No Indian state is more dominated by its temples than Tamil Nadu, where temple architecture catalogues the tastes of successive dynasties and testifies to the centrality of religion in everyday life. Most temples are built in honour of Shiva, Vishnu and their consorts; all are characterized not only by their design and sculptures, but also by constant activity: devotion, dancing, singing, pujas, festivals and feasts. Each is tended by brahmin priests, recognizable by their dhotis (loincloths), a sacred thread draped over the right shoulder, and marks on the forehead. One to three horizontal (usually white) lines distinguish Shaivites; vertical lines (yellow or red), often converging into a near-V shape, are common among Vaishnavites.

Dravida architecture

Dravida, the temple architecture of Tamil Nadu, first took form in the Pallava port of Mamallapuram. A step-up from the cave retreats of Hindu and Jain ascetics, the earliest Pallava monuments were mandapas, shrines cut into rock faces and fronted by columns. This sculptural skill was transferred to freestanding temples, rathas, carved out of single rocks and incorporating the essential elements of Hindu temples: the dim inner sanctuary, the garbhagriha, capped with a modest tapering spire featuring repetitive architectural motifs.

Chola architecture

Pallava themes were developed in Karnataka by the Chalukyas and Rashtrakutas, but it was the Shaivite Cholas who spearheaded Tamil Nadu’s next architectural phase, in the tenth century. In Thanjavur, Rajaraja I created the Brihadishvara Temple principally as a status symbol; its proportions far exceed any attempted by the Pallavas. Set within a vast walled courtyard, the sanctuary, fronted by a small mandapa, stands beneath a sculpted vimana that soars more than 60m high. Most sculptures once again feature Shiva, but the gopuras each side of the eastern gateway to the courtyard were an innovation, as were the lions carved into the base of the sanctuary walls, and the pavilion erected over Nandi in front of the sanctuary.

Vijayanagar architecture

By the time of the thirteenth-century Vijayanagar kings, the temple was central to city life, the focus for civic meetings, education, dance and theatre. The Vijayanagars extended earlier structures, adding enclosing walls around a series of prakaras, or courtyards, and erecting freestanding mandapas for use as meeting halls, elephant stables, stages for music and dance, and ceremonial marriage halls (kalyan mandapas). Raised on superbly decorated columns, these mandapas became known as thousand-pillared halls. Tanks were added, doubling as water stores and washing areas, and used for festivals when deities were set afloat in boats.

Under the Vijayanagars, the gopuras were enlarged and set at the cardinal points over the high gateways to each prakara, to become the dominant feature. Madurai is the place to check out Vijayanagar architecture.

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