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Exploring the beauty of Dravidian temples

IMG_1707 Dravida temples are said to be the product of religious, philosophical, cultural, sociological and aesthetic quest. Southern India temples have a slight different style than those in Northern India. Despite the diversity of architecture in Hindu temples, they are largely similar and share similar attributes. It developed in the late mediaeval times and came to be noted for its enormity and design. Dravidian style of architecture is mainly found in Temple architecture of south India.

Hindu temples has varied shapes and sizes, including the design of its domes and gates- such as rectangular, octagonal, semicircular etc. You name it, they have it. In addition; Hindus don't usually go to the temple as they have a mini prayer room in their house. They go to the temple during the festive seasons such as Thaipusam, Pongal, Panguni etc. where special prayers will take place for specific deities. A typical South Indian temple are fairly well-defined layout and has elegant features such the the front porch,the inner chamber, the dome and steeple,the walkway,the temple tanks & reservoir/rivers and the temple hall. Let’s explore the different features and the significance/purpose of such an architecture in Dravidian temples!


The Front Porch:

The front porch is situated at the entrance of the temple. Devotees usually enter through this entrance and also exit through this door when they have finished their prayers.

 The Front Porch of a temple

It has a big metallic bell that hangs elegantly from the roof or sometimes found on the huge temple doors. Devotees who enters and leaves will ring this bells, so as to declare their withdrawal steps from the temple.


The Inner Chamber:

The inner chamber of the temple called ‘garbhagriha’ or ‘womb-chamber’. This is where the deity(murti) image/ statue is placed.  The Sanskrit word garbha and griha meant “womb” and  “house” respectively. It literally means “Womb Chamber”. The most important structure of a temple is the garbhagriha/ sanctum sanctorum. These are the “ house” for the presiding deity. It is usually open-cased and sparsely lit, intentionally

Inner chamber of Chennakesava Temple at Belur

creating a focus for the devotees to pray. In most temples, visitors are not allowed to enter the garbhagriha, only priests are allowed. In the Dravidian style, the garbhagriha took the form of a miniature vimana with other features exclusive to southern Indian temple architecture  the inner chamber such as the inner and outer walls creates a pradakshina around it.

Besides, its entrance is beautifully decorated. The inner shrine became a separate structure, it is more elaborately adorned as time passed. The garbhagriha is usually in a square form and it sits on a plinth, where its placement is properly calculated to a point of total equilibrium. Thus, it represents harmony and a microcosm of the Universe.


The Dome and Steeple:


Dravida Style Thanjavur temple,showing the ‘Shikhara’

The steeple of the dome is called ‘Shikhara’ (summit) that represents the mythological ‘Meru’/highest mountain peak. The shape of the dome varies from region to region and the steeple is often in the form of Shiva trident. It consists primarily of pyramid shaped temples called Kovils in Tamil(கோவில்) which has intricate carved stone in order to create a step design consisting of many statues of deities, warriors, kings, and dancers.

The Walkway:

Devotees doing Pradakshina aroung Lord Ganesha

Hindu temples are designed with passageways around the inner chambers to allow devotees to circumambulate, Pradakshina, around the deity as a form of respect to the temples god or goddess. The importance of Pradakshina came from the Hindu scriptures where Lord Ganesha circumambulated around his parents, Lord Shiva and Lord Parvathi to show his gratitude and thank them for their protection and goodwill. Even though, children do not circumambulate around their parents today, some fall on their feet to take blessings during hindu festivals and their birthdays. Devotees perform either 10, 108 or 1000 Pradakshina rounds to thank god if their wishes and prayers came true.

The Temple tanks & Reservoir/Rivers:

Ancient water pool and temple

Many south indian temples have temple tanks because water is considered to be a sacred element in Hinduism.  It is used in various rituals (Poojas and Abhishekam) to bath the deities. This holy water, “theertham”,  is then collected and sprinkled on devotees to bless them or is offered to devotees who will then drink it as it is believed to purify and cleanse their soul. The fresh water from the temple tank is also used to clean the cups and vessels used for the Poojas and also to clean the temple floors. During festive days the devotees are encouraged to take a ritual bath in the reservoirs or river nearby before entering the inner chamber of the temple.  


Conventional belief suggests that temples had temple tanks to provide villagers with water during droughts and water scarcity so that they would be able to satisfy their basic water needs. Just like the Hajj (pilgrimage to Mecca at least once in their life) in the Islam religion, Dravidian people are encouraged to take a holy bath in the Rameshwaram Sea or the Ganga river at least once in their life as they strongly believe that it would cleanse an individual’s soul of past sins and also has the ability to cure illnesses.   


The Temple Hall:


Temple Hall with painted ceiling

Wall paintings on Temple Hall ceiling

Most dravidian temples have a hall, Nata-mandira, decorated with intricate painting of deities. The main purpose of the temple hall is to serve as a common place for devotees to gather for various temple activities such as meditating, praying, chanting and also to enjoy indian classical dance performances by Devadasis,

Lord Nadaraja

servant of deva, dedicated to Lord Nataraja and other god or goddess. The temple halls are also used for traditional weddings as two    families come together to get blessings before god as they start their lives.

Temples have been a part of the indian tradition since times immemorial.The majority of the existing temples are located in the Southern Indian states of Tamil nadu, Karnataka, Kerala, Northeastern Sri Lanka, Andhra pradesh, Maldives, and various parts of Southeast Asia today. It is amazing to note that these ancient Dravidian temples were built many decades ago with no technology and machines like in the present days, but they still stand strong even in this 21st century! Many new temples around the world have attempted to replicate the architecture of the ancient Dravidian temples. One such temple would be Sri Veeramakaliamman Temple in Singapore.  Believed to be the symbolic reconstruction of the universe, Dravidian temples has been and still is a contribution of blessings, creative art, architecture, sculpture, painting, music, dance, culture and religious activities. We are thus fortunate to have been able to study and know our history and culture and also achieve spiritual contact with the world of Gods in hinduism. Watch this video to know more about the Dravidian culture and heritage!