Tamil Nadu, the southernmost state of India, is renowned for its stunning and visually complex temple architecture, which draws in hundreds of thousands of devotees and tourists every year. As in most parts of India, Hinduism, the world’s oldest major religion, is the belief system followed by the vast majority of Tamils. Their intense love of God combined with a vibrant culture of literature and visual arts had produced some of the most spectacular forms of religious architecture to be seen today.
Hindu temples in Tamil-speaking areas are called ‘kovils’ and are characterised by a tower-like shikara which in newer temples is very ornate and brightly coloured. The particular architectural style is called ‘Dravida’ (as in Dravidian i.e. south Indian) and is markedly different from the style of temples found in north India.
Dravidian style temples consist almost invariably of the four following parts, differing only according to the age in which they were executed:
- The principal part, the temple itself, is called the Vimanam. It is always square in plan and surmounted by a pyramidal roof of one or more stories; it contains the cell where the image of the god or his emblem is placed.
- The porches or Mantapams, which always cover and precede the door leading to the cell.
- Gate-pyramids, Gopurams, which are the principal features in the quadrangular enclosures that surround the more notable temples.
- Pillared halls or Chaultris—properly Chawadis — used for various purposes, and which are the invariable accompaniments of these temples.
(Extract from Wikipedia)
Such temples’ shikaras are platforms full of highly detailed and meticulously painted carvings of gods and goddesses based on re-tellings from the Vedas, Mahabharat and other holy scriptures. In the industrial city of Tiruchirapalli, or ‘Trichy’ as locals know it for shorthand, is south India’s largest kovil, the Sri Ranganath Swami Temple. Situated in the district of Srirangam, this temple, also known as the Tiruvarangam had remained at this same site since the sixth century CE. It was beleived to have been established by a king of the old Chola dynasty who discovered a murti or ‘idol’ hidden in a forest while chasing a parrot that had caught his attention. The temple complex was subsequently built on an island in the Cauvery river which flows through Trichy. Despite its vulnerable position Sri Ranganath has survived several military invasions and natural disasters. It is dedicated to Lord Ranganath, an incarnation of Vishnu.
It occupies an area of 631,000 square metres and the main entrance tower rises to an elevation of 72 metres. There are several shrines to Lord Vishnu and a famed ‘hall of 1000 pillars’, replete with sculptures of wildly rearing horses bearing riders on their backs and trampling with their hoofs upon the heads of rampant tigers. There are also other towers covered with copper and smaller shikaras in the temple complex.In addition there are 39 pavilions and ponds for visitors’ respite and reflection.
The Temple was an important seat of learning in mediaeval times. The translator who produced the Tamil version of the epic Ramayan, Kambar, came to Sri Ranganath to receive a seal of approval for his works from the resident clerics. Many religious writings and bhajan, or hymnal verses were penned in honour of the temple and its presiding deity, and Srirangam was where Tamil-style Vaishnavism (sect of Vishnu) was crystallised and passed into the veins of Tamil theology.
Today, the great kovil of Trichy is a local, if not a national monument to the devotion and godly centrism of Lord Vishnu’s devotees in Tamil Nadu. It is the largest Hindu place of worship in the world still in active service, and is said to be the largest temple in India too. It is awe-inspiring and a majesty to behold.
You can view a collection of pictures from the Trichy temple on Facebook (album by Rayvi Kumar)
Many thanks to Mr. Noor Malick Akbarali for suggesting the subject matter for this article.