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( Originally Published Early 1900's )
There does not seem to be any essential difference either in plan or form between the Saiva and Vaishnava temples in the south of India. It is only by observing the images or emblems worshipped, or by reading the stories represented in the numerous sculptures with which a temple is adorned, that we find out the god to whom it is dedicated. Whoever he may be, the temples consist almost invariably of the four following parts, arranged in various manners, as afterwards to be explained, but differing in themselves only according to the age in which they were executed:-
1. The principal part, the actual temple itself, is called the Ilimana. It is always square in plan, and surmounted by a pyramidal roof of one or more storeys; it contains the cell in which the image of the god or his emblem is placed.
2. The porches or Mantapas, which always cover and precede the door leading to the cell.
3. Gate pyramids, Gopuras, -which are the principal features in the quadrangular enclosures which always surround the Vimanas.
4. Pillared halls or Choultries, used for various purposes, and which are the invariable accompaniments of these temples.
Besides these, a temple always contains tanks or wells for water-to be used either for sacred purposes or the convenience of the priests, - dwellings for all the various grades of the priesthood attached to it, and numerous other buildings designed for state or convenience...
The population of southern India in the Seventeenth and Eighteenth Century was probably hardly less than it is now -some thirty millions-and if one-third or one-fourth of such a population were to seek employment in building, the results, if persevered in through centuries, would be something astonishing. A similar state of affairs prevailed apparently in Egypt in the time of the Pharaohs, but with very different results. The Egyptians had great and lofty ideas, and a hankering after immortality, that impressed itself on all their works. The southern Indians had no such aspirations. Their intellectual status is, and always was, mediocre; they had no literature of their own-no history to which they could look back with pride, and their religion was, and is, an impure and degrading fetishism. It is impossible that anything grand and imposing should come out of such a state of things. What they had to offer to their gods was a tribute of labour, and that was bestowed without stint. To cut a chain of fifty links out of a block of granite and suspend it between two pillars, was with them a triumph of art. To hollow deep cornices out of the hardest basalt, and to leave all the framings, as if of the most delicate woodwork, standing free, was with them a worthy object of ambition, and their sculptures are still inexplicable mysteries, from our ignorance of how it was possible to execute them. All that millions of hands working through centuries could do, has been done, but with hardly any higher motive than to employ labour and to conquer difficulties, so as to astonish by the amount of the first and the cleverness with which the second was overcome - and astonished we are; but without some higher motive true architecture cannot exist. The Dravidians had not even the constructive difficulties to overcome which enabled the Medieval architects to produce such noble fabrics as our cathedrals. The aim of architects in the Middle Ages was to design halls which should at the same time be vast, but stable, and suited for the accommodation of great multitudes to witness a lofty ritual. In their struggles to accomplish this they developed intellectual powers which impress us still through their works. No such lofty aims exercised the intellectual faculties of the Hindu. His altar and the statue of his god were placed in a dark cubical cell wholly without ornament, and the porch that preceded that was not necessarily either lofty or spacious. What the Hindu architect craved for, was a place to display his powers of ornamentation, and he thought he had accomplished all his art demanded when he covered every part of his building with the most elaborate and most difficult designs he could invent. Much of this ornamentation, it is true, is very elegant, and evidences of power and labour do impress the human imagination, often even in defiance of our better judgment, and nowhere is this more apparent than in these Dravidian temples. It is in vain, however, we look among them for any manifestation of those lofty aims and noble results which constitute the merit and the greatness of true architectural art, and which generally characterise the best works in the true styles of the western world...
Immediately in front of his choultrie, Tirumulla Nayak commenced a gopura, which, had he lived to complete it, would probably have been the finest edifice of its class in southern India. It measures 174 ft. from north to south, and 107 ft. in depth. The entrance through it is 21 ft. 9 in. wide; and if it be true that its gateposts are 6o ft. (Tripe says 57 ft.) in height, that would have been the height of the opening. It will thus be seen that it was designed on even a larger scale than that at Seringham, and it certainly far surpasses that celebrated edifice in the beauty of its details. Its doorposts alone, whether 57 ft. or 6o ft. in height, are single blocks of granite, carved with the most exquisite scroll patterns of elaborate foliage, and all the other carvings are equally beautiful. Being unfinished, and consequently never consecrated, it has escaped whitewash, and alone, of all the buildings of Madura, its beauties can still be admired in their original perfection.
The great temple at Madura is a larger and far more important building than the choultrie; but, somehow on other, it has not attracted the attention of travellers to the same extent that the latter has. No one has ever attempted to make a plan of it, or to describe it in such detail as would enable others to understand its peculiarities. It possesses, however, all the characteristics of a first-class Dravidian temple, and, as its date is perfectly well known, it forms a landmark of the utmost value in enabling us to fix the relative date of other temples.
The sanctuary is said to have been built by Viswanath, the first king of the Nayak dynasty, A.D. 1520, which may possibly be the case; but the temple itself certainly owes all its magnificence to Tirumulla Nayak, A.D. 1622-1657, or to his elder brother, Muttu Virappa, who preceded him, and who built a mantapa, said to be the oldest thing now existing here. The Kalyana mantapa is said to have been built A.D. 1707, and the Tatta Suddhi in 1770.These, however, are insignificant parts compared with those which certainly owe their origin to Tirumulla Nayak.
The temple itself is a nearly regular rectangle, two of its sides measuring 720 ft. and 729 ft., the other two 834 ft. and 852 ft. It possessed four gopuras of the first class, and five smaller ones; a very beautiful tank, surrounded by arcades; and a hall of 1000 columns, whose sculptures surpass those of any other hall of its class I am acquainted with. There is a small shrine, dedicated to the goddess Minakshi, the tutelary deity of the place, which occupies the space of fifteen columns, so the real number is only 985; but it is not their number, but their marvellous elaboration that makes it the wonder of the place, and renders it, in some respects, more remarkable than the choultrie about which so much has been said and written. I do not feel sure that this hall alone is not a greater work than the choultrie; taken in conjunction with the other buildings of the temple, it certainly forms a far more imposing group.