Category Archives: d. Some Noteworthy Temples

Cidambaram Temple

Cidambaram Temple, also known as the Thillai Natarajah Temple is a sixteen hectare temple complex (Smith 4) located in the center of the city of Cidambaram in Tamil Nadu in south-eastern India, and was built and expanded between the 10th and 14th centuries. The official name of the temple is Sabhanayaka (Lord of the Hall) temple (Cush, Robinson, and York 143). This temple venerates Siva as Nataraja (Lord of Dance) in Sanskrit or Thillai Koothan in Tamil (Spencer).

The temple is famous for the veneration a 3 foot tall bronze statue of Siva (Srinivasan 433) in a dancing position and the local myth that inspired the depiction and the worship of Siva in that form in Cidambaram. The statue is meant to be used as an utsava murti (processional image) in festivals (Cush, Robinson, and York 366), but is usually located in an inner gold-roofed sanctum called the Cit-Sabha or Hall of Consciousness (Srinivasan 433, Smith 5). Siva is also represented in the form of a traditional lingam, and in the form of an empty alcove representing akasa (ether, space, or sky) and transcendence (Srinivasan 433). It is said that the Cit-Sabha embodies Siva as well (Ferro-Luzzi 516). Other deities worshipped at the temple include Sivakamasundari, Ganesa, and Visnu among other deities connected with Siva. The depictions of each deity can be found in alcoves and ambulatories around the edges of the temple.

This temple is one of five temples in south India dedicated to Siva which each represent elements and the supposed geographic locations where Siva has appeared and performed miracles. These temples collectively are called the Panca Bhuta Sthalam, (Spencer 233, Isaac 16, Dey 49) and Cidambaram temple represents the element of akasa.


Temple History

The Nataraja temple at Cidambaram was built in the 10th century during the reign of Cola ruler Vira Cola Raja and is among some of the oldest temples in south India (Sullivan 58). Cidambaram temple has been the center for the worship of Siva in a dancing form since the seventh century (Smith 1), however the depiction of Siva as Nataraja was popularized by the Saiva Siddhanta school of orthodox bhakti Saivites sometime later (Cush, Robinson, and York 799).

Cola rulers through the 10th to the 13th centuries considered Siva, especially as Nataraja, to be their family deity and sponsored massive expansions of the Cidambaram temple complex and other Saivite temple complexes in south India. Along with the level of temple construction and renovation, they also made efforts to increase the scale and organization of worship at these temples (Davis 16). Vikrama and his military minister Naralokaviran are credited with renovating and adorning the Cidambaram temple, as well as sponsoring and developing services and facilities to encourage patronage and worship such as grand festivals, lit processional walkways, ocean pavilions, etc. with the goal to secure the Cidambaram Nataraja temple as the capital of Saivite worship in south India (Davis 19).

Cidambaram temple is sometimes simply referred to as “the temple”, and the entire city is sometimes referred to as a temple in literature (Spencer 240). Historically in the Saivite temple culture throughout south India, the main keepers and collectors of information were travelling saint-poets called nayanmars (Spencer 234), who were advocates of bhakti (devotionalism), and whose Tamil (Sullivan 195) devotional hymns are still sung today (Sullivan 211). However, there were multiple schools of thought in place in the area in medieval times who each would have a variation on thought and their own canon. For example, the accepted canon for Saiva Siddhanta philosophy was the Agamas (Srinivasan 432). Numerous nayanmars are remembered and venerated at the temple, and their poems have been passed down orally through generations. Recently, the process has begun of writing the poems and stories down for posterity. The veneration of priests, saints, and poets at Cidambaram is hierarchical with more well-known figures such as Umapati Sivacarya who wrote the poem Kuncitanghristava or “The Hymn of Praise to Nataraja’s Curved Foot” (Ferro-Luzzi 515) being remembered and praised more often than lesser saints which included women and Dalits (Spencer 235). The lineages of Saivite saints, priests, and teachers is hard to decipher because of a patchy record and an initiatory re-naming tradition (Davis 9).


Temple Mythology

Cidambaram is considered the center of the universe (Smith 2), as well as the place where Siva first performed the anandatandava, or dance of bliss (Srinivasan 432, Smith 1), in the presence of his consort Sivakamasundari, and three sages who were awaiting his arrival in Cidambaram while worshipping a lingam (Cush, Robinson, and York 143). Cidambaram is said to be the sky temple in the series of five temples in south India which represent elemental forms of Siva, the Panca Bhuta Sthalam (Dey 49). Each temple in this collection of temples is said to have a connected story of Siva appearing at that location in the presence of devotees to perform a miracle in a new form. At Cidambaram the miracle was the anandatandava and the form that Siva assumed was that of Nataraja or Lord of Dance (Smith 1). The traditional lingam which would usually stand in the inner sanctum of the temple, the Cit-Sabha, is replaced in this temple by a bronze statue of Siva performing the dance (Cush, Robinson, and York 143). The representation of the figure of Siva performing the anandatandava is steeped in symbolism.

The speed of the dance is said to determine whether it will be creative or destructive, with a slower pace being creative and a faster pace being destructive (Cush, Robinson, and York 143). Siva as Nataraja is depicted with 4 hands, each having a specific meaning. The hand raised up in the abhaya-mudra (Cush, Robinson, and York 799) represents refuge, while the downward-pointing hand represents escape from samsara shown by the surrounding ring of fire (Cush, Robinson, and York 160). The other two hands hold a drum used for keeping time while dancing and a ball of fire, which each represent creation and destruction; fire can be creative in a Vedic sense by creating favor from the gods and the drum can be interpreted as destructive by marking the passage of time (Smith 1, Cush, Robinson, and York 160, Sullivan 148). In the 14th century in Cidambaram, the priest Umapati Sivacarya devoted a poem to the depiction of Siva in anandatandava entitled Kuncitanghristava, “The Hymn of Praise to Nataraja’s Curved Foot” (Ferro-Luzzi 515), the foot on the statue of Siva as Nataraja is said to grant anugraha (blessing) and salvation (Ferro-Luzzi 516). Siva’s other foot steps on a smaller person or demon named Apasmarapurusa in Sanskrit or Muyalaka in Tamil (Nayagam 120) which represents ignorance (Smith 1).


Temple Structure

The style of southern Indian temples is distinct from northern Indian temples. In the southern style, the gopuram (main towers) are raised high above the gates of the temple and set into the walls that encircle the inner sanctuaries, the walls are usually highly decorated and ornate (Sullivan 227). Cidambaram temple is one of the largest in south India, with the gopurams measured at 49 meters high (Sullivan 58).

The walls of the Cidambaram temple have been decorated with depictions of 108 Bharata Natyam (traditional Indian dance) poses (Cush, Robinson, and York 160). This style of classical dance is said to have originated in the surrounding area of Tamil Nadu and especially within Saivite temple culture (Tiruvalluvar 1201), and the temple also boasts a large performing arts hall shaped like a chariot called the Nrtta Sabha (Sullivan 58).

The Cidambaram temple is also set apart by the golden roof of the Cit-Sabha, extensive processional routes, and lamped walkways all added on by Cola rulers (Davis 19). Cit-Sabha, the innermost hall or sanctum of the temple contains three alcoves, the main alcove contains the three foot tall bronze statue of Siva Nataraja, with the other two alcoves containing the stone lingam usually representative of Siva and an empty space representative of Siva as the element akasa (Srinivasan 433). Several shrines to other deities are featured in the temple, most of whom have some connection to Siva in Hindu literature (Sullivan 58). All of the elemental Saivite temples are built in the same southern style but differ in their decorations and size.



The main festival at temples dedicated to Siva is Mahasivaratri (Great Night of Siva) or simply Sivaratri (Sullivan 211). This festival is held yearly on the thirteenth night and fourteenth day in the dark half of Phalguna, the month that takes place in February to March in the Gregorian calendar (Sullivan 130). The festival is widely popular and devotees of many different deities attend. The festival consists of a night vigil at the temple which involves devotional hymns, darsana (auspicious viewing) of images of Siva either in statue or lingam form and highly decorated (Sullivan 130), and puja offerings which include sandalwood paste, flower petals, bilva and bel leaves, milk, curd, ghee, honey, rose water, and vermillion paste (Dwivedi 30, Sullivan 130). A drink made of cannabis, milk, and almonds is also said to be consumed at this festival (Dwivedi 30). The second day of the festival is a celebratory day reserved for feasting rather than solemn worship (Sullivan 130). The Mahasivaratri has many origin stories including Parvati venerating a lingam in Siva’s absence, a hunter accidentally venerating a lingam when out in the wilderness, and the gods Brahma and Visnu finding a pillar of fire which is revealed to be Siva in a different form (Dwivedi 72).

Other festivals include occasional processional temple festivals called mahotsava or brahmotsava in Sanskrit and tiruvila in Tamil. These festivals can last up to two weeks and involve the use of utsava murti (processional images) of deities used in festivals and temple rites (Cush, Robinson, and York 366). The icons are dressed in finery like silk, flowers, and gold ornaments and led down the streets either on the shoulders of followers, or pulled in chariots by devotees holding hemp ropes. There are also animals and musicians involved in these parades, which stop occasionally along the procession to allow people to view the gods and make offerings to them which is seen as very auspicious (Davis 15). Bronze figures and accompanying inscriptions show that this form of festival worship has been taking place in south India since at least the 9th century (Davis 16).

This festival takes place in Cidambaram as well with the obvious addition of the Nataraja statue. Other differences in the Cidambaram mahotsavas are the length and scale of the festival which is always very long, around fifteen days, and features two parades each day with the deities riding on different vahanas (vehicles). This culminates in the ratha-yatra where the deities are paraded on chariots which are much like individual moving shrines (Davis 15). At the beginning of any festival period devoted primarily to Siva, the temple flag is raised with the image of a bull on it which represents Siva’s vahana Nandi (Davis 30). Another practice which sets Cidambaram apart is the practice of applying a black balm to the statues, priests, servants, and lay people in hierarchical order if the festival is venerating Nataraja (Davis 51).


Staff and Important Persons

Important persons connected to the temple include the Saiva Siddhanta school of orthodox bhakti Saivites who popularized the veneration of Siva as Nataraja, as well as the other numerous lesser-known philosophical schools which helped inform the literature in medieval south India (Cush, Robinson, and York 799). Also of great importance were the travelling saint-poets called nayanmars (Spencer 234), whose Tamil devotional Saivite hymns recorded the mythology and chronology of the area and whose stories were passed down orally and are still told and sung today creating a rich illustration of the history of the area (Sullivan 211). Some of these poets became priests or teachers or gained fame from their writing which creates a useful image of the social landscape of the time.

The temple staff at Cidambaram are called diksitars because they undergo the initiatory process of diksa. This process involves numerous rites to be performed at different prescribed times before the initiate is accepted. The nitya-karman are the daily rites and show Saivite piety if they are done on one’s own behalf (atmartha), this category includes the nityapuja (veneration of a lingam), nityahoma (a small fire sacrifice), and suryapuja (sun worship). Daily rituals need to be completed before other rituals, they are the prerequisites. Naimittikarman, or occasional rites include pavitrosava and damanotsava and they are the prerequisites for the last set of rituals. The last set of rituals, on completion, marks the initiation of a diksitar as part of the Saivite community and released of earthly bondage. These rituals are therefore held in high regard as transformative. The initiate is consecrated as either a sadhakadiksa (mantra-adept), or as an acaryadiksa (priest) through a series of upanayana-like rituals including a mock cremation on the receiving of a special mantra (Davis 7).



Aghorasiva (1157) A Priest’s Guide to the Great Festival. Translation and notes by Richard H. Davis (2010) New York: Oxford University Press.

Cush, Denise, and Catherine Robinson, and Michael York (2008) Encyclopedia of Hinduism. New York: Routledge.

Dey, Nando L. (1979) The Geographical Dictionary of Ancient and Medieval India. New Delhi: Cosmo Publications.

Dwivedi, Anil K. (2007) Encyclopedia of Indian Customs & Rituals. New Delhi: Anmol Publications.

Ferro-Luzzi, Gabriella E. (1996) “Reviewed Work: The Dance of Siva. Religion, Art and Poetry in South India by David Smith” East and West 46:515–17. Accessed February 5, 2016.

Isaac, Eric (1960) “Religion, Landscape, and Space” Landscape 9:14-18.

Nayagam, X.S. Thani (1970). Tamil Culture and Civilization. London: Asia Publishing House.

Smith, David (1996) The Dance of Siva: Religion, Art and Poetry in South India. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Spencer, George W. (1970) “The Sacred Geography of the Tamil Shaivite Hymns.” Numen 17:232–44. Accessed February 5, 2016. doi:10.2307/3269705.

Srinivasan, Sharada (2004) “Shiva as ‘cosmic dancer’: On Pallava origins for the Nataraja bronze.” World Archaeology 36:432-450. Accessed February 5, 2016. doi:10.1080/1468936042000282726821.

Sullivan, Bruce M. (1997) Historical Dictionary of Hinduism. Lanham: Scarecrow Press.

Tiruvalluvar (2000). The Handbook of Tamil Culture and Heritage. Chicago: International Tamil Language Foundation.


Related Topics

  • Bhakti
  • Diksa
  • Bharata Natyam
  • Saivitism
  • Viasnavism
  • Cola Dynasy
  • Tamil Poetry
  • Poet-saints
  • South Indian Architecture
  • Processional Festivals


Related Websites

Article written by: Katherine Christianson (March 2016) who is solely responsible for its content.




Badami Cave Temples

In India’s southern state of Karnataka lies the town of Badami, an ancient capital of the Chalukya Dynasty. Pulakeshin I was the leader of the Chalukya Dynasty when Badami was constructed; evidence of this was found in an inscription dated 535 A.D (Reddy 58). Badami is famous for its five cave temples carved into the rock, dating as far back as the 6th century. The five temples and their ornate carvings stand frozen in time, making them an excellent example of early Dravidian (southern) temple architecture. Chalukya rule spanned from the 6th to the 12th century. Over this period it is likely that different religious views came into play and this can be seen in the changing temple architecture. The earliest temple motifs are Hindu and later Jain and Buddhist carvings can be seen. These changing religious themes show a degree of tolerance for new ideas and this allowed the region to display a syncretic nature. To the west of Badami is the Malprabha River that brings life to the city. In the center of the cave complex is Agastya Lake and surrounding the complex is a ravine. The red sandstone structure of the temples contrasts beautifully with the lake and surrounding greenery, creating a truly spectacular scene that rivals any of the great archaeological discoveries. Badami has been recognised as a UNESCO world heritage site (Cohn 3).

As you walk through the town you can see a long set of steps carved into the rock that leads to Temple I, close in proximity to the village. Dwarves of Siva (gana) are placed on each side of the steps and serve as guards of the temple and are commonly found in most of the Badami temples. Temple I has a focus on Siva, the God of the Yogis, and the destroyer of the universe. Henotheism is displayed in the temples, where there are multiple gods and goddesses worshipped but one is raised above the rest. A carving of Siva with multiple arms is found in Temple I, which is the most notable of the motifs in the temple. Siva is depicted as dancing and in Hinduism dances are very spiritual and are often dedicated to gods. Some sources indicate that Siva can be worshipped as the God of Dance and use the Dancing Siva at Badami as evidence (Koostria 6). Siva is dancing the tandava, a fierce dance he performs before he is to destroy the world (Russell 9). To the right of the Siva, there is a smaller carving of Ganesa, who is regarded as his son. Dance and the connection to the divine has always been an important theme in Hindu culture, elevating the significance of the carving in understanding early religious practice of the region. Also, within the temple stands a chapel which is supported by two pillars and on the back wall is a depiction of Mahishasura in a battle with a buffalo demon. Decorating the base of the chapel are more dwarves. To the left of Siva is a carving of a bull, which is named Nandi and is regarded as sacred (Mandala 125). On another wall in Temple I, there is a Kartikeya riding a peacock. Kartikeya is the Hindu God of war (Tyomkin 84).

Temple II is dedicated to Visnu, one of the gods responsible for maintaining the order of the universe. Temple II is rectangular in shape and at its entrance are four pillars and below are multiple carvings of the guardian dwarves as seen on the entrance to temple one. Temples I and II are very similar in styles and carving technique, leading scholars to believe they were constructed around the same time (6th century). An interesting carving within the temple is Varaha, the boar, who is an incarnation of Visnu and in his hand is the Goddess Bhudevi. Bhudevi metaphorically represents the earth in this depiction and Visnu is saving her. Traces of frescos that are no longer intact have been found on the side walls of the temple (Reddy 60). On the roof of the temple is a panel made up of a wheel of fish and svastikas. Multiple stories of Krsna and Visnu are also found carved throughout the temple on the roof. The rafters are adorned with elephants and lions.

Temple III is the grandest temple at Badami and one of the most unique and intriguing Brahmanical temples in India. An inscription was left behind in this temple by the Chalukya King Mangalisa, the son of Pulakeshin I. This inscription allowed for the temple to be accurately dated.   As you enter there are beautifully carved symmetrical pillars that line a long aisle. At the end of the aisle there is a large carving of Visnu and similar to Temple II, this temple is primarily devoted to Visnu. Visnu is depicted as having four arms sitting on the cosmic serpent Ananta, which means without end. Visnu is seated cross-legged with his eyes closed and in his two raised hands, Visnu holds a discus (cakra) and a conch shell (sankha). These objects are commonly found in depictions of Visnu (Burgess 408). Visnu is wearing three necklaces and a belt made out of gems. Temple III features a veranda, which is a common feature among a few of the temples. Walking through the veranda and into the temple you encounter a carving of a man and women covered in foliage, most likely depicting a scene from the Kama Sastras. On the roof of the temple there are carvings of Agni, Brahma, Varuna and Deva seated on a ram. On a back wall of the temple there is a large carving of Narasinha, son of Siva (Burgess 411).

Temple number IV is dedicated to Jainism. While the first three temples are Brahmanical, Temple IV was the last to be constructed and displays the religious tolerance of the Chalukya dynasty. Temple IV is the highest of the four and is located east of Temple III. Similar to other temples, you enter the temple from a set of steps leading to a veranda propped up by pillars. Temple IV features a carving of Mahavira sitting in a meditative position on a throne.  Mahavira is a spiritual teacher who teaches students about Dharma. Accompanying Mahavira are two smaller figures holding fans (chauri) (Burgess 491). Adjacent to the row of pillars is a tall carving of The Tirthankara Parshvanatha, the first Jain spiritual leader featuring cobras surrounding his head. Another carving shows Guatama Swami surrounded by four snakes. Temple IV is believed to be constructed in the late 7th century or early 8th CE (Burgess 492).


Burgess, James (2013) The Cave Temples of India. Cambridge­­: Cambridge University Press.

Russell, Jesse, and Ronald Cohn (2012) Badami Cave Temples. Stoughton WI: Books On Demand.

Tartakov, Gary Michael. “The Beginning of Dravidian Temple Architecture in Stone.” Artibus Asiae, Vol. 42, No. 1. (1980), pp. 39-99.

Chavda, Jagdish (2011) The Badami Cave Temples Supporting Cultural Differences. Orlando: University of Central Florida.

Koostria, Orser, Emma Jayne and Prithvi Chandra (2014): The connection between dance and the divine. Sackville: Bharata Natyam­­­.

Subramuniyaswami, Satguru Sivaya (2003) Dancing with Siva: Hinduism’s contemporary catechism. Delhi: Himalayan Academy Publications.

Reddy, VV Subba (2009) Temples of South India. New Delhi: Gyan Publishing House.


Related Topics

Chalukya Dynasty

Pulakesin I

Pattadakal Temple

Virupaksa Temple

Mahadeva Temple





Kama Sastras


Aihole Temple


Related Websites

Article written by: Sam Adams (March 2016) who is solely responsible for its content.


The Dravidian Style of Hindu Temple

Among the massive amount of Hindu temples in India there are two main types of temple styles, a specific temple style seen in the north and one in the south. Temples in India have had a distinct difference in style since the very first temples were built in the fifth and sixth centuries CE. Geographically, the northern temples can be found from the Himalayas to the Deccan, from Gujarat to Orissa and Bengal in the east. However, the southern temples are found almost exclusively in the southern part of the subcontinent.  The main purpose of the Hindu temple was to create a link between persons and gods, and gave a site for gods to be seen by human beings; both southern and northern temples do this. However, the structural make up of these temples is what sets them apart from one another (Michell 61-86).

Southern style temples tend to be constructed with individual cells/layers that are typically identical and are stacked in a pyramid form (Trivedi 256). Northern temples, in contrast, have walls with a curved incline, unlike the pyramidal southern style temples. Additionally, southern temples rise in a much steeper fashion than north temples. Southern temples tend to have a distinctive moulded base, different from the northern style (Hardy 2009:46). Additionally, southern temples frequently have an octagonal overall shape to them, something not seen in northern temples. Also, the Dravidian style temples usually have a small top concave dome whereas the top of the northern style temple tends to be more complex and elaborate (Michell 89-93).

The start of Dravidian temples was created by the Pallavas dynasty. This dynasty ruled from about 550CE to about 890CE in the Tamil region or southern region of India. Historical remains of more than sixty Dravidian style temples can be traced back to this dynasty. Early in this rule, King Mahendra produced many rock cut temples in the south of India. Rock cut temples were found throughout the early builds of Hindu temples. Additionally at this time many depictions of Gods, semi-divine, and royal figures were seen in the architecture of the temples, which became an integral part of the Hindu temple. Towards the end of this era, temple building moved from rock cut temples to temples being their own physical structure, not relying on rock faces to build the temples. Some of the most extensive temples produced in this era were the rathas, which translates into chariots. These rathas temples are considered monolithic (carved from one rock structure), or rock-cut, and began to solidify the unique southern style. These rathas are considered the first known structures to fit the entire mold of the southern style. A well known rathas is the shore temple in Mahabalipuram, which shows key Dravidian style characteristics in steep rising superstructures and repetitions in the wall scheme, along with images of the god Visnu (Michell 131-132).

The Dravidian temple style of the Pallavas ended up bleeding into the Chalukya society due to the conflict between these two powers in the seventh and eighth centuries (Michell 136). Early Chalukya temples were mainly rock cut temples.  However, later in the Chalukya’s rule, they produced some of the oldest known stone Hindu temples.  At this time, a distinctive split in the two types of southern styles Karnatak and Tamil is seen (Tartakov 39-41). Due to this bleeding there is some overlap between the temple styles in some northern sites. One unique aspect of temples built in this era is the use of two gateways and two separate hallways in the temples. However, both the Chalukya and the Pavalla temples shared many of the same key characteristics of the southern style temples, even with their small physical differences and geographical differences (Michell 136).

After the Pallavas and Chalukyas’ eras of southern temples, the Rashtrakutas started to further develop the southern style from the eighth to tenth century. The use of rock cut temples grew in popularity again in this era, whereas the Pallavas began to step away from this type of architecture during the end of their reign. One of the most impressive temples built in this era is the Kailasa, which stands 30 meters high. This temple and others like it built in this era have the  defining southern features “of moulded base, plastered wall, overhanging eave and parapet, which when combined in diminishing superimposition, create the superstructure” (Michell 143).

During the tenth to eleventh century the Dravidian style temple shifted again under the south’s new rule.  During this time of turmoil and war in the south, the Cholas became the ruling power. However, during this time there was not a lot of architectural growth, as seen in the previous eras. Many of the new temples built in this era followed the old Pallava southern temple style, notably using the Pallava octagonal towers. However, the Cholas did have a couple of their own unique characteristics for temple buildings. These included an increase in the amount of sculpture used on the side of temples, along with “multifaceted column projecting square capitals” (Michell 145).

Throughout these different time periods of temple development, the Hindus used sacred texts as a way to orchestrate these magnificent temples. The main genre of text used to build these temples are the Vastusastras, and were thought to be composed by Brahmins over the years. In the vast Vastusasras there are some parts which refer to the northern temple style and some to the southern form. One sub text of the Vastusastras, the Samaranganasutradhara, deals with both northern and southern temples. The chapters of the text devoted to the designs of the temples are very specific, and outline a sophisticated measurement system. One specific Dravidian temple that was prescribed by this text was the Bhojpur temple, which still remains unfinished to this day. Even within the Samaranganasutradhara, there is some overlap between the two temple styles, showing the interconnection between the two styles. The uses of texts like the Samaranganasutrahara show how complex the building of these temples was and how specific these temples were actually made (Hardy 2009:41-46).

Even within the division of southern temple style there are two different types of styles. These two different sub type temples can be classified into Karnatak (Vesara) and Tamil. Tamil southern style reflects the southernmost temple designs, often referred to as the “True Dravidian” temples. The Karnatak mainly developed from the Dravidian style, but has some north style characteristics; some scholars address the Karnatak as its own hybrid temple style. The Karnatak developed in the early Chalukya dynasty; at this point the subtle differences in the two southern temple styles can be seen. Some of the major differences between the two southern sub temples are the height of the temples, differences in moulded bases, and the small amount of northern characteristics seen in the Karnatak style. Almost never are Karnatak temples above four stories, whereas Tamil style temples are known to be over four stories. Also, Tamil temples have a structurally distinctive moulded base, which is not found in Karnatak temples.  One of the northern temple elements found in the Karnatak temple style is in some cases curved northern spires were used, which were not used in Tamil temple styles. Ultimately, the north and south styles both have influence on the build of the Karnatak to varying degrees (Hardy 2001:181-191).

The southern temples are extraordinary architectural feats, but they were built to serve as the spiritual link between the gods and humans. Inside the Hindu temples people had the ability to draw closer to the gods through the use of rituals and ceremonies. Religious symbols are found throughout the Hindu temples architecture, which reinforce the spiritual link. Many ideas from the epics and the Puranas, along with symbolically representing the religion’s ultimate goal of moksa, are seen in the temples. Additionally the Hindu temple was seen as the house of the gods where one would have the ability to see the gods, through rituals and being pure. Specifically, temples were dedicated to certain gods and goddesses and each temple had a womb chamber which was a small shrine to honor the specific god the temple was devoted to (Michell 61-62).

The temple is the site of many religious rituals, where the movement of devotees and priests in the temple is of the utmost importance.  Rituals practiced in temples can be placed into two distinct groups: Pujas, which are daily rituals and urvalams which are festivals practiced at different times of the year (Treada 120). Certain parts of the temples are seen as the specific sites where deities can be met. An example of structural meaning is the doors of the temple that signify the movement from the temporal to the spiritual. Another example of the symbolic structural meaning in the temples is the womb of the temple, which was the place where energy radiates from. The womb of the temple is such a sacred place that only priests are able to enter, even when devotees are bringing sacrifices to the room, they are not allowed in (Michell 66).

The soaring gopuram (gateway) and bathing tank, which is characteristic of Dravida temples (Cidambaram, Tamil Nadu, India)
The soaring gopuram (gateway) and bathing tank, which is characteristic of Dravida temples (Cidambaram, Tamil Nadu, India)

Temples are seen as cultural centres. At these temples people experienced music and dance throughout their history. The daily rituals and yearly festivals which took place in temples often had music as a key component.  Music and dance varied based on the geographical regions, even among yearly practiced festivals. Even sculptors in temples often depicted music and dance. The Periya Melam was in charge of music in the temples and performed the music in rituals. The job of musician was passed down through hereditary lines. These musicians often lived within walking distance of the temples and performed almost every day.  However, music in temples today seems to be disappearing, something lamented upon by many (Treada 128-139).

Another interesting element of the Hindu religion seen in their temples is they believe the gods are attracted to mountains and caves. For this reason a lot of temples were built on the side of mountains, or using caves, as seen in the early southern Pallava’s temple design and other eras. The temples that were not built on rock faces were made to reflect the visual nature of mountains because of the believed attraction of the gods to caves and mountains. Both the curved temple towers of the northern temple style and the pyramid style of the south style are different attempts to create a mountain like structure, ultimately trying to end at the same goal (Michell 69).

Besides the cave like temple designs, Hindu temples also were designed in regard to the cosmic man (Michell 72). The cosmic man is developed in a square form which helps to also symbolically design the temple, with the creator god being represented at the centre of the temple and the edges of the square being dedicated to guardian gods and goddesses. The notion of a temple being designed with the cosmos in mind can be traced back to in text writing as far back as 3000 years, and in actual temple building to more than 1000 years ago. Throughout the Vastusastras the temple designs keep the square in mind, as it symbolically represents the manifestation of the world (Trivedi 245-258). This cosmic man is mainly based on deities but also is designed in part with astrology in mind (Michell 72).

These amazing architectural feats and spiritual houses are seen throughout India and the eventual British rule created legislation to preserve them. Under the colonial rule of the British the Hindu temples became protected under the Ancient monuments act of 1904. Prior to the act British rule controlled around 150 temples in India, however after the act they controlled over 700 Hindu temples. Under this act, the British government greatly limited the use of the temples for Hindus and created problems between the practicing Hindus and the ruling power. The British viewed temples as antique but to orthodox Hindus the temples are still to this day very much a part of their religion. Some accounts of British rule have them taking down parts of temples and moving the inside contents of the temples to artificial buildings for the Hindus to practice rituals in. British rule, did however, rebuild and restore damaged temples during the Act (Sutton 135-137).

Today Dravidian temples (along with Northern Temples) are still used for religious festivals and also act as tourist destinations. Some of the biggest southern temples seen in India today are: the Sri Ranganathaswamy Temple, Thillai Nataraja Temple, Golden Temple of Sripuram, to name a few. Also, in the now culturally diverse world, the spread of religion in general is a more common thing. As a result, many Hindu temples are being built around the world outside of India, some of which have Dravidian characteristics (King 151).


References And Further Recommended Readings

Baumann, Martin “Hindu temples.” Internationales Asien Forum, Vol. 6, No. 3/4: p.231.

Hardy, Adam (2009) “Dravida Temples in the Samaranganasutradhara.” South Asian Studies, Vol. 25, No. 1: p.41-62.

Hardy, Adam (2001) “Tradition and Transformation: Continuity and Ingenuity in the Temples of Karnatak.” Journal of the Society of Architectural Historians, Vol. 60, No. 2: p.180-199.

Michell, George (1977) The Hindu temple: an introduction to its meaning and forms. New York, NY: Harper & Row Publishers.

King, Anna (2007) “Diaspora of the Gods: Modern Hindu Temples in an Urban Middle-class World Waghorne, Joanne Punzo” Material religion, Vol. 3, No. 1: p.150-152.

Kramrisch, Stella (1976) The Hindu Temple II. Delhi, India: Shri Jainendra Press.

Sutton, Deborah (2013) “Devotion, Antiquity, and Colonial Custody of the Hindu Temple in British Indian.” Modern Asian Studies, Vol. 47, No. 1: p.135-166.

Tartakov, Gary Michael (1980) “The Beginning of Dravidian Temple Architecture in Stone.” Artibus Asiae ,Vol. 42, No. 1: p.39-99.

Treada, Yoshitaka (2008) “Temple Music Traditions in Hindu South India: Periya Melam and Its Performance Practice” Asian Music, Vol. 39, No. 2: p. 108-151.

Trivedi, Kirti (1989) “Hindu temples: models of a fractal universe.” The Visual Computer, Vol. 5, No. 4: p.243-258.

Related Topics For Further Investigation



Tamil Nadu









Sri Raganasthaswamy Temple

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womb chamber



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Article written by: Josh Toth (March 2015) who is solely responsible for its content.

The Nagara Style of Hindu Temples

The origin of the Hindu temple is said to be the ancient basic circle of stones within which one cherished holy relics, human or divine. It is the Hindu temple where the contact between man and gods take place and it is also where a man progresses from the world of illusion to knowledge and truth and thus, a temple is not only a place to worship but an object to worship as well (Michell 61-62). A Hindu temple not only shows unique architecture but also symbolizes ideas characteristic in its structure, which are usually related to the common practice of people residing around it. A pilgrimage or visit to a temple is undertaken for the purpose of looking at it (darsana) (Kramrisch 8).

The evolution of Hindu temples occurred over many centuries due to differing views between the rulers of the Indian sub-continent. Emperor Asoka is credited with ordering the construction of the first significant stone structures in India around 3rd century, BCE. Religious architecture can be tracked back to the Vedic time (1500 – 700 BCE) and practices of temple worship can be traced back to texts from the Puranas and earlier (Michell 63-64). The construction of the temples however was on a small scale back then, which included materials such as timber, baked clay bricks and mud. Caves were naturally the earliest shrines on record and from the 4th to 7th century, a classical “golden period” of art and architecture emerged in India. It was this period in which temple building activities grew rapidly all over the country (Singh and Sharma 17). When kings conquered other kingdoms for the purpose of expansion, they reintegrated their thoughts into carvings of antique superstructures. Some stages of architectural patterns still survive to the present day.

A Nagara style temple would generally stand on a high platform (jagati) made of stone bricks, with several mouldings. The identification of the temple with a mountain is specific and the superstructure is known as a “mountain peak” [For more information and visuals, see Michell 69, Fig. 62]. The jagati represents the feet of a man. Over jagati, there is a smaller platform of stones (pitha). Over the pitha, there rises an even smaller platform (adhisthana), which is the base of the superstructure of the temple. The pillars and walls of the temple are raised on the adhisthana (Singh and Sharma 18).

The Nagara style is not native to the mountainous region and some believe it was introduced in the late Gupta period. The Nagara, also known as the sikhara (mountain peak) type, can be divided into three sub-groups: The first is the Phamsana Type. This is the earliest known type of sikhara. It is usually a pyramidal structure divided into seven, nine and eleven tiers. The towering sikhara is crowned by an amalaka, which is a stone disk believed to represent the deity of the temple. A kalasam, a finial from which the temple banner is hung, crowns the amalaka itself. Illustrations of the Phamsana Type can be viewed at the Siva temple at Camunda, the Nrshimha temple at Bharmaur and many others (Singh and Sharma 19). The second is the Latina Type. This type represents most of the stone temples of Nagara style in Himachal Pradesh and is believed to have emerged at the beginning of the 8th century. The Latina Type temples are curvilinear in nature, following their trademark triratha plan. “The central bands of the superstructure are tall spines of web patterns cast over receding cornices – the creepers (latas) of the Nagara temple’s Latina formula” (Meister 256). An example of this temple would be the Rudranath (Gopinath) temple in Uttrakhand. The third is the Valabhi Type. These temples have a rectangular ground plan, a doorway on one of its longer sides, and a semi-cylindrical sikhara. No Valabhi Types are found in Himachal Pradesh but there are several examples of this type across India. [See Singh and Sharma (2008) for extensive information on the Valabhi Type].

The Nagara style has 2 basic components. The first is garbhagra, a sanctum with only one entrance, in which the image of the main deity is installed (Singh and Sharma 27). “The garbhagrha consists of 4×4 = 16 squares, which is equivalent to the Brahmasthana” (Thakur 264). The second component is known as mandapa, a porch in front of the garbhagrha, typically exposed from three sides for the worshippers to assemble for worship. [Refer to Singh and Sharma (2008) for more information on this component of the Nagara style]. Various examples of diverse ideologies of different emperors regarding Nagara temple architecture will be explored in the following cases.

The northern style under the Guptas and their successors (400 CE – 600 CE) portrayed a square sanctuary that connected with a pillared porch. The roof of the sanctuary consisted of horizontal stone slabs and this part lacked a tower. A horizontal molding serves as a cornice on the plain wall surfaces. Uprights that margin the doorway are divided into vertical bands, which continue over the lintel.  The porch had columns divided into square, octagonal and sixteen-sided sections with undergrowth centers supporting brackets engraved with pairs of seated animals (Michell 94).

Rock-cut temples were common under the Early Chalukyas, Kalachuris and Rashtrakutas (500 CE – 700 CE). These cave temples contain pillared halls with small chambers cut into the posterior walls. The halls have columnar arrangements, with varieties such as fluted shafts or panels of relief carvings; cushion capitals are also employed (Michell 98, Fig. 41). Together with the doorways, these columns display clear northern stylistic characteristics. The brackets of the outer columns of these caves are fashioned to depict amorous couples beneath trees, a motif considered particularly appropriate for the entrance of a temple (Michell 99, Fig. 42). Another variation of the rock-cut temples places the sanctuary in the middle of the columnar hall instead of the posterior wall. The lack of the external access via a flight of steps, sometimes guarded by lions, is characteristic of these caves. The Elephanta cave near Mumbai resembles this type of architecture and one of the main focal points is a three-headed, major sculpture of Lord Siva, also known as the Great Lord, Mahesha (Michell 98-101). Other carved panels nearby are devoted to scenes from the mythology of Siva.

The northern style under the Kalingas and Eastern Gangas (700 CE – 1200 CE) can be seen in some of the Orissan temples such as the Parashurameshvara temple. “The emphasis on the horizontal courses employed in the superstructure of the sanctuary and roof of the adjoining hall is one of their main characteristics. Another key characteristic is the contrast between the vertical profile of the superstructure, curving only at the very top, and the pyramid-like arrangement of hall roof” (Michell 110). In the Vairal Deul temple in Bhubaneshwar, the sanctuary is rectangular and is positioned on a transverse axis to the adjoining hall. The walls of the sanctuary are divided into projections with carved panels, which lead into the lower parts of the superstructure (Michell 111, Fig. 51). As centuries went by, stylistic developments were occurring in the Indian sub-continent. Further stylistic advances may be detected in the Lingaraja temple in Bhubasneshwar (Michell 113, Fig. 53). “The outer walls are divided by a horizontal molding into two registers, as are the tiers of the hall roof, which is surmounted by an inverted bell-shaped fluted form” (Michell 112). This temple was enlarged by the addition of two more halls along the principal axis of the temple to create a sequence of successive interior spaces that was to be copied in later Orissan temples.

The northern style under the Pratiharas and Chandellas (700 CE – 1000 CE) erected several small temples at various sites, which resembled typical northern stylistic features such as a square sanctuary with projecting niches, carved doorways, and towers with curved profile. Distinct stylistic innovations appeared by the 9th century and one temple built with similar designs is the Telika Mandir at Gwalior (Michell 116, Fig. 57). This temple’s rectangular sanctuary raises the superstructure into a massive dome. The unique expansions on the end of the temple project complex interlocking horseshoe arched designs. These expansions spread onto the horizontal divisions of the tower serving as pediments above the doorways (Michell 116, Fig. 58). When the Chandella kingdom replaced the Pratihara rule, several new temples with unique architectural designs were built in Khajuraho, one of the kingdom’s capital cities. Their tall slender columns characterize the interiors of the Khajuraho temples. Auspicious females support the foliage design that exists on the brackets of these columns. The dome-like ceiling above the central spaces of the porches and halls provides the Khajuraho temples’ chief interest. The ceilings are usually sculptured with cusps that rise in diminishing circles to an overhanging lotus bed. The doorway to this sanctuary is characteristic of a northern manner and the images on the outer walls are floodlit by the lighting from the open balconies (Michell 122, Fig. 63).

The Kandariya Mahadeva Temple at Khajuraho is a classic example of the Nagara temple style produced by the Chandella Dynasty (Khajuraho, India)
The Kandariya Mahadeva Temple at Khajuraho is a classic example of the Nagara temple style produced by the Chandella Dynasty (Khajuraho, India)

The northern style under the Maitrakas and Solankis (700 CE – 1200 CE) erected temples that were small buildings with diminishing stepped mouldings adorned with bold horseshoe arched ‘windows’. The Maitraka rulers built temples near Gujarat after gaining control of the region in the 7th century. Under the Solanki kings, who took over the Maitrakas, Gujarat developed prolific regional architecture style. The Surya temple at Modhera is widely known for its unique two structures and an artificial tank that resides along the east-west axis (Michell 124, Fig. 64). The hall of this temple has its long side positioned towards the principal emphasis of the temple with its plan spreading outwards in a number of different projections. The balcony slabs have panels with attendant figures carved upon and the brackets of the outer columns of the temple support an overhanging cave (Michel 125, Fig. 65). The temple itself consists of a hall and sanctuary surrounded on three sides by an ambulatory passageway.

The earliest stone Hindu temples in Kashmir and other Himalayan valleys (700 CE – modern period) can be traced back to the 8th century when Lalitaditya ruled the region. The lower valleys of the Himalayas mark the most northerly extension of Hindu architecture. The Surya temple at Martand was also erected under his patronage. A trilobe arch that frames the doorway is characteristic of the Kashmir style and is well-illustrated in the Siva temple at Pandrethan. The temple has a square sanctuary with entrances on all four sides. A Kashmir characteristic trilobe arch frames the opening. The sloping roof of this temple is divided into two tiers with horseshoe headed ‘windows’. The ceiling of the temple has lotus designs with attendant figures engraved upon (Michell 128, Fig. 67). In the nearby regions of Kulu, Kangra and Chamba, timber and brick buildings dominate the temple forms. Stone is sometimes retained for the doorways and walls of the shrines in these temples. The characteristic northern style can be found in the decoration of the doorframes in these temples.

Two of the earliest surviving brick temples in North India – the Laksmana temple at Sirpur and the Rajivalocana temple at Rajim in south Kosala – preserve superstructures suggestive as much of “Kutina” forms as of the final Latina formula of North Indian Nagara temples (Meister 277, Figs. 21-23). These structures show large single candrasala (“moon-hall”) windows progressing up the central offset of the sikhara and karna-kutas which, while pulled in to the body of the superstructure, have not been absorbed fully into the mass nor condensed beyond recognition. On both temples, these kutas are full miniature structures, presented as small-pillared pavilions with simple superstructures (Meister 288, Figs. 21, 27). In comparison to the Dravidian style, the Indo-European or Nagara style is a curvilinear, beehive shaped tower rather than a pyramid consisting of smaller storeys of smaller pavilions. The base plan itself is usually square in the northern style compared to the pyramidal vimana put on top of the garbhagrha [For information on the Dravidian style, see Michell 127-137].

In modern day India, new temples continue to be erected and older buildings refurbished. Compared to the southern temple style, northern temples are the product of a more discontinuous tradition (Michell 183-184). A temple is a place where one strives for the self-realization, where one finds their true self. It is a place where one may understand their atman/ jiva and possibly, Brahman.


Notable websites associated to the discussion:

Related areas for additional research:

















Himalayan temple architecture



Kramrisch, Stella (1976) The Hindu Temple Vol. I. Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass.

Meister, Michael W. (1988-1989) Prasada as Palace: Kuṭina Origins of the Nagara Temple. Zurich: Artibus Asiae.

Michell, George (1988) The Hindu Temple: An Introduction to its Meaning and Forms. New York: Harper & Row Publishers.

Singh, K.A., and Shuchita Sharma (eds.) (2008) Temple Architecture of the Western Himalayas – Ravi and Beas Valley. Delhi: Sundeep Prakashan.

Thakur, Laxman S. (1990) Application of Vastupuraṣamaṇḍala in the Indian Temple Architecture: An Analysis of the Nagara Temple Plans of Himachal Pradesh. Zurich: Artibus Asiae.

Article written by: Sidhesh Mohak (April 2015) who is solely responsible for its content.


The Aihole Temples

The Aihole temples are a complex of ancient structures located in the Bagalkot district of Karnataka. Aihole was initially the center of the early Chalukyan culture until the great Pulakesi I moved the capital east to Badami. However, it was in Aihole where the Chalukyans began to create their own style of temple and over 100 of these sites can still be found there today. The building of temples took place over two phases with the first beginning in the early 6th century and the second phase not happening until the 12th century. The architecture of these temples was unique in the fact that it combined northern styles (nagara) with the techniques used in southern India (dravida). When used together this style was labeled vesara and was prominent in the temples built throughout the areas surrounding Aihole (Hardy 2001:181).

Of the temples located at Aihole the most famous is generally considered the Durga temple, a very photogenic structure that is dated to the middle of the 8th century A.D. (Bolar 164). The current name of the temple comes from one of two possibilities, either an image of Mahisasuramardini (the goddess Durga) or from a nearby fort (durga) (Bolar 164). It is likely that the name is more associated with the nearby fortress and this is the common consensus among modern scholars today. The agreement comes from the fact that this temple was likely dedicated to Visnu as opposed to the other temples that are focused on the worship of Siva (Hardy 1995:67). Architecturally, the temple is mainly of Dravidian design with a few exceptions, such as the superstructure that sits atop the temple. This feature, known as a sikhara, is situated directly on the flat nave roof above the sanctum of the temple. It would appear that this was added much later after the original construction of the building and would be a reasonable theory as there was an influence of northern styled design well after the Chalukyan culture (Lippe 14). Other notable features of this temple that make it stand out at Aihole are the intricate carvings along the railings of the balconies as well as the images found on the niches of the unique wall structures. “The pillars of the inner porch are, in addition, decorated with full and three-quarter roundels, containing small mithunas, with lotus-petal bands with guana-fiezes and with pearl-chains hanging from lion-masks, in low relief” (Lippe 14). The Durga temple has square pilasters that frame enclosed niches, and these niches have gallery panels that were apparently added after the original construction (Lippe 15). “Some of the niches are surmounted by elaborate sukanasa gabels or by miniature shrines; others (above the yalis) by inverted makara-torana” (Lippe 15). These important features of the Durga temple give it a unique appearance and photogenic qualities that allow it to be such a central site at the Aihole complex of temples.

The next most famous of temples at Aihole is often considered to be Lad Khan, the oldest structure at the complex with construction being dated to the middle of the 5th century A.D. (Lippe 11). Originally this temple was built for the worship of Visnu but it was later dedicated to the sun god Suryanarayana. The design of this temple can be considered a square ground plan with two square groupings of pillars within the main square (Lippe 11). However there is what is suspected to be a later addition of a porch that does not match up sufficiently with the original scheme (Lippe 11). “The porch of the Lad Khan temple is unusually wide as it had to be accommodated to the square temple; it is three pillars deep and four pillars wide, corresponding to the four hall pillars. The porch pillars are heavy and square with simple brackets (as are those of the roof shrine)” (Lippe 13). The porch itself was probably added relatively shortly after the temple was constructed with dates being considered around 550 A.D. (Lippe 13). “The railing of the porch which forms the back rests of the benches inside, is decorated with a motif of vases with foliage framed by pillars and knotted bands; we also notice rampant lions leaning against pilasters; a feature recalling Pallava pillars of the Rajashima period (695-722)” (Lippe 13). These features are a defining element of many temples at Aihole and can be considered a foundational shift in the architecture that was created by the early Chalukya culture.

Another notable temple that is found at the Aihole complex is the Huccimalli-Gudi. The name can be literally translated as “Mad-Malli’s temple”. “The temple can be dated to the seventh century, possibly even before the Pallava occupation” (Lippe 18). An important aspect about the Huccimalli-Gudi is that it is a homogeneous structure but it still displays features found in other temples such as the porch railings and pillars of the Lad Khan (Lippe 18).  The sculptured gargoyle-like pranala, as well as the apparent vestibule, are examples of how Huccimalli-Gudi undertook many additions and changes throughout its existence (Lippe 18). “The medallion with a Natesa on the Dwarf, on a shallow and rudimentary gable-projection, is loosely fitted to the “northern” superstructure which rises from the invisible sanctum” (Lippe 18). The medallion is likely a later addition because the Huccimalli temple is believed to have been originally designed for Vaishnava worship (Lippe 18). The Huccimalli-Gudi can therefore be considered a good example of how the architecture in Aihole was going through a shift in conventional design.

These three temples are all model cases of how the Chalukyan dynasty created their own style of architecture by combining different techniques used in both northern and southern India. These styles are reflected throughout the area at Aihole and are indicative what was going on at the time of their construction. When studied further, researchers can gather information about how the tradition and culture itself shifted. Whether it was purely how a temple was being dedicated and presented, or what people were occupying the territory, the temples at Aihole provide an illustrious history religious tradition in that area.



 Bolar, Varija R. (2010) Temples of Karnataka: An Epigraphical Study (From the Earliest to 1050 A.D.) “Surya (Sun) Temples and Images”. New Delhi: Readworthy Publications Ltd.

Hardy, Adam (1995) Indian Temple Architecture: Form and Transformation. “Early Chalukya Temples”. New Delhi: Abhinav Publications, Indira Gandhi National Center for the Arts.

Hardy, Adam (2001) Tradition and Transformation: Continuity and Ingenuity in the Temples of Karnataka. Berkeley: University of California Press on Behalf of the Society of Architectural Historians.

Lippe, Aschwin (1969/1970) Archives of Asian Art. “Additions and Replacements in Early Chalukya Temples”. Honolulu: University Of Hawai’i Press for the Asia Society.

Related Topics for Further Investigation




Meguti Jain temple



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Article written by Grady Allison (Spring 2013), who is solely responsible for its content.

Minaksi (Goddess and Temple)

Minaksi Goddess and Temple

There is a myth that tells of Minaksi’s origins. According to it King Malayadhvaji Pandya and his wife needed to produce a male heir so that he could be the next successor of the city of Madurai (Harman 44).  Malayadhvaji Pandya and his wife’s religious devotion and good works did not seem to be enough to change their childless state, so they decided to conduct a series of asvamedha or horse sacrifices. Through these horse sacrifices Malayadhvaji Pandya and his wife hoped that they would please the deities and be given a son. Unfortunately, the horse sacrifice is not always successful in the birth of a son, and after ninety-nine unsuccessful horse-sacrifices the god Indra intervened. Indra informed Malayadhvaji Pandya that if he wanted a son that he should perform “the sacrifice which brings forth a son” (Harman 45). The king took Indra’s advice, but the result of the sacrifice was unexpected. Instead of the sacrifice producing a son, it gave Malayadhvaji Pandya and his wife a three year old daughter. This upset the King for the sole reason that this daughter was not normal; she was considered to be a freak, because she had three breasts. Malayadhvaji Pandya complained to God and the king’s complaint did not go unheard. A heavenly voice of Siva responded:

[Oh King! Treat your daughter as though she were a son:

Perform for her all the rites as specified in the Vedas.

Giver her the name, “Tatatakai.” Crown her queen.

And when this woman, whose form is golden, meets her Lord, one of her breasts

will disappear.

Therefore, out your mind at ease.

In this way, Siva graciously appeared in the form of words spoken from the sky (Harman 45).]

King Malayadhvaji Pandya took the advice and trained his daughter as though she was the male heir to the throne.  She was crowned queen, but shortly after the king dies. After the king passes away, his widow Kancanamalai enters the temple to worship “The Mother” (Annai) who is interpreted as “Minaksi” (The Fish Eyed Goddess) (Harman 45). It is in the temple that Kancanamalai, the queen’s mother, is informed that Siva’s consort Parvati was born in the form of Tatatakai/ Minaksi.

Minaksi is a goddess who is regarded as pure energy. In her benevolent form, as Siva’s bride she is Parvati, and in her terrifying form, as a bloodthirsty killer she is Kali (Brockman 326).  Minaksi rules Pandya as an unmarried queen for quite some time, which is not proper for an Indian monarch. Minaksi’s mother complains about her unmarried state, but Minaksi assures her mother that there are better things to do than get married. She wants to conquer the world, and once she has successfully conquered the world she will marry.

Minaksi met Lord Siva when he was a great yogi meditating on Mount Kailas and she was on a pilgrimage (Brockman 326-327):

[The moment She saw him Her [third] breast disappeared.

She became bashful, passive, and fearful.

She leaned unsteadily, like the flowering branch of a tree under the weight of its


Her heavy dark hair fell on Her neck.

She looked downward, toward Her feet, with collyriumed eyes that were like

kentia fish.

And there She stood, shining like lightning, scratching in the earth with Her toes (Harman 47).]

As Minaksi stood in front of Lord Siva, her minister Sumati pointed out that the ancient prophecy that was made at her birth has been fulfilled. Siva tells Minaksi to return to Madurai where he will marry her (Harman 47). When Minaksi arrives in Madurai she finds that the city is beautifully decorated, and that everyone is ecstatic about the wedding. The wedding preparations include the assembly of the bride’s garments, preparing the food, and sending out wedding invitations to an extensive guest list.

At the ceremony, Visnu gives the bride to Siva. [Siva blesses and partakes of the sweet drinking mixture. Brahma feeds the sacrificial fire with clarified butter. Siva ties the wedding necklace on his bride, pours parched grain into the fire, places the bride’s foot on the grinding stone, and points out to her the pole star, which symbolizes steadfastness (Harman 47).]

The marriage of Minaksi to Lord Siva represents many changes. The first significant change was the disappearance of her third breast. This disappearance meant that for the first time she was going to be treated as a woman. This was an important change because growing up her father always treated her as a male heir and she acted as a male heir. She conquered the world and ruled powerfully over Madurai.

The Minaksi temple is located in Madurai’s city center and it was built to honor the sacred marriage of the goddess Minaksi and the god Siva (Brockman 326). The Minaksi temple was built from 1623 to 1655, but its roots are over 2000 years old (Brockman 326). The original temple was built by Kulasekara Pandya, however most of what is seen on the temple today was built by the Nayaks in the sixteenth to eighteenth centuries.  It is one of the largest temples in India with its measurements being approximately 850 feet long by 720 feet wide. The outer wall is about 20 feet high to protect the temple and the royal god Siva and goddess Minaksi who reside within it (Fuller 2). The temple contains twelve gopurams, four of which are the main entrances to the temple [Stevens]. Surrounding the temple is a series of expanding, ‘concentric’ squares (Fuller 2).

All South Indian temples representing Siva have two temples in one; the Minaksi temple is no different. There are separate temples for Minaksi and Siva who is locally known as Sudaresvara (The Beautiful Lord) (Hudson 33). Minaksi’s temple is southwest of Sudaresvara’s, which means both temples face east and positions the goddess to the god’s right. Minaksi being situated on Siva’s right is the usual positioning of their images during temple festivals (Fuller 3).

Inside the temple there are more than 30, 000 statutes (Brockman 326). The two major ones are Siva’s mount (a bull named Nandi), and his lingam. Both of which are located at the center of the courtyard (Brockman 326).  Every evening before the temple closes, a palliyarai pujai (‘bedchamber worship’) takes place. The priest removes Minaksi’s nose-jewel from her main image, which symbolizes the transfer of power to the smaller image of Minaksi that is always kept in the bedchamber (Fuller 11). The palliyarai pujai is a procession led by drummers and a brass ensemble carries an image of Siva to Minaksi/Parvati’s bedroom to consummate their union (Brockman 327). It is at this time that the divine couple is offered food and lamps are waved in front of them. Two rituals are also performed at this time (Fuller 11). It is only at night that the god and goddess are united and seen as lovers.

In the morning, the priest’s first task is to worship at Siddhi Vinayaka’s shrine, which is located near the entrance of the Minaksi’s temple. Next, he goes to the bedchamber where the god and goddess are located and woken by song. The chamber is opened and the god and goddess are offered food and lamps are waved before the images. It is at this time that the priest goes to Minaksi sanctum and replaces her nose-jewel. The replacing of her nose jewel transfers her powers back to her main image. Minaksi is worshiped and any devotees present have their first sight of the goddess, a most auspicious vision to begin a new day (Fuller 12).  The priest then returns Siva back to his temple, where the image is placed in its chamber and worship is then performed before the main linga. There is no specific ritual at this time, however, the gods powers are believed to return. It is at this time that the priest takes a sip of milk that had been offered to the deities, and then the rest is distributed to the attending devotees (Fuller 12).

The Minaksi temple indicates the importance of Devi worship, and the transformation of Minaksi from a powerful warrior queen who conquered the world, to a shy and modest woman when she met Siva for the first time (Rodrigues 284).

There are six major annual festivals that are held at the Minaksi temple. These six festivals last between ten and twelve days. For each festival a flag is raised on the main flagstaff in Siva’s temple for the entire duration of the festival. The only exception is when Ati Mulaikkottu is celebrated. Ati Mulaikkottu is a festival celebrated only for Minaksi, which means that the flag is raised in the goddess’s temple (Fuller 17).

Minaksi and Siva’s marriage is celebrated each year in the month of Citra (April-May) (Hudson 33). The god and goddess wedding is a symbol of the joint power that they hold over the city of Madurai. Minaksi and Siva are mounted on a golden bull, and carried though the city on a carved temple chariot (Brockman 327). Shortly after the festival of Siva and Minaksi’s wedding there is a festival for the journey of Visnu. Even though these are two different celebrations, in the minds of many devotees these two festivals are not separate and distinct; instead they form a single festival cittirai peruvila (Husdon 35).


Brockman, Norbert C. (2011) Encyclopedia of Sacred Places. ABC-CLIO.

Dowson, John (1979) A Classical Dictionary of Hindu Mythology. London: Routledge& Kegan Paul.

Fuller, C.J (1984) Servants of the Goddess. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Harman, William P. (1989) The Sacred Marriage of a Hindu Goddess. Bloomington, Indiana: Indiana University Press.

Hudson, Dennis D. (2010) Krishna’s Mandala: Bhagavata Religion and Beyond. Oxford University Press.

Hillary Rodrigues, Hinduism – the eBook (2007). Published by Journal of Buddhist Ethics Online Books.

Stevens, Michael (2006) The Sri Minaksi Sundaresvara Temple.

Related Research Topics for Further Investigation



City of Madurai

Lord Sundaresvara Madurai

Mount Kailasa

The Cittirai Peruvila Festival

Siddhi Vinayaka’s Shrine

Palliyarai Pujai Worship

Ati Mulaikkottu Festival

Noteworthy Websites Related to the Topic

Article written by Lauryn Dzioba (Spring 2012), who is solely responsible for its content.

Sri Ranganathaswamy Temple (Srirangam Temple)

Sri Ranganathaswamy Temple, Srirangam

The largest temple in India is located on the island of Srirangam located on the Kaveri River.  The island resides in the southern part of the larger Indian continent near the city of Trichy, which is located in Tamil Nadu.  According to the temple’s website, Srirangam Temple is “the foremost of the eight self-manifested shrines (Swayam Vyakta Kshetras) of Lord Visnu. It is also considered the first, foremost and the most important of the 108 main Visnu temples (Divyadesams)” (Srirangam Temple History).  The temple goes by several names including Srirangam temple and Sri Ranganathaswamy Temple, the latter a result of the temple being dedicated to the Hindu deity, Raganatha, a reclining version of the god Visnu.  It is considered to be in the Dravidia style of temple architecture (Urwick 58).  In its history, it has had important political implications on the region, and has withstood Muslim military occupation in the early fourteenth century (Spencer 21).  In modern day India the temple is regarded as the largest active Hindu temple in the world and is home to several festivals, the most important of which is Vaikunta Ekadasi, which attracts thousands of visitors annually (The Hindu).

As are many things in the Hindu tradition, the origins of the Srirangam temple are rooted in the Hindu epic, the Ramayana.  It is said that in Rama’s quest to save his beloved Sita he employs the help of Vibhisana.  Vibhisana is the brother of Rama’s adversary, the demon god Ravana, and agrees to assist Rama only when he determines that Rama’s cause is the nobler of the two (Bastin 47).  The legend continues that after Ravana is defeated, Vibhisana accompanies Rama and Sita back to India for their wedding where he receives the gift of a special Visnu shrine and sets out on his return journey to Lanka.  On this return home Vibhisana decides to stop by the banks of the Kaveri River to rest.  The form of Visnu (Ranganathaswamy) in the shrine seemingly decides that he likes the spot and refuses to be moved from it. Vibhisana is crestfallen at the god’s decision, so Visnu offers to face south in the direction of Lanka, and thus the south-facing Srirangam temple is established (Hari Rao 17-21).  While such claims to ancient origins are not generally employed by religious studies scholars, author Rohan Bastin offers the story in his examination of a conflict in the late 1990’s between the Sinhalese and the Tamils (Bastin 48).

One of the most comprehensive outlines of the temple physically is provided by the author William Urwick.  The temple itself looks as if it were a walled off town instead of a religious temple and according to the temple’s website covers one hundred and fifty six acres.  Urwick asserts that the temple’s lands comprised “seven miles in circumference, and includes many bazaars and streets of Brahmans’ houses” (Urwick 58).  There are twenty one gate towers or gopuras and each is flanked by massive granite pillars, above which rests “pyramids of elaborate stone carving towering up to the height of two hundred feet” (Urwick 58).  Inside these massive structures one finds a pillared hall with a flat stone roof supported by one thousand columns of granite, each with a figure carved into it.  These figures range from men and horses to men mounted upon rearing horses spearing tigers.  Beyond that is the central shrine which is surmounted by a golden dome. Near to this four sacred elephants are stabled, and a staircase leads up to the flat stoned roof (Urwick 58).  While almost all of the structures endured throughout the centuries unharmed, there was some damage done when the Muslims raided the temple’s lands in the fourteenth century.

Early political relationships of the temple with Delhi Sultans are both crude and easy to comprehend.  During the three decades that the Khilji sultans occupied the throne (from 1290 C.E.-1320 C.E.) of the northern Delhi kingdoms a policy of aggressive expansion and raiding into the southern peninsula of the Indian continent was popular foreign policy.  The all important Hindu dynasty Vijayanagar had not yet been founded and the only legitimate political entity in the region was severely weakened by internal conflicts (Spencer 20).  This meant that when the raiding armies of the Muslims came to Srirangam there was really no organized resistance to attempt to stop them from taking what they wanted.  The Muslims were focused on raiding the temple for immediate economic boon.  Plunder such as elephants, jewels and gold were largely preferred (Spencer 19).

The Muslim raids that struck the temple in 1311 and 1323 C.E. had a “highly disruptive effect” upon its administration and services (Spencer 20-21). Although the temple was not destroyed in its entirety, the Muslims did cause extensive damage during their respective visits.  Fire damage to gopurams was common.  Many images of gods and saints were destroyed, including Visnu’s gold staff.  One scholar notes that, perhaps during the lengthy second stay of the Muslims, certain wooden structures were simply left to deteriorate (Spencer 21).  Before the Muslims’ arrived for the second raid the entrance to the inner sanctum was blocked with large stones. This protected the reclining form of the idol Raganatha albeit at the expense of interrupting services (Spencer 21).  The southward expansion of the Islamic frontier into peninsular India, of which these raids constituted only one rather dramatic manifestation, set in motion certain wider changes in the political structure of southern India, transformations which drastically altered the temple’s relationships with the outside world.  The temple also would finally begin to see the upswing in the coming Vijayanagar period.

­­ By 1371 C.E. Vijayanagar generals had restored the sacred images to Srirangam that the Muslims had destroyed, but temple administration was in shambles and it had lost most of its lands as well as other endowments during the last half-century. The kings of this period began making a habit of granting generous gifts of land and other valuables back to the temple, many of which had been obtained militarily (Spencer 25).  This was done in large part because large generous gifts could be rewarded with ceremonious honours from the temple.  These titles conferred honor and legitimacy upon hero-kings and were used to establish political and ideological ties to a region, resulting in the potential for vast empires. (Spencer 25).  The success of the Vijayanagar kings in this aspect helped to consolidate their regime.  This also gave a momentum to the growing strength of the Tengalai school of Srivaisnavism.  This patronage would eventually lead to this Southern school of Hinduism being the predominant at Srirangam.

The most important function of the modern day Srirangam temple is its hosting of many Hinduism festivals.  One such festival was created during the aforementioned Vijayangara dynasty and is named after the famous king Virupanna udayer (Younger 626).  According to the temple’s website Lord Ranganatha was brought to the sanctum sanctorum in 1371, shortly after the temple had been liberated from the Muslims.  The sanctum was in poor condition and so in 1377 Virupanna donated seventeen thousand gold coins to cover the cost of renovations.  After renovations were completed in 1383, and during the Chithrai festival, Virupanna donated fifty two villages to the temple.  The festival occurs during the Tamil month of Panguni (roughly March-April) and is synonymous in the modern day with the Chithrai festival.

The most important festival for the temple is the Vaikunta Ekadashi.  As one educational poster notes:

“To those with a pure heart, the gates of Vishnu’s spiritual world are always open. But on a precious few days, it is said, that passage is open to all, allowing devotees to more easily reach Vaikunta, the abode of Lord Vishnu, Supreme God to hundreds of millions of Hindus.  This is the essence of Vaikunta Ekadashi, a festival marked by fasting, devotion and pilgrimage to famous temples, when devotees draw closer to God in a most personal way” (Hinduism Today)

The festival takes place during the Tamil month Margazhi (December-January). Vaikuntha Ekadashi celebrations last twenty one days and are divided into two, ten day parts known as pagal pathu (morning part) and Ira pathu (night part).  Lord Vishnu as Lord Ranganatha is adorned in an armor of diamonds (rathnaangi) and is brought to the Thousand-Pillared Hall from the sanctum sanctorum through the northern gate known as Paramapada Vasal, the gate to Vaikunta. This gate is opened once in a year, only on the Vaikuntha Ekadashi day.

The temple’s website describes this occasion as the peak point of all festivals conducted in the temple.  “On this day of days; Sri Ranganatha becomes a virtual king and is known as Sri Rangaraja… Devotees, engaged in non-stop bhajans, fast throughout the day and keep endless vigil during the whole night, singing and dancing to the beat of cymbals” (Srirangam Festivals).

The Hindu Blog explains that the significance of Vaikunta Ekadasi can be traced back to the Padma Purana. It is said that the Purana indicates Lord Visnu took the form of ‘Ekadasi’ – female energy – to kill the demon Muran. This happened during the month of Margazhi. Impressed by ‘Ekadasi,’ Lord Visnu told her that whoever worships him on this day will reach ‘Vaikunta’ (heaven).   Like all Ekadasi days, devotees fast on this day and observe a vigil the whole night. Some people indulge in meditation, Japa and singing of Hari Kirtan. Rice is avoided during Ekadashi days as it is believed that the demon Mura finds a dwelling in the rice eaten on Ekadasi day.

Although the Sri Ranganathaswamy Temple is the largest active temple in the Hindu religion, it has undergone changes in its role over time.  The Muslim occupations in the fourteenth century left the temple a shell of its former self and it was not until the Vijayanagar Hindu dynasty restored much of the temple’s wealth and lands that it really got back to being a key component of the region.  Nowadays the temple serves mostly as just a place of worship and it plays hosts to several important festivals, the biggest of which is the twenty one day Vaikunta Ekadasi.

References and Future Recommended Reading

Bastin, Rohan (2005) “Hindu Temples in the Sri Lankan Ethnic Conflict – Capture and Excess.” Social Analysis, pp. 45-66.

Hari Rao, V. N. (1976) History of the Srirangam Temple. Tirupati, Sri Venkateswara University Press.

Hari Rao, V.N. Koil Olugu; The chronicle of the Srirangam Temple With Historical Notes Madras: Rochouse and Sons.

Parker, Samuel K (1992) “Contemporary Temple Construction in South India: The Srirangam Rajagopuram.” RES: Anthropology and Aesthetics, pp. 110-123.

Smith, Bardwell L (1978) Religion and the legitimation of power in South Asia. Leiden, Netherlands: E.J. Brill.

Spencer, George (1978) “Crisis of Authority in a Hindu Temple under the Impact of Islam.” In Religion and the legitimation of power in South Asia. Bardwell Smith ed. Leiden: Brill. pp. 14-27.

Urwick, William (1891) Indian pictures, drawn with pen and pencil. London: The Religious Tract Society.

Willis, Michael (2009) The Archaeology of Hindu Ritual: Temples and the Establishment of the Gods. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Younger, Paul (1982) “Ten Days of Wandering and Romance with Lord Rankanatan: The Pankuni Festival in Srirankam Temple, South India.” Modern Asian Studies, pp. 623-656.

Related Topics for Further Investigation

Delhi Kingdom



Tamil Nadu




Vaikunta Ekadasi


Vijayanagar dynasty


Noteworthy Websites Related to the Topic

Article written by: Kyle Cantelon (March 2012) who is solely responsible for its content.

The Kailasanatha Temple of Ellora

The Kailasanatha Temple is a Saivite Temple located near Maharastra in western India. It is grouped in a family of structures referred to as the Ellora Cave Temples and is one of dozens of Hindu, Buddhist, and Jain temples among the structures. The Kailasanatha is generally regarded to have been excavated in the mid-8th century during the Rastrakuta Dynasty, inscriptions claim during the rule of Krsnaraja I, who ruled from 757-772 C.E. It is constructed out of a single rock.

The claim that it was constructed under a single ruler, or in the short period of fifteen years, seems rather absurd considering the sheer size of the structure. The architecture and sculpture art are not completed with a uniform style, in fact at least ten different styles can be found each belonging to a particular section on the temple (see Goetz 85-87). The caves in the court walls also appear to have been constructed at a later date. Because it is a cave temple though its historical sequence follows from the top, where the surface was when excavation began, to the bottom. For this reason it is believed that Krsnaraja I was the ruler whom it was completed under. [Goetz (1952) delves slightly further into a few other Ellora cave temples that are believed to be constructed around the same time]. Most of the court as well as the lower story of the temple appear have been created under Krsnaraja, the higher levels under the rule of his predecessor Dantidurga (735-756 C.E.). The courts and lower levels also don’t appear to integrate with the older designs; leaving chambers in the upper levels unreachable except by means of ladders (see Goetz 93-94). Though the Court was likely completed early in Krsnaraja’s reign as many sculptures appear to be more similar in style to those constructed during the time of Dantidurga, simply of smaller size.

Though the architecture and excavation of the Kailasanatha are staggering in and of themselves they are outshone by far by the incredible artwork, sculptures, and statues all about temple. Much of the artwork supports similar themes to several of the Puranas, this is due to the fact that these texts would have been written close to the same era as the temple was constructed. [for more on the Puranas and their relation to the artwork, and specific texts check Heston 1981-1982].

Though Kailasanatha contains undeniable evidence toward the conclusion that it is a temple of Siva, at least a few of its designers did not see issue with frequently interspersing sculptures and art of many other deities, especially Visnu. There are both Vaisnavite and Saivite subjects scattered liberally about the temple structure (see Hawley 80-82). There are also many depictions of the Dikpalas, naga, and River Goddesses, though they never appear quite as important as the sculptures of Siva, Visnu, and Brahma, usually appearing smaller and or made to look as if standing further back (see Heston 220-221).

The gopura (entry gate) of the temple is an area clearly depicting and paying homage to several other Hindu deities. The entry gate depicts many stories with diametrically opposed themes on opposing walls. The north wall clearly portrays Siva as the supreme deity, while enforcing unity among all deities and forces; it supports the pursuit of knowledge in order to achieve moksa. The sculptures contain images such as Siva in several modes of dance, a story of Visnu and Brahma seeking the beginning and end of a flaming linga, with turns out to be Siva in his ultimate form. The sculptures continue, showing Harihara a composite form of Siva and Visnu, showing unity though with Siva dominant in the representation. The next sculpture is one of Siva with his divine consort again with Siva appearing in a superior fashion (see Heston 222-223)

The south wall portrays a radically adverse side of Hindu tales. The sculptures all reveal tales of a deity’s heroic victory over a demon in battle. One is of Visnu in incarnated as a boar, the story of which is told in the Puranas of this incarnation saving the earth goddess from the primordial ocean. Another depicts the dwarf Vamana (another form of Visnu) defeating the demon Bali and claiming the universe for the gods. Some of the carvings are damaged and others still depict demons being killed or defeated. One of these however reveals the connection between the northern and southern walls. The specific carving is one of Siva thrusting his trident into a demon, upon his impalement the demon sees past the illusion and lies of the material world and achieves true knowledge. The demon in the tale is a metaphor for that illusion, the story clearly stating that only through Siva, among other deities, and proper ritual will one achieve that knowledge (see Heston 223-225). This is another section of the temple where the sculptures place emphasis not only of Siva but also depict stories of Visnu and Brahma in tales of seeking knowledge, on the north wall, and in triumph of asura, on the south.

Among the images carved closer to the actual entrance of the gopura only depictions of the Dikpalas, or Gods of the Eight Directions, appear. It is commonplace to see these deities given a protector status, especially among temple entrances and other important religious locales. Four images lie on either side of the portal; unfortunately three are damaged, and of those two are completely unrecognizable. However, because in this era and in this setting it was popular to depict all eight deities together in this role it is assumed that the two damaged sculptures are the remaining Dikpala.

On the north side of the entry presides sculptures of Agni (fire god), Vayu (wind god), and Varuna (water god), the fourth is one of the destroyed sculptures. Varuna in this representation is attributed with a lotus, as opposed to his usual noose. The south side of the doorway consists of sculptures of Indra (sky god), carrying his typical lightning bolt, a damaged panel depicts a bull mount which is the usual vehicle of the deity Yama (death god). Another damaged, unrecognizable panel on this side as well as an image Kartikkeya, who is the son of Siva but is not a deity among the Dikpalas. Though throughout the Puranas Kartikkeya is seen as both as a seeker of knowledge and a sage, as well as a leader of an army of gods, in this he shows himself both as a protector, garnering a place among the Dikpalas, at least thematically. These two roles also aptly blend with the theme already beginning to shine through among the other sculptures (see Heston 226-234). It is impossible to ever tell which of the Dikpala Kartikkeya replaces, due to the two damaged carvings.

The deities flanking the door directly are Indra with his lightning bolt and Varuna carrying the lotus, again this is unusual in representations of Varuna. The lotus often represents knowledge, however, fitting seemingly with that wall’s theme. The lightning bolt clearly held as a weapon in this case fitting with the theme of its respective wall. [It is interesting to note that Buddhist excavations in the Ellora Caves also similar symbols representing religious knowledge, Heston 1981-1982]

The temple also contains much smaller vastly intricate and detailed carvings of Hindu epics, The Ramayana, The Mahabharata, and The Krsnacaritra. The walls of the porch of the temple depict these stories in their episodic nature. Many believe these depictions are later additions to the temple for several reasons (see Hawley 77-78); this is believed in part due to the intense amounts of detail that has gone into these carvings as well as the fact that they do not seem to be very well integrated into the general architecture of the temple. Despite this studies have dated the story panels at least around the same time as the rest of the monument. It is interesting to note that regardless of the intricacy with which the many episodes of each story are depicted many arguably important episodes of each tale are either incomplete or just missing (see Markel 59).

The Kailasanatha is clearly a marvel of architecture, artistry, and an unfathomable amount of labour. It rests as the center piece and most impressive of the Ellora Caves, an already marvellous network. Its art characterizes a deep understanding of, and willingness to teach Hindu beliefs. It exemplifies the amount of devotion and care one has for something they truly believe in, while at the same time exposing the intelligence and creativity of its designers through their use of symbolism. It is no wonder this place attracts so many visitors, including scholars, pilgrims, and tourists, or why it is considered the unrivalled spectacle among the other cave temples.


Heston, Mary Beth (1982-82) “Iconographic Themes of the Gopura of the Kailasanatha Temple at Ellora.” In Artibus Asiae Vol. 43 No.3. Washington D.C.: Artibus Asiae Publishers.

Markel, Stephen (2000) “The Ramayana Cycle on the Kailasanatha Temple at Ellora” from Ars Orientalis Vol. 10 Supplement 1. Ann Arbor: Freer Gallery of Art, The Smithsonian Institution and Department of the History of Art, University of Michigan.

Goetz, H. (1952 “The Kailasa of Ellora and the Chronology of Rastrakuta Art” from Artibus Asiae Vol. 15 No. 1/2. Washington D.C.: Artibus Asiae Publishers.

Hawley, John Stratton (1981) “Scenes from the Childhood of Krsna on the Kailasanatha Temple, Ellora” from Archives of Asian Art Vol. 34. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press.

_________________(1987) “Krishna and the Birds” from Ars Orientalis Vol. 17. Ann Arbor: Freer Gallery of Art, Smithsonian Institutiion and Department of History of Art, University of Michigan

Kramsrisch, Stella (1981) The Presence of Siva . New Jersey: Princeton University Press.

Related Topics for Further Investigation

The Vishvakarma

The Dashavatara

The Indra Sabha

Krsnaraja I


Rastrakutra Dynasty











The Ramayana

The Mahabharata

The Krsnacaritra

The Puranas

Siva Purana

Linga Purana

Noteworthy Websites Related to the Topic

Article written by: TJ Riggins (March 2010) who is solely responsible for its content.

The Sabarimalai Temple and Pilgrimage

Sabarimalai is a temple located in the mountains of South India, in the state of Kerala. It is dedicated to the deity Ayyappan, who is venerated widely throughout the South. Ayyappan is not mentioned in any of the puranic texts, and appears mostly in the myths and legends of Kerala. The first Sanskrit text to mention Ayyappan is the Bhutanathopakhyanam, which was written in the nineteenth century, and is the primary text of the cult (Sekar 15).

There are several differing stories of Sabarimalai’s origins, nearly all tied to Ayyappan. One such Ayyappan myth, of which there are many, it involves Ayyappan, although he is not yet revealed to be the deity, undertaking the impossible task of acquiring the milk of a tiger to save the life of the queen (Younger 18). When he succeeds, the king recognizes Ayyappan’s divinity and promises to build him a temple. Ayyappan shoots an arrow to indicate where the temple should be built, and it lands in the forest where Sabarimalai now stands. A separate story tells of how Parasurama, an avatara of Visnu, founded five shrines to Ayyappan (Sekar 19). The five shrines contain images of Ayyappan in several stages of life, the fourth of which is at Sabarimalai which depicts the deity in the forest dweller (vanaprastha) stage of life. The fifth shrine has not been found, but it is believed by devotees to be on the summit of a nearby mountain, depicting Ayyappan as a sannyasin.

As alluded to above, it is possible that the myths involving Ayyappan are of South Indian origin, and it may be the case that Vedic references are built on a standing definition. Some scholars argue that versions of the story which portray Ayyappan as the son of Siva and Mohini may be a more recent creation, reflecting the southward movement of the The Vedas (Younger 22 and Thomas 20).

Sabarimalai is open to pilgrims only during the festival season, which runs for fifty one days though December and part of January (Younger 17). The pilgrimage is noteworthy for its popularity, drawing approximately ten million pilgrims each year (Younger 23). This popularity is a relatively recent phenomenon, and while scholars are uncertain what caused the rise in pilgrims, having increased in the last fifty years (Younger 22-23).

The pilgrimage is important to the cultural identity of many South Indians, and the austere life lead by pilgrims is seen as similar to ancient forms of religious expression (Younger 18). Between forty five and sixty days prior to departing on the pilgrimage, pilgrims undertake numerous vows of austerity (Daniel 246-247). The list of injunctions is extensive and includes vows to refrain from intoxicating beverages, sexual activity, meat, eggs, and anger.

While Sabarimalai is important to the South Indian identity, it is by no means exclusive to those people. One of the most noteworthy aspects of the pilgrimage is its inclusiveness; the pilgrimage is open to all castes and faiths (Vaidyanathan 50). The tradition has loosely tied itself with both Islam and Buddhism. There is a mosque at Erumeli [the official starting place of the pilgrimage] dedicated to a figure named Vaver, who appears to provide assistance to Ayyappan in some stories (Thomas 14). Pilgrims are expected to circumambulate the mosque three times before visiting the temple to Ayyappan located in the same town. Some scholars have speculated at a possible link to Buddhism because Ayyappan is called simply ‘teacher’ by most pilgrims, which is one of the names of the Buddha (Younger 21). This universality of Sabarimalai is brought into question by its stance towards women.

No women of menstrual age are permitted on the pilgrimage (Younger 20). The reason typically given for this exclusion is that the pilgrimage is at essence a male initiation rite, testing the ability of a man to cope with the challenges of forest life. The exclusion of women is justified in the myth surrounding Ayyappan, who promises to wed the goddess Malikappurattamma the year that no pilgrims arrive to worship at Sabarimalai (Younger 20).. Malikappurattamma has a shrine on a nearby mountain, and during the festival her image is symbolically brought near Ayyappan’s shrine to witness the throngs of pilgrims standing between themIt is common for Hindu rituals and worship to be closed to menstruating women, but Sabarimalai’s exclusion of the entire age group is unusual and worthy of mention.

Despite the casteless nature of the pilgrimage, Ayyappan has historically been much more popular amongst the lower classes; Ayyappan is not worshipped as the chief deity in any Brahmin temples (Thomas 19). Some scholars credited the rise in the ritual’s popularity as stemming from anti-Brahmin sentiment; since the tradition is seen as natively South Indian, and the Brahmins are viewed as Northern migrants. This pilgrimage is seen by some as a way of asserting their independence from the caste system (Younger 23). Despite this undertone, the number of upper-caste pilgrims has increased steadily in recent years (Younger 24).

A shrine depicting the 18 holy steps marking the final ascent to the temple of Lord Ayyapan, the destination of the Sabaraimala pilgrimage in Kerala, India
A shrine depicting the 18 holy steps marking the final ascent to the temple of Lord Ayyapan, the destination of the Sabaraimala pilgrimage in Kerala, India

The pilgrimage begins with the vows of austerity mentioned above, which are taken in advance of the pilgrims departure. First time pilgrims are expected to find the participant in his region who has completed the pilgrimage the greatest number of times, and place himself under their care for the duration (Thomas 24-25). This senior pilgrim is to serve as a spiritual guide for the new devotee. This hierarchy is linguistically reinforced through the different modes of address used for pilgrims who have completed the pilgrimage more often. First and second time pilgrims are called kanni, those participating for a third time are called muthalperu, fourth are bharippu, and those on their fifth pilgrimage or more are addressed as ‘pazhama’ (Thomas 24).

When departing from their hometown, after an appropriate period of austerities, modern pilgrims have two options. The traditional method is to travel by foot to the town of Erumeli, stopping to worship at as many temples as possible along the way, and to begin the pilgrimage proper from there (Younger 19). For pilgrims looking for a less arduous journey, a road now extends to the town of Pampa at the foot of the mountain. Pilgrims are able to park their vehicles in Pampa and undertake a shorter eight kilometre trek up the mountain (Sekar 58). For pilgrims without their own means of transportation, the Kerala State Transport Corporation also runs a bus service to Pampa.

Along the route to the temple from Erumeli, pilgrims stop to hurl stones into a ravine, this is explained in a number of different ways. Some pilgrims understand it as symbolically throwing away a person’s sins, others as a reenactment of Ayyappan’s victory over the buffalo demoness Mahisi. Some scholars have also remarked on the similarity of this ritual to Muslim pilgrims stoning pillars in Mecca (Sekar 60). Pilgrims undertaking the last leg of the journey from Pampa first bathe in the river which the town is named for (Sekar 64). This bathing, as in one possible understanding of the ravine ritual, is intended to rid a person of their sins before proceeding to the temple.

After arriving at the temple, pilgrims smash ghee filled coconuts against the steps, before climbing those steps and entering into the temple itself (Younger 20). In the temple they witness priests pour ghee filled coconuts over the image of Ayyappan. Once the final act of the pilgrimage is complete, the pilgrims turn homewards, lingering only briefly once reaching the goal of their last several weeks (Younger 20).


Daniel, E. Valentine (1984) Fluid Signs: Being a Person the Tamil Way. Los Angeles: University of California Press.

Osella, Filippo and Osella, Caroline (2003) ‘Ayyappan saranam’: masculinity and the Sabarimala pilgrimage in Kerala. Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute. Vol. 9, 4. 729-756.

Sekar, Radhika (1992) The Sabarimala Pilgrimage & Ayyappan Cultus. Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass.

Srikant, C. V. Manoj (1998) Sabarimala: Its Timeless Message. Payyanur: Integral Books.

Thomas, P. T. (1973) Sabarimalai and Its Sastha. Madras: Diocesan Press.

Vaidyanathan, K. R. (1978) Pilgrimage to Sabari. Bombay: Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan.

Younger, Paul (2002) Playing Host to Deity: Festival Religion in the South Indian Tradition. New York: Oxford University Press.















Article written by: Brian Paulson (March 2010) who is solely responsible for its content.

The Kandariya Mahadeva Temple

The Kandariya Mahadeva is the largest and most magnificent temple at Khajuraho and is a popular tourist site. It is on a level field in Central India (Alles 1988:4). It forms a parallel row with the Chitragupta and Jagadambi temples and is part of the Western group of temples. Vidyadhara, who was part of the Chandella kingdom,  is credited as being the author of the Kandariya Mahadeva, which is supported by an inscription on a mandapa-pilaster in the temple, which reads, “a gift of courtesans on a certain sacred occasion during the reign of king Virimda” (Deva 1987:15). Virimda is thought to be another name for Vidyadhara. Vidyadhara is thought to be the most powerful Indian ruler of his time. He succeeded his father Ganda as king. Under Vidyadhara’s leadership, the Chandella kingdom reached the pinnacle of their prosperity, evident in the intricate and rich design of the Kandariya Madeva temple. There were two contemporary rival powers in Central India, the Kalachuris and the Paramaras, and Vidyadhara had victories over both of them (Deva 1987:15). Vidyadhara’s prestige was heightened when he, with the help of feudatory Kachhapaghata Arjuna, exterminated Rajyapala, the Pratihara king who had retreated when Mahmud, a powerful foreign invader that invaded Kanauj in A.D. 1018. Because of this, Vidyadhara was both feared and respected by the Paramaras and the Kalachuris. Mahmud considered Rajyapala’s assignation as a serious threat and so he challenged Vidyadhara in war. Vidyadhara put together a large army of cavalry, infantry and elephants (Deva 1987:15). Mahmud was scared by the large army. When the two sides met on the first day of battle there was no victor. Mahmud returned to Ghazni. Vidyadhara and his feudatory Kachchhapaghata Vajradaman defended the fort of Gwalior when Mahmud returned in 1022 to challenge Vidyadhara. Vidyadhara was praised as a hero after holding off Mahmud (Deva 1987:15). Vidyadhara built the Kandariya Mahadeva, continuing the tradition of the Chandellas to build great temples.

The Kandariya Mahadeva is dedicated to the god Siva, as shown through the large marble Siva-linga in the sanctum. There are many depictions of Siva, usually with four arms. It is common to see him with a lotus stalk. The images are all over the interior walls and the exterior. Some images are missing hands, heads or other parts. These images have been broken throughout time from age and weather, but the Kandariya Mahadeva is still one of the most well preserved temples from Indian medieval times.

The art at Kandariya Mahadeva is often used as an example for the erotic designs of the Hindu temples. Erotic sculptures are seen on the facades and interior of the temple. The forms of sexuality are intertwined with religious philosophy (Berleant 97).

Sculptures on the temple are tall and slender. They exhibit the sophistication of Khajuraho at the peak of its prosperity. Depicted are nymphs and people in lively or violently agitated postures (Deva 1987:95). The largest monument of Khajuraho is the marble Siva-linga. This form is 100 feet in height and 66 feet wide. These dimensions exclude the platform. The linga is similar to the Visvanatha temple, however it is more elaborate and magnificent.

On one of the outer niches is an image of dancing Chamunda who has twelve arms and is ugly and vicious. He has bulging eyes, large mouth, and shown with veins and bones, dried-up hanging breasts and a scorpion on his sunken belly (see Deva 1990:156). Chamunda wears a jata-mukuta studded with a grinning skull and a pendant with scorpions (see Deva 1990:156). She stands over a headless corpse and there is a preta, which is a soul of the departed, on either side of her. One of these pretas is munching on a human hand. This is just one example of the grotesque depictions on the Kandariya Mahadeva.

The Kandariya Mahadeva is mostly in darkness, excluding a few days of the year. The days when it is not in darkness are when “the rays of the rising sun strike, as if to waken the image of the deity from its slumbers” (Kelley 281). The intent of this illumination process is not elaborated upon (Kelley 281).

The Kandariya Mahadeva is different from other temples of Khajuraho in its architecture in that each element of the plan is grand with elaborate designs and ornamentation (Deva 1987:95). There are a large number of protruding parts and recesses throughout the entire temple. The basement has elegant ornamented moldings. The interior is similar to other temples, however, it is more spacious and filled with sculptures and carvings.

The Kandariya Mahadeva’s platform is the only one that shows protrusions on the rear and the lateral sides; these protrusions correspond with the protrusions of the transepts (see Deva 1987:95). There is a 10 ft. high terrace on which the temple rests. Only a little of the “original façade of the platform survived in the south-eastern corner on the flank of the imposing flight of steps leading to its terrace” (Deva 1987:95). The foundation is granite covered with a plain course of sandstone. There are two overhangs on the west and south that correspond with the overhangs of the west and south transepts (see Deva 1987:98).

The basement is on a granite foundation, covered with two layers of sandstone. The socle (stone serving as a pedestal) rises on the plinth (a flat stone at the base of a column). The socle is comprised of five mouldings. Underneath these moldings is a “recessed band carved with a processional frieze” (Deva 1987:98). On this frieze are depictions of dancers and devotees, acrobats and musicians, warriors and hunters, horses, elephants and erotic themes. The kapota-hood is the last of the five moldings of the socle and is where the junction of two series of nine niches occurs. The niches are large and are set back to back with the basement. The lower niches are now empty and stop just below the kapota, which is an “overhanging cornice or molding representing it” (Deva 1990:398). The upper niches display images of “the Seven Mothers and Ganesa and Virabhadra” (Deva 1987:98) and they start above the kapota.

A sikhara is the “principal spire or tower over the sanctum” (Deva 1990:403). This tower is where the highest roof rises over the sanctum and reaches its highest point, from which are four diminishing half-spires or urah-sringas on each side, and many minor spirelets or sringas. These minor spirelets are of varying sizes (see Deva 1987:98).  The sikhara’s main stem has twelve compressed stories (bhumis), which are specified by eleven semicircular bhumi-alakas. Each bhumi-alaka has a kapota. There are chaitya-arches covering the sikhara (see Deva 1987:98).

The wall or jangha has three rows of sculptures, all equal in size. The boundaries are marked by two series of moldings. The lower series has a projecting band of kirttimukhas. There is a frieze of rosettes below (see Deva 1987:98). The upper series has a projecting faschia that is decorated with stenciled scrolls, which have a ruffled triangular design below. The first series of moldings repeats above the third row of sculptures (see Deva 1987:98). A broad recess showing diamonds in niches is interceded by a pair of kapotas that make up the varandika mouldings of the eave-cornice that separates the wall (jangha) from the sikhara (Deva 1987:98). Balustrades on the five transepts and facades of the mandapa and porch show four moldings. The balconied windows are above these balustrades and the windows have ribbed eaves supported on pillars with atlantean brackets (Deva 1987:98). There are elephant figures found carved in the round, supported by the corners of the eaves. This is similar to the design of the Visvanatha temple.

The north and south faces a vertical row of four sculptured niches that are shown on the roof the vestibule, which is above the eave-cornice (Deva 1987:98). The top of the sculptured niches has a pyramidal roof. Three rows of framed niches, which are behind the four sculptured niches, rise to the gable of the front antefix, which is an ornamented above the top horizontal molding. This particular antefix has a lion figure. There are two rows of sculptured niches on the front of the roof. These niches have an ascending row of four pediments (Deva 1990:150).

The roof over the transepts starts with a row of sculptured niches. There are pyramidal rooflets on either side of the row of niches. Above the niches are four pediments. The lowest pediment on either side is beside a balconied window, while the upper pediments “are adorned at the terminal ends by model pyramidal rooflets” (Deva 1987:99).

The roof of the maha- mandapa has a dome in the place of a point on a pyramidal shape, which is made of “pyramidal rooflets converging to the crown of the roof” (Deva 1987:99). There are four rooflets that form the base horizontal row. Two of these rooflets are on either side of the central pediments. Over the rooflets is a pyramid made of four other horizontal rows of rooflets (Deva 1987:99). The rooflets are arranged symmetrically in vertical and horizontal rows, marking diagonal progressions, which converge to the crown of the maha-mandapa roof (Deva 1987:99). The roof of the mandapa is similar to the roof the maha-mandapa. The main difference between the two roofs is that the roof of the mandapa is smaller.

The porch is a smaller arrangement similar to that of the mandapa roof. A row of sculptured niches is on a pediment. On each side of the row is a pyramidal rooflet. A bell-rooflet occurs at the roof between the pediment and crowning member of the roof (Deva 1987:99). The bell-rooflet occurs on all four sides at the same level, each with a pyramidal rooflet.

The terrace of the jagati (platform) is entered through a flight of steps, the last two steps being represented as moon-stones. The temple is entered through a makara-torana (an ornamental entrance) of four loops. The upper edges of the loops are decorated and the junctions of the loops carry long pendants that resemble pinecones (Deva 1990:151). Two figures of Siva-Parvati are on the sides of the makaras niches. The inner face is Lakshmi-Narayana on the right and on the left is Brahma-Brahmani (Deva 1990:151).

The mandapa has eight pillars and four pilasters. The pillars and pilasters are similar to the ones in the porch (Deva 1987:96). There is an abacus with a divine couple above the atlantean brackets on a pair of pillars. The cornice of the mandapa makes a square shape, as the cornice reduces the length. Scrolls and kirttimukhas cut off the corners, changing the square into a circle shape. The ceiling has a circular design also, with eight cusped flowers. The ceiling has large void in its centre, which represents the seed-pod of a floral pattern (Deva 1990:152).

The maha-mandapa’s hall is a slight variation of a rectangular plan as it has a rectangle shape along with protruding niches in each corner. The ceiling is supported on the walls and atlantean brackets of the pilasters (Deva 1987:102). There is a beam that the brackets and walls hold, which is 18” high and has the common icon of stenciled scrolls, along with a band of kirttimukhas. A cornice surmounts the beam and has floral and geometrical designs and a lotus petal band. Above this cornice are “three corbelled courses of ribbed rafters simulating timber construction” (Deva 1987:102), similar to that of the Lakshama and Visvanatha temples.

There are two pairs of pilasters from the entrance from the hall to the transepts. The pilasters are of the bhadraka variety (Deva 1990:155). In the space between the two pilasters are two nymph figures on lotus leaves. The balconied openings are on two pillars and pilasters with the upper half resting above the asanapatta and the lower half is below the asanapatta (Deva 1990:155).

The pillars of the vestibule have octagonal shafts; they have sixteen sides with circular sections that rest on a heavy octagonal base (Deva 1987:102). The pilasters of the vestibule are beside the sanctum doorway. They resemble the transepts of the maha-mandapa. However, they support an attic section. Their base rests on the back of elephant figures (Deva 1987:102). The eastern side of the shaft has a picture of a Siva door-keeper and the outer side has a female chauri-bearer (Deva 1987:102).

Steps leading to the doorway of the sanctum are four stepped moonstones with conch-shells. The depiction on the lintel of the doorway is of Siva riding a bull. Brahma is on his right and Vishnu on his left and attendant divinities are in niches and recesses. The doorway itself is made of nine sakhas. The first and seventh are carved with stenciled scrolls, while the second and sixth have dancing asparases. The third and fifth have vyalas and the fourth has mithunas and has a circular capital. The eighth and ninth are decorated with lotus petals and scrolls in bold relief (see Deva 1987:102-103).

The ceiling of the entrance to the sanctum is plain, but the ceiling of the cella is decorated with lotus flowers and scrolls. The inner walls of the sanctum are plain. A sandstone pithika supports a marble Siva-linga and is enshrined in the middle of the sanctum (Deva 1990:155).

The sanctum rests on a high adhishthana, a basement of a temple that supports a wall, pillar or pilaster and consists of distinct molded tiers (Deva 1990:395) and the sanctum has adhishthana moldings of pitha (pedestal) and vedibandha (Deva 1990:155). The pitha moldings have elephants, horses and men, erotic scenes and kapotapali. Kapotapali marks the plinth level (Deva 1990:155).

The architecture of the Kandariya Mahadeva is complicated and covered in various images and sculptures. While most of the images on the interior are of Siva or refer to Siva, on the exterior can be found many erotic depictions, for which the Kandariya Mahadeva is well known.


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Chandella kingdom



Visvanatha temple




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Article written by: Cara Horwood (March 2010) who solely responsible for its contents.