Saturday, October 26, 2013

The Temple Builders of Tamil Nadu

I recently came back from a visit to Rameswaram and Kanyakumari. Over the past few years, I have managed to cover quite a bit of South India - Kerala, Karnataka and TN mostly. Andhra Pradesh, not as much.

Across these states, Tamil Nadu stands out. The number of ancient temples in Tamil Nadu are just too numerous to mention. Almost every other town is a temple town. Towering Gopurams, prayer and faith, flowers, jasmine, sandalwood - they all look the same - from outside.

But it struck me this time when we went around - other than the big temples, many of these temples are not the most easily accessible even today - I mean, by road they are, but many of them are not so densely populated areas and in those days, most of them are a couple of days trek or bullock cart ride from each other.

I was thinking about the kinds who built them. For a king, building a grand temple probably accomplished a few things. One, of course, was his contribution to history as a temple builder. But the second and probably more important was the fact that - it jump started his economy. To begin with as part of the building process, artists and artisans came there. Since temple building was a long drawn exercise - for example, the Arunachala Temple in Tiruvannamalai has this in its Wikipedia entry:

"The present masonry structure was built during the Chola dynasty in the 9th century, while later expansions are attributed to Vijayanagar rulers of the Sangama Dynasty (1336–1485 CE), the Saluva Dynasty and the Tuluva Dynasty (1491–1570 CE)."

That meant that this type of work provided livelihood for for many types of people - over many years, sometimes hundreds of years - from stone cutters to woodcutters to carpenters to other types of workers. It created a demand for housing and food as well.

As the temple came to fruition, it would attract many other people - from priests to cooks to flower sellers to elephant mahouts to astrologers to sadhus to artists. As people flocked there, there would be other needs and ultimately - development.

A yearly festival would ensure further employment and engagement - apart from the 'feel good' factor.

And of course, each temple had/continues to have its own unique selling proposition. Some are part of larger pilgrim circuits, some have more local relevance, some are architectural and astronomical marvels - aligned to the position of the sun - it is mindboggling to think about it.

Even today many hundred years later, many of these towns are still dependent on the temples - a testimony to the fact that the temple builders have left their mark on these towns and still continue to provide a livelihood to so many people over so many generations!

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