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Karnataka and South India - 02 Temple architecture



Type of Spiritual Experience


A description of the experience


The beliefs, plan of temples, and symbolism did not change as the Dravidians moved from the Indus valley to the South of India.  Instead, the material used changed – most temples are constructed of sandstone, soapstone or granite rather than brick.  There are temples, usually the oldest, that are in brick, indicating that the Dravidians brought their skills with them, but found more building options to be available.  One such temple, the Saluvannkuppan Murukan temple, consists of three layers. The lowest layer, consists of a brick shrine, and is one of the oldest of its kind in South India.

The other main difference was that the rise of ‘kings’ resulted in more stability and more revenue to build temples on a bigger scale.

The term king and the term queen are both meaningful symbolically.  They are people whose progress on the spiritual path has given them additional powers – they are more like sage kings than simply rulers.  A true ‘king’ is thus one chosen for their spiritual abilities - usually wisdom and inspiration - but of course if one simply inherits the title or gets there by power struggles, then all you have is a ruler, not a true ‘king’. Inheritance might give you a head’s start, but a king still has to prove they are a king spiritually. 

Throughout Southern India, a king was considered to be divine by nature.  And in days gone by they might well have been.  The methods used to help those on the spiritual path - the methods of Shaivism – were extremely comprehensive and all ‘work’.  The king was 'the representative of the Gods on earth’ and lived in a “koyil”, which means the “residence of the Gods”. The Modern Tamil word for temple is koil.

Basic structure

Shaivistic/Dravidian style temples consist almost invariably of the four following parts:

  • The porches or Mantapas, an entry way and corridor which always covers and precedes the door leading to the inner cell.
  • The pyramids, Gopuras.
  • Pillared halls  (Chaultris or Chawadis)
  • The ‘tank’ called the Kalyani or Pushkarni – to be used for sacred purposes.

The symbolism

If we take the ‘tank’ first it is a ‘step well’.  Whilst the pyramid is a ‘masculine’ feature, representative of the Conscious mind, the tank is a feminine subtle mirror of the pyramid – an upside down pyramid – the symbol of the subconscious.  It incorporates many of the symbols of the feminine – particularly water.  For more details, please follow the link to the explanation of the step well.

The pyramid and porch together use the universal Shaivistic symbol of the Lingum and yoni.  If we compare a temple and a sculpture we can see the harmony of the two.

At its very very basic [and crudest], this symbolism is based on the sexual methods used in Shaivism – the penis and vulva, but that is at the base level.  The far more sophisticated and spiritual meaning is that embodied in 3D mandalas and the idea of the cosmic egg.  At the centre is the Ultimate Intelligence.  All Intelligences are represented by mountains, as such the lingum is a ‘cosmic mountain’ symbolically with all its levels and layers.  The ‘mountain’ is symbolically equivalent to a pyramid or ziggurat. 

The entry way into the temple is a form of bridge – the bridge from the mundane world to the spiritual world – a symbolic ‘tunnel’.  At the level one enters one has entered a ‘hollow mountain’.

The variation on the theme of the mountain with the bridge, occasionally includes a porch of smaller proportions but also a mini mountain - a 'hill'.

We are symbolically 'hills', cones of energy that by comparison with the Intelligences [gods] are pimples on the spiritual landscape.  Occasionally such little conical or mini pyramids are shown round an egg shaped space, indicated the cosmic egg with all the very minor players in the Great game as partial spectators and partial participants - like the audience in the circus big top. 

But the builders of the great Shaivist temples made it personal - 'this is a temple for you' it is saying, 'here you are, a minor cone of energy [porch pyramid] but even you, if you follow the spiritual path [the tunnel/corridor] can reach the centre and Shiva [big pyramid and hall]'.


 Note how in this example, the little mini temple only has 4 levels - Earth, Water, Air and Fire, with a tiny little dome and spire for the Aether level - the Higher spirit.  That is all we are - the Elements.  In contrast, the big temple has the 4 elements, the 7 Planets [11] plus at the top the Trimurti , the Stars and the Ultimate Intelligence [around 14].

This understanding of the symbolism inherent in sacred geography was recorded in a number of texts – the Agamas, Mayamata and Manasara shilpa texts and the later Isanasivagurudeva paddhati.  These texts are a guidebook on the Dravidian style of design, construction, sculpture and joinery techniques.

The Builders

Various kingdoms and empires such as the Cholas, the Chera, the Kakatiyas, the Pandyas, the Pallavas,  the Rashtrakutas, the Chalukyas, the Hoysalas, and Vijayanagara Empire made substantial contribution to the evolution of Dravidian architecture.  Angkor Wat in Cambodia and Prambanan in Indonesia were built based on Dravida architecture.

  • The Chola kings  - ruled from AD (848–1280) and included Rajaraja Chola I and his son Rajendra Chola who built temples such as the Brihadeshvara Temple, the Temple of Gangaikonda Cholapuram, the Airavatesvara Temple and the Sarabeswara Temple, at Thirubhuvanam. The first three are titled Great Living Chola Temples among the UNESCO World Heritage Sites.  The Cholas were prolific temple builders right from the time of the first king.  The Cholas have left over 2,300 temples, with the Tiruchy-Thanjavur belt itself boasting of more than 1,500 temples.
  • The Cheras - were an ancient royal dynasty who ruled parts of the present-day states of Tamil Nadu (Kongu Nadu) and Kerala in India.  They flourished from about the 3rd century BC.  They were thus the first Dravidians to settle the area bringing knowledge with them.
  • The Pandyan dynasty - was an ancient Tamil dynasty, one of the three Tamil dynasties, the other two being the Chola and the Chera. The Pandya King, along with Chera King and Chola King, were referred to as the Three Crowned Kings of Tamilakam.  The dynasty ruled parts of South India from around 600 BCE (Early Pandyan Kingdom) to the first half of 17th century CE.  Rock cut and structural temples are significant part of pandyan architecture. Groups of small temples are seen at Tiruchirapalli district of Tamil Nadu. The Shiva temples have a Nandi in front of the maha mandapa. In the later stages of Pandyas rule, finely sculptured gopurams were developed. Meenakshi Temple in Madurai and Nellaiappar Temple in Tirunelveli were built during the reign of the Pandyas.
  • The Hoysala era - was an important period in the development of art, architecture, and religion in South India. The empire is specifically remembered today for its temple architecture. Over 100 surviving temples are scattered across Karnataka.  Well known temples of this era  "which exhibit an amazing display of sculptural exuberance" include the Chennakesava Temple at Belur, the Hoysaleswara Temple at Halebidu, and the Kesava Temple at Somanathapura. The Hoysala rulers also patronised the fine arts, encouraging literature to flourish in Kannada and Sanskrit.
  • Chalukya dynasty  - The most enduring legacy of the Chalukya dynasty is the architecture and art that they left behind. More than one hundred and fifty monuments attributed to the Badami Chalukya, and built between 450 and 700, remain in the Malaprabha basin in Karnataka.  Apart from temples they are also well known for ornate stepped wells.
  • The Rashtrakuta contributions to art and architecture are reflected in the splendid rock-cut shrines at Ellora and Elephanta, situated in present-day Maharashtra. It is said that they altogether constructed 34 rock-cut shrines, but most extensive and sumptuous of them all is the Kailasanatha temple at Ellora. The temple is a splendid achievement of Dravidian art.
  • The Pallavas ruled from AD (600–900) and their greatest constructed accomplishments are the single rock temples in Mahabalipuram and their capital Kanchipuram, now located in Tamil Nadu.  The earliest examples of temples in the Dravidian style belong to the Badami Chalukya-Pallava period. The Shore Temple near Mahabalipuram is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
  • Vijayanagara - The whole of South India was ruled by the Vijayanagara Empire from (1343–1565 CE), who built a number of temples and monuments in their hybrid style in their capital Vijayanagara in Karnataka. Vijayanagara architecture is a vibrant combination of the Chalukya, Hoysala, Pandya and Chola styles. Its legacy of sculpture, architecture and painting influenced the development of the arts long after the empire came to an end. The Yali columns (pillar with charging horse), balustrades (parapets) and ornate pillared manatapa are their unique contribution.  Artisans used the locally available hard granite because of its durability, since the kingdom was under constant threat of invasion. While the empire's monuments are spread over the whole of Southern India, nothing surpasses the vast open-air theatre of monuments at its capital at Vijayanagara, a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Example temples

There are literally thousands and thousands of beautiful temples dedicated to Shiva in the south of India.  So the list below is but a tiny sample.  Notable in the list below are the temples dedicated to the 5 Elements of Earth, Air, Fire and Water as well as Aether – the abode of the gods or ‘the sky’.

  • Airavatesvara Temple  - is a Shaivist temple of Dravidian architecture located in the town of Darasuram, near Kumbakonam in the South Indian state of Tamil Nadu. This temple, built by Rajaraja Chola II in the 12th century and is part of the UNESCO World Heritage Sites known as the "Great Living Chola Temples".
  • Bhoga Nandeeshwara Temple  - (also spelt "Bhoga Nandishwara" or "Bhoga Nandishvara") is a Shiva temple located in Nandi village, at the base of Nandi Hills (or Nandidurga) in the Chikkaballapur district of Karnataka state. The original temple in the complex, identified as one of the oldest temples of Karnataka, dates back to the early 9th century. The temple is protected as a monument of national importance by the Archaeological Survey of India
  • Brihadeshwara Temple (locally known as Tanjai Periya Kovil) is a temple dedicated to Shiva located in Thanjavur, Tamil Nadu. It is one of the largest temples in India and was built by Raja Raja Chola I and completed in 1010 CE.  The temple is part of the UNESCO World Heritage Site known as the "Great Living Chola Temples".
  • Ekambaranathar Temple (Tamil: ஏகாம்பரநாதர் கோயில்) or Ekambareswarar Temple is dedicated to Shiva, and located in Kanchipuram in the state of Tamil Nadu. The temple gopuram  is 59m tall, which is one of the tallest gopurams in India.  It is one of the five major Shiva temples or Pancha Bootha Sthalams representing an Element – in this case the element  EARTH.
  • Gangaikonda Cholapuram temple -  also known as Brihadeshwara Temple and Gangaikondacholeeswaram,  is a temple dedicated to Shiva located in Gangaikonda Cholapuram, Ariyalur district, in Tamil Nadu. It is one of the largest temples in India and is an example of Dravidian architecture built by the Chola dynasty. It was built by Rajendra Chola I and completed in 1035 AD.  The temple is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, referred to as one of the Great Living Chola Temples.
  • Jambukeswaram temple  - Thiruvanaikaval also Thiruvanaikal, is a Shiva temple in Tiruchirapalli (Trichy), in the state of Tamil Nadu. The temple was built by Kocengannan (Kochenga Chola), one of the Early Cholas, around 1,800 years ago. It is located on Srirangam island, which also has the Ranganathaswamy temple.  Thiruvanaikal is one of the five major Shiva Temples of Tamil Nadu (Panchabhoota Sthalams) representing the Mahābhūta or five great elements; this temple represents the element of WATER, or neer in Tamil.
  • Kalahasteeswara temple or Srikalahasti Temple is located in the town of Srikalahasti, in the state of Andhra Pradesh. It is one of the most famous Shiva temples in South India.  The inner temple was constructed around 5th century and the outer temple was constructed in the 12th century by the Chola kings and the Vijayanagara kings. Lord Shiva in his aspect as Vayu is worshiped as Kalahasteeswara.  It is one of the five major Shiva temples or Pancha Bootha Sthalams representing the Elements – in this case the element  AIR
  • Mahabalipuram - is a town in Kancheepuram district in Tamil Nadu. It is an ancient historic town and was a bustling seaport during the time of Periplus (1st century CE) and Ptolemy (140 CE). Ancient Indian traders who went to countries of South East Asia sailed from the seaport of Mahabalipuram.  By the 7th century it was a port city of the South Indian dynasty of the Pallavas. It has a group of sanctuaries, which were carved out of rock along the Coromandel coast in the 7th and 8th centuries: rathas (temples in the form of chariots), mandapas (cave sanctuaries), giant open-air rock reliefs such as the famous Descent of the Ganges, and the Shore Temple, with thousands of sculptures to the glory of Shiva. The Group of Monuments at Mahabalipuram has been classified as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
  • Meenakshi Amman Temple  - is located on the southern bank of the Vaigai River in Madurai, Tamil Nadu. It is dedicated to Parvati, known as Meenakshi, and her consort, Shiva, here named Sundareswarar. The temple forms the heart and lifeline of the 2,500-year-old city of Madurai and is a significant symbol for the Tamil people, mentioned since antiquity in Tamil literature. Though the present structure was built between 1623 and 1655 CE, legend states that the temple was actually built in the 6th century BC by survivors of Kumari KandamKumari Kandam (Tamil: குமரிக்கண்டம்) refers to a mythical lost continent with an ancient Tamil/Dravidian civilization,  Given the original spread of the Dravidians this lost continent may even have been in the Mediterranean.
  • Ramanathaswamy Temple (Tamil: இராமநாதசுவாமி திருகோயில்) -  is a temple dedicated to Shiva located on Rameswaram island in the state of Tamil Nadu, India. It is also one of the twelve Jyothirlinga temples, where Shiva is worshipped in the form of a Jyotirlingam (English: pillar of light).  It is one of the 274 Paadal Petra Sthalams, where the three of the most revered Nayanars (Saivite saints), Appar, Sundarar and Tirugnana Sambandar, have glorified the temple with their songs.
  • Thillai Natarajah Temple - Chidambaram or Chidambaram temple is a temple dedicated to Lord Shiva located in the town of Chidambaram, East-Central Tamil Nadu. The temple is known as the foremost of all temples (Kovil) to Saivites and has influenced worship, architecture, sculpture and performance art for over two millennium. The Chidambaram shrine is venerated as one of the three foremost Shiva sacred sites in the world, alongside the Koneswaram temple of Trincomalee and Mount Kailash.
    A major shrine of Lord Shiva worship since the classical period, there have been several renovations and offerings to Chidambaram by the Pallava, Chola, Pandya, Vijayanagara and Chera royals in the ancient and pre-medieval periods. The temple as it stands now is mainly of the 12th and 13th centuries, with later additions in similar style.  Chidambaram is one of the five Pancha Bootha Sthalams, the holiest Shiva temples each representing one of the five classical Elements; Chidambaram represents akasha – AETHER.
  • Thiruvannamalai temples - The Thiruvannamalai group of temples also known as the Annamalaiyar Temple is a temple dedicated to Shiva, located at the base of Annamalai hills in the town of Thiruvannamalai in Tamil Nadu. It is associated with one the five elements, that of FIRE.  The 9th century Saiva saint poet Manikkavasagar composed the Tiruvempaavai here.
  • Virupaksha Temple  - is located in Hampi, in the state of Karnataka in southern India. It is part of the Group of Monuments at Hampi, designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Virupaksha is a form of Shiva and has other temples dedicated to him, notably at the Group of Monuments at Pattadakal, another World Heritage Site. The temple was built by Lakkana Dandesha, a chieftain under the ruler Deva Raya II of the Vijayanagara Empire.  Hampi sits on the banks of the Tungabhadra River in the ruins of the ancient city of Vijayanagar, capital of the Vijayanagara empire.

The source of the experience


Concepts, symbols and science items

Activities and commonsteps



Creating a sacred geography