ART OF MEDIEVAL INDIA – The temples with pyramidal roof

Parallel to the temples with shikhara and the architectural types developed in the North of India in the South a series of temples with pyramidal roof were developed during the same period whose process of evolution is analogous to that of the temples with a curvilinear roof but which presented even more numerous variants. We must look for the prototypes of these temples with pyramidal roof both in older representations (i.e.: the fresco of the cave No. 1 of Ajanta  from the 6th century; the scene from the “Descent of the Ganges” from Mahibalipuram in which an ascetic meditates next to a small temple from the 7th century), and in the sanctuaries carved in a rocky bank of Mahabalipuram: the temples known as the Dharmaraja Ratha and the Arjuna and Draupadi Rathas (7th century). With the passing of centuries architects and artists progressively developed the great artistic achievements of the medieval era following these archetypes.

The better defined and more frequent type of temple had as essential features a square floor plan whose exterior walls were decorated with built-in pillars and a pyramidal roof whose steps simulated floors or levels each composed of a cornice that supported the subsequent reduced levels. These reduced levels had a square floor plan if they were located in the angles and a rounded floor plan in the other cases. A crowning with a square or polygonal floor plan topped the pyramid. This pattern was strictly followed by the architects. After the monolithic temples of Mahabalipuram of the 7th century one of the oldest temples of this type built with blocks of sandstone was erected in the same place: the Shore Temple, from the 8th century.

The Shore Temple (built between 700–728 AD, Mahabalipuram, Kanchipuram District, India) whose name refers to its location overlooking the shore of the Bay of Bengal.

This temple already had the main elements that will be employed in the course of the following centuries and constitutes the origin of the great temples that will be built or transformed until the contemporary era. The Shore Temple includes the three essential elements arranged on the same axis and enclosed in a rectangular enclosure. In this temple the sanctuary (vimana) is covered by a stepped pyramidal roof clearly higher than those of the other buildings of the complex even taller than the tall pavilions placed over the doors of the enclosure. Approximately until the 11th century, the reduction in the number of the constructions that embellished each “floor/level” of the roof of the sanctuary were arranged regularly over each other in decreasing size all the way to the top. Each one of them reproduced under a simplified form the monumental constructions with their built-in pillars and their roof with windows following the style of the Indian arch (kudu). As the reduction of architectural elements evolved, the kudu resembled more the appearance of a pediment. The kudu located at the center of each “level” was generally larger than the others. Overlapping vertically from floor to floor these kudu created a point of interest on each side of the roof giving it a kind of ledge where the large kudu-like-pediments of the central structure of the pyramidal roof were displayed with an increasingly aberrant appearance. At the same time the roof grows because an increasing number of “levels” were interspersed between the body of the building and its crowning. With the passing of time at the beginning of the 11th century this type was amplified until forming a high pyramid: the most beautiful example is seen in the vimana of the Brihadisvara temple (Thanjavur) where the crowning piece of the pyramid in the form of a polygonal dome rose up to 60 m from the patio floor. In this temple the height of the sanctuary was doubled and the “levels” of the roof became 13.

The Brihadishvara Temple is a Hindu temple dedicated to Shiva located in Thanjavur (Tamil Nadu, India). It is one of the largest South Indian temples and one of the best examples of the Dravidian architecture. The temple was built between 1003 and 1010 AD in granite and its vimana tower above is one of the tallest in South India.

The evolution of the temples of this type during the 9th-10th centuries was the continuation of the beautiful constructions that had multiplied in the 7th and 8th centuries mainly in Badami, Pattadakal, Aihole, etc., that is in the places where the curvilinear and pyramidal roof types coexisted. During the Medieval Period the temples with pyramidal roof developed considerably becoming larger and consisting of numerous annex buildings, chapels, etc.

Among the temples of the 8th century the Shore Temple in Mahabalipuram and the Kanchi Kailasanathar Temple in Kanchipuram can be considered as prototypes. Each one of them was developed at the center of a rectangular enclosure whose access door is facing East. In Kanchipuram this gate (gopuram) was one of the first examples that appeared crowned by a semi-cylinder bound at each end by an Indian arch (kudu): this element resembles the shape of the city gates portrayed in Buddhist representations as older as the 1st century before the Christian era and that here was applied to the Hindu religious architecture. This style of building from the 8th century still of modest dimensions became taller following the same law that governed the progressive elevation of the pyramidal roof of the vimana. Once passing through this door (which was in fact an entrance pavilion opened into the body of the enclosure) we find in the first place a hypostyle pavilion with a flat roof: it is the mandapa or mandapam. Behind it at a short distance stands the vimana with its pyramidal roof topped by a false polygonal dome.

The Kanchi Kailasanathar temple is the oldest structure in Kanchipuram (Tamil Nadu, India). The temple is dedicated to the Lord Shiva and was built from 685-705 AD. The temple contains 58 small shrines which are dedicated to various forms of Shiva.

Following this general scheme the architects executed innumerable variants. From the beginning of the 10th century in the southeast a better defined style was developed under the impulse of the Chola sovereigns that continued approximately until the middle of the 12th century. Later it developed into a more ornate style which developed in the same region under the Pandyan dynasty until the middle of the 14th century.

During the 10th century the temples were not numerous nor very vast. Carefully built with well-arranged stone blocks they continued the previous style of the Chalukya dynasty in their essential characteristics. A good example of the 10th century Chola style is the Koranganatha Temple in Srinivasanallur (Tiruchirappalli) in which was used a new architectural order typical of the Chola illustrated mainly by the pillars and their capitals as well as the presence of niches on the exterior walls of the vimana each sheltering a divine character carved in high relief.

The Koranganatha Temple (Srinivasanallur, Tiruchirappalli,Tamil Nadu, India) dedicated to the god Ranganatha.

With the consolidation of their power during the first quarter of the 11th century, the Chola undertook more monumental constructions whose two most beautiful examples were the Temple of Brihadishvara dedicated to Shiva  in Thanjavur (1011) whose vimana was already mentioned and the Gangaikonda Cholapuram temples located in Jayankondam (1025 approximately). In these two temples the Chola style reached its maturity and unfolded with surprising security attesting to the intensity of its faith and the virtuosity of the architects and sculptors of the time. In Thanjavur the site is vast. Its layout includes (in linear order) a door, a pavilion that houses a statue of the Nandi bull* (the sacred vehicle –vahana*– of Siva), a hypostyle mandapa, a large meeting room and, finally the vimana itself. The very beautiful sculpted decoration is used with care and the impression of classic majesty emerges from the whole complex.

The Gangaikonda Cholapuram temple (Jayankondam, Tamil Nadu, India) also known as the great temple of Brihadeeswarar is next in importance only to the Brihadisvara temple at Thanjavur. The temple was completed in 1035 AD and is dedicated to Shiva.

In Gangaikonda Cholapuram, the whole complex is more imposing: the surface of the patio surrounded by walls is larger and contains on an east-west axis a hypostyle hall with 150 pillars that prefigures the mandapa “of a thousand pillars” that will constitute in a later period a constant element in the composition of the great temples. This mandapa is linked to the vimana by a vestibule perpendicular to the main axis whose two extremes to the North and to the South are provided with doors that are accessed by a steep staircase that climbs the high molded platform forming the base of the temple complex . The sanctuary itself with a dark and mysterious interior is crowned by a pyramidal roof lower than that of Thanjavur (45.60 m) imposing although more robust and with less rigor of style characterized by the introduction of horizontal curved lines into the roof that announced a “mixed type” roof. The sculpture in high relief is perhaps more sensitive here than in Thanjavur and it is worth highlighting the presence next to the southern entrance of the vestibule of a panel in high relief representing Shiva crowning with a flower garland King Rajendra Chola I (1018-1033) who had “gone to the Ganges”: it is one of the few examples of royal portraiture in Indian medieval sculpture.

Around the walls of the sanctum of the Gangaikonda Cholapuram temple there are about 50 sculptural reliefs of which the image representing Shiva garlanding a devotee is one of the most prominent. In this relief Shiva, with Parvati beside him, hands down a garland of flowers to mark his victory to a diminutive seated figure of the king Rajendra Chola I.

After its peak the power of the Chola declined and the big religious construction impulse ceased. The Pandyan in turn dominated southern India and although protectors of the arts they were not properly emeritus builders. In fact it can be observed in this period (12th century – mid-14th century) a tendency to expand more and more the area occupied by the temples while perpetuating the characteristics of the Chola style but without providing any innovation but only over decoration: the different buildings were conceived more with a utilitarian and functional purpose than as artistic creations as was the case in the 11th century.

In the courtyard of the Gangaikonda Cholapuram temple there is an imposing image of a seated Nandi bull which is aligned axially 200 m facing the temple’s sanctum.


Nandi bull: The gate-guardian deity of Kailasa, the abode of Lord Shiva. He is usually depicted as a bull, which also serves as the mount to Shiva.



Vahana: (from the Sanskrit meaning “that which carries, that which pulls”). The term denotes the being, typically an animal or mythical entity, a particular Hindu deity is said to use as a vehicle. In this sense, the vahana is often called the deity’s “mount”. Deities are often depicted riding (or simply mounted upon) the vahana. Other times, the vahana is depicted at the deity’s side or symbolically represented as a divine attribute.