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"To us all towns are one, all men our kin.
Life's good comes not from others' gift, nor ill
Man's pains and pains' relief are from within.
Thus have we seen in visions of the wise !."
Tamil Poem in Purananuru, circa 500 B.C

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Home > Tamil Culture - the Heart of Tamil National Consciousness > Architecture in Tamil Nadu - R. Nagaswamy, Journal of Tamil Studies, April 1969

TAMIL culture:
the Heart of Tamil National Consciousness

Architecture in Tamil Nadu

R. Nagaswamy
Journal of Tamil Studies, April 1969

NAGASWAMI after, graduating in Sanskrit studied at the School of Archaeology in New Delhi and has worked with the Department of Archaeology of the Government of Tamil Nadu since 1959 and is currently the Director of Archaeology, Madras. He is the author of several publications and has visited U.K., France, Italy. Greece, etc.

The sources for the study of Tamil Architecture are varied. The Sangam and later literature, the vastu and silpa, texts, the inscriptions, the excavated remains and the surviving buildings are our principal guides.


There are very few remains that could be assigned to the Sangam period, ranging from 3rd Century B.C. to 2nd Century A.D. We are in no better position regarding the succeeding period till about 6th century A.D., when the Pallavas in the north and the Pandyas in the south rose to eminence. From 6th century to the present times, we have buildings mostly of a religious nature. Taking secular architecture, we have a number of Forts dating from late mediaeval period. Two palaces of the Nayak period have also survived. A few ancient villages, which have survived the onslaught of modernisation, offer valuable clues to the ancient system of village planning

This is supplemented by a number of inscriptions, which throw useful light on the subject. Recent excavations by archaeologists, at places like Arikkamedu, Kaveripumpattinam, Uraiyur etc., have laid open a few interesting structures.

Building Manuals

Till recently both secular and religious structures were built on traditional lines as prescribed in architectural treatises, called manai nul or vastu sastras. A considerable number of such texts have survived, of which Mayamata, Visvakarma Vastu Sastra and Rana Sara, are well known. Besides these texts, a number of Agamic texts dealing with the mode of rituals in temples devote a chapter for the layout of villages and erection of residential buildings as well as temples. The surviving architectural treatises are all in Sanskrit, written in Grantha script ; but till the 10th and 11th Century A.D., treatises in Tamil were still extant.

The two well known commentators on the ancient Tamil Epic Silappadhikaram, Uraiyasiriyar and Adiyarkunallar, cite a number of Tamil verses from architectural treatises. The complete change over to Sanskrit probably took place in the reign of Vijaya Nagara and Nayak rulers, when the Telugu kings who were ruling Tamil territories used the pan-Indian medium of Sanskrit ; many of the Tamil texts thus got translated into Sanskrit, with some additions and alterations.

Tamil Texts

That codified architectural treatises were in use in the Tamil country, even in the Pre-Christian Tamilnad, is known from several Sangam works. " The Royal Palace was built by architects well versed in their science " says Nedunalvadai, one of the ten idylls. Particularly the Maya School of Architecture appears to have been widely prevalent as is seen from Silappadhikaram.

Major Divisions

The science of architecture was studied under four major divisions namely Nilam, Manai, Urthi and Irukkai i.e., soil, buildings, vehicles and furniture (Vastu, prasada, Yana and asana in Sanskrit).


Nilam mainly deals with the testing of the soil for purposes of erecting structures. Certain conventional tests are prescribed to determine the suitability of the soil, with reference to its density, colour, taste, water table, presence of gaseous matter and the growth of vegetation. The soil is classified into Venpal, Men Pal, and Idaippal, i.e., hard, soft and medium soil.

A pit is dug out to a depth of one foot and is later refilled with the same soil. When so refilled if the pit overflows with the soil, the ground is treated as hard and declared fit for erecting buildings. If the pit is just level, the soil is considered medium and treated as a second choice. If the soil does not fill up the pit, then the ground is considered loose and treated as unsuitable for building. A land having water table with clockwise gyrations is considered suitable. Good colour, taste, and the presence of good-type vegetation are also considered essential in the land chosen for erecting buildings. Ground having skeletal remains, husks, etc., clayey or saline soil, ashy earth etc. are considered unfit for building.

These primitive traditional systems of soil testing have stood the test of time. Buildings, rising to over two hundred feet in height, like the Tanjore temple. have remained for over a thousand years without any sign of subsidence, although they had been erected after applying this traditional method. That this system was in vogue in more ancient times is proved by the commentaries of Silappadhikaram by Uraiyasiriyar and Adiyarkunallar.

The Architectural treatises give also detailed descriptions of various measuring units and the method of manufacturing measuring rods.

Town Planning and Buildings

The second division deals with town planning and buildings proper and is dealt with in great detail in the texts. It is studied under various subheadings such as (a) residential buildings, (b) Royal palaces, (c) temples to gods, (d) lay-out of villages, (e) lay-out of capitals and ( f ) fortification.

Lay-out of Villages

Three types of village settlements are recognised : (a) Ur, where people of all classes and castes reside, (b) Mangalam where the Brahmin or the priestly caste have settled and (c) Nagaram, a settlement of the mercantile community. Other settlements were also known but only these three are predominantly mentioned in inscriptions. Based on the length and breadth of the village, the number of streets and their relative positions and the outer contours, the villages are variously classified.

A village is functionally divided into different parts in relation to a central point ; thus, the temples, residential quarters, streets of various communities, the market, the cremation ground etc., have all a well understood position in relation to the central point. The temple of Siva should be in the North East ; that of Vishnu in the west and so on. There are a number of surviving villages where ancient temples lie exactly in the same positions as prescribed by the architectural treatises. Thus Uttaramerur, a Pallava village founded in the 8th century A.D. retains all its temples in the correct locations, though the residential streets have undergone alterations in modern times. Kuzhambandal (a village near Kanchipuram), a Chola lay out of 11th Century, also retains this feature. The temples at the Chola capital of Gangaikondacholapuram are found in the traditional locations. There are many villages in the Karaikkudi region of the 18th and 19th centuries. A.D. which retain the traditional lay-outs.

The architectural treatises prescribe that the temples of gods should first be erected while laying a village, before the residential quarters are built. This practice was in vogue even as early as the beginning of the Christian era. According to Pathupattu, Karikala-the great Chola king-is said to have erected temples to gods, while laying the city of Uraiyur, before settling his subjects.

The Chudamani Nigandu (lexicon) states that a settlement of 100 families is called Siru Ur (small village) and a village with 500 families a Perur (large village). The Perumbanattu Padai, a work of the earlier Sangam era, also mentions Siru Ur and Per Ur ; it gives the description of houses in various villages, from which we gather that the common man's residence consisted of a thatched hut, covered with woven grass or leaves and supported by poles. They were probably enclosed by mud walls and plastered. But the wealthy had storied mansions built of burnt bricks, the ceilings being covered with flat tiles and plastered.

Town Planning

The cities and capitals were also laid out on set principles enunciated in the texts and were given appropriate names. Thus the names puram, like Kanchipuram, Gangaikondaeholapuram, Tanjapuri, Madhurapuri etc., have technical connotations indicating that they were capitals. Rajathani is a city, enclosed by fortification with entrances in -the East and the South, having habitations suited for the occupation of different classes of people, having temples for gods and goddesses, a royal palace, a number of pleasure gardens, a cantonment for soldiers, horse riders and elephant riders and residential quarters for public women. A town on the sea coast, engaged in export and import trade and dealing in rare gems, pearls etc., is called pattinam. Thus Kaveripoompattinam, Nagapattinam etc., derive their name from such lay-outs.

Detailed description of the lay-out of Kaveripumpattinam is available from the Sangam work, Pattinappalai and the epic Silappadhikaram. The city was divided into two parts consisting of Maruvurpakkam and Pattinappakkam. The common people, who earned their livelihood by taking to various arts and crafts, lived in Maruvurpakkam. The king's palace was located at Pattinappakkam. The storied mansions of ministers, ambassadors, warriors, women who served the king in various capacities, the merchants and others lived in Pattinappakkam. The Yavanas (Greek, Roman and other foreign sailors and traders) had their own colony on the coast. A number of pleasure gardens were located in various parts of the city. From this description it would be seen that Kaveripumpattinam was planned and built on the best architectural principles, then known to the society.

The recent archaeological excavations at Kaveripumpattinam have confirmed the correctness of the description of the city as given in the Sangam classics. A wharf, built of burnt bricks and with wooden posts, dating back to 3rd century B.C., a water reservoir with good gradients and a Buddha vihara of about 4th century A.D. all testify to the architectural skill of the Tamils. That the coastal towns, especially port towns, had colonies of foreign merchants, is established by the discovery of Roman settlements during excavations made at Arikkamedu by Sir Mortimer Wheeler, the well known British archaeologist.

Fortified Settlements

The fortified settlements were also classified by their location such as hill, water or dense forest. Detailed instructions are given as to how these forts are to be erected and the provisions for various types of defenses, including the fitting of yantras (mechanical devices).

From the description of Madurai, in the work Madurai Kanchi, it is gathered that the fortifications there were constructed as prescribed in the traditional treatises. The description gives an elaborate list of mechanical contrivances, fitted to the walls of the fort for the defence of the capital. A few surviving forts at Gingee, Vellore, Sankagiri etc., dating back to 15th Century A.D. clearly show that the Tamils were quite adept in erecting defensive structures.

Gingee Fort
Gingee Fort lies in Villupuram district, 160 km (100 mi) from Chennai
and close to the union territory of Pondicherry

Vellore Fort
Vellore Fort is situated in Vellore near Chennai in Tamil Nadu state, India and was built by the Nayakar captains of the Vijayanagara Empire and was constructed with large granite blocks. The fort is known for its grand walls, wide moat and robust masonry. The fort covers about 133 acres of area. It is believed to be the only stone fort in India

Sangakiri Fort
Sangakiri Fort on the Coimbatore-Salem highway of Deeran Chinnamalai

Royal Palaces

Tanjore Palace
Tanjore Palace Durbar Hall
Tanjore Palace & Durbar Hall

Of the royal palaces which have survived, the Tanjore palace and the palace of Thirumalainayak at Madurai are well preserved.

Thirumalainayak Palace, Madurai
Thirumalainayak Palace, Madurai
Thirumalainayak Palace, Madurai

The Tanjore palace, which is a multi-storied mansion, has an audience hall, a watch tower, a music hall and other apartments. The Royal palaces in the South were mostly built of brick, plastered and painted. The recent excavations at Panchalankurichi by the State Department of Archaeology have disclosed that the palace of Kattabomman heroic chieftain of the 18th century-was built on the lines of the Maya School of Architecture.

Kattabomman Palace
Kattabomman Palace

As there was a general belief that any violation of the principles enumerated in architectural treatises would bring calamity to the residents, most of the buildings conformed to the traditional regulations.

Architectural Traditions

Before proceeding to describe the Religious Architecture of the Tamils, a brief mention may be made of the architectural traditions. There are many references in Sangam classics to specialised treatises on architecture which were then available in the Tamil country and to the skill of the Tamil architects. At the same time their art was being enriched by the inflow of different idioms from other parts of India. During the earlier period, artisans from Magadha, Avanti and Maharashtra were also patronised in Tamilnad, as can be seen from the Epic Manimekalai. The art of the Satavahanas, which attained maturity at Amaravati and Nagarjunakonda, has on account of its proximity left its impact on the Tamil school. The. Greek artists were also held in high esteem in Tamil country ; their ability to carve beautiful sculptures was recognised and often commended. The Greek artists worked side by side with the Tamil sthapatis and the result was the flowering of a Tamil School, which-while maintaining its distinctiveness-absorbed the best traditions of other Schools.

It is at this stage of Tamil history that a dynasty known as Pallavas rose to prominence in the Northern part of the Tamil Country and they were reputed for their love of arts and letters. The Pallavas established their capital at Kanchi towards the end of 3rd Century A.D. and gradually extended their power to become towards the end of the 6th Century A.D. a mighty empire which lasted till the end of 9th Century A.D.

About the same time, the Pandyas emerged stronger in the southern part of Tamilnad. The Pallavas in the north and the Pandyas in the south were the main contributors to the religious architecture of the Tamil country for 300 years, from 600 A.D. to 900 A.D.

Temple Architecture

In the 'Sangam age temples were built to suit the various needs of the rituals. In the epic Silappadhikaram it is stated that Goddess Pattini was installed in a temple which was erected by experts in temple architecture. The images of the door keepers were also erected and provisions made for daily offerings and worship.

In pre-Pallava period, temples were built of various materials, like wood, brick, stone etc. Since more than one material was used in the construction, such temples were called misra or mixed type. In these cases stones were used for basements and pillars, while walls were made of burnt bricks or clay ; the superstructure was either made of thatched leaves or flat tiles, plastered and supported on wooden rafts and beams. Legends relating to the deities were depicted on the external walls either through stucco figures or paintings. The superstructure was decorated with painted stuccoes.

Since great attention was paid to exterior decoration, stucco artists were in great demand. The Epics Silappadhikaram and Manimekalai make repeated references to such artists.

The advent of the Pallavas and their rule over the Nellore Guntur region where Buddhist art reached great heights brought in new influences. A greater synthesis was achieved in moulding Dravidian idioms. A Buddhapada, carved in lime stone, has been discovered in Kavaripumpattinam. This Buddhapada is clearly in Amaravati Style, and the limestone is decidedly from the Nellore-Guntur region. The finds of painted stuccoes from Kaveripumpattinam shows that this tradition continued till about 5th or 6th Century A.D.

Cave Structures

With the advent of Mahendravarman I, circa 600 A.D., a new chapter opens in the history of Tamil architecture. Being a versatile monarch who evinced great interest in fine arts, Mahendra conceived the idea of excavating cave temples on the sides of hillocks. He has to his credit a number of cave temples, from Madras in the North to Tiruchirappalli in the South. In one of the caves, he has left an interesting inscription, in which he points out that the temple was made without the use of brick, wood, metal or stucco. Thus an all-stone temple came into existence. Mahendra seems to have also constructed structural temples of the mixed type (misra). A few such pillars bearing his name have been recovered from Kanchi.


The excavation of cave temples was continued in the reigns of Mahendra's successors. A further advance was made in rock architecture, by cutting out rocky boulders into monoliths. The monolithic temples of the Pallavas were confined to Mamallapuram. They depict different types of architecture, which were either prevalent at that time or were evolved from the prevalent structures. At any rate they show the continuing idioms of architectural traits from the Sangam age. The group of five monoliths, miscalled rathas, show five different styles of architecture. One is a hut shaped temple while the second is a two storied pyramidal ; the third one is a rectangular wagon type, the fourth a three storied pyramidal with a sanctum in each story and the fifth an apsidal temple. The other monoliths also portray different traits.

Temple Structures

Besides the monoliths, structural temples were also built, entirely of stone, in the reign of the Pallavas ; the temple of Kailasanatha at Kanchi, and the seashore temple of Mamallapuram are the best examples. Other temples of interest are the Siva temples at Panamalai and Tiruvadigai, the Vaikunta Perumal temple of Kanchi, and the Muktesvara and Matangesvara temples at Kanchi.

In erecting these temples granite stone has been used in the basement, where heavy load was to be expected but the rest was made of soft sand stone capable of being chiselled into intricate carvings.

Pallavas appear to have copied the existing temples decorated with stucco figures. They first erected the stone walls and then carved the images in situ. Sculptures were not made separately and then fitted into the structure ; this corresponds to the art of the stucco worker who made the figures in situ. The outer sides of the temple walls were thus entirely decorated with figures. In the Pallava temples great care was bestowed on sculpture works ; in fact Pallava temples look like great sculptures.

During this period the tower over the sanctum was the dominant feature, being built high. Two entrances were provided, one at the front and the other at the rear. The entrance was decorated with a small wagon shaped ornamental piece, called sala. There were subsidiary shrines in the enclosure dedicated to different deities. Puranic episodes were painted in vacant spaces. The entire temple including sculptures, from the base to the finial, was covered with a thin coat of lime plaster and exquisitely painted with vegetable and mineral colours:

The idea of excavating caves seems to have appealed also to the Pandyas. There are several excavated caves, in the Pandya region, which could be assigned to the period from 7th to 9th Century A.D. There is however one cave temple in Pilliyarpatti in the Pandya Region which has an inscription which, on paleographical grounds, has to be assigned to 5th or 6th Century A.D. Some scholars are therefore of the opinion that the art of excavating cave temples had its origin in the Pandya country much earlier than the work of Mahendra I. This view is questioned by other scholars and is open for further research.

Besides cave temples, the Pandyas attempted to carve a monolithic temple at Kazhugumalai. Like in the case of the Kailasa temple of Ellora, a monolith was attempted through cutting all round and separating a mass of rock from the parent rock, beginning from the top. With excellent carvings and sculptures, the work proceeded downwards but due to causes unknown, the monolith remained unfinished. No structural temple of the Pandyas of 7th to 9th Century A.D. has survived.

An Atiyaman Chieftain, ruling over a part of Kongu country in 8th Century A.D., excavated two beautiful caves at Nammakkal in Salem District. These caves carry lovely sculptures of Vishnu.

By about 850 A.D., a dexterous Chola, Vijayalaya by name, captured Tanjore and paved the way for establishing the mightiest empire of the South. His son Aditya, who added further territories including Kanchi, is reported to have built 108 temples on the banks of the Kaveri river. Raja Raja I (985 to 1014 A.D.) was the most outstanding ruler of the line who brought under one parasol a vast territory from the banks of Narmada in the North to Ceylon in the South. He organised a well knit administrative set up, which kept the empire intact for nearly two centuries. His son Rajendra I, a mightly warrior, carried his victorious arms to far off islands like Sumatra. Later kings like Kulothunga I, Raja Raja II and Kulothunga III contributed substantially to the stability of the Chola empire.

In the early stage the temples of the Chola period, particularly during the reign of Aditya, were of moderate proportions. They carried a number of niches on the outside walls of the Garbhagraha with sculptures of remarkable beauty fitted in. The Nagesvara temple at Kumbakonam and the Siva temple at Srinivasanallur belong to this period. Sometimes two, three or even five temples were erected side by side. The Siva temples at Kilaiyur and Kodumbalur are examples.

Raja Raja, the Great, built the loftiest temple tower at Tanjore, true to his personality and fame. Rising to over 200 feet in height, the great temple of Tanjore is rightly hailed as an architectural marvel of the period in the whole of India. This tower was preceded by two entrance towers (Gopura) of moderate sizes. A similar temple, somewhat smaller in size, was built by his son, Rajendra I, at Gangaikonda Cholapuram. The Siva temple at Darasuram, built by Raja Raja II, and the one at Tribhuvanam followed the same pattern. They had lofty towers over the sanctum and were preceded by two Gopuras, the inner one being smaller than the outer.

Sculptures were made separately and fitted into the niches. Judged by these temples, the Cholas appear to have mastered the art of architecture, the temples revelling in architectural beauty than in sculptural wealth. If the Pallavas were great sculptors, the Cholas were great architects. The tower over the sanctum continued to be the dominating element in the architectural complex. It may also be mentioned that instead of two openings, one at the front and other at the rear, two towers were provided in front of the main temple, with no opening at the back.

Besides this complex, which is noticed in the temples which were newly built, a different trend is noticed where existing temples were enlarged during the period. Four Gopuras (entrance towers) were provided all round one in each of the cardinal directions, e.g., at Chidambaram and Tiruvannamalai. The bottom courses of these Gopuras were built of granite, while the superstructures were made of brick and mortar. The bottom courses were provided with niches, carrying a number of sculptures, while the superstructure was decorated with paintings.

Besides these Gopuras, the temples were provided with two storied enclosures. Hundred Pillared mantapas and Thousand Pillared Mantapas were often added to the temple complex. Some of them were conceived as wheeled chariots drawn by elephants or horses. Mantapas of this type are found in many places including Chidambaram. By about the middle of 11 th Century A.D. a separate shrine to the consort of the main deity came to be added to the temple. The later Pandyas more or less followed the same pattern in the South.

From about 1350 to 1600 A.D., the Vijayanagara rulers held sway over the entire southern region. Among the rulers of this line, Krishnadevaraya, who ruled during the first quarter of the 16th Century, was the greatest monarch. He has left lofty towers in important centres like Kalahasti, Kanchi, Chidambaram and Tiruvannamalai. His Gopuras rose to great heights, reaching 180 to 190 feet. They were however devoid of stucco figures. Besides lofty Gopuras the Vijayanagara rulers added exquisitely carved pillared mandapas, called Kalyana mandapas ; the one at Kanchi is the best example.

The Vijayanagara rulers were at first ably supported by their generals, the Nayaks. But soon the Nayaks declared independence and Gingi, Tanjore and Madurai were made capitals of three lines of Nayak rulers. The principal contributions of the Nayaks were the profusion of stucco figures on the Gopuras, and richly sculptured cloisters. The Nayaks of Madurai continued to enrich the temples till about the first quarter of 18th Century A.D.

With the advent of the British, royal patronage for the temples ceased. However the Nagarathar or Chettiar community who carried on large scale money lending contributed lavishly to temple building and temple renovations, sustaining the traditional architectural science to this day. Large sized, heavy and beautifully carved chariots attached to various temples, which were dragged round annually-- at least until recently--by thousands of persons round the temple city testify to the skill attained by the wood carvers ; these temple cars were made according to the prescribed texts. Remains of one or two ivory palanquins of the 17th Century or the 18th Century are preserved at Madurai and Srirangam.

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