stepped pyramid with a geometric rise as opposed to the curving shikhara of North India. Several stucco figures were created over the multi-storied Vimana that also featured a dome-shaped octagonal stupa (Shikhara) with a kalasha.

Distinct features in the temple architecture were the large water reservoirs within the walls of the complex, a large congregation space called Mandap that was a large collonaded hall or portico, the antarala (vestibule) that led into the Garbhagriha which had images of Dwarapala (tutelary deity structure) and was a cave-like sanctum holding the central position in the complex. Other than the main temple, there can be smaller subsidiary temples that are either incorporated within the main or are distinct small shrines. The central shrine was usually completed in Nagara style and featured a chief deity. Nataraja in Tandava Dance Posture is an important Chola sculpture that has been found in Dravidian temples. Some of the features of this bronze metal sculpture are the figure of Shiva dancing on the figure of a small dwarf, drums in the upper left of the right hand, lower left hand pointing towards the upraised foot, and the snake around Shiva’s arm signifying Kundalini power.

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Pillar in Airavatesvara Temple Darasuram Thanjavur district_KARTY Jazz

There were several sub-styles within the Dravidian Temple architecture, like the Nayaka style, which incorporated a corridor with a roofed ambulatory passageway to the temple. The Vijayanagara style also had several defining features, like the slightly enlarged Gopuram at the entrance and higher enclosure walls. Another marked addition was the motif of mythical horses done in a highly decorative manner.  

At some of the most sacred temples in South India, the main temple in which the garbhagriha is situated has, in fact, one of the smallest Vimana towers, as it was often the oldest part of the temple. The Dravidian Temple architecture was most sophisticated during the Chola period when it moved away from the cave-like temples of the Pallava period. During this time, the main features of the Vimana were its square base and pyramidal tapering, which is apparent in the design of Brihadeeswara Temple Thajur, where the 13 diminishing stories of the Vimana feature an apex that is 1/3rd the base. The feature was built without any binding material using only interlocking stones that have survived crack free to this day. These temples utilized precise mathematical calculations, and the basic unit for the temple’s layout was taken from the main deity, Linga. For instance, the height of the Vimana was twice the plinth of the sanctum.

Brihadeeswara_Fodors Travel Guide

Temple architecture of South India got patronage from Chola Rulers. Shiva Temple (Rajarajeswara) was completed in 1009 by Rajaraja the great and is the largest and tallest among the temples built in this style. Other examples include Annamalaiyar Temple in Tiruvannamalai, Tamil Nadu, Meenakshi temple, Tamil Nadu, Airavatesvara temple, and the Kaillashnath temple at Ellora. To this day, around 100 temples from the Chola period survive to this day. 


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Fresh out of architecture school Ana is actively exploring the intersection between architecture and planning in her role as an Urban Designer in Lahore. Questions of inclusive planning systems in the south Asian context with a focus on climate change ,affordability and gender are her key areas of research.