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Koil or Koyil or Kovil, (meaning: residence of God[note 1]) is the Tamil term for a distinct style of Hindu temple with Dravidian architecture. Both the terms koyil (Tamil: கோயில், kōyil ?) and kovil (Tamil: கோவில், kōvil ?) are used interchangeably. In Tamil language, kōvil (கோவில் ) is the word derived, according to the rules of Tamil grammar.[note 2]
In contemporary Tamil, the term is also used to refer to Christian churches. Even non-religious places considered sacred are called kovil by Tamils, for example the shrines built in the memory of Thiruvalluvar (the 2nd century poet-philosopher), or Tamil Thai (translated as Mother Tamil, the revered personification of the language) are called Thiruvalluvar Koil and Tamil Thai Koil respectively.
In modern formal speech, kovils are referred to as aalayams by many Hindus and as devaalayams by Christians. Ambalam is another term used by devotees of the 19th century Tamil monk Vallalar.
To Saivites, the foremost kovils are Chidambaram temple and Koneswaram temple while for Vaishnavites, Sri Ranganathaswamy Temple, Srirangam and Tirumala Venkateswara Temple, Tirupati are viewed as equally important. To Christians the koils considered very important are the Arokkiya Madha Koil (Basilica of Our Lady of Good Health) in Velankanni, Santhome Devaalayam (San Thome Basilica) in Chennai and the Poondi Madha Koil (Poondi Madha Basilica) in Thiruvaiyaru.
The koils in Tamil Nadu and kovils 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 the places of worship, but as civic centres for the population, providing local services to the community in the form of hospitals, education institutions, sports and art academies. The local population is fed at the end of each poosai with 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 Tamilakam erected. The songs of the revered Shaiva Nayanars and the Vaishnava Alvar 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 have revealed the patronage extended to them by 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. 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) (circumambulatory paths) and pillared halls.