(In the September 2000 issue of "Journal of Architecture
and Building Science" of the Architectural Institute of Japan)



What is Acromegaly in architecture? It is the tendency in design to devote tremendous energy on spaces and forms of minor importance and make them more conspicuous than those of main functions of the building, in other words, it is the attitude of giving explicit independency to some less important parts rather than subordinating them to the central scheme.
Such a design attitude would be rejected by orthodox view of architecture and criticized by the rationalistic mind. However, that eorthodoxyf is only defined in modern Europe or Japan, and cannot be called universal for all ages and areas.

Temple of Horus with soaring Pylon, Edfu, Egypt

When looking at the temple architecture of ancient Egypt for example, its rectangular precincts are entirely surrounded with high walls like a fortress, making it impossible to figure out from the outside what is within, on the contrary one part of the temple is massively displayed, the gigantic pair of pylons on one short side wall. The pylons are a temple gateway, soaring high-rise stone buildings in a pair, sandwiching a huge entrance door to the precincts between them, and connected to each other over the entrance door, looking like a single edifice.

The surfaces of these magnificent pylons are embellished with various ornaments such as relief sculptures of gods or kings. The impression of the total external appearance of Egyptian temples is determined entirely by pylons, other components are completely hidden within high walls, even the upper part of the central sanctuary is not made visible from outside.
Even when going into the temple, one finds that the sanctuary is nothing but a small dark room, and one wonders why the architect made only its gateway so majestic and neglected the physical form of its central shrine, which would have been esteemed as the most important architectural component. This is eacromegaly in architecturef.

Functionally, the gate is only an entrance to the precincts, with the ability to be locked regularly or on occasion, not demanding to be as huge as to surpass the principal space; this way of thinking is the spirit of modern rationalism.
The ancient Egyptians did not think so. They must have considered that the gate itself is the face of the building complex, and just as human personality and character permeates a face, the eraison dêtref of a building should be likewise expressed in the gate. They must never have thought that giving majesty to a minor component of a temple would harm the dignity of its main shrine.

In the case of the largest piece of temple architecture in ancient Egypt, the Great Temple of Amun in Karnak, larger pylons were constructed in front each time the scale of the temple was enlarged, eventually reaching six pairs in number. Such acromegalic architecture could be considered a curious anomaly in the history of world architecture.

Gopuras in the Arnachaleshvara Temple


However, there was another architecture in the world, which also held such mentality, other than Egyptian; the early modern Hindu temples of the so-called Dravidian Style in southern India. Although during the age of the Chola Empire in the medieval period, Vimanas (main shrines) were given tremendous figures with heights reaching up to more than 60m, such as the Brihadishvara Temple in Thanjavur , the mode of temple architecture thoroughly changed in the 14th century during the Vijayanagara Dynasty.
Leaving main shrines as small as they were when first built, and encircling the whole precincts as a rectangle with walls, architects came to construct magnificent tower gates at the entrances, which are not called pylons but gopuras.

In the course of time, their precincts were further enlarged and surrounded with high walls as in ancient Egypt, erecting huger gopuras. In the cases of important temples, this cycle was repeated many times; the number of gopuras occasionally increased to more than ten and the highest ones could attain to over 70m in height. (Note)

In the city of Tiruvannamalai, as the result of the repeated enlargement of the Arnachaleshvara Temple, its imposing gopuras soar like skyscrapers in Manhattan, looking down the town scape and the surrounding landscape.
Since the main shrine is very small and located in the central enclosure, its existence cannot figured out from outside. It would be difficult for current architects to even consider that these ten majestic skyscrapers are nothing but gates of a temple.
Though the reason for the change in direction to acromegaly in Dravidian temple architecture is not yet clear, we can also find similar acromegaly, or the phenomena of the independency of elements constituting a whole, in the design of a gopura itself.

The North Gopura of the Minakshi-Sundareshvara Temple

The Minakshi-Sundareshvara Temple in Madurai, which is considered to be the best representative of Dravidian temples in early modern ages, has as many as 12 gopuras, mainly erected in the 17th century. The great gopura at the northern side has ten stories and is about 45m in height. Its upper stories are gradually set back from the lower stories, delineating a slightly concave curve in silhouette, and rising high into the sky like a Gothic cathedral.
As for the material of this gopura, only the ground floor, which stands high astride an entrance passageway, is made of stone, and the superstructure constituting the upper nine stories is of brick, the surface of which is elaborately sculpted and colorfully plastered. Its base plan is standardized rectangular and the top is surmounted with a barrel vaulted enormous stone ridgepole.


Indian temple architecture is popularly known to be covered with numerous sculptures of gods, animals and human couples, but when observing details of a gopura, one will see that it is made far more architecturally than sculpturally. Let us look slightly left of the center in the second story of the north gopura of Madurai (photo and diagram below).
There is a Shala, or a temple-form unit (a basic temple form of two stories) of the Dravidian style, carved minutely. Each story of the gopura has such temple units lined up innumerably. On the top of the photo can be seen the bottom part of the temple-form unit in the third story, and its central axis is a little deviated from that of the one below because of the setback of upper stories into slightly reduced proportion.

A Shala (temple-form unit) on the second stair of the North Gopura,
(the Minakshi-Sundareshvara Temple, Madurai)

Disassembly of the Shala (above photo) into its self-similar elements

When looking carefully into this complete temple-form unit (1 on the disassembly diagram), which is a self-sufficient temple enshrining a sculpted goddess, one can realize that three smaller Shalas (temple units) are stacked on its central axis (2 - 4 on the diagram), each of which is a complete independent temple of two stories, and furthermore one can find minimum-sized temples in and around them (5 - 14).
In short, this temple unit in the second story has an intricate telescopic structure comprised of 14 temples that are all self-sufficient independent buildings, with a sanctuary, front columns on a podium, eaves, and a vault-like roof on the second floor columns.

Though the proportions of temple units are full of variety, each story of the gopura has a line of some 30 units of telescopic structure, so if a gopura has ten stories, it can be calculated to contain 3,000 to 4,000 temples in total. Since the Minakshi-Sundareshvara Temple has twelve gopuras, surprisingly close to 30,000 temples are embedded throughout its entire precincts in a telescopic way.

While that great number is quite something, the architectural method in which minimum temples are combined with each other to make small temples, which in turn are joined together to form middle sized temples, which are piled up to compose a large gopura is extremely unique, never known in the world other than in India.
However huge and complicated Gothic cathedrals might be, their components, arches, pillars, buttresses, turrets, traceries and so on, never take the form of independent church buildings. From what derived the impulses that gave such inclusion into a gopura, which has the function of a mere gate, and granted a temple form to each inferior element in spending considerable energy?

Vimana & sculpture of the Mallikarjuna Temple, Kuruvatti


In order to explore this further, let us examine another appearance of acromegaly in architecture. It is also in southern India but from an age when vimanas were erected greater than gopuras: a mediaeval Hindu temple in the Karnataka region.

Close to the end of the 10th century, Indian stone architecture had almost attained to its highest technical accomplishment, in spite of being wooden-like post and beam structure. The Mallikarjuna Temple in Kuruvatti was built in the late Chalkyan Style, which is just the middle form between the Northern and Southern temple styles. (The temple is especially famous by the sculptures on its column capitals on its facade).

Plan of the Mallikarjuna Temple, Kuruvatti
(From "Encyclopaedia of Indian Temple Architecture" by M.A. Dhaky,
American Institute of Indian Studies, 1996)

Its plan consists of the Garbhagriha (sanctuary), an Antarala (anteroom) and a Mandapa (hall) with three entrance porches. The Mandapa has four columns as usual to sustain the ceiling beams. The chlorite columns take a form like a stack of round disks, which are supposed to have been produced with a lathe. The most interesting factor is their elaborate column bases.

Column Base of the Mallikarjuna Temple

They are probably the most exuberantly decorated column bases in the world. In contrast to the round shape shaft, each base is square in outline, standing on a geometrically chiseled podium, four corners of which have small fluted columns with a three tiered capitals, on which are mini-temples of two stories.
On each face, between these corner columns, is carved a high towered temple of one story on four mini-columns. This tower has an artillery shell shape called a Shikhara, which is composed of a stack of small Shikharas and surmounted with an Amalaka (fluted disk) and a Kalasha (finial). Apart from volute ornament around the Shikhara, it is a complete northern type temple with even a statue of the main deity carved between the mini-columns.
In short, each of these four columns in the Mandpa contains four northern type temples back to back on its column base.

Since a Stambha (pillar or column) in India symbolizes the vertical axis connecting heaven and earth, the center of each column is the independent axis of the universe, having four temples (houses of gods) facing the four directions (the world).
In the first place, the main shrine of a Hindu temple is a Garbhagriha (womb house as a sanctuary), which enshrines a Linga (phallus as a symbol of Shiva), erecting a Shikhara (high tower as a large Linga) over it and crowning it with a Kalasha (Himalayan Mt. Kailasa as an abode of Shiva), so it is interpreted as the axis of the universe connecting the earth for men and the heaven for gods.

In this Mallikarjuna Temple, the Mandapa also forms a symbolic sacred place surrounded by four columns, each of which stands as an independent axis of the universe, plainly indicating that the temple is a cosmos with the omnipresence of Hindu gods.

Usually in Western architecture since the ancient Greeks, people do not pay much attention to column bases compared to capitals, the Indian sprit, which is to make every column in a Mandapa an axis of the universe, has the foot of each column immanent of the universe, making its extremity hypertrophy to tremendous density and elaboration in form.
It has to be said that the method which filled some thousand temples into a single Gopura in southern type Hindu temples take root on the same spirit as this.

< NOTE >

The temple composition, which gave extreme prominence to only the entrance gates and left the main shrines smaller, and manifoldly encircled the precincts by high walls, is not seen in the world other than in ancient Egypt and in early modern southern India. What relationship was able to exist between these two remote regions both in time and distance?
As according to geophysics the current Indian Subcontinent was integrated with the African continent eons ago, might the memory of remote ancestors of some hundred million years past revived in a common architectural constitution?



© Takeo Kamiya
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