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LIGHT AND THE ARCHITECTURE OF SOUTH INDIAN TEMPLES

A DISSERTATION


ABSTRACT Every region has a quality of light of its own and the a sensitive architecture responds to this light. What is the quality of light of our region? Which architecture has embraced light in all its senstivity? The Hindu temples of South India are harmonies in light. How have t-hey embraced light? In what all ways have they explored light? Structure when cleansed of all symbolic meanings, intentions and rituals, shedding all notions that they were meant to share, will then become purely become a work of architecture. It is not a quantitative scientific study, for I believe that the gift of true inspiration is in the quality of things and........... I’m just a curious student.

The study involved live case studies and is subjective. It was to make myself sensitive towards natural light that I undertook .

Though the temples of s.India were not shaped by light, and light was incidental, the builders of these temples shared a great senstivity towards light that came into the structures they built and certain experiences in the temple such were achieved by the sensitive use of light. The use of light is not ambitious but artistic, ingenius and subtle.


TABLE OF CONTENTS: CHAPTER NO.

TITLE

PAGE NO.

Abstract 1.

Light and Architecture

1

2.

Light and the Indian architecture

4

3.

Worlds within a world

5

4.

The Architecture that is revealed

8

5.

Light is incidental

10

6.

Canvas for light

13

7.

The beauty of the concentric form

16

8.

In the end...

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9.

Bibliography

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Fig 1 - Parthenon, Greece: the clear blue sky and the sharp sunlight find expression in the strong shadows of the architecture of the Greeks.

1 LIGHT AND ARCHITECTURE


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Architecture is revealed by light – its masses, the volumes, the materials, their textures and their density. Every region has a quality of light of its own that in many ways shape the architecture of the place.

The world is revealed to us by light (as long as we perceive the world with our eyes). Architecture is revealed by light – its masses, the volumes, the materials, their textures and their density – for all architecture stands in light. When light falls on a material it casts a shadow. Light is revealed by the shadow the material casts and the material is revealed by the light that falls on it. Sculpture is man’s realisation of this intimate relationship between light and material. It is then only natural that the architecture of a place that stands under light is sensitive to light consciously or sub consciously. The quality of light varies from one place to another. The sensitivity of the people and their view of light then changes with the quality of light of the place. The architecture the people create then changes with the sensitivity of the people of the place. Somewhere light is celebrated; its beauty explored and yet somewhere light is something to seek protection from. But light is always present. The clear blue sky and the sharp light of the Mediterranean must have inspired the outdoor loving Greeks to create strong shadows and the porous plans with the columns outside that cast strong shadows on the whiteness of the plain surface of marble behind. It was light that inspired those flutings to create dark shadows contrasting with the brittle white of the marble. I admire the Greeks. The harshness of the sun would have made a shaded place a sanctuary, a place of life. This must have made the Egyptians who toiled under the harshness of the desert sun build their structures (esp. Temples) by keeping off light and embracing darkness. The stained glass windows of the cathedrals work most poetically in a region of diffused light.


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Fig 2 - TEMPLE OF THEBES, EGYPT : the linear progression of successive reduction in light and embracing darkness. A sanctuary from the harshness of the sun.

I then look back with the question, “what is the response of our architecture to the natural light of our region? How sensitive were we to natural light?� It was then that I was drawn to the South Indian temples, them being a harmony in light. The past experiences of having visited these temples recalled and viewed from the often exaggerated and highly experiential cloud of memory lead me to believe that the temples of South India shaped light as if they were shaped to shape light. It was to rationalise the exaggerated beauty and experience of these images the cloud of memory has to offer me that I set to revisit.

Structure when cleansed of all symbolic meanings, intentions and rituals, shedding all notions that were fed into it, will then become purely a work of architecture. It is with these eyes that I approach.


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Fig 3 - PAPANATH TEMPLE, PATHADAKAL, 7th century AD: The materialisation of the sequence of moving from the bright outside to darkness in receding scale similar to the Egyptians.

2 LIGHT AND THE INDIAN ARCHITECTURE

The architecture of India and especially of the temples of South India have been sensitive to light. Like the temples of Egypt, the temples of south India were the materialisation of the sequence of movement from light to darkness. Images from the memory of having visited the temples makes me believe that the temples consciously shaped light, that light and the temples are inseperable. Otherwise how could they create such transcendence?


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Fig 4 - RAMANATHAN SWAMY TEMPLE, RAMESHWARAM: Appearing between the dark silhouettes of the pillars is a brighter surface diffusely lit from the top. Different worlds.

3 WORLDS WITHIN A WORLD

The temples were built as a manifestation of the cosmos. They contained within them worlds within a world Let the simple form of the temple not deceive us, for it sets the stage for the infinite play of light. Light breathes life to these worlds


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You walk through the half lit corridor of the pragaram of a temple and as you progress, the seemingly solid wall of the overlapping stone pillars part away and their spacing becomes apparent. Within this spacing on one side, revealed between the half illuminated stone pillars is a corridor of smaller scale engulfed in darkness over an elevated plinth. On the other side appearing between the dark silhouettes of the pillars is a brighter surface diffusely lit from the top. Different worlds.

Fig 5 - PATHANJALI MAHARISHI SHRINE, RAMESHWARAM: The focus is on the illuminated object - the shrine that is broken at intervals by the softness of the rounded columns. From the diffused world of the column is the illumated solid of the shrine , the axis around which this world rotates

The temples of India were conceptualised as a manifestation of the cosmos. They contained within them worlds within a world. Light in its illumination and absence, in its colour and tones was used to create these different worlds. The varying scales, the shifting axes and the enclosures that are set to define these different worlds. The stage is set. But the worlds are not alive yet and when the natural light falls on the rows of pillars and the surfaces, the setting comes to life, they form layers and when seen against each other a multiplicity is born. The different worlds come to life. They are never static.


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Fig 6 - RAMANATHANSWAMY TEMPLE, RAMESHWARAM: The dissolved world of greyness against the solidity of reality, precipitated by the direct illumination of light.

In the dissolving greyness of the tonal expression of light, when suddenly a puncture in the sanctuary (in the form of a courtyard etc.) brings in light in its direct state that reveals in sharp contrast the brightness and the colours of the elements, a different world is defined. Here light defines the physicality of the elements – the reality. The two worlds, one that is spiritual, revealed by the dissolving tones of light and the other that is real illuminated by direct light. Not an ambitious attempt but an expression evolving out of the understanding of natural light be it conscious or sub-conscious - the understandings that light explored in its diffused state and in its tonalities and that explored in its direct state reveal elements in different quality and alter our perception. And when along a corridor, these two worlds are presented against each other; they put forth a dynamism which no variation in scale, shift in axes or enclosures can achieve by itself. The two worlds lay before us defined by the different quality of light. The experience is complex and myriad considering the simple form of the temple.


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Fig 7 - MEENAKSHI TEMPLE, MADURAI: Everything, every object is like a precipitation under light. They are as if immaterial and precipitate under light and then become immaterial again when they move away from it.

4 THE ARCHITECTURE THAT IS REVEALED

Under the diffused light, materiality dissolves and disappears. Stone ceases to be stone. It dissolves and so do we. The architecture like the material dissolves and precipitates under the various influence of light. One is aware of the sensitive craftsman. The stone that is shaped, the light that caresses the contours, that dissolves its boundaries.


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It could be all the more romantic to think that the people who built these temples crafted them to shape light even though it may not have been the case. But the people who built these temples must have been highly sensitive to their surrounding environment and light. If not what would explain the beauty with which the light they brought inside the spaces reveal the material and the architecture of the temples they built. Under the diffused light of the temples the material dissolves. Stone ceases to be stone. Its density dissolves to the half light and it becomes unbound. And so do we. The mouldings and the relief in the stone are rounded. They are not sharp and they compliment the diffused light. It becomes hard not to wonder if it was the light that fell on the stone that shaped these modulations. Such is the intimacy the material as crafted in the temples enjoys with light. The temples of south India find poetry in the light from top. The temples of S.India and the light from the top – the way the shrine is highlighted, revealed where light must have been the only availability to impart hierarchy within the concentric layers of the temple


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Fig 8 With the addition of concentric layers the from of the BRIHADEESHWARA TEMPLE, TANJORE 10th century AD temple becomes complex. More possibities for variaand MEENAKSHI TEMPLE, MADURAI 17th century AD tions.

5 LIGHT IS INCIDENTAL

It is all the more romantic to think that the temples of south India have consciously shaped light to create transcendence. But light here is only incidental. The light that enters the sanctuary are always ‘filtered’. The necessity to bring light didn’t stop with just being functional. It was rather crafted.


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Fig 9 - LIGHT FROM TOP : The light that was never directly brought inside the sanctuary. They were always filtered and diffused. This light dissolves the materiality of the sanctuary.

When new temples were no longer built and when only additions were made to the existing older temples, these additions were added one around the other concentrically. The pillared corridors were wrapped one around the other. The simple linear sequence of moving from light to darkness in the earlier temples was becoming complex with the added layers. Multiple experiences were created. It is all the more romantic to think that the temples of south India have consciously shaped light to create transcendence. But light here is only incidental. As the layers were added around each other, the possibility of light from the sides was eliminated. Light was to be brought from the top. Why it was that light was always required to be diffused? (religious, climatic or reasons for concentration). The light that was brought into these temples were always diffused and ‘filtered’ except for in the courtyards which appear within the outer layer. The light is always never brought directly but always through another element. It is always filtered. The light wells never open directly over the main corridor but over the sub-corridor that runs along – the light corridor. The long rectangular pillars then become the light filters. They bend light and the light is diffused.


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The light slits, the light shafts, the light walls and the light corridors all bring light not directly into the space but are diffused off from a surface. The detail of these openings ensure that the light illuminating the space not be affected by the progress of time and by orientation. When in certain cases the courtyard come within the outer layer, the direct light from them are always filtered by the light filters – a surrounding layer of pillars before they reach the main pragaram. It was necessity that brought light in from the top. But the ingenuity was in not merely bringing light but in what many ways they were devised and altered, filtered and refined. Was it really incidental?

Fig 10 - EKAMBERESHWARAR TEMPLE, KANCHIPURAM : The direct light from these courtyards are always filtered by a surrounding layer of pillars before they reach the pragaram.


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Fig 11 - The light that falls on the structure creates a rhythm with the half lit corridors, the dark niches and the silhouettes. A harmony is played.

6 CANVAS FOR LIGHT

To expect a simple experience from the seemingly simple plan of the temple is to be deceived. Light finds in the structure raised from this plan a canvas to express its innumerable qualities. Light no longer remained merely a function or for necessity, for it was in the hands of the sensitive craftsman.


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When light was brought into the form of the temple, they reacted with the elements and the material and presented a rhythm. Light was no longer just a necessity. They must have realised that the temple became the canvas for light. Light was then presented only as a part of the rhythm. It has gone beyond functional necessity. The long corridors of the temple at Rameshwaram then became the canvas that bears the various tonal gradations of light. The other sources of light were then always presented as a part of the harmony. The dark continuous niche running in the background of the light corridor broken at intervals by the illuminated pillars which compliment and highlight the ‘lightness’ of the source of light. So does the dark silhouettes of the pillars against the brightness of the ‘light wall’ or the ‘light corridor’ behind. Light against the dark and the dark against the bright and we view this composition from a half lit corridor.

Fig 12 - Behind the sanctum, RAMESHWARAM:


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When all these layers come together, they compose a rhythm which is unperceivable in the seemingly simple plan of the temple. The simplicity of the plan is deceiving. The plan becomes infinitely dynamic when light animates it. When the plan was made, when light was cast on the structure of the temple, they must have kindled the emotion of the builder, the craftsman. Light then no longer remained merely as a function or a necessity for it is now in the hands of a sensitive artist. The temples may not have been built with the intent of shaping light. Light may not have even been considered during its planning and could have only been incidental. But when the structure was laid under light, the sensitive craftsman must have witnessed the transformation of the structure and must have suddenly remembered light. They used what was at hand. Their explorations were not ambitious but artistic and subtle. They were romantic of light. This cannot be denied for what would explain the sculptures and the filters, the silhouettes and the dark corridors complimenting the light source and the narrow openings bounding the shrine?


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Fig 14 - THANUMALYAN TEMPLE, SUSEENDRAM : The overlapping of the parrellel layers that creates a dynamism, eventhough it is a small temple.

7 THE BEAUTY OF THE CONCENTRIC FORM

Of all the grand temples, it is in this small temple of a later age that the most joyous and dynamic possibilities of the concentric form of the temple are fully explored When different layers are wound one around the other and when these layers are opened to each other, what follows is a sequence that is non linear and dynamic connecting the experiences of each layer.


Fig 15 - THANUMALYAN TEMPLE SUSEENDRAM : The layers that are opened to each other create a dynamic sequence in contrast to the linear sequence of the red axis 17


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Of all the grand temples, it is in this small temple of a later age that the most joyous and dynamic possibilities of the concentric form of the temple are fully explored. This temple is the most vibrant and playful shedding all rigidities and conservations of the past. A playfulness evolved out of the complete understanding or rather the realisation of the beauty of the concentric form of the temple. It is in this temple for the first time that light and sequence are most dynamically experimented and explored in architectural and special terms. Suseendram exploits the possibilities of an overlapping temple form like no other temple has before. When different layers are wound one around the other and when these layers are opened to each other (fig 15), what follows is a sequence that is non linear and dynamic connecting the experiences of each layer. The temple of Suseendram is the exploration of this.

Fig 16 - SHRINE, SUSEENDRAM TEMPLE : The dual axes sets the form of the temple from the plan of a shrine to the overall planning of the temple.

The temple dwells in the concept of the ‘dual axes’ from the plan of the individual shrine to the planning of the entire complex. The primary (red) axes follow a more linear sequence of focussing the shrine. The joy and the play lies along the secondary (blue) axes that connect the varying layers – connecting the overlapping scales, the overlapping frames, the overlapping frames, the overlapping light and darkness, connecting the overlapping worlds. The temple that is small in scale, makes up for the experiences it offers over time and movement.


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Light guides the sequence (along the red axes) and they become a part of the sequence (along the blue axes). I’ll have to admit, that of all the temples visited, some grand, I’ve never experienced a temple that shares this playful ingenuity and beauty that this temple offers. And this is a small temple. Suseendram stands at the climax of the concentric form of temples. It stands as the innovative refinement of all experiences the other temples were offering in a completely different way. Architecturally speaking, this is the most architecturally brilliant temple of the temples I’ve visited so far.

Fig 16 - SUSSENDRAM : the architectural exploration of light. The playfulness unseen so far.


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In the end...

That small relief on a column standing without exaggeration but can never be missed. Its cunning placement apart from itself, singing the brilliance of its maker. This one particular relief in the small temple of Suseendram that would never leave my eyes seems to stand in demonstration of the intimate relationship between light and form (here sculpture) not to mention the understanding of the sculptor. It is the relief of a naked woman in one of the columns as we exit the smaller shrines. The most simple of the sculptures. But when in those exact hours of the day the sun passes over it, (a couple of hours around noon), the relief magically comes to life. The light gives it life. The stone that has been touched by this light becomes soft as if becoming skin and flesh. The sculpture is alive. And as the sun recedes into the late afternoon, and as the light leaves, the sculpture settles back into the column until the light awakens it to life the next day.

That little relief that made me ‘see’ the wonder natural light can do. I stand before these temples unable to substantiate these experiences they give me and the lessons I’ve learnt. I’m just a curious student...


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Bibliography: Le Corbusier, Toward an Architecture Percy Brown, Architecture of India Satish Grover, Indian Architecture, Buddhist and Hindu period.


Light and the architecture of South Indian temples  
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