ART OF MEDIEVAL INDIA – Monumental gateways and the style of Mysore

The monumental gateways of the temple complex

In the 12th and 13th centuries the gopuram* (or tower gateways) began to be an important element of the temple complex up to the XV-XVII centuries where they reached its apogee, a situation that was reflected in the heights these portals reached. On the contrary, the height of the vimana* was gradually diminishing until it was insignificant (for example in the temple of Ranganathaswamy in Srirangam, Tiruchirapalli, from the XV century). This phenomenon corresponded to a religious and mystical conception that intended for the devotee to be attracted from afar by the temple enclosure and its access gateways so that he/she walked towards the center of the temple in order to reach the reduced and dark area where the god resided in his meager and secret cell which was indicated outside only by the golden and modest vimana covering it. Thus, with the passing of the time it was customary to open four gopuram in the enclosure’s wall and then to multiply the number of the concentric precincts each provided with four gopurams. The dimensions of these gopurams decreased as they were closest to the sanctuary located in the center of the innermost courtyard.

The Ranganathaswamy Temple is dedicated to Ranganatha, a reclining form of the Hindu deity Maha Vishnu. It is located in Srirangam, Tiruchirapalli, Tamil Nadu, India. Constructed in the Dravidian Architecture, the temple occupies an area of 63 ha with 81 shrines, 21 towers, 39 pavilions and many water tanks integrated into the complex making it the world’s largest functioning Hindu temple. Below, an aerial view of the temple complex.

The exterior reliefs of the northern side of the Sesharaya mandapa include 40 leaping animals with riders on their back, all carved out of monolithic pillars. (Sri Ranganathaswamy Temple, Srirangam).

This multiplication of precincts and, as a consequence, of gopurams were often a consequence of the prosperity of the temple and the increasing numbers of its purposes: that is why the oldest part of the temple was located at the center and the most recent additions were located towards its exterior walls. The most characteristic gopuram of the Pandyan style is perhaps the eastern gopuram of the Chidambaram temple which was built around 1250. This is already a tall structure: 41 m in height. Like the temples of older styles it also has a rectangular floor plan. This temple includes a high and wide opening that allows access to the patio and a pyramidal roof with rectilinear edges that comprises seven “levels” similar to those of the vimana already described in previous essays. This pyramidal roof is crowned by a semi-cylinder whose existence was also documented before in the 8th century (in the Kailasanathar temple in Kanchipuram).

The Chidambaram Nataraja temple dedicated to Nataraja (Shiva as the lord of dance) is located in Chidambaram, Tamil Nadu, India. The present temple was built in the 10th century when Chidambaram was the capital of the Chola dynasty, making it one of the oldest surviving active temple complexes in South India. Most of the temple’s surviving plan, architecture and structure is from the late 12th and early 13th centuries. The temple has nine major gopuram gateways connecting the various courtyards. Four of these facing the East, South, West and North are huge and colorful, visible from afar, thus serving as a symbolic and convenient landmark for pilgrims. Pictured here is the eastern gopuram of the temple complex.

One of the last temples of the Pandyan style is that of Darasuram (District of Thanjavur, first half of the 14th century) which presents, on a smaller scale, a very similar layout compared to that of the great temples of the Chola period but whose distribution and architectural decoration shows a transition between the Chola style and the following period called Vijayanagara (around 1336-1646). The shape of the columns, their capitals, and their bases clearly show this, as well as the presence of beautiful statues adorning the spaces between the pilasters of the exterior wall of the vimana. Finally, it is worth mentioning that the mandapa which gives access to the rows of meeting rooms, vestibules, etc., is decorated above the base with cart wheels and rearing horses suggesting that this hypostyle building symbolizes a processional carriage.

The temple of Darasuram (District of Thanjavur, Tamil Nadu, India) includes a vimana 26 m high and a front mandapa in the form of a huge chariot drawn by horses.


The style of Mysore

Parallel to the emergence of the Chola style and its expansion under the Pandyan dynasty numerous regional styles developed more or less everywhere in India. The most notable of these flourished in Mysore which produced a kind of synthesis between the vimana and the temple with shikhara. Dominated by the Hoysala (between 10th and 14th centuries) whose power reached its height in the 12th and 13th centuries, this region has beautiful temples typical of the medieval period especially in Halebidu (the ancient Dorasamudra, capital of the Hoysala), Belur, Somanathapura, Arasikere, etc. As heir to the late Calukya style (Hyderabad), the Hoysala style undoubtedly reflected the benefits of a stable policy. The floor plans of these temples, their composition, and their roofs together represent original attempts that borrowed elements from both the North and the South. The floor plans followed the general rule of a square or rectangular enclosure surrounding the buildings. The latter are composed of three essential elements: mandapa, vestibule, and sanctuary, but it is common for each to be doubled, tripled, quadrupled, and even be present in a number of five.

The Hoysaleswara temple or Halebidu temple, is a 12th-century temple dedicated to Shiva (Halebidu, state of Karnataka, India).
Frontal view of the Ishvara Temple in Arasikere (Hassan district, Karnataka state, India) dedicated to Shiva from ca. 1220 AD. The temple though modest in size and figure sculpture compared to others of the same period, is considered the most complex one in architecture among surviving Hoysala monuments because of its ground plan: a 16-point star-shaped mandapa, in addition to an asymmetrical star-shaped shrine, whose star points are of three different types.

These buildings together in a single group were usually erected on a common high and wide platform occupying the center of a courtyard whose inner walls were surrounded by an uninterrupted series of chapels (of a ritual number of 64 in the Chennakesava temple in Somanathapura ) each of which contained the statue of a divinity. Their floor plans have the shape of a cross and the bases of the sanctuary and of the lateral buildings (which together form a kind of transept) are rounded by a series of regular protrusions forming a star-like floor plan (astabhadra*). In several temples the base is provided with an unmolded plinth covered by long superimposed registers decorated with animal friezes and historiated scenes such as, for example, the temple of Lakshmi Narasimha in Nuggehalli (1246). These temples with a star-like floor plan have a main body covered by thick recessed pillars that vertically repeat the projections and support a cornice. Above it rises the roof whose horizontal lines extend (all the way up to the top) the rounded projections that have started in the lower levels on the pillars. The roof is topped by a semicircular and convex slab crowned by a pinnacle in the shape of a vase. The whole temple is covered with sculptures with the most important being those of great divine characters placed under arches or niches located around the outer walls at the junction point between the base and the body of the temple. Their decorated interiors are provided with beautiful sculpted ceilings adorned with geometric motifs and a central pendent.

The Chennakeshava Temple from the 12th-century (Hassan district of Karnataka state, India) took 103 years to finish. Chennakesava literally means “handsome Kesava”, a form of the god Vishnu. Its artwork depicts scenes of secular life in the 12th century, dancers and musicians, as well as a pictorial narration of Hindu texts such as the Ramayana, the Mahabharata and the Puranas through numerous friezes.
The interior of the mandapa of the Chennakeshava temple with its lathe turned pillars.
An interior view of one of the domed ceilings of the Chennakeshava temple.
North-western view of the Lakshmi Narasimha temple built in 1246 AD (Nuggehalli, Hassan district, Karnataka, India).
A close up picture of the decorated molding frieze located in the base of the shrine’s outer wall of the Lakshmi Narasimha temple.


The Hoysala-style temples are a kind of synthesis of the fundamental roofs used in medieval India: the shikhara and the pyramidal roofs.

To conclude this quick review of the Indian medieval architecture it is necessary to mention a few vestiges of civil and military architecture, such as some city gates (for example in Dabhoi, Vadodara, from the 11th century) whose style differs little from that of the temples.

The ancient Dabhoi gates at Vadodara (Gujarat state, India).

It must also be mentioned the appearance (mainly in the western provinces) of the Muslim architecture. In the 12th century the architects initially used Hindu and Jain temples to barely convert them into mosques; then they built using materials from ruined temples particularly columns which were often overlapped using two consecutive shafts (for example at the Qutb mosque in Delhi). Finally from the first half of the 13th century the Muslim architects were innovative and created an Indo-Muslim style that varied according to the region but whose decorative repertoire comes from Indian traditions. One of the most famous monuments of this era is the Qutb Minar in Delhi (1226) whose slashed exterior body recalls the exterior appearance of the Hindu temples. However, only under the impetus of the Mongol emperors (15th-18th centuries) India was endowed with grandiose Muslim architecture.

The Qutub Minar is a minaret that forms part of the Qutab complex (Mehrauli, Delhi, India). It is a 73 mt tall tapering tower of five storeys. The tower’s style is patterned on Afghanistan’s (Minaret of Jam) and adapted to local artistic styles by the incorporation of looped bells and garlands and lotus borders into the decorative carvings.
The intricate stone carvings in the cloister of Quwwat ul-Islam mosque near Qutub Minar (Qutab complex, Mehrauli, Delhi, India).


Astabhadra: In medieval Indian architecture, a temple with star-like floor plan.

Gopuram: A monumental entrance tower, usually ornate, located at the entrance of a Hindu temple, in the Dravidian architecture of Southern India. They function as gateways through the walls that surround the temple complex. 



Vimana: The structure over the garbhagriha or inner sanctum in the Hindu temples of South India and Odisha in East India. In these temples, the Vimana is the tallest structure of the temple, as it is in the shikhara towers of temples in West and North India. By contrast, in large South Indian temples, it is typically smaller than the great gatehouses or gopuram, which are the most immediately striking architectural elements in a temple complex.