Temples played an unique role in the socio-cultural and politico-economic life of the people of Tamilnadu. They preserved the rich heritage and were the traditional centres fostering the growth of civilization, in literature, art, music, dance, drama and other fine arts. As centres of worship, every temple of some prominence was busy with the incoming and outgoing devotees every day. In the midst of the crowd, to ease their tension, cultural programmes were conducted periodically on a grand scale. A number of festivals were also arranged daily, weekly, monthly and annually which attracted tens and thousands of people from far and near. On such occasions, the devotees offered worship and participated in variety entertainments.

Temples served as centres of recreation. They patronised dance, music, drama, painting and sculpture and preserved them for posterity. Music and dance formed part of daily worship and were given prominence during processions and festivals. They were the inseparable limbs of upacharas offered to gods and goddesses.1 Sangam literature mentions many ritual dances like veriyadal2, kuravai3 and some other dances performed in connection with rites, rituals and worship. Music and dance were also a part of the bhakti movement. Every temple of some repute had a ranga mandapa (dance hall) or nrittamandapa. People met in the temple porches and attended the various entertainment held there.


Thiruvarur Thiagarajar Aradhanai (Courtesy: The Hindu)

The traditional music of the Tamils reached the zenith of glory during the times of the Nayanmars and Alwars. The outpourings of the devotees took the form of soul-stirring hymns. Several singers were employed in temples to recite the Vedas, Sastras, Puranas, Tiruppadigam, Tiruvaymoli, Tirumurai. Tiruvembavai, Tiruppavai and other sacred hymns. Besides vocalists and instrumentalists, the uvachchars (drummers) provided music during pujas and festivals. They handled a variety of musical instruments4 such as udukkai, mattali, karadigai, talam, padagam, segandigai, talapparai, kaimani and sangu according to the nature of pujas and festivals. Other than these, other musical instruments4 like vina, flute and nadasvaram were used in temple services. All the instrumentalists rendered their music from the early hours of the day till midnight. Music was regarded to possess the power to “purify him that chants and him that listens”. To entertain the devotees, during the festivals, entertainments like kathakali, harikatha, ottantullal were conducted on puranic themes to provide solace to the audience.

Like music, dance was also given much prominence in temple rituals. Lord Shiva is considered to be the cosmic dancer and so every big Saivaite temple had a separate dancing hall called arangam or arangamandapam. Dance, as an art, was encouraged in all Shiva temples. Expert dancers, mostly women, were employed in a regular basis to sing and dance before the deity during daily worship, ceremonial processions and festivals.5 In the Rajarajesvara Temple, Rajaraja I appointed four hundred devadasis for this purpose.6 They performed different kinds of dances such as sokkam (pure dance), sandhikkunippam (dance during worship), agamargam (dance performed to the pleasure of mind) and varikolam (one of the 14 limps). Besides, a variety of dance-drama called kuttu had a significant role in temple worship. It was performed by troupes of male dancers called kuttar who staged different types of dances like santhikuttu7, sokkakkuttu8, vinodakkuttu, tamulakkuttu,9 and ariayakkuttul0. The kuttars who danced in temple theatres were called as ambalakuttar11 and even as araiyar12. They performed their art on different occasions, including festivals. At Kumbakonam, tamulakkuttu was enacted for five occasions during the chittirai festival13. During processions, they walked in front of the deities and performed their dance at regular intervals. This enactment of dance was conducted in all the temples by the araiyars. Their performance consisted of kontattam (praise of the Lord), the recitation of the hymns of Alwars with music, enacting such hymns with abhinayas, narration of the commentary and once again kontattam14. During their performance, they used a special conical cap, upper garment and garlands. It is said that santhikkuttu induced a feeling of repose in the enjoyment of rasa, and vinodakkuttu imparted a fleeting sense of pleasure to the audience.


Therukoothu, Tamilnadu (Curtesy: https://freehomedelivery.net/)

Dramas (natakam) were enacted at night in the vicinity of the temples. Some temples had separate natakasalas15 (theatrical hall) within their precincts. Dramas were mostly staged on the occasion of important festivals. For instance, a drama known as Rajarajesvaranataka was enacted in the temple at Tanjore by a troupe ­factors on the occasion of an annual festival in the month of Vaikasi.16 According to some inscriptions from Attur near Tirunelveli, a troupe of actors and actresses including the devadasis enacted dramas on the occasion of Avani tirunal17. Such entertainments were conducted to make the public happy and to instill in them an awareness of their culture. They also provided an occasion for social gathering. All these programmes produced a pleasing effect and were intended to relieve the spectators from the turmoils of the World.

Temples also served as the repositories of fine arts like architecture, sculpture in stone and bronze, painting and jewellery which were preserved in their pristine form. The paintings on the wall, panelled ceiling and gateways of some of the temples showed scenic representations of Ramayana or stories from Mahabharatha. The temple being the centre of intellectual and artistic activity, the lifestyles depicted there inspired visitors to live honestly, without pride or prejudice. The sacred shrines, by the splendour of their massive structure and the fine sculptures, prompted the worshippers to lead a life of purity and devotion. The temple was viewed as the embodiment of beauty, perfection and grace. The Silpasastra emphasises the idea that the worship of the images in stone, metal or clay leads the seeker of liberation from rebirth to his goal18.


Dancing sculpture in Brihadisvara Temple, Thanjavur (Courtesy: The Hindu)

The artist gave visible form to the values of his society. The sculptured and painted scenes from mythologies and other scenes of dance, music and drama are a rich feast to the eyes. The beauty and elegance of the sculptures elevated the mind of the visitors. Even today, thousands of devotees and tourists from all over India and abroad visited the temples and enjoyed the treasures of art preserved there. While enjoying the views and sceneries depicted in temples, the devotees are supposed to forget their distress and difficulties in life. It enables them to attain purity of thought and generosity of mind. The calm and cool atmosphere prevailing in temple complexes induced the visitors to take rest and meditate. A nucleus around which all artistic activities were concentrated, the temple became centres of recreation.


  1. R. Bhatt (ed.), Rauravagama, Vol. I, Pondicherry, p.43.
  2. Ahananuru, 182: 16-17.
  3. Padirrupattu, 73: 4-7.
  4. South Indian Inscriptions (SID, Vol. XVII, 243).
  5. Ibid., Vol. VIII, No. 3
  6. Ibid., Vol. II, No. 66.
  7. Ibid., Vol. XIV, No. 237.
  8. Annual Report on Epigraphy (ARE.,) 126 of 1927-28.
  9. Ibid., 1931-32, part ii, pars 56.
  10. SII., Vol. III, No. 202.
  11. ARE., 363 of 1959-60.
  12. SII., Vol. XIV, No. 254.
  13. ARE., 90 of 1931-32.
  14. Venkataraman, “Araiyar Sevai”, Tamil Studies, Vol. II No. 4, Madurai, 1982, pp. 56-57.
  15. SII., Vol. V. No. 721.
  16. Ibid., Vol. II, No. 67.
  17. ARE., 444 & 445 of 1929-30.
  18. K. Pillai, Studies in tine History of India with Special Reference to Tamilnadu, Madras, 1979, p. 440.

Dr. M. Desayar
Reader in History, Manonmaniam Sundaranar University,
Tirunelveli — 627 012

Source: Journal of Indian History and Culture, March 1999.

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