Temples are the core of the cultural life of Kerala. Worship is correlated with the progression of mankind. In the primitive, society, man has to fight against animals, nature and natural calamities for their subsistence. As a protection from these hindrances, they began to worship the nature and environment itself, that is the Sun, Rain, Fire, Animals, Birds, Trees etc.
During that period, major portions of land were thick forests, and it was cleared to prepare the land for cultivation and inhabitance. But, a portion of the forest was kept untouched for worship. This portion is known as ‘Kaavu’ – the Sacred groves. The groves are silent places, where the flowers are not plucked, the trees are not destroyed and importantly, the snakes were not disturbed or harmed. This tradition still continues in Kerala and ‘Kaavu’ is considered to be the home of ‘Nagas’ (Snake Gods) and Holy Spirits.
With the development in cultural and social structure, the mode of worship got transformed to the worship of ancestors, animism and Gods of mythology and legends.
It is believed that the introduction of Jainism and Budhism stimulate the construction of temples in Kerala. Many of the Hindu temples were originally Jain and Buddhist shrines. Examples are the Kudalmanikyam Bharatha temple at Irinjalakuda originally was the shrine of a Digambara Jain Saint named Bharateshwara. In Killil Bhagavathy temple near Perumbavoor, still there are images of Paraswanta, Mahavira and Padmavathi. The Vadakkumnatha temple at Thrissur, Kurumba Bhagavathi temple at Kannur and Paruvasseri Durga temple near Thrissur were Buddhist shrines in the early period. Buddhist images were also discovered from Kerala, including the famous ‘Karumadikuttan’ near Ambalappuzha.
Later, by the revival of Hinduism in Kerala, the Jain and Buddhist shrines were taken over by the Brahmins, and the Tantric form of worship was adopted.
The architecture of Kerala Hindu temples constructed later, were influenced by the styles of the Jain, Buddhist and the Dravidians.
Earlier the temples of Kerala was known as ‘Mukkalvattom’ and later, the ‘Ambalam’ or ‘Kshethram’. Wood, brick and lateral stone are used for the construction of traditional temples. The roof may be conical or pyramidal in shape, covered with copper tiles. The core of the temple is ‘Sreekovil’, which stands in the east-west axis. The deity of the temple is placed inside the Sreekovil. The shape of the sreekovil may be square, rectangular or circular. Walls of the sreekovil usually will be covered with mural paintings or wood carvings. Oil lamps are used inside the temple, which enhance its spiritual ambiance.
The componants of a temples are
(a) The Balivattam, which includes the Sreekovil, Balikallu and the Namaskara
(b) The Chuttambalam
(c) The Vilakku Mattam
(d) Sievelippura and
(e) The Puram Mathil
Kerala temples are also the centres of art and culture. Popular art forms like Kathakali, Koothu, Koodiyattam, Mohiniyattam, Ottanthullal, Paadakam and the Musical Art form Sopana Sangeetham, had their origin and development in the temples.