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Introduction to Temples of Kerala
EVOLUTION OF RELIGION, GODS, SHRINES AND TEMPLES


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      Sculpture on the Namaskaara Mandapam at Thrikkodithanam Temple


A Typical Temple :
GENERAL FORM & LAYOUT
History:
EARLIEST SHRINES (Before 300 BC)

EARLY JAIN TEMPLES (c.300 BC to 500 AD)

EARLY BUDDHIST TEMPLES (c.200 BC to 800 AD)

REVIVAL OF HINDUISM & THE 'NEW' BRAHMINICAL TEMPLES (c.800 AD onwards)
Components Of A Temple:
THE PANCHA-PRAKARA LAYOUT SCHEME

A Typical Temple:

GENERAL FORM & LAYOUT

Traditional Hindu temples in Kerala are simple structures made of wood, brick and laterite stone. Often, from afar, the only sign that marks the presence of old temples is a tall, ceremonial flag-mast. The main sanctum hosting the deities -the Sreekovil - is invariably a single storied building of a circular or square plan.

Inside the temples, use of oil lamps in contrast to electrical lights lends an air of serenity and mysticism. Walls of the Sreekovil are rarely left bare, and are instead, covered with intricate, beautiful mural paintings or wood carvings.

The building base is usually of granite and the walls are of laterite stone masonry covered with lime plaster. The inner framework is of wood. This timber framework supports a conical or pyramidal roof covered with copper tiles. These sloping-roof buildings cope very well with the torrential rains that are a hallmark of Kerala's climate.

Evolution of temples in Kerala is closely linked to her social and cultural history.

History:

THE EARLIEST TEMPLES & SHRINES

The earliest people to make Kerala their home were the Dravidians. Cultural affinities ( inheritance through women, snake cults) and anthropological evidence point to the Mediterranean origins (Nubia, Upper Egypt) of her Dravidian people.

As the early settlers cleared thickly forested lands for farms and settlements, they set aside small areas of the original forest completely untouched. These became the earliest known sites of worship - the Kaavus - Dravidian Sacred Groves. In these groves, no flower was ever plucked, no tree felled and, most importantly, no snakes disturbed or harmed. This tradition continues today in most Nair households with the Kaavu being considered home to all Naagas (snakegods) and holy spirits.

The first organised religions to reach Kerala came with the Jains and the evangelizing Buddhist missions of Emperor Ashoka in 300 - 200 BC. As in other parts of the country, these missionaries employed the then local language to spread their religion.


JAIN TEMPLES (circa 300 BC to 500 AD)

Jainism was introduced to the South in 300 BC by Emperor Chandragupta Maurya (321-297 BC) and a Jain saint - Bhadrabahu. Evidence of the presence of Jains in Kerala comes from the indisputable fact that many Hindu temples in Kerala were originally Jain Shrines.

For example, the presiding deity of Kudalmanikkam Temple near Irinjalakuda (Thrissur) is Rama`s younger brother Bharata. Originally it was Bharateshwara, a Digambara Jain saint. At Kallil, near Perumbavur, we can still see the images of Paraswanta, Mahavira and Padmavati; even though it is considered a Bhagavati temple today. Similarly, several places in Wayanad have Jain temples indicating that North Malabar was once a flourishing center of Jainism.

According to the historian, William Logan, architecture of later Hindu temples in Kerala was influenced by the architecture of Jain temples.


BUDDHIST TEMPLES (c.200 BC to 800 AD)

Buddhism was introduced in Kerala by the missions sent out by Emperor Ashoka from Besnagar (Vidisha, Madhya Pradesh). During this period, the Emperor`s son Mahindra headed a Buddhist mission to Sri Lanka. For more than 700 years, Buddhism flourished in Kerala. The Paliyam Copper plate of the Ay King, Varaguna (885-925AD) shows that at least in South Kerala, Buddhists continued to enjoy royal patronage even until 1000 AD.

Many Hindu temples were once Buddhist shrines, including Vadakkunathan temple of Thrissur, Kurumba Bhagawathi temple of Kannur and the Durga temple at Paruvaserri near Thrissur. A large number of Buddhist images have been discovered in the coastal districts of Allapuzha and Kollam; the most important of these is the famous Karumadi Kuttan near Ambalapuzha.

Revival of Hinduism by Brahmin scholars in 800-1000 AD gradually wiped out Buddhism from Kerala. Royal patronage by the Vaisnavite Kulashekara dynasty hastened this process. Many Keralites, like the Ezhavas (from Ezham, Tamil term for Sri Lanka), who were most likely Buddhists once, got absorbed in the mainstream Hindu fold.

However the legacy of nearly a 1000 years was not so easily forsaken. Pallikudam or Ezhuthupally - the schools opened by Buddhists near their monasteries - continued to impart education (Pally is the Buddhist term for school). Buddha continued to be worshipped as Sastha or Ayyappa. Popular invocation of these deities, even today, hark back to Buddhist times - Buddham Sharanam became Swami Sharanam!

While replacing old Buddhist shrines with new Hindu temples, the Brahmins, respecting sentiments of the neo-converts, relocated the older gods nearby, but away from the sanctum and outside the Pradikshina-patham or circumambulatory pathway.

REVIVAL OF HINDUISM & THE NEW BRAHMINICAL TEMPLES (c.800 AD Onwards)

Vedic Brahmins arrived in Kerala only in 700-800 AD, along the west coast (Tulu-nadu).

During the time of Maurya Sharman, a Kadamba King, large colonies of Brahmins from North India were invited to settle in Tulu and Kerala. In 792 AD, King Udaya Varman of Mooshika dynasty settled 237 Brahmin families in Kerala. One tradition has it that six outstanding Brahmins came with these immigrants, defeated Buddhist leaders in public debates and established the intellectual supremacy of Hinduism. Later, scholars like Guru Prabhakara and Shankaracharya (788-820 AD) reinforced this supremacy. This led to the promotion of Vaishnavism by Kulashekara Kings of the Second Chera Empire.

Royal patronage to Brahmins brought about radical changes in the social, political and cultural landscape of Kerala. A society which was largely egalitarian was revamped by the Varna caste system. Ethnic groups which existed much earlier, like the Nairs, Ezhavas and the hill tribes were compartmentalised to fit this new social order.

A virtual monopoly over education and erudition made it easier for the Brahmins to suppress and assimilate old deities like Shasta (Buddha) and folk heroes like Maveli (King Mahabali) and Ayyappa (King Ayyan Adigal) into the Hindu pantheon. Sanskrit became more popular. But unlike in North India, the Brahmins in Kerala adopted the Tantric form of temple ritual-worship.


Components of a Temple :

THE PANCHA-PRAKARA LAYOUT SCHEME

The Bhakti Movement and resurgence of Hinduism also marked the revival of temple construction. Fully realising the need to create places of worship that would attract devotees, the Pancha-Prakara scheme became the standard for temple architecture. As the term indicates, the five (Pancha) enclosures (Prakaras) around the Sanctum were:

Layout: The 5 Enclosures
PANCHA-PRAKAARA LAYOUT: THE FIVE ENCLOSURES

    1. AKATTHE-BALIVATTAM - The innermost enclosure, which includes

  • Sreekovil : A central building housing the principal deities
  • Anthar-mandala: Space outside the Sreekovil occupied by protective deities in the form of small stone platforms - Bali-Kall
  • Namaskaara-mandapa: A raised platform for prostration`s
    2. NAALAMBALAM / CHUTTAMBALAM - Area around the sanctum

  • Valia-ambalam: Covered spaces around the Sreekovil for rituals and prayers
  • Thittapalli: A small temple kitchen
  • Mulayara : Storage space for grains, fruits, utensils, firewood
    3. MADHYA HAARA / VILAKKU-MATTAM - The `Galaxy of Lamps`

    4. PURATTHE-BALIVATTAM / SIVELIPPURA - Outer enclosure and cirumabulatory pathway

  • Agra-mandapa : Pathway leading to the Naalambalam
  • Valiya-balikall: Large decorated stone platform for sacrificial offerings
  • Bali-peetha : Positions for protective deities outside the temple
  • Kshetra-paala: Positions for temple guardians
  • Dwaja-sthamba: The ceremonial flag-mast and platform
  • Kovil of minor deities: Sub-shrines within the temple compound
  • Koothamabalam : Enclosure for temple musicians
    5. MARYAADA / PURAM MATHIL - The outer boundary wall

  • Gopura: A formal high building marking the main gateways
  • Oottu-pura: Lunch-hall
  • Puram-mathil: Outer-wall

Precise dimensions of each of the above components are laid out in Tantra Samucchaya, a treatise on temple architecture compiled and written in c.1300 AD.

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