Viswanath R Swamy

Ancient Temple Architecture

Ancient Temple Architecture

Though the temples existed from the pre- common era, inscriptions on temples of Kerala are available only from around 800 A.D. H.Sarkar in his immortal work, the Architectural Survey of Temples of Kerala gives three distinct phases of intensive temple building viz
1. Early phase from 800 – 1000 AD,
2. Middle Phase 1001 – 1300 AD and
3. Late Phase 1301 – 1800 AD.
For each phase he has given certain characteristics on the structures of temples.

Temple Architecture in the Early Phase (800 – 1000 AD)

“The temple architecture of the early phase is represented by temples built variously on square, circular and apsidal ground plans. Oblong or rectangular plan was also in vogue to enshrine the images of Saptha maathrkas. Side by side, there must have existed hypaethral temples, with a stone representing Bhagavathi placed below some tree. Apart from the mother Goddess, the worship of Siva, Vishnu, Krishna and Saastha was prevalent. Both nirandhaara and Saandhaara temples were in vogue – the Sandhaara temples adapting only the traditional mode of construction. Many extant temples of the phase have four functional openings, thereby conforming to sarvatho bhadra type of the texts. For wall decorations generally the Pandya method of providing recesses and projections with false niches has been followed.... The idea of namaskaara-mandapa never attained any popularity, and the typical lay-out of this phase consists of sanctum, which may or may not be fronted by a detached namaskaara mandapa and a cloister, known as naalambalam enclosing it. Thus, the emphasis was laid only on the sanctum and not on any accessory pillared hall. In square temples, some times, specially in the Chera country, a narrower mukha mandapa projects out of the larger sanctum. So far as the apsidal and circular temples are concerned the space in front serves as mukha mandapa but it has no independent existence once it is viewed from outside. Thus, the temples of kerala from the very beginning lack the conception of a well defined antharaala or ardha mandapa. It may be noted here that the temple building of this phase was patronized by the three major ruling dynasties – the Ays, the Cheras and the Mushikas.”

Temple Architecture in the Middle Phase (1001 – 1300 AD)

“The temple architecture in kerala, in the middle phase, showed several developments specially in the interior arrangement; and some of the features are unique in the annals of south Indian architecture. Temples have been built on square, circular, apsidal and rectantular plans as in the previous phase but there is a possibility of the elliptical plan making its debut now.... Yet the emergence of a developed type of saandhaara arrangement in shrine interiors marks a definite departure from the earlier attempts. Now the antharabhitthi stands for the wall of a miniature Dravida Vimaana serving as the garbha-grha. For that matter many temples of this phase reveal the fusion of typical Dravida tradition with indigenous Dravida – Kerala Style – the latter forming, as it were, its outer cover.
Yet another distinguishing feature of this phase is the presence of more than one pradakshina pathha, known locally as suttu (chuttu)-naadi around the garbha-grha. In many instances of circular and apsidal temples, row or rows of columns run along the ambulatory. This peripteral conception is absent in the square plan. Generally, the inner shrine of a circular temple is square on plan, both internally and externally, but there are examples where it has circular outer plan modified into a square in the interior. Again the inner shrine, having a circular plan both inside and outside has been noticed. In the case of square temple, the garbha-grha is invariably square, while the apsidal temple houses only an apsidal garbha-grha.
Temples of the sarvatho-bhadra type continued to be built but some interesting developments in respect of the number of doors of a particular shrine can also be noticed. For instance temples with two or three doors and correspondingly one and two Ghana-dwaaras respectively were built in all probability in this phase. The practice of enshrining the consort of a God at the back of the garbha-grha must have received great fillip in the period.
Among the square shrines the most notable development is the construction of a temple similar to the idea of the maatakkovil of the tamil country. The Maatatthilappan shrine in the Peruvanam temple complex is an example of this kind. In this type, the temple has been raised on a high solid platform, followed by the first thala of the shrine; consequently, the garbha-grha can be approached by long flight of steps. The temple is also important in that it has an octagonal sikhara instead of square; moreover it is a three storeyed vimaana of a very imposing height. It is also noteworthy that this shrine has no namaskaara mandapa thus suggesting that, in this phase as well, the provision of placing a detached mandapa in front did not constitute an essential feature of kerala’s temple architecture.
Two other characteristics of this phase, briefly speaking, are the practice of placing a bhootha figure near the pranaala, and carvings on hasti hastha banisters depicting dance scenes, both inspired by the Chola plastic tradition”.

Temple Architecture in the Late Phase

“The temple-architecture of kerala now reached its final stage of evolution, both in dimensions and exterior embellishments. A vast majority of the extant temples belong undeniably in this phase in spite of the fact that many of them owed their inception to an earlier period. Little development took place so far as the general plan of individual shrines is concerned, nor was there any further development in the shrine interiors. But the layout of the entire complex must have grown into greater elaboration and complexity.
So far as the ground plan shrine proper is concerned, the temples of this phase conform to square, circular, apsidal, rectangular and even elliptical plans. The saandhaara vimaanas with one or more pradikshna pathha dominated the temple architecture. In most of the examples, the garbha-grha is a miniature Dravida vimaana, now built invariably on a square plan, having an octagonal greeva and sikhara. In the districts of Kottayam and Alleppey, there is a preponderance of wooden temples built on granite adhishtaana. Walls are carved minutely with scenes from the epics and the puraanas. Wooden Dwaara paalas and bracket figures, apart from the murals enjoyed greater popularity. Timber-roofs were covered with copper sheets and all such roofs have beveled edges to protect it from getting damaged due to falling of rainwater. Interestingly, the ends of rafters and beams have often been covered with metal rafter shoes, embossed with figures of various deities. The tradition of stone sculptures rose to great heights as is evident from the reliefs and pillar decorations in the balikkal-mandapa: they display many local features though grafted on the Naayaka tradition. However, the minute ornamentation of the sculptures of Kerala bear similarity with the Hoysala tradition of Karnataka.
A few words must be said about the architecture of the gopuras of the Malabar coast. Compared to Tamil Nadu the gopuras of Kerala are insignificant in height and dimensions. Yet they are endowed with grace and nobility, and the architects of kerala have never allowed them to outshine the temple proper. Like the temple, these are also built of laterite and wood. Roof s are made of tiles, and rise to a height of three thalas over the gate way. Sometimes, we find the use of reverse eaves here but the commonest use of such wooden eaves is in the balikkal-mandapa of small proportions”.
The above narration of salient features of stylistic approach of Kerala temple architecture over a period of thousand years from 800 to 1800 AD gives an epitome of the rich tradition which we had in the past. This assessment willnot be complete unless the modern trends in architectureis also discussed. The management of temple architecture in kerala at the beginning of the nineteenth century falls under three administrative units viz.
  1. Kasargod taluk of south canara district and Malabar district under the madras presidency.
  2. Cochin state, and
  3. Travancore state.
As the development of temples is closely linked with the patronage given by the rulers the renovation or construction of temples within these periods had improvements and set backs. In Malabar the interest shown since 1800 AD by the government was much less as compared to other regions. Most of the ancient temples were not renovated in time either due to paucity of funds or negligence or due to mismanagement of temple affairs. In the princely states of Travancore and Cochin some interest was shown by the rulers and most of the temples were taken over by the government in the first half of nineteenth century. The rulers being Hindus showed keen enthusiasm and patronized them as the Royal families continued to have obligation or affinity to these temples. However there was no significant change in the architectural style till India attained Independence. The major stress till the middle of twentieth century was the erection of dwaja-sthamba in many temples besides renovation of kootthambalam and construction of aana kottil etc. After Independence the paucity of funds, non-availability of wood at reasonable rates and change of aesthetic sense of temple builders resulted in building concrete structures in place of old temples whenever they were renovated. The use of reinforced cement concrete for construction of these temples resulted in the loss of their ancient architectural excellence and antique appearance. Even for basements of temples the granite slabs are now being replaced by burnt bricks and Lime. Laterite stones are also substituted by Burnt bricks. Another new trend is to construct imposing gopuras or alankaara gopuras with images made up of concrete, based on tamil style of architecture. Though initially these trends were noticed in palakkad and Thiruvananthapuram districts now they have appeared in other parts of the state also. These gopuras are constructed either at the entrance or far away from the temple or at the beginning of the road leading to the temple for basically attracting pilgrims. The construction of high gopuras has outshone the traditional Dravidian-Kerala style of architecture. Further, burnt bricks plastered by cement and concrete pillars are used for construction. Image of the principal deity as well as images in the puraanic stories are also depicted in these gopuras. Another recent trend is to elevate the temple as an economically viable unit and for this purpose Kalyaana Mandapas, Shopping complexes etc are also constructed even at the expense of desecrating the compound wall (or maryaada) of the temple. It is also seen that the principles of temple architecture laid down in Thanthra Samucchaya (which is accepted as a guide book on the subject) are not fully followed while constructing the temples. Thus generally the latest attitude of the administrators of temples is to misuse the funds of temples by constructing structures not prescribed in scriptures, though there are a few exceptions, where the traditional style of architecture and sanctity of temples are maintained.