Temples have been central to Hindu society since time immemorial and so has temple architecture. Even though each dynasty gave its specialized touch, the core architectural features remain the same. On the basis of their architectural styles, temple architecture may be classified as Nagara (north), Dravida (south), and Vesara (mixed).
The key features of Hindu temples across Bharat irrespective of the architectural style employed in constructing them are:
Garbhagriha (the main part of the temple that houses the vigraha of the chief deity)
Mandapa (portico or columned hall where devotees gather for prayers)
Shikara or Vimana (spire rising like a mountain is known as Shikara in the north and Vimana in the south)
Amalaka (disc made of stone atop which the Kalash sits, found mainly in northern temples)
Kalash (pot-shaped structure above the Amalaka forming the temple’s apex)
Antarala or vestibule (transitional passageway connecting the garbhagriha and mandapa)
Jagati (raised platform on which the temple is constructed)
Vahana & Dhvaja Sthamba (every deity has a Vahana (vehicle) and every temple houses the vigraha of the temple’s chief deity’s Vahana along with the Dhvaj pillar).
Ancient Vastu Shastra texts acknowledge the Dravida architectural style while enlisting it as one of the three styles of temple construction. 5th to 7th Century CE Mayamata and Manasara texts are Shilpa Shastra texts that serve as guidebooks of design, construction, sculpture, and joinery techniques of the Dravidian style. Isanasivagurudeva paddati is a ninth-century text on the art of building, particularly in the south and central Bharat.
Tamil and Sanskrit scriptures that are known as Agamas or Agama Shastras form the basis for Dravidian/Dravida architecture. They lay down the methods of temple construction and murti creation means of worshipping, philosophical doctrines, and meditative practices.
There are several features that distinguish temple architecture in the southern part of Bharat:
Gopuram: The most important of these is the huge entrance gateway known as the Gopuram that is placed at the center of the front wall. Every enclosure boundary wall has its own Gopuram and hence we find multiple Gopurams in several temples which stems from the fact that as the population expanded additional boundary walls were added to the original structure. It must also be noted that usually, the most recent structure has the tallest Gopuram.
Garbhagriha: is the central part of the temple which houses the main deity. It is located within the smallest tower which is also the oldest. The Garbhagriha entrance had figures of Dwarpals unlike Ganga/Mithuna figures of the Nagara style. Subsidiary shrines were also located inside or next to the main shrine/inner sanctum.
The pitha or pedestal of the principal deity located within the Garbhagriha is the most sacred part of the temple. As per the shastras, the Garbhagriha must be the first part of the temple, and the garbha-dana or garbha-nyasa ceremony must be performed before starting the construction.
Mandapa: Besides the subsidiary shrines, Mandapas and pillared corridors surrounded the main sanctum. They were roofed, open, or enclosed pillared halls that were either independent or connected to the sanctum. There were one or more Mandapas leading to the inner sanctum. A Mukha Mandapa is a rectangular hall right in front of the sanctum for devotees to take the darshan of the chief deity.
Vimana: is the stepped pyramid that rises up geometrically rather than the curved Shikara of the Nagara style. Southern temples have a single Vimana on the main shrine that rises up several stories. It is crowned by a Trishul in Bhagwan Shiva temples and Chakra in temples dedicated to Bhagwan Vishnu.
Shikara: is the term used for the crowning structure atop the temple that appears like an octagonal cupola or stupika in shape.
Tank: Generally, every temple has a tank located within its compound.
Other structures: within the temple are pradakshina-patha (circumambulatory path), treasury, choultries or chawdis (pillared halls used for different purposes), paka-sala (kitchen), ugrana (storeroom), dining hall, and bali-pitha (platform for food offerings). Each temple has a ratha (chariot) that is used to carry the utsava-murti (festive vigraha) around the streets during important occasions. Some temples even have a nandavana (flower garden).
On the basis of their shape, temples are divided into the following categories:
1. Kuta or Caturasra: square-shaped
2. Shala or Ayatasra: rectangular-shaped
3. Gaja-prishta or vrittayata or elephant-backed: elliptical
4. Vritta: circular
5. Ashtasra: octagonal
The schools of Dravidian architecture have their origin in the ruling dynasties. From the brick temples of the Sangam period to the elaborate architectural wonders of the Cholas, Cheras, Pallavas, Pandyas, and Hoysalas among others, the Dravidian architectural style is both varied and awe-inspiring. We shall take a brief look at four of these – Pallava, Chola, Vijayanagara, and Nayaka.
Pallava school of architecture
Pallava architecture developed in four phases beginning from 600 CE during the rule of Mahendravarman (600-625 CE). In the initial stages, there were only rock-cut caves and not real temple structures. During Narsimhavarman’s reign decorations were added to the rock-cut caves and the mandapas evolved into ratha style structures. It was during Rajsimhavarman’s (700-728 CE) that real temple structures constructed in masonry and stone took shape. Nandivarman introduced the concept of small temples comprising of all distinguishing features of what is today known as the Dravidian/Dravida style.
Chola school of architecture
During the Sangam period, the Chola kings raised temples of brick while the later Cholas commissioned elaborate stone temples. They revived the Pallava architectural style while adding their special touch to it. Chola temples have both circular and square-shaped sanctums. Gopurams were crowned with dome-shaped Shikara and Kalash.
The inner portions of the sanctum and external walls were beautified with exquisite sculptures. It is the sculptures and ornamental works that are the most distinguishing features of Chola architecture. Elaborate carvings on the gopurams, pillared mandapas, massive Shivlingas, Nandi-mandapas, and huge gopurams are some of the features. The walls of Chola temples carried sculptures and inscriptions. Scenes from Ramayana, Mahabharata, Puranas and the lives of the 63 Nayanmars are sculptured in narrative panels on temple walls.
Brihadeeswara Temple by Rajaraja I Chola and Gangaikonda Cholapuram by Rajendra I Chola are excellent examples of Chola architectural styles.
Vijayanagara school of architecture
This school came into existence around the sixteenth century. The distinct features of this school were larger gopurams and high enclosed walls. Open pavilion and central raised platform surrounded by rows of carved pillars were its other features. Krishnadevaraya has been credited with the construction of numerous temples, pillared halls, and Gopurams known as Rayagopurams.
Nayaka school of architecture
Nayakas were vassals of the Vijayanagara rulers who inherited and continued the architectural legacy of their overlords. A large tank surrounded by steps and a pillared portico is one of the unique features of Nayaka architecture. Another prominent feature that sets this school apart is the development of the roofed circumambulatory path (prakaram) connecting the various parts of the temple.