The famous Vimana of Brihadeeswarar temple

The Gopuram at the Brihadeeswarar temple

Carvings at Brihadeeswarar temple

Roof detail of Balakrishna from the Srirangam

Paintings on the wall of Shri Ranganathaswamy temple

White vellai Gopuram at Srirangam

Young girls before their arangetram at Srirangam.

Showcase 30 Sep 2015

Colourful Histories

Siddhartha Joshi talks about his travel inspiration - the temple towns of Thanjavur & Srirangam.

About a millennia back when most of the world had no inkling of skyscrapers, the Vishwakarma (temple architects) of South India were imagining, designing, and constructing structures as tall as the high-rises of present day India. Developed at the core of settlements, these temples were not just places of worship but also played an important role in the economy and politics of the town. 

I visited the temple towns of Thanjavur and Srirangam recently and had some phenomenal first-hand experiences. On the one hand the Shiva temple at Thanjavur is considered the epitome of the beauty and zenith of South Indian architecture, and on the other hand the Vishnu temple in the neighbouring town of Srirangam is what claims to be the world’s largest functioning Hindu temple. 

Here is the story of these two temple towns which evolved from numerous chats over filter coffee with the locals from the towns, priests from temples and historians. It’s a collective of legends, history, and derivations from my personal observations.

Legend and History 

Legend has it that the idol of Lord Ranganath (Vishnu) has been in the temple town of Srirangam from the times of the Ramayana. It was later rediscovered by a Chola king who then established the present day Shri Ranganathaswamy temple. 

The Brihadeeswarar temple at neighbouring town of Thanjavur is a Shaivite (Shiva) temple built by a Chola king; Rajaraja Chola I built it in 1010 AD. 

Both the temples evolved and grew in stature. Srirangam became a town which lived completely inside the temple walls, while Thanjavur found patronage from many dynasties even after the capital shifted, and retained its prominence. 


Temple aesthetics has evolved over the last two millennia. A number of key elements are present in most South Indian temples. 

From the outside, a Gopuram or a gatepyramid, is followed by a courtyard. These are often the tallest structures and are filled with elaborate stucco work in relief.

The famous Vimana of Brihadeeswarar temple

The Gopuram at the Brihadeeswarar temple

A pillared hall or chawadis preceeds a porch or mandapa, and finally the sanctumsanctorum or garbha-griha. Above the garbha-griha is the principal part of the temple, a richly carved and, in many places, gold plated, Vimana.

The Agama Shastra lays down rules for proportions and architecture of the temples. More open to interpretation when it comes to the exteriors, they become stricter as one moves to the sanctum sanctorum. 

Temples use materials ranging from extremely hard granite, to sandstone and soapstone. Made with granite, the Brihadeeswarar temple has simpler though more enduring design, while made with combination materials, the Ranganathaswamy temple is highly ornamental. 

To appreciate and understand the inspiration from nature, we must go back to the time when temples were made primarily inside man-made excavated caves, for instance the Hindu temples at Ajanta. With time, the temples moved from caves into open spaces and a new style of temple architecture evolved. However, even though man moved away from cave temples to free-standing structures, his connection with mountains continued. 

Mountains were not just inspiration from nature but were considered to be the abode of the Gods. Vimanas of the temples take direct inspiration from mountain peaks. A good example is the Brihadeeswarar temple where the Vimana is built to emulate the mythical ‘Meru Mountain’.

Carvings at Brihadeeswarar temple

Often the further inside the temple you go, the simpler the design becomes. Caves have always been an important part of Hinduism and temples have incorporated caves in the form of garbha-griha where the presiding deity resides, a modest space with minimal carvings or ornamentation. 

Man is another inspiration that defines the design and proportions of the heart of the temple. The mythical Vastu Purusha in a yogic posture is symmetrically placed in a square (the shape of the garbha-griha) and the idol is placed right at its navel. 

South Indian temples follow well-laid out guidelines on which direction they should face; the temples always face east. In most temples little light enters the garbha-griha, though many Shaivite temples are aligned to have the morning rays of sunshine fall directly on the main deity on specific days. 

A temple uses design elements derived from nature and these include both the flora and fauna from the region and the Himalayas. Temples also use nature-inspired mythical animals which are protectors of the spaces.

Colours and Temples 

To me South Indian temples and their vibrant colours have always gone hand in hand. As I walked across Srirangam, I became intrigued with the evolution of the use of colours in these temples. Further enquiry helped me understand that colours were not just decorative, but had great history behind them. 

The walls of cave temples walls were painted in natural dyes and told the stories of Gods as well as the kings who made them. As temples moved outside of caves, so did the stories; from the walls of the caves to painted three-dimensional intricate relief work on the walls, and especially the Gopurams of the temples.

Paintings on the wall of Shri Ranganathaswamy temple

Srirangam has one of the world’s tallest Gopurams and the colours there, both shocked and subdued me. Painted in a riot of colours, the hues can both hide, as well as pop out the stucco work. Paints always have a story, for example the Vellai Gopuram at Ranganathaswamy temple at Srirangam is always painted white to honour of the devdasi (temple dancer) named Vellayi who saved the Lord’s idol from the Sultanate forces while sacrificing her life. The Brihadeeswarar temple is slightly different; maintained by Architectural Society of India, the temple does not have coloured Gopurams and they are seen in their natural granite finish. It is believed in the past it was painted bright red using paint made with crushed red stone and mixed with water. 

Colours are also seen inside the temple, and good examples are the colourful murals at the Brihadeeswarar temple which has some well-preserved frescos on the walls and ceiling of the circumambulatory path on the first floor. 

However, over the last thousand years, the art and the tradition of colouring the temples has undergone many changes and now the colours used are often poster or acrylic colours. Some believe that these colours bind the base material together, while others argue that the practice does more harm by damaging the stone or the plaster below. 

This year the age old Chariot festival was revived at the Brihadeeswarar temple in Thanjavur and is a great time to witness a living temple teeming with life. Srirangam, on the other hand, is a festive town all year round, though the best time to visit is during the cooler winter months. While in the area, walk around town through the lanes, as almost every lane has an ancient temple of its own, complete with majestic Gopurams and Vimanas.

Contributor: Siddhartha is a designer, traveller, and a travel blogger who loves people more than everything else. he derives his passion from interacting with people and is extremely passionate about inspiring the world around him to travel more, as he believes that only travel can break barriers and make us more tolerant and accepting of our differences.

All images courtesy Siddhartha Joshi, except;

• Nagarjun Kandukuru »
• Nagarjun Kandukuru »
• Jean-Pierre Dalbéra » N00/13910945083
• Illustration reference from »

Popular on CQ