Gopurams are the towering pyramidal gateways that welcome you into a south Indian temple. Ancient Hindu texts describe Devalaya Vastu or the layout of a temple in anatomical terms as the body of the purusha or cosmic man, with its various structures representing specific parts: the garba-griha or sanctum sanctorum is the head, the mantapas or vestibules leading from it constitute the neck and chest, the flag-staff marks the centre of the body and the gopuram are the feet. As a devotee enters a temple by passing under a gopuram, they symbolically touch the feet of this cosmic being. Seen through these massive portals, the shrine inside is framed like a gemstone in pleasing symmetry. Gopurams are a distinctive feature of Dravidian temple architecture, and they came to be an integral part of the Hindu temple complex during the reign of the Pallavas and the Imperial Cholas. Subsequent empires including the Vijayanagaras, the Nayakas and the Wodeyars of Mysore also rose to the occasion by building highly ornate, soaring gateways that dominated the skyline. Gopurams inspire ambition even in the heart of the contemporary devotee—the tallest gopuram, gracing the Ranganathaswamy temple on the island town of Srirangam in Tamil Nadu, was built in 1987. The rare photographs in this gallery date to the late 19th and early 20th centuries and capture ancient and medieval temples across Tamil Nadu, Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka and Kerala.
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