The Earliest Hindu TemplesThe earliest temple structures were not made of stones or bricks, which came much later. In ancient times, public or community temples were possibly made of clay with thatched roofs made of straw or leaves. Cave-temples were prevalent in remote places and mountainous terrains.
According to historian, Nirad C Chaudhuri, the earliest structures that indicate idol worship date back to the 4th or 5th century AD. There was a seminal development in temple architecture between the 6th and the 16th century. This growth phase of Hindu temples charts its rise and fall alongside the fate of the various dynasties that reigned India during the period majorly contributing and influencing the building of temples, especially in South India. Hindus consider the building of temples an extremely pious act, bringing great religious merit. Hence kings and wealthy men were eager to sponsor the construction of temples, notes Swami Harshananda, and the various steps of building the shrines were performed as religious rites.
Temples of South India (6th - 18th Century AD)The Pallavas (600 - 900 AD) sponsored the building of the rock-cut chariot-shaped temples of Mahabalipuram, including the famous shore temple, the Kailashnath and Vaikuntha Perumal temples in Kanchipuram in southern India. The Pallavas style further flourished - with the structures growing in stature and sculptures becoming more ornate and intricate - during the rule of the dynasties that followed, particularly the Cholas (900 - 1200 AD), the Pandyas temples (1216 - 1345 AD), the Vijayanagar kings (1350 - 1565 AD) and the Nayaks (1600 - 1750 AD).
The Chalukyas (543 - 753 AD) and the Rastrakutas (753 - 982 AD) also made major contributions to the development of temple architecture in Southern India. The Cave Temples of Badami, the Virupaksha temple at Pattadakal, the Durga Temple at Aihole and the Kailasanatha temple at Ellora are standing examples of the grandeur of this era. Other important architectural marvels of this period are the sculptures of Elephanta Caves and the Kashivishvanatha temple.
During the Chola period the South Indian style of building temples reached its pinnacle, as exhibited by the imposing structures of the Tanjore temples. The Pandyas followed in the footsteps the Cholas and further improved on their Dravidian style as evident in the elaborate temple complexes of Madurai and Srirangam. After the Pandyas, the Vijayanagar kings continued the Dravidian tradition, as evident in the marvelous temples of Hampi. The Nayaks of Madurai, who followed the Vijayanagar kings, hugely contributed to architectural style of their temples, bringing in elaborate hundred or thousand-pillared corridors, and tall and ornate 'gopurams' or monumental structures that formed the gateway to the temples as evident in the temples of Madurai and Rameswaram.