A Dive into India’s Temples
Ancient society is frequently celebrated for its architectural achievements. The world has marveled at the Great Wall of China and the Pyramids of Giza for their scientific and mathematical cleverness and how they stand proudly even after hundreds and thousands of years. Like these impressive structures, the temples of India display the ingenuity and prosperity of the ancient Indians. They served as a place of refuge, worship, and trade, not just for the locals, but for travelers from every corner of the world. This summer, I visited Tamil Nadu, a state in Southern India where my parents grew up, and experienced some of the grand temples in the area. Visiting them has allowed me to witness history that was previously unknown to me.
The first place I visited, Mahabalipuram, is a perfect example of the brilliance of ancient Indians. Located near the sea in Chennai, Tamil Nadu, the monuments were built from the seventh to ninth century by a royal dynasty named the Pallavas. During the Pallavas’ reign, the seaport of Mahabalipuram was a leader in world trade, and the monuments of the town were built to welcome foreign travelers. Artwork throughout this region shows signs of French, Roman, and Chinese influence. One such sculpture is the Pancha Rathas. This structure consists of five temples, each in the shape of a chariot, all carved from one rock. One contains Roman-style pillars in the back, while another depicts an image of a foreigner. Some believe they honor the five Pandava brothers and their wife, Draupadi, who are characters from a Hindu epic, the Mahabharata. The Pallavas have also illustrated their talent in a grand sculpture named Arjuna’s penance, or the Descent of the Ganges. Measuring 45 by 100 feet, this is the second-largest sculpture in the world to use a technique called “bas relief,” where an image is lightly carved onto the stone. The world’s first largest bas relief scene is in Cambodia and was also carved during the ancient Hindu reign. Even the most basic components in Mahabalipuram were built with precision and care. For example, the granite well used for storing rainwater is carved into the shape of a perfect circle, a great feat during a time of simple chisels and hammers.
Another of Tamil Nadu’s most well-known and impressive temples is in Thanjavur, constructed in the eleventh century by the Chola dynasty. With its detailed paintings and sculptures, it has gained worldwide recognition, becoming a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1987. The main shrine, known as Brihadeeswarar Temple, is unique for being built so that its shadow never appears on the ground. It measures 216 feet tall, the digits of which add up to nine. Nine plays a significant role in Hinduism, for it represents the nine planets and forms of God. The shrine was constructed from over 130,000 tons of granite, which had to be hauled nearly forty miles from the nearest rock quarry to Thanjavur. Using ramps and the power of many elephants and men, the granite slabs were slowly pulled on top of each other. At the very top sits a huge stone dome weighing eighty tons. The Cholas did not use any binding material; instead, the stones fit into each other like a puzzle piece. This strategy has protected the temple from wind, rain, fire, and man-made forces for over one thousand years.
The temples of ancient India are filled with rich history. From its dimensions to the sculptures and paintings adorning the walls, they tell us stories about the Hindu culture and showcase India’s scientific advancements and prosperity in the past. Mahabalipuram and Thanjavur are only two of the hundreds of temples throughout India that flaunt its architects’ phenomenal talent. The ability to travel to these destinations and similar ones around the world allows us to learn about our ancestors and how they led us to where we are today.