Kerala’s temples outstanding for their simplicity and traditional style

published on April 6, 2013

CHENNAI: Kerala temples have many unique features, which were originally found all over India, but have disappeared, according to former director of state archaeology, R Nagaswamy.

“They are outstanding for their simplicity, purity, and age-old traditions rooted in Vedic ethos, which continue to be maintained and no changes have been made in the heritage structures such as addition of any shrines or modification of existing ones,” Nagaswamy told TOI in the light of his recent visit to Kerala.

Kerala is a land of hills and the builders of temples could have used stones in plenty but instead they have retained all materials like, stone, bricks, stucco, wood, metal, lime and thereby preserved the 3,000 to 4,000 years of architectural techniques, particularly mastery over wooden architecture, he pointed out.?

Nagaswamy noted that in Kerala they have preserved geometrical designs in plan and elevation as found on Vedic sacrificial altars, which is mainly due to their deep interest in ancient mathematical sciences.

The articulation of timber work rising to several stories of complex designs is retained. Another important feature is the ‘dhvaja sthambah’ in which they portrayed the Ashtamurtis, eight directional deities, at the base, which is not found in other parts of the country, he said. Tiled structures are again used more in Kerala temples than in shrines elsewhere in the country.

Nagaswamy said the unique contribution of Kerala temple architecture is the installation of tall ‘deepa sthambah’  (lamp stand) rising to more than 10 feet with the figure of a turtle as the seat. “In every Kerala temple, we can see in front of the Gopuras, big ‘ammai valakus’, stone tortoise-shaped lamp-stands, which symbolically represent the primordial support of the Universe integrating beauty, symmetry, aesthetics and religious heritage,” he narrated.

“They do not disturb the space inside the prakaras (perimeters) with thoughtless structures, which are specifically prohibited by the traditional architectural texts. They are very particular that the environment of the temple should be strictly preserved and do not allow the trees and plants to be indiscriminately cut or treated with scant respect. They worship trees and integrate them as part of the temple culture. With the result, a visit to any Kerala temple presents an extraordinary sense of nature’s rhythm and its place in religious environment,” he observed.

Another unique feature of Kerala temples is the presence of “lovely and usable” tanks where boys perform ‘sandhya vandana’ and elders can carry out water-related rituals. The use of elephants in Kerala temples is much more compared to temples in other states. There is also no concept of animal sacrifice as ‘Bali’ with offerings of flowers and incense considered adequate for the purpose. Temples in Kerala also manifest the expertise of local artisans in wood carvings.?

The concept of ‘Tantrasamccaya’, work composed by 15th century Vedic scholar Narayan Namboodiri, is followed in all Kerala temples, Nagaswamy said. It explained how to lay out temples, the system of worship, chanting of Vedic hymns and mantras, and creative use of spaces in the temple complexes for music and dance groups on
designated auspicious days and chariot festivals during which invariably decorated elephants would be taken around. Narayan Bhattatri in the 17th century continued the tradition. Unfortunately, the ancient Vedic schools in Kerala which spawned great masters of music and dance closed down about 50 years ago due to lack of patronage.”

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