Just as Chola Bronzes and other sacred figurative sculptures are highly symbolic in nature, Chola temples were also subject to the iconographic dictates of the Shilpa Shastras. Just as a bronze sculpture is believed to represent the deity in physical form (in certain specific circumstances), temples are believed to house the presence of the Divine in the world. If the universe is the body of the Divine on a macrocosmic scale then the temple is the body of the Divine in a microcosmic scale and therefore the temple’s major features correspond to features of the human body.
Chola temples were, and are, where worshippers interact with gods in their material form, either in their most ancient form as an abstract (aniconic) symbol, such as Lingam and Yoni, or figurative, such as a stone or bronze sculptural icon. If a major temple was dedicated to Shiva – as most in south India were – the central form of God might be a Lingam/Yoni in the inner sanctum (karuvarai), while a modest village shrine makes do with a simple Lingam or crude stone icon (mulamurti). A Vaishnava temple, on the other hand, would have a figurative image of Vishnu. Temples in South India dedicated to Shakti, the Divine Goddess, were less common, although they would again feature an anthropomorphic image of a specific manifestation such as Uma or Kali (note 1). South India temples dedicated to Shiva outnumber those dedicated to Vishnu roughly two to one, while temples dedicated to Shakti, the Great Goddess, are relatively few. Though each temple may be dedicated to a particular god or goddess, in the larger temples icons of the major gods are found throughout the temple building and grounds, each with their own shrines and sacred sculpture, allowing the devotee to perform puja to more than one god in a single visit.
Brihadisvara Temple, with the Nandi Mandapam
Architecturally, the temples of south India differ from their northern counterparts in three distinct ways;
They are usually enclosed by within a compound wall, with the front wall having an entrance gateway (gopuram) in its centre
The central tower (vimana) over the karuvarai is pyramid-shaped with flat sides as opposed to the bulging sides of its northern cousins. A cupola-like structure (shikhara) is placed on top.
A covered assembly hall (mandapa) used for music and dancing in front of the inner sanctum. A large temple may have several.
A tank (kalyani) is usually found in the compound and used for ritual purposes.
Temples dedicated to Shiva will have a pavilion (Nandi Mandapam) for a murti, or sculpture, of Nandi, Shiva’s bull vahana (vehicle), which will be facing his master.
The external walls of the temple are segmented by pilasters and feature niches housing sacred sculpture.
Early shrines were created anywhere having a special spiritual meaning for the people, serving as a focus for worshipping nature spirits, such as trees or Lingam shaped rocks, or springs, even anthills, the home of snakes, or nagas. Temple tradition may have started with early cave sanctuaries, themselves symbolic ‘womb chambers’, indicative of the creative power of the gods, particularly Shakti. Perhaps a simple wall would be built to define the sacred ground surrounding the shrine, and as time went on a shelter of wood or brick in time evolved to what eventually became the grand temple complexes built by the Chola kings and queens (note 3) and serving royal residence, seat of government and setting for the sacred arts. Chola temples have been in continuous use since they were created a thousand years ago, having been spared the worst of the Mughal invasions which had destroyed so many north Indian temples. Many of the original bronze icons still in place and are still being worshipped with the same mantras and rituals, and entering these temples today one feels an almost palpable presence of the worship performed in these soot-blackened chambers for the past thousand years.
Note 1 – In south India, the Mother Goddess is no less powerful, however, Shakti is expressed through manifestations such as Uma (Shiva’s consort), Lakshmi and Bhu Devi (Vishnu’s wives), Kali or Mari Amma, as Durga is known in south India.
Note 2 – Such shrines are still scattered throughout India, reflecting the animist beliefs of pre-Vedic times.
Note 3 – The trend towards grand temple complexes began when Tantric values regarding puja became popular, starting around the 5th century. Tantrism also accelerated the belief in personal devotion to one’s chosen deity, a concept known as Bhakti.
Note 4 -Brihadisvara, the grandest of all Chola temple complexes was built in only seven years by Rajaraja Chola 1. Construction began in 1003 AD and at the time of its completion was one of the tallest buildings in the world at 63 metres (208 feet). It is a UNESCO Living Chola Temple.