South Indian architecture or more profoundly known as the Dravidian architecture, is a type of temple architecture that was predominantly followed in most parts of southern India during the early medieval period. Variations of this architectural style were utilized in various parts of South India. This architectural style got more evolved and refined over time under different reigns and influences. The south Indian Dravidian architecture seems to be an ode to the rich cultural, artistic, and literary sensibilities and heritage of south India that is represented through the multiple features of the buildings such as paintings, sculptures, inscriptions, and carvings.
Pallava – early 4th century to late 9th century
Fondly known as the early stage of Dravidian architecture or south Indian architecture, the architectural style features rock-cut structures, free-standing structural shrines in the form of temples, monoliths, and caves. Pallavas being serious seafarers, had rich cultural and artistic sensibilities that were implemented in the form of paintings in the sithannavasal caves that stands as a testament to their exquisite brushwork. This architectural period can be categorized into two phases and four different styles. The UNESCO recognized world heritage site, Mahabalipuram is one of the most famous works of the Pallava dynasty’s architecture that was constructed during the reign of Narasimhavarman. The stone carving traditions of the area are still being kept alive through local artisans and have attracted travelers worldwide.
1. Mahendra style – 610 – 640 AD
The architectural style during the period of Mahendravarman of the Pallava dynasty is identified as the Mahendra style that can be segregated into three periods that are acknowledged by massive pillars that have their top and bottom parts squared with an octagonal central part. One of the significant features of the cave temples during this period is the inscriptions that were mostly dedicated verses. The structures included mandaps while the fundamental elements included pillared halls and shrines cut into walls based on the orientation to detect the main façade, a small cell at the center, and back and flat or sloping roof considering the area’s rainfall.
2. Mamalla/Narasimha style – 640 – 690 AD
The name Mamalla comes from Narasimhavarman-I, the successor of Mahendravarman. The precursor style was improvised with slender pillars and squatting lions. Sculptural mandaps and monolithic rathas were significant parts of the Mamalla style. The structures also consisted of an open gallery style with several miniature sculptures carved out of giant rocks in the walls. This style was a testament to Pallavas glorious art and architecture. The Pancha rathas of this style are world-famous.
3. Rajasimha style – 690 – 800 AD
Narasimhavarman-I’s successor Narasimhavarman-II was known as Rajasimha Pallava and hence the name for the style. During this period, masonry temples took over rock-cut temples that had rampant instead of squatting lions. Ornamentation was a key feature of this style that paved the way for more intricate sculptures. Many temples were built during this architectural period among which the shore temples are one of the most famous ones.
4. Nandivarman style – 800 – 900 AD
A lot of temples were constructed also during the Nandivarman style. This architectural style got professed as matured and defined. One of the most famous works of this style is the Vaikunta Perumal temple at Kanchipuram. It is known that this style laid the foundation and provided models for the Brihadeeswarar Temple of the Cholas at Thanjavur.
Chalukya/Vesara style – 6th to 13th century
Prevalent in Karnataka during the early medieval period, this south Indian architectural style was started by the Chalukyas of Badami during the period of 500-753 AD that was further refined by the Rashtrakuthas of Manyakheta during the period of 750-983 AD. Although there is proof of continuity, some recognize the vesara style only from the western Chalukya period that dated from 983 – 1195 AD that was succeeded by the Hoysala empire during 1000 – 1350 AD. This style is considered to be a mix of northern and southern architectural styles known as the Nagara and Dravidian styles of architecture.
The features included carved pillars, door frames, and ceilings. Vimana and Mandapas are significant elements of this style, while covered ambulatory around sanctums was not. It is also believed there were Buddhist influences in their design that later evolved during the later Chalukyas. This architecture is also known as Deccan architecture.
Chola architecture – 900 – 1150 AD
The architecture style of the Chola dynasty was a continuously improved and refined form of Dravidian art and architecture, in other words, a fully developed Dravidian style of architecture or south Indian architecture. Built entirely of stone, Daraupadas and Ganas were some of the most vital figures in these temples. Modest proportions, simpler exteriors, and well-dressed granite were significant features of this architectural style.
Other than that, it also included bronze sculptures. Not only temples but other public spaces such as hospitals were also constructed during this period based on this architectural style. The largest and tallest shiva temple of Tanjore was one of the most famous buildings constructed during this period.
Pandyan architecture – 1100 – 1350 AD
This style bloomed along the end of the Sangam age, rock-cut and structural temples were noteworthy buildings of this style that were characterized by simplicity in style, internal sculptures, vimana, and mandapas. Finely sculpted idols and gopurams on the vimanas were introduced in the later period of this style. Ranganathasamy temple is a relevant example of this south Indian architectural style.
Kerala architecture – 12th century
The architectural style of Kerala of the Chera dynasty is a contrasting style to the Dravidian architectural style that was followed in most parts of south India during that time. The modifications evolved concerning the climatic, geographical conditions of the state along with influences from major maritime partners like Chinese, Arabs, and Europeans. It was greatly influenced by Vedic architectural sciences in the construction of religious and domestic architecture. Stone, timber, clay, and palm leaves were widely preferred materials for this style. Multi building concepts came into existence during a much later period.
Vijayanagara style – 1336 – 1565 AD
This style is a mix of Chalukya, Hoysala, Pandava, and Chola styles with a more simplistic structural style. The concept of secular buildings was introduced during this period. The features of this architectural style included enlarged gopurams, high walls, motif, or supernatural horse sculptures with a more decorative approach. Other than new creations, modifications of existing structures were also a big part of this period. Vittalaswami temple at Hampi is a great example of this architectural style.
Nayak style – 16th – 18th century
Predominant in Madurai and Tanjore, this south Indian architectural style is a mix of Dravidian and Islamic styles. Hundred and thousand pillared mandaps were a significant part of this style along with Prakarn (huge corridors), ambulatory passageways. Interior carvings were also a quintessential feature of this style. Meenakshi temple at Madurai is a great example of this architectural style.