India’s ancient temples that “sing” through intricate musical architecture

May 19, 2022, 4:46 p.m. | Updated: May 25, 2022, 10:59

The “singing” temples of India.

Photo: Wikimedia Commons

In the Vijaya Vittala temple in Hampi, India, 56 pillars produce musical sounds, fascinating visitors for over 500 years…

In the Vijaya Vittala Temple in Hampi, South India, there are 56 pillars, each 3.6 meters high, which when gently tapped produce delicate musical notes.

Tourists have been coming to the UNESCO World Heritage Site for years to listen to the haunting music of the more than 500-year-old temple.

The pillars, named SaReGaMa, are supposedly after the first four notes (svaras) of the standard scale of Indian classical music – similar to Western Do Re Mi Fa (solfege).

Together they support the 15th century ‘Ranga Mantapa’, a main attraction of the temple complex. Resembling an open pavilion, it was most likely used for music and dancing.

On the other side of the hall, larger main pillars are surrounded by seven smaller pillars which each “play” one of the seven notes of the Indian classical music scale. Made up of pieces of huge resonating stones, the cluster of musical pillars varies in height and width, in order to produce the different tones.

Listen below.

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Vijaya Vittala is not the only temple to feature these musical mainstays. For about 200 years, these harmonious hallmarks represented an exciting revolution in architecture from the 14th to 16th centuries, especially in southern India.

Scholars have speculated that pillars were once tapped, or sometimes blown, to accompany devotional chanting and performance.

Today, the pillars of Vijaya Vittala are cordoned off to prevent further damage to the stone instruments, a measure many temples have taken to protect their ancient structures from curious tourists eager to hear the musical architecture.

Read more: A Toddler Singing Indian Classical Music With His Dad Will Melt Your Heart

Musical Pillars at Vijaya Vittala Temple

Musical pillars at the Vijaya Vittala Temple.

Image: Getty

Elsewhere in southern India, the Nellaiappar temple in Tirunelveli has a line of musical pillars, which are arranged so that when a pillar is tapped, a neighboring one rings out, producing a bell sound.

In addition to singing pillars, temples are known to feature other musical architecture, such as staircases.

To the northeast of Tirunelveli, at the Airavateshwara temple in Darasuram, a staircase leading to the temple is surrounded by a metal grille. This is to protect this set of ten steps, because when someone steps on it, they “play” the first seven notes of the Indian classical music scale.

The steps of this 12th century temple have been severed after years of severe damage, due to the number of visitors who came to walk the stairs and listen to their music.

Read more: This piano staircase social experiment revealed how music makes everything better

All of the temples above are dedicated to Lord Shiva, one of the main deities of Hinduism, who has a prominent association with dance and music. This no doubt explains the powerful presence of musical architecture in these temples…

It should be noted that the temples in question are dedicated to Lord Shiva, one of the main deities of Hinduism, who has a prominent association with dance and music, which could explain the powerful presence of the musical architecture in these temples.