Temples and history
This is a state steeped in Hindu history and beliefs. In contrast to Rajasthan, which I visited two years earlier, there are relatively few great secular buildings, though I did visit the 15/16th century fort of Gingee.
The Dravidian culture of South India – its languages and people – pre-dates the arrival of the Aryans in India, and the great texts on which the Hindu religion is based owe as much to Dravidian as Aryan beliefs.
The golden age of Hindu architecture began in the seventh century, during the reign of the Pallavan dynasty. It continued during the powerful Tamil kingdoms of the Chera, Chola, and Pandya. Most temples that I visited were built under the rule of the Pallavas, Cholas, Pandyas and the Vijayanagara .
Pallava (600-900 AD)
Chola (900-1250 AD)
eg Thanjavur, Chidambaram, Gangaikonacholapuram, Darasuram, Thiruvannamalai. Trichy (built over several dynasties)
Pandyas (1100-1350 AD)
Nayakas (1600 AD)
eg Madurai, Gingee fort.
Originally temples were built of wood, or bricks and mortar. Then they were carved out of rock, often using hillsides and caves (as in Mamallapuram) and finally, from the 10th century, comes the development of the temple complex.
The multi-storeyed pyramid spires (vimana) of South Indian temples date back to the Cholan dynasty. At Thanjavur the vimana is over 200 feet high, with 13 storeys, topped by a massive carved cupola. The actual worship takes place inside, in dark shrines (garbhagriga). The Cholans also introduced magnificent multi-columned halls (mandapas) leading up to the sanctuaries and used for festivals and other special occasions, and huge towers (gopuras) over the entrances to temple complexes. The Pandyas continued the development of tall gopuras and developed high-walled enclosures, with gopura gateways on each side. The Vijayanagar (15-16th centuries) were responsible for particularly finely carved columns and the Nayakas added walkways.
There is more detailed information of architectural trends at the tamilnation.org site.
What makes the Hindu temples so appealing is the richness of the carving, in particular during the Pallavan and early Cholan periods: scarcely a surface is left unornamented by a profusion of images of familiar figures from the huge family of Hindu gods and goddesses. As the centuries progress, the figures take on a rotund less dynamic quality which, together with the Indian love of bright primary colours, makes them less appealing to Western tourists like me.