A study of the growth of temples in Kerala has to begin necessarily with the emergence of the people occupying the south-west coast of the peninsula as a separate political entity ruled by the early Cera monarchs of the pre-Christian era. The Dravidian folk of the Cera country used to worship totem gods and spirits inhabiting rivers, trees, hills etc. They propitiated them by offering food to the accompaniment of music and dance. Gradually, the sepulchral shrines and kavus took shape during the Sanghom era (1st three centuries of Christian era). The kudakallu or umbrella stones found at Arikkanniyur near Guruvayur is a typical sepulchral shrine of a foregone era. Kodungallur Bhagavathi temple seems to have grown around an earlier sepulchral shrine erected in honour of Kannaki (the Pattini Devi) by Ceran Cenkuttuvan. This can also be identified as a Kavu in the ancient Cera capital where Korravai, the war goddess of the Ceras was being adored.
The Sanghom age was also a period when Yagnas (sacrifices) of Vedic Religion penetrated into the Cera country. Purananuru refers to individual Brahmanas (Aryan immigrants) worshipping the three sacred fires in their houses daily. Another Sanghom anthology Patirruppattu refers to the Cera Kings who performed Vedic sacrifices. Shrines of Mayon (Vishnu), Seyon (Shiva) and Velan (Muruga) are referred to in these volumes but it is difficult to visualise their shape or structural form. The possibility of their existence as open-air shrines such as those of Korravai cannot be ruled out.
The advent of Jainism and Buddhism into Kerala in the early years preceding the Christian era (roughly 3rd century B.C.) had its impact on the Dravidian folk. Both these religions grew along with Vedic Hinduism as can be seen from the numerous literary and epigraphic references, place names, sculptural remains etc. The post Sanghom monarchs of Cera, Cola, Pandya and Pallava dynasties seem to have helped the growth of these three religions with munificent grants at one time or another.
The growth of the Bhakthi movement heralded by the Vaishnavite Alwars (ten in number and the Shaivite Nayanmars (sixty three in number) from 5th to 9th centuries was a water shed in the annals of Hinduism at the cost of Jainism and Buddhism. The emergence of Adi Shankara, the advaita philosopher in the eighth century saw the ascendancy of Hinduism and the gradual eclipse of Jainism and Buddhism. This approximately was the period when temple building activities got a boost.
The post Sanghom period (the mediaeval era starting from the 5th century A.D.) is also considered to be the period when Kerala experienced large scale immigration of Brahmins (Aryans) from the north. The legendary Parasurama who probably led the immigrants down south, established the sixty-four Brahmin Gramoms (villages) in the West Coast, of which half the number was in South Canara and the rest in Kerala. Each of these Gramas had a temple established where the presiding deity was either Shiva, Vishnu or Subramonia. Most of the Grama Kshetras (temples) owe their origin to Sage Parasurama. The tantric mode of worship became prevalent and the tantra of temples north of Chandragiri puzha was entrusted to Kizhukkampattu Nambi and those south of the river was entrusted to Tarunanallur Nambi by Parasurama. Other sages who were credited with the establishment of certain other temples of Kerala include Sage Agastya (Avittathur or Agasthyaputhur), Vilvamangalam, Khara etc. During the period of the second Cera empire at Mahodayapuram (Kodungallur - 9th to 11th centuries), the eighteen Talis which were also temple oriented Sanketams (settlements) took shape. In due course, with the increase in population and mainly due to the establishment of many principalities after the eclipse of the second Cera empire in 11th - 12th centuries, more and more concentration of settlements took place in various parts of Kerala with the resultant establishment of new temples.
Coming to the structural types of temples a gradual evolution can be seen. Ko-chenkanan, the last of the Sanghom Colas has been the pioneer who is credited with the early construction of some brick temples. This was followed by the Pallava monarchs who changed to the medium of rock for temples. The early temples of all the above religions seem to be rock cut ones or caves.
Though dating is fraught with difficulties, the early Jain rock-cut temples of Cera country are still extant at Chitral (Thirucharanattu malai) near Kuzhithurai (Kanyakumari Dist.) and Kallil near Perumbavoor (Ernakulam Dist.). Hindu rock-cut temples of the early mediaeval era are those at Vizhinjam, Kottukal, Kaviyur, Irunilamkodu and Thrkkur. Though early Buddhist viharas are non-existent in the Cera country, the Gaja prishta (apsidal) shape of the early temples suggest a Buddhist trend as also some of the festivals in temples besides a number of stray images of Buddha bequeathed to posterity in many parts of Kerala.
The evolution of the structural temples from rock-cut temples and their sculptural embellishments followed the granite tradition. But granite was virtually relegated to the subordinate position soon after the eighth century, the main phase of rock architecture in the Cera country. The indigenous laterite tradition which had already reached a high-water mark as early as the period of megalithic monuments such as kudakallu, asserted itself as the chief material for superstructure but for the adhishtana (basement). The profusion of timber producing trees made it possible for the emergence of a sound tradition of wooden architecture and sculpture and the comparatively heavy rainfall of the area was instrumental in the evolution of the indigenous sloping roof system for temples.
Apart from the construction of new temples there were also cases of conversion of Jain and Buddhist temples into Hindu temples by about 8thcentury when the latter two religions were reeling under the onslaught of Hindu revivalism. Some of the nuclei of early rock-cut as well as structural temples of Hindus were presumably of Jain origin; Chitral and Kallil offer typical examples. Among Jain structural temples such metamorphosis seems to have happened to two temples. Trkkanamatilakom near Kodungallur from where Cera prince turned recluse Elango Atikal wrote the epic Silappadikaram and Kootalmanickom, the name itself suggesting a Jain origin.
The structural idiom of temples of Kerala follow the Tantric mode of worship and were based on one or the other of authentic texts like Prapanchasaratantra of Adi Shankara, Isanashiva Padhati, Kriya Deepika (Putayur Bhasha), Tantra Samuchhaya etc., all penned during the middle ages.
The spatial organisation of Kerala temples is punctuated by the Pancha praakaras, invariably on a concentric rectangular plan irrespective of the shape of Shrikovil or the sanctum sanctorum, whether it be circular or rectangular or apsidal. The Pancha praakaras comprise of
- Maryada or Pura mathil (outer wall) covering the main gopura dwara, office, oottupura (dining hall) etc.
- Bahya-haara or Purathe Balivattom or Sheevelippura covering agra mandapam, valia balikkal, bali peethas, Kshetra paala, Dhwajastambha, Shrikovil of minor deities, Koothambalam and sacred trees like Asvatha (Banyan) with snake stones, Vilvam etc.
- Madhya-haara or Vilakkumaatom
- Antha-haara or chuttambalam or nalambalam including valiambalam, thidappalli (store) and Mulayra, and
- Akathe balivattom or antharmandalom covering the namaskara mandapa, well, bali peethas for ashta dikpalakas, saptha mathrukkal etc.
- Whereas the Pancha praakara constitutes the Sthoola Shareera or the gross body of the Supreme Being, the Sookshma Shareera or the subtle body is represented by the Shrikovil (moolapraasada), the idol and the Shadaadhara pratishta below.
The first part of Pradakshina concentrates on the 32 Grama kshetras and the 18 Tali temples making up a total of 50 temples of more than 1000 years antiquity.