The Dravidian style of temple architecture of South India was pioneered by the Pallavas who reigned in parts of Karnataka, Andhra Pradesh, and northern Tamil Nadu until the ninth century. During the Pallava rule, rock-cut architecture was the most popular construction methodology.

Mandagapattu‘s Laksita Etna rock-cut cave temple was constructed by the Pallava king, MahendravarmanI. The Pancha Pandava caves at Pallavaram and Rudra Saleshwaram cave at Mamandur are amongst the many rock-cut constructions that bloomed during the Pallava rule. The free-standing monolith Rathas (chariots carved out of hard granite) built by King Narsimhavarman Mamalla (a Pallava king), was an important breakthrough in the evolution of Dravidian temple architecture owing to their multi-tiered structure known as Tala.

These Talas are stacked onto each other with the lower tala being wider than the upper one, making it resemble a stepped pyramid. Narsimhavarman Mamalla built a port town called Mamallapuram and carved temples out of a large boulder. Mamallapuram is what we know today as Mahabalipuram –a famous tourist destination. It is said that Mamallapuram was almost a laboratory to the Pallavas, where they experimented with various constructional and sculptural techniques.

The main shrine of the Kailasanathar temple, built in the Pallava capital Kanchipuram, features a Gopuram (temple gateway tower) and an enclosure wall known as Prakara, which surrounds the entire temple complex, with a series of smaller shrines built along its inner face. Both the Gopuram and Prakara are unique features of the Dravidian temple architecture.

History and evolution of Temple Architecture in South India -Sheet1
Lakshitayatna cave temple (Mandagapattu) ©
History and evolution of Temple Architecture in South India -Sheet2
Five Rathas at Mahaballipuram,Tamil Nadu ©
History and evolution of Temple Architecture in South India -Sheet3
Talas stacked to form a VimanaBy Ms Sarah Welch ©

After the Pallava rule came the mighty Chola dynasty. The Cholas ruled their territory for more than four centuries and had held onto their ancient capital of Uraiyur in Trichy. The Chola rule was a golden period for art and architecture. The Chola dynasty spread its influence over large portions of Thanjavur, Trichy, Mayiladuthurai, and Pudukkottai.

Having defeated the Pallavas they had a big challenge to face when it came to rule over a region that had seen the glorious rule of the Pallavas as well as their iconic rock-cut architecture and built architecture at Mamallapuram and Kanchipuram (the Pallava capital) respectively. The early medieval Chola architecture drew several concepts from the architectural style of the Pallavas. Most of the temple structures constructed by the medieval Cholas were erected using local chieftains and were entirely built in stone; found in the Pudukkottai district of Tamilnadu. VijayalayaCholeesvaram, a ninth-century Shiva temple located in Narthamalai, was named after the first Chola king Vijayala.

This temple is known for its unconventional plan where the sanctum is circular and its Prakara (enclosure wall) is square-shaped. MoovarKoil is another landmark in early medieval Chola architecture. MoovarKoil meaning temple of three Gods in Tamil is a tenth-century construction which is located at Kodumbalur near Pudukkottai. At the MoovarKoil, one can observe the transition from non-refined sculptural form to delicate sculptural figures, attributed to the Pallava influence.

History and evolution of Temple Architecture in South India -Sheet4
Kailashnathar temple By Keshav Mukund Kandhadai ©
History and evolution of Temple Architecture in South India -Sheet5
MoovarKoilBy Kasiarunachalam ©

Brihadeeswarar temples at Thanjavur and Gangaikondacholapuram are two of the greatest examples of Dravidian architecture. Both the temples are massive structures constructed out of large blocks of granite. An astonishing fact about this temple is that its sixteen storeyed Vimana (diminishing pyramid) is topped by a massive stone weighing eighty thousand kilograms. It is a mystery to this day as to how such a heavy stone was lifted to such a great height.

History and evolution of Temple Architecture in South India -Sheet6
Brihadeesvara Temple ©
History and evolution of Temple Architecture in South India -Sheet7
Nandi-an unique feature of Dravidian architecture ©

The Dravida architecture reached its peak at the time when the power of the Cholas started declining. The Pyramidal Vimana is placed on a square base, the Vimana tower structures are constructed by superimposing diminishing storeys over one another, the Hara (a horizontal row on each storey consisting of miniature shrines) are distinct features of South India’s Dravidian architecture. In the Dravida temple design, the main structure is divided into Garbhagriha (Sanctum), Mahamandapa (closed hall), Mandapa (semi-closed hall), Ardha Mandapa (porch), and Natya Mandapa (for classical dance performances). Gopurams (temple gateway towers) are one of the most distinctive features of the Dravidian temples. Both Vimanas and Gopurams have had their pyramidal structure divided into many diminishing storeys. An enclosure wall is known as Prakara that encompassed the entire temple complex within. Depending on the size of the temple, the number of concentric Prakaras is chosen. A water tank near the temple for ritualistic purposes and large Nandis (gate-guardian deity of Kailasa, the abode of Lord Shiva) with a mandapa of their own, are other overwhelming features of the Dravidian form.

History and evolution of Temple Architecture in South India -Sheet8
Arakeshwara temple and outer prakara, Mysore ©

After the collapse of the Cholas in the nineteenth century, the Pandyas came back to power. However, Pandyas did not focus on creative architecture unlike the Cholas and rather concentrated on building Gopurams to the existing temples. The main contribution of Pandyas was on the development of temple gateways; they constructed the gateways at the Jambukeshwara temple and the eastern Gopuram of the Thillai Nataraja temple.

Vijayanagara Empire that came into being in 1336 CE, though concentrated on building new temples in and around their capital Hampi, also made significant additions to older existing Pallavaand Chola temples by constructing high gopurams known as Raya Gopurams and Kalyana mandapam (marriage halls). An important example of the Vijayanagara era is the Hall of Thousand Pillars in Ranganathaswamy temple at Srirangam constructed during the years 1336–1565 CE. The pillars are beautifully carved with sculptures of wildly rearing horses bearing riders on their backs.

Jambukesvara temple By Ssriram Mt 4.0 ©
History and evolution of Temple Architecture in South India -Sheet10
Hall of Thousand Pillars in Ranganathaswamy temple at Srirangam ©
Madurai Meenakshi Amman temple ©

After the collapse of the Vijayanagara Empire, various Nayakas (the militants of the Vijaynagar Empire) were declared independent. These Nayaka rulers include the Thanjavur Nayakas, Gingee Nayaks, and Madurai Nayaks. The Nayaka rulers continued the legacy of their previous masters and added glory to the existing temple complexes by building various halls and gopurams. The southern Gopuram at Madurai’s Meenakshi Amman temple is undoubted, one of the most significant contributions to the development of Gopurams by the Nayakas. The collapse of the Vijayanagara Empire and the declaration of independence of various Nayakas under them marked the last phase of the ever-living Dravidian temple architecture of Southern India.


Sowmya is an architectural journalist and writer. In this column, Sowmya takes you through stories on eco-architecture, biophilic design, and green buildings from across the globe.