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The Hindu templelike the Hindu religion has a long history. It would appear from literature, that the worship of images in the open, under trees, preceded the building of temples. Such worship, with or without rituals or sacrifices must have been going on for a long time. Sivalingas came to be worshipped under the trees and such trees gained importance as sthala vrikshas (sthala = location, vriksha = sacred tree). Almost every Shiva temple has a sthala vriksha . Solitary lingas in forests came to be worshipped by people. To protect them from the sun and rain and from wild beasts, people built around them fences with the cut wood of the surrounding trees. Thus originally wooden huts were built around the lingas and thus arose the sanctum sanctorum of each of the later temples. Even now one can notice that the sanctum sanctorum is always dark and small in every one of these old temples. Temple architecture thus started with wood. Four wooden pillars supported a tent-like superstructure which came to be called the vimana (the mansion or palace). But such wooden constructions, though protecting the temples could not save them from forest fire or attacks by elephants. Hence these wooden temples came to be built by brick temples. Temples of such wooden constructions can be noticed even today in Kerala. The Pallavas introduced cave temples to give permanence to them. The rathas (chariots) of Mahabalipuram (640 C.E.) were cut out from rocks. In 700 C.E. the Kailasanatha temple was built in Kanchipuram. This was the origin of structural temples. From now onwards temples and vimanas acquired beautiful shape. The middle of the ninth century ushered in the line of the Imperial Cholas. In 1000 C.E. the Great Temple at Tanjore was built. It is most representative of the golden age of temple architecture. While the Cholas beautified the vimanas from bottom to top, the Pandyas (13th century) devoted their attention to the other parts of the temple and built mandapams (halls), prakaras (corridors) and gopuras (gateway towers) . Later the Vijayanagar Kings in the 14th, 15th and 16th centuries added marriage halls, shrines for the goddesses, halls of hundred pillars and thousand pillars. The Nayaks of Madurai and Tanjore made further additions.
The temple as an institution is one of the greatest creations of the Indian genius.It was the hub of the society. It was a centre of diverse activities. Education to the scholar, amusement to the public, arts and aesthetic sense for the elite and devotion and piety for all worshippers -- all was there. Expositions of the epics and recitation of the vedas and Tamil hymns became part of the daily routine in most of the temples. For each of these, special land grants were provided by kings and the noble rich. Provision was made in the temples for morning and evening music. The pipers, drummers, flutists and others were given special allowances. There were dance-halls explicitly for the purpose of dance performances. Drama was fostered in open air theatres in the open corridors of the temples. The temple provided occupation for wood-carvers, sculptors, painters, gardeners, garland-makers, potters, water-men, cooks and accountants among others., The festivals conducted at periodic intervals attracted crowds from distant places. Large fairs held during these festivals contributed to a healthy social intercourse between the rural and urban population. In short the temples were fortresses, treasuries, court-houses, parks, fairs, exhibition-sheds, halls of learning and of pleasure -- in addition to places of worship and meditation, all in one. As we have already remarked, temples (of olden times) generally stand classified into Siva temples and Vishnu temples according as the affiliation is to Saivism or Vaishnavism
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Ó Copyright. V. Krishnamurthy October 12, 2000