South India is known as the land of temples, unsurprisingly so when you consider that every small town or village has at least one temple. Often several centuries old, most of these temples were usually built over still older structures. Many of the spiritual sites in the southern part of the Indian subcontinent have a history going back thousands of years.
Unfortunately, south Indian temples are often overshadowed by their more glamorous north Indian counterparts, and do not receive the attention due to them. While Khajuraho and Konark are among the most popular destinations in India thanks to their erotic sculptures, south Indian temples have a finesse and refinement that takes more attention to appreciate. Let's take a look at three such temples.
Thillai Nataraja Temple
Located in the town of Chidambaram, in the eastern part of the state of Tamil Nadu, the Thillai Nataraja temple is famous for the Nataraja deity, which is an aspect of Shiva as the Lord of Dance. Referred to simply as the Chidambaram temple, this ancient shrine is said to have been established by Patanjali, the father of modern yoga and the author of the Yoga Sutras. The temple is also one of the Pancha Bhuta Sthalas, a group of five temples representing the five elements of earth, water, wind, fire and space. Four of these temples are situated in Tamil Nadu, and one in the neighboring state of Andhra Pradesh.
The gopuram or tower at the entrance of the temple is decorated with sculptures of all the 108 body positions in Bharatanatyam, the ancient Indian dance form. The stonework is so fine that even the mudras and hasthas, or the hand positions adopted in dance are clearly visible!
Located in the state of Karnataka, the Hoysaleswara temple represents the pinnacle of architectural achievement of the Hoysala dynasty of kings. Dedicated to Shiva, the temple is carved of soapstone, a softer material than granite and more amenable to the sculptor's chisel. Thus, the temple walls and interiors are covered with the most intricate carvings, many of which would not have been possible with granite.
The temple flourished for many centuries until it was unfortunately looted by Islamic invaders in the fourteenth century. Undeterred, the Hoysala kings shifted their capital to nearby Belur, where they buolt the Chennakesava temple. This temple rivals the Hoysaleswara in beauty. There is a wonderfully detailed and hilarious sculpture of a lizard attempting to catch a fly sitting on a jackfruit - all of it carved in stone. Undoubtedly, the genius of some mischievous sculptor!
Mamallapuram, located about 35 miles south of Tamil Nadu's capital city Chennai, is over 1300 years old and was built by King Mahamalla on the sea shore. Huge rocks, carved into temples in the shape of chariots, present samples of a very different building technique. There are also several colossal rock sculptures which depict various stories from Indian mythology. The most striking temple is probably the Shore Temple, which lies so close to the sea that many of its sculptures have been eroded by the sea!
South India has many thousands of temples dotting its landscape, and these three are only the more poular ones - the proverbial tip of the iceberg. With a little effort, it's quite easy to find hidden gems, tucked away in the countryside and off the beaten track too.