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Koil or Koyil or Kovil, (meaning: residence of God[N 1]) is the Tamil term for a distinct style of Hindu temple with Dravidian architecture. Both the terms koyil (கோயில், kōyil) and kovil (கோவில், kōvil) are used interchangeably. In Tamil language, kōvil (wikt:ta:கோவில்) is the word derived, according to the rules of Tamil grammar.[N 2]
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In contemporary Tamil, the term 'kōvil' is also used to refer to Christian churches. Even non-religious places considered sacred are called kōvil by Tamils, for example the shrines built in the memory of Thiruvalluvar (the 2nd century poet-philosopher), or Tamil Thaai (translated as Mother Tamil, the revered personification of the language) are called Thiruvalluvar kōvil and Tamil thaai kōvil respectively.
In modern formal speech, kōvil is also referred to as aalayam, dheva sthaanam by many Hindus and as dhevaalayam by Christians. Ambalam is another term used by devotees of the 19th century Tamil monk Vallalar. Another term is 'Thali', (தளி) which also means temple.
To Shaivites, the foremost kōvils are Chidambaram temple and Koneswaram temple while for Vaishnavites, Sri Ranganathaswamy temple, Srirangam and Tirumala Venkateswara temple, Tirupati are viewed as important. To Christians the kōils considered very important are the Arokkiya Madha kōil (Basilica of Our Lady of Good Health) in Velankanni, Santhome Dhevaalayam (San Thome Basilica) in Chennai and the Poondi Madha kōil (Poondi Madha Basilica) in Thiruvaiyaru.
The kōvils in Tamil Nadu and the kōvils of Sri Lanka have long histories and have always been associated with the ruler of the time. Most kings patronised temple building in their kingdom, and attached water tanks and villages to the shrine to administer. Temples not only acted as places of worship, but also as civic centres for the population, providing local services to the community in the form of hospitals, educational institutions, sports and arts academies. The local poor and the needy may be fed at the end of poosai (worship session), using monetary endowments made to the shrine.
Ancient Tamils were among the greatest of temple builders. The Sangam literature scripted before the common era, refers to some of the temples the early kings of Tamilagam had erected. The songs of the revered Shaiva Nayanars and the Vaishnava Alvār saints that date back to the period 6th to the 9th century CE, provide ample references to the temples of that period. Stone inscriptions found in most temples describe the patronage extended to them by the various rulers.
The most ancient temples were built of brick and mortar. Up to about 700 CE temples were mostly of the rock-cut type. The Pallava kings were great builders of temples in stone. The Chola dynasty (850-1279 CE) left a number of monuments to their credit such as the Brihadeeswarar Temple in Thanjavur. The Cholas added many ornate mandpams or halls to temples and constructed large towers. The Pandya style (until 1350 CE) saw the emergence of huge towers, high wall enclosures and enormous towered gateways (Gopurams). The Vijayanagar Style (1350 - 1560 CE) is famous for the intricacy and beauty especially for the decorated monolithic pillars. The Nayak style (1600 - 1750 CE) is noted for the addition of large prakaram (outer courtyard) (circum-ambulatory paths) and pillared halls.